When youths of displaced ethnic minorities face internal and external social issues, but struggle to find solutions or simply a receptive ear, by what means can others help to build their confidence and empower them to discover methods of communication? This year Makhampom Foundation believe they have one progressive solution in the form of a social theatre and circus project called, Circus on the Edge.
Makhampom’s passionate circus trainer, Golf Thanupon Yindee, in facilitating collaboration with Andrea Hille, a circus and clown extraordinaire from Circusschule Die Rotznasen e.V., Germany, have been working this October with youths from three ethnic communities in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand. With the assistance of Jessica Amery, an applied theatre student from England, the team have conducted an energetic series of theatre and circus workshops with them, which offered a beneficial variety of cross-cultural practices. These have enabled the three groups to each devise a performance about the social issues they face, in captivating and thought provoking ways. Following mini tours of their shows in their village and wider community, all three communities will come together this 16th November for the public Circus on the Edge Performance Showcase at Makhampom Art Space.
Makhampom believe in the ability of theatre to be a powerful tool of expression that can spark dialogue around issues addressed and potentially a level of change. Makhampom has discovered that the addition of circus to theatre processes in rural communities, is extremely rewarding for youth participants. The strength that many of the youth have from a highly physical lifestyle of farming and labouring means that they excel at acrobats, aerial silk and trapeze. Also, being able to make juggling balls and stilts from natural resources in their villages allows for circus arts to be an accessible skill to develop. Perhaps the most significant reward though, is the self-worth gained from achieving advanced circus skills. A feeling of pride is vital to reducing the disempowerment that the youths can experience from socio-cultural stigmatisation and not being classed as citizens of Thailand. The impacts of which have been suicide, drugs and identity issues. Circus on the Edge aims to offer the ethnic minority groups new perspectives, knowledge and a theatrical toolkit to confidently create social change movements; however seemingly small.
So who are the highly talented youth groups the Circus on the Edge team have the joy of working with?
Firstly there are the martial arts marvels from the Hmong villages on Phu Chi Fa mountain in Chiang Rai province. The enthusiastic youth, aged between fifteen and twenty-six, rarely sat down during our workshop week with them. Every allocated rest break was rather a chance to sharpen the valuable circus and theatre skills they were learning. The participants’ eagerness to develop is rooted in that beyond their daily labour responsibilities, the majority aspire to become professional actors and stuntmen in the Hmong movie industry. Circus on the Edge also has the potential to benefit the wider Hmong community. The Phu Chi Fa villagers have opened their doors to tourism and the show we collaboratively devised can be used as a source of income from paying audience. Additionally, the educational narrative of the show about the oppression and plight of the Hmong people can hopefully be a means to stop negative ethnic minority stereotypes.
The second group are the circus whizzes from Pang Daeng Nok village in the Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai province. The seventeen Dara-Ang youth, aged from eight to twelve, are from a significantly poorer hill tribe. There is a strong sense of circus and theatre being a precious lifeline to them amid their troubled way of life. During the workshops the team noticed the participants’ self-esteem improve after accomplishing challenging acrobatics. They also developed better group conflict resolution through communicative teamwork. Furthermore, they showed greater happiness from the freedom to be playful circus clowns. Besides personal development, their devised show is an opportunity to showcase how talented their community are. They will perform at a monthly public event called The Little Theatre Café at Makhampom Art Space. The long-term hope is that they can dispel the negative judgement of Dara-Ang in society. The immediate benefit is that all audience proceeds will go to the youths who will primarily spend it on supporting their families.
The final youth group of Circus on the Edge, are gentle spirits from the tranquil Karen village, Pateung Ngam in Chiang Dao. They have a lifestyle that protects their natural environment and lovingly uses it to self-sustain their community. However, Pateung Ngam is at risk of being demolished to allow for a plan by authorities to build a water tunnel and reservoir across their land. The lack of communication though from the authorities to the targeted areas means that many people do not realise the scale and impacts of this plan. Therefore, Circus on the Edge has supported twenty-five passionate youngsters, aged between eight and sixteen, in devising a show that raises awareness of the plan and incites dialogue on their tour to potentially affected communities.
The team now eagerly await the arrival of the communities to Makhampom Art Space. For two days prior to the performance showcase the youth will engage in advanced theatre and circus workshops with guest expert artists from Europe and Cambodia. This exchange supports ethnic minorities’ right to education, intercultural collaboration and inspiration. Then, what Makhampom can only expect to be a brilliant burst of art and vibrancy, the three communities will headline the Circus on the Edge Performance Showcase. We are optimistic that guests will see an image of equality between ethnicities and that being from a minority group does not make the youth any less valid or strong. We hope that the youths themselves feel encouraged and strengthened by a cross-cultural supportive audience to continue using their circus and theatre skills to speak out about the social change they need and want.
Makhampom would like to express their gratitude to the financial support of Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and Arts Network Asia (ANA) who have made this valuable and sustainable project possible. We would like to extend our thanks also to Norddeutsche Stiftung für Umwelt und Entwicklung, Krohn Stiftung, and donors on our Crowdfunding page for their support.
The Circus on the Edge Project
Spinning, Flipping and Kung Fu Kicking into Social Change for Ethnic Minority Groups