The 28-hour journey from Philadelphia to Bangkok would be disorienting for even the most seasoned traveler. What began as buses with wifi and video screens from Philly to JFK, followed by comfortable air travel through Qatar and on to Bangkok, ended with open-air three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis and traffic jams that tested my patience and created a permanent gassy haze on the streets. As I walked around the Bangkok neighborhood that I would call home for 9 days that first morning I took in a myriad of smells that immediately hinted to my brain how far I was from home. First the pungent fish sauce followed by the dank sewer that faded and gave way to sweet sticky buns, eventually settling on the smell of hot oil and spicy soup. The vibrancy on the street, in those crucial first moments when strong impressions are cemented, struck me. Bangkok I came to realize is humming with life; the people live their lives outside, surrounded by color and food, oppressed and overwhelmed by smells both delicious and putrid. The hot, humid air mixes fumes from all the motorized vehicles with the sweetest smell of tropical flowers. The traffic snakes along alleyways, each vehicle figuring out its own path without the help of lane lines or traffic signals. Thousands of wires run along the streets as if every year a new electrical system is added without taking out the old ones. This rat’s nest of wires seems fitting with the hum of life at 8am on a Sunday morning, a time of quiet in Philadelphia or New York but a time of commerce, play, prayers and movement in Bangkok.
The contradictions were so evident. Perhaps a first visit to a place allows for the clearest view of it. Why were there two 7-11’s across the street from one another and at least 5 of them within a 3-minute walk of my hotel? Why was the traffic so difficult when one flight above the streets was an ultra-modern, high-speed skytrain that could whisk you from one part of the city to another for 75 cents? How can my mouth be simultaneously watering, excited to taste a new flavor, while my stomach is turning upside down as I watch a giant rat scurry from under the food cart? I see both the grime of an over-populated city and the polished marble of high-end malls that are popping up in the city at every turn. I see older Western men scurrying about like teenagers as they whisk their slim Thai “date” to their hotel. I see impoverished families living on the street, ½ a block away from the Lamborghini store. Bangkok is not hidden to me; the life and pulse of the city is on the street in full view and my first morning makes things abundantly clear: I’m in for an eye-widening experience that just might touch every sense. I am disoriented, trying to absorb this new place as I prepare to meet my hosts and those with whom I’ll work for the coming week.
It is clear that we’ll be working on developing some original material but encountering a new artistic team is daunting enough when there is some clarity around where a project might be headed, what formal or thematic constraints there might be on the work. What is exhilarating about this encounter is how much will be determined in the moment. There is a language barrier and so it is decided I’ll work with a translator, my host from Arts on Location, Adjjima Na Patalung. She spends a lot of her time in London and jokes that her English has gotten better than her Thai but she’s up for the challenge. Quickly we realize the limitations of language, the difficulty of translation. I speak about setting out a goal of making “arresting moments of theatre”. Somehow I mean that we’ll try to find ways of creating work that stops an audience in its tracks, forces the audience to hold its breath. Perhaps there is even a dose of shock that I’m looking for. But I see that the word “arresting” is a tricky one; clearly we’re not trying to put any moments of theatre in prison. This is a small example of the complexity of working with a translator. The translator, at times, must translate meaning and the subtleties of language while simultaneously translating the words, syntax, grammar and overall flow. Midway through our week, the translating duties shift to another participant who can move more efficiently back and forth in English. Slowly, however, words are replaced by gestures, by feelings, by rhythms and by the work of live performance itself. We might not have a common understanding of a word, but the body in space, cradled by another or violently thrown across the room communicates far more than a series of words can. The language of the body, I find, is fare more universal than the word.
Every day pushes the group further toward becoming an agile ensemble. In trying to develop a theatrical language that speaks to this contemporary moment in Thai society, it is decided to work with Thai myths. Participants bring in music, images, objects, texts – we call it the “data dump” but could also be thought of as dramaturgy – to support the big themes. We listen to and are moved by images of bodies that are compressed, stories of last breaths, songs of punk determination or songs of saying goodbye. We start working off of this material. Ghosts emerge as a theme for a day or two. We see ghosts that frighten us, ghosts that care for us, ghosts that are the keepers of our social values. In thinking about death and endings, we stumble upon an image of doorways and portals. A group takes this idea and creates a short piece. It uses poetic logic to express openings and closings, life transitions, the varied and complicated relationship we have with ending one phase and beginning another. It stands in for birth, marriage, break-ups, losing your mind, dying, being free, being vulnerable, leaving home, returning home. It reminds me of the Odin Teatret and their work with the myth of the door. How funny, I think, to go to Thailand only to have a memory of Denmark. But this is the theatrical world we begin to touch. We begin to make work that isn’t about a single thing. The work begins to stand in for far more than what it is. We begin to discover the poetry of the stage and I begin to feel at home despite being so disoriented when I arrived.
