Healing Through Art: A New Collaboration

“Is forgiveness possible, is reconciliation possible? That’s what we’re exploring.” in this new Global Arts Corps project at PPSA.

This is how Michael Lessac, the founder and artistic director of Global Arts Corps, sums up the goal of their project here at Phare Ponleu Selpak.

Global Arts Corps (GAC) has been working with PPS artists on and off for three years now, a total of about 15 weeks. Together, they’re developing aglobal arts corps collaborationn exciting new production, which explores the traumatic history of the Khmer Rouge period through theatre and circus.

“PPS was interested in us coming here to work with the performers, to be able to dig deep into their lives because the PPS staff felt that the performers weren’t able to do that easily,” says Michael.

“Digging deep” was necessary, Michael notes, because very few people openly talk about this significant portion of Cambodian history. The younger generations in particular tend to be disinterested or ill-informed.

This was certainly the experience of Mon Borey, one of the key actors in the Global Arts Corps project. “Before I started to work on this show, I didn’t know much about Pol Pot. I knew a little bit, but I wasn’t interested in it, I didn’t care. My grandmother sometimes talks about it with the neighbor, but I was never interested. I think a lot of young people in Cambodia are like this.”

In the first stages of developing the show, the performers were encouraged to go home and ask questions to their parents and grandparents about their experiences. During workshops and discussions, the performers shared the stories of their families and a deeply personal, emotional version of history begin to take shape in their minds.
“When we started to talk about Pol Pot, I learnt about what happened to people during the Khmer Rouge. While the director and the actors were speaking, I was thinking about the actions of the Khmer Rouge, about how they act without caring about anyone and I felt so angry,” says Borey.

These deep emotions are exceptionally close to the surface in the theatrical Global Arts Corps project, which is unnamed at the moment. The performers draw on the stories they have heard from their families to portray raw, intense moments during the play.

One of the actors, Srey Leap, imagines her father in one part of the piece. “There’s one scene, with a pile of dead people on top of each other, and one man is hiding underneath. I think, ‘Ah it is like my father!’ The Khmer Rouge tried to kill him but he didn’t die, and he stayed underneath a pile of dead people for three days until it was safe to leave and he ran away to meet my mum. So I think about my father during this scene.”

Given this level of emotional connection to the trauma portrayed in the play, it is remarkable how well the piece explores the shades of grey in the history. In one scene, the performers pose in a tableau depicting every-day village scenes: a mother brushes her daughter’s hair, kids play together, neighbors share a meal. Slowly, the scene mutates into frozen poses of violence and torture. This scene represents a key theme of the piece: that the conflict occurred within communities and amongst families.

“The actors never leave the stage,” explains Michael. “So there’s never a time when they can walk away from the scene. They must be part of it. That’s very deliberate. There’s always that element: you think one character is on one side, and then they’re on the other. But isn’t that really saying that the victims in one generation become the perpetrators in the next?”

This important exploration of the past is something that the actors hope will be shared around Cambodia and overseas. Srey Leap says that if the story of the Khmer Rouge is widely known, people will learn from history, making them less likely to make similar mistakes in the future.  “I think they need to know, they need to remember this painful story because it will make them afraid. Before they do something like the Khmer Rouge did, they will take time to think.”

Srey Leap’s hopes may yet come true: planning is underway for touring the performance around Cambodia and throughout the world. The Global Arts Corps team are particularly excited about taking the show to other post-conflict countries, such as Rwanda and South Africa.

World tours aside, the show has already made a significant impact on the lives of Phare Ponleu Selpak artists. Not only have they had the opportunity to work with internationally-acclaimed theatre-makers, they have also had the chance to gain deeper understandings of their country and their families.

Borey, who before the Global Arts Corps project wasn’t at all engaged in the history of the Khmer Rouge, is one artist who has completely changed his attitude. “Now I’m interested in the stories,” he says. “When my grandmother talks about that time, I always listen.”

Perhaps this small change is one step in the direction of forgiveness and healing for Cambodia.