What a lucky team we were this week. Not only did we get to make theatre with some charming children, but we did so whilst being generously welcomed in to their Karen culture and traditional way of living in Pateung Ngam village. They live in the most tranquil of settings in a mountain valley surrounded by paddy fields, a forest, a river and its animal inhabitants; which they respect and love as much as they do each other. The four hundred and fifty villagers thoroughly understand and protect the nature that is their food, shelter, happiness and spiritual energy.
It was a beautiful privilege to be immersed in Pateung Ngam- especially for our taste buds that were never-endingly tantalised with the freshest of ingredients, lovingly picked and prepared straight from the villagers’ treasured farmland. The positive effect our stay had on our wellbeing was one thing, but most importantly it helped to further validate exactly why Circus on the Edge was an essential project for the village. This breathtaking stretch of land is threatened by a mega development plan to build a water tunnel through it. Theatre is the tool chosen by the younger generation to raise awareness of the issue and communicate their fears at the pending destruction of their community.
Summary of the Kok-Fang-Ping Water Diversion Project
The Thai Department of Water Resources plans to divert water from the Kok River to the Ping River in the Chiang Dao district of northern Thailand. This is in order to increase the water supply to people and businesses in central and northeastern Thailand and avoid water shortages from periodic droughts and flooding.
This will involve the construction of infrastructure that will completely demolish the environment of the targeted area including Pateung Ngam village:
A water tunnel that will go across their village and require the need to drill through the mountain too
A big dam at the end of the tunnel that will impound water in to…
A reservoir built on the forest and their rice fields
As well as the destruction to the environment the diversion could then cause an insufficient water supply to the north-west, among many other problems. Affected areas say there has not been a public forum for consultation and expression of their concerns.
A Little Insight into Pateung Ngam Villagers
The nature in and around Pateung Ngam is an extension of the villagers family. It is nurtured and used to support every element of their lives and is treasured accordingly:
-Every direction you look there are fruit and vegetables growing in abundance amongst the rich greenery. If ever our team experienced any ailment we were taken ‘shopping in nature’ to find the right leaf hidden in forest nooks to soothe us
- Water pipelines made from natural resources irrigate the rice fields that provide a stunning frame around their village
- The bamboo and wooden houses are raised up with their pigs, chickens and cows living underneath. The cow of the family we stayed died this May, and the daughter was curbing her emotion when telling us it was the same as a human loss to her
- Natural resources are used to make forms of entertainment including instruments, games and paints
- The villagers gain energy from the mountains around them and the starry night sky.
Our host (or rather big sister) said this simple and traditional way of life is all they need to be happy and at peace.
The La Ter Poh Youth Group
Makhampom’s relationship with Pateung Ngam began in 2006 when they helped to facilitate community dialogue and resolutions in the aftermath of a major flood. The use of theatre to work through problems proved valuable and appealing to the youth. Consequently the La Ter Poh Youth group was formed with a mission to become strong community activists and artists.
Their performances have addressed issues around culture, community and environment. They naturally sunk in to a ‘community watch’ role too and work towards the prevention of problems arising in the first place. The group, now run by a very funny, caring and encouraging trio from the first generation, is also a support network for the children, who clearly adore their honorary older siblings.
The Circus on the Edge Project
With the looming threat of the water tunnel in their village the youth group are eager and dedicated to creating a theatre piece that will raise awareness of the plan in the surrounding communities. As there has been little communication from the authorities to the affected communities, many northeast inhabitants do not realise the prospective impacts. The youth want to use the show as a medium for information and as a tool to open up dialogue about the issue.
The other purpose of Circus on the Edge in Pateung Ngam was to introduce and train the twenty-five youngsters, aged between eight and sixteen, in circus and theatre skills to enable them to make such performances. Unlike the two previous communities we worked with, Pateung Ngam are new to the fun world of circus. To everyone’s delight they excitedly seized the opportunity and within the four days that we spent in the village the youngsters showed strong development.
The Circus on the Edge team facilitated workshops in acrobats, juggling, poi, slackline and hip hop dance. Hip Hop suited them very well as they are very cool dudes with their own signature moves! We just had to be careful not to be caught out by them offering a ‘High 5’ that actually turned into a smooth slide of the hand along the hair- the epitome of uncool if you fail!
A particularly positive outcome regards one teenage boy who has progressively withdrawn himself from the community, is struggling with academia and lacking in confidence. However, after he inquisitively looked in to the rehearsal room we saw a spark ignite in him and were graced with his innovative participation in the devising process and natural talent for the aerial silk and slack line. The elders commented how this was a pivotal change in him and that circus is clearly a skill he can engage with and thoroughly enjoys. The potential for him to advance not only in circus skills but in social interaction through theatre seems very apparent and therefore Golf is keen to develop frequent training for the youth group.
There were also theatre workshops in Image Theatre and clowning to open up their imaginations and support their dialogue and characterisations. The Karen youth’s engagement contrasted the Hmong and Dara-Ang communities’ large and loud participation. They are mostly quite shy and took some time to lose their performing inhibitions, however, they excelled in mime. Their eye for detail is fantastic and it was captivating to watch the preciseness of their actions, and also rewarding because they allowed us to see their unique ways of eating, working, playing etc.
After just two afternoons of devising the youth group were ready to perform for their village. Their story was a Karen folklore about a giant who tried to overpower the community, which they cleverly used as a metaphor for the impending water tunnel. They donned their traditional costume, grabbed the noisiest of the instruments and paraded around the village calling everyone to come and watch their show in the community hub.
There was a substantial and supportive audience who seemed impressed at the circus skills the youth displayed. There was also a lot of chuckling, especially during the love scenes when the parents watched their children shyly hold hands for just the blink of an eye. The youth remarked how they loved hearing the audience laugh because it meant they had provided a successful show.
Other descriptions of their show experience included fun, exciting, tiring and smelly- one boy nervously passed gas in the cramped backstage area and unbeknown to us in the audience, everyone had gone into hysterical meltdown behind the curtain.
A Very Arty Evaluation of the Project
Some of the benefits highlighted:
-The youngsters acknowledged their shyness but said they felt more confident now to put forward their ideas to others
-They sweetly said they were proud of themselves and their friends for being brave and triumphing in circus skills that they were primarily nervous of
- They were happy to have raised the issue of the water diversion project, because they need to keep the campaign alive and let the community know this is still a threat in the absence of communication from authorities.
Hopes for going forward:
- There was unanimity in the wish to carry on building their knowledge of theatre and to establish frequent circus training sessions
- The elder generations also expressed their aspiration to use theatre to unite the divide between the Christian and Buddhist villagers and enable equal opportunities for all children to have a place in the youth group.
Although we cannot be sure (yet) of the effectiveness of this production in regards to its mission to raise awareness and promote against the water diversion project, we can give a round of applause to the more immediate theatrical and team work achievements of the Circus on the Edge project. I thoroughly believe this has been the start of a journey towards a new generation of creative, expressive and highly-skilled artists, which many of the youth expressed their desire to be. I hope the empowerment and confidence boosts they experienced continue to grow and strengthen.
Having lived and worked in the reality of Pateung Ngam and come to understand the negative impacts of the water diversion project to their community, I wish the best of luck to the youth group in their future performances and I hope they get the listening ears they need.
(And For Your Interest, a Speed Through of the Karen Ethnic Group…)
I won’t delve in to the Karen ancestral origin for this week’s blog because there are a head-scratching number of accounts and time is not of the essence as our team prepare for the Circus on the Edge Festival. What I can do though is provide a snippet of an insight into their history and culture.
Karen people have lived in Myanmar for centuries and it still remains the country with the largest Karen population. They are one of the largest hill tribes in South East Asia and account for half of the hill tribe population in Thailand. Karen people began to flee the civil unrest and extreme oppression that ensued at the hands of the Myanmar Army after Myanmar gained independence from British colonisation in 1948. They fled to refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border and have since settled their communities in the surrounding north-west area of Thailand.
Karen communities opt to reside peacefully in mountain valleys, sustaining themselves from the ecosystem around them and using traditional practices that cause it no harm. The Karen traditional practice of animism filters through to the present day with all non-human entities cared for in the belief that they have a spiritual essence.
Many still carry out the traditional practice of putting a new-born baby’s umbilical cord into a bamboo tube and tying it to a tree in the forest. That person and tree are then as one and caring for the tree is akin to nurturing the human life. Then upon death, a villager’s body is buried in the forest as a donation back to nature and to fertalise the forest. For these reasons, the potential destruction of the forest in Pateung Ngam would also disturb these sacred tributes to the life and death of their loved ones.
As with each blog, thank you for reading.
Prior to the release of the Circus on the Edge Documentary Video, here is a glimpse of this weeks process...
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