I begin to move in traffic like a local. I begin to use far fewer words and far more gestures. I communicate with the music of my voice and my emotional responses to the small pieces of theatre that are generated. As a group we begin to leave the studio and use the interesting spaces – indoor and outdoor – to create work. The city becomes our set and the Thai stories (real and imagined) become our content.
Our final day we open up the work to an invited audience. I learn that “works in progress” is not something that is done much in Thailand and that I shouldn’t expect a big audience. Nonetheless, we prepare to share the work we’ve made, if only to ourselves as a way of capturing the journey we made together and also as a way of identifying pieces that are at the beginning of something far bigger. Some of the work is filled with images created by bodies. Some of the work is underscored with live and/or recorded music. Some of the work uses bits of text. Some has roots in physical comedy; others might be categorized as dance-theatre. But all of the work has been written and composed by the participants.
I left Bangkok savoring the work and the relationships that were built. On our last night together, many of us went to the Chao Praya river for drinks and a few of us took a pedal boat into a lake where we were isolated from the throngs of Sunday shoppers. In both instances, I began to feel part of a community of theatre-makers that will rely on each other to build an independent theatre movement in this metropolis. It can be hard to rise above the noise, the smell and the theatre that exists in the streets but there is a place for these artists as their passion and ability is so great. I hold my breath as I depart with tremendous anticipation for what lies ahead for this group.
The enduring image I have is of being in a row-boat with a fine actor named Pump. My eyes saw something in the water moving and I soon realized that a 6-foot monitor lizard was swimming toward our boat. Pump laughed; I momentarily froze. This wouldn’t happen in Central Park, I thought. The physical and cultural distance was, once again, evident to me. But this lizard that I thought was chasing us turned away just as it neared our frantically-rowed boat. I was not in New York or Philadelphia or San Francisco. Many, many things were different. But Pump and I could glide a boat together without talking, stopping time briefly, connecting in such a way that will have resonance for a long time ahead of us. The threats to this connection – a monitor lizard or a lack of funding – are of far less long-term importance than the connection itself. My departure does not feel like an end but a middle. To be continued…
All of this, of course, would not be possible without the generosity and commitment to international collaborations from TCG and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Artists benefit tremendously when our eyes are widened, when our logic is turned upside down and when we question our own assumptions. This trip to Thailand did just that and I’m certain both partners are richer for the encounter. Pig Iron Theatre Company is a participant in the Global Connections–ON the ROAD program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the professional not-for-profit American theatre.
Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel is a co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of the OBIE Award-winning Pig Iron Theatre Company. Since 1995, Quinn has been one of the leading artists with the company, co-creating nearly all of the company’s 25 original works of theatre and touring them to venues and festivals in Brazil, Germany, Scotland, England, Romania, Poland, Peru, Italy, Ukraine, Lithuania and Ireland, among others. Additionally, Quinn and Pig Iron regularly present their work in New York City and have toured throughout the States including engagements in San Francisco, Washington, DC, Princeton, Providence, Cambridge, Atlanta, Tampa, Logan (Utah), among others. He has directed, designed and performed with the company since its inception. Quinn received an Outstanding Direction Barrymore Award nomination for Welcome To Yuba City, which was nominated for 6 Barrymores including Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Overall Production. He co-created and performed in Rainpan43′s machines machines machines machines machines machines machines, one of The New Yorker magazine’s Top 12 productions of 2009. Quinn received an Outstanding Choreography Barrymore for his collaborative work on Pig Iron’s Cafeteria and also won for Outstanding Ensemble for Mission To Mercury. The company has been recognized as “one of the few groups successfully taking theatre in new directions” by the New York Times who also named Chekhov Lizardbrain, in which Quinn performs and was one of the co-creators, as one of the Top 10 Productions of 2008. Pig Iron has been named Theatre Company of the Year by the Philadelphia Weekly, City Paper and Philadelphia Magazine. Welcome To Yuba City was featured on the cover of American Theatre magazine in February 2010, as was The Tragedy of Joan of Arc (January, 2000) which Quinn directed. Quinn was a Henry Luce Fellow in Bali, Indonesia in 2000-2001 where he served on the faculty of the State College of Indonesian Arts and studied Balinese dance, mask work and music. In 2002, he and his Pig Iron co-artistic directors (Dan Rothenberg and Dito van Reigersberg) were named Pew Fellows in Performance Art. In 2007, he received one of 6 national Fox Foundation Actor Fellowships.
Quinn has taught courses in acting and movement theatre since 2001 at Swarthmore College. Additionally, he has been on the faculty of the Headlong Performance Institute since its inception in 2007 and has taught several courses at Princeton University. Quinn has taught workshops at the Alternative Theatre Festival in Budapest, Les Kurbas Theatre in Lviv, Ukraine, The Nacional Circo de Puerto Rico, Cabuia Teatro in Buenos Aires and Princeton University, Stanford University, UVