Revered theater figure and 2004 Silpathorn Award-winner Pradit “Tua” Prasartthong, 54, is one of the biggest advocates of Thai performing arts. Among his significant achievements is the establishment of the Bangkok Theater Festival, which returns this month at Santichaiprakarn Park and BACC. Here, he recounts his 30-year career in the arts.
It all started when I first saw a khon performance during a school trip to the National Theatre. Sitting there in the dark the thought of performing on stage just astounded me. After that I kept visiting theaters on my own. I wanted to follow that path, but my father disapproved. I always seemed like a quiet and level-headed kid, but I was disastrously stubborn.
You didn’t have much choice at school. My friends and I didn’t want to play sports, so we founded a drama club. We adapted our favorite parts of Thai classical literature into plays.
I built a tiny theater in the back of a gym. I practiced everything on my own. Soon after, I started to make props from tin cans, newspapers and whatever we could gather, wrote scripts and directed my friends in plays. We got a chance to perform our show at school. It was catastropic, but also unforgettable.
Thammasat opened my eyes. Once I got in to university, I was introduced to pleng pua cheewit [Thai country music]. It spoke to me and got me engaged in social issues. My seniors, who were outcasts after the massacre of October 6, 1976, were my idols. Looking up to them, I started to read progressive books, practiced guitar, joined a folk club. Then naturally I started to produce political plays.
I was recruited by Makhampom Theatre Group. It was the only political theater troupe at the time, with an aim to help educate and improve rural communities. My friends and I took shelter in a small studio—so small we needed to take a break every 25 minutes to get some air. Yet our shows sold out every round. I continued to adapt and produce absurdist works I didn’t fully understand at the time.
We are not smarter than rural people. By providing rural people with academic knowledge, they repay us with knowledge we could never gain from the city.
My years at Makhampom were the most important of my life. Without Makhampom, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It shaped me not only as a performer but as a person.
Stage plays can improve society. We tried to educate kids to grow up with a democratic mind. Our works encourage them to respect themselves, respect other people and to take responsibility.
Starting the Theater Festival was not as difficult as keeping it going. It’s been 13 years now. Before there was only Pichet, Manop and Nikorn, who are all now Silpathorn artists. Now there are more professionals coming through.
I don’t know how to define my work. After my shows in Germany [1993 and 2003], the critics told me how my work was a hybrid of different principles and theories, none of which I’d ever heard of.
I don’t study theory. My works are shaped by my experience, instincts and feelings. Most of them are traditional plays turned contemporary; they incorporate lots of things I can hardly categorize.
The Bangkok Theatre Network is my dream. There’s been no real support for performing arts in this country. We’ve been trying to make it happen for 10 years. It’s important we maintain our profile and continue to work consistently. Now we have small theaters like Crescentmoon, Democrazy, B-floor and 8x8 who produce shows almost monthly, which is a good sign.
We need to be professional to ensure the growth of the scene. These days, there are more and more people calling themselves performing artists, but it’s the work which speaks loudest.
Artists are normal people. I don’t need to dress up for people to think I’m special. Be whatever you want. You don’t have to look weird for the sake of being an artist.
I hope one day we have real public theaters and theater museums. Having a real archive of performing arts will help us understand where we are and where we come from. It’s crucial to understand the links and roots of what we do; to be able to connect the dots. We learn about isolated passages of history, not how they interact. It’s like the pride of our culture ended in 1932.
Officials don’t really care about Thai art. There are many things they can do to support it. It’s not just money. Have they ever come to see any of these plays? They only sit at their desks. You only meet them at opening ceremonies, greeting their bosses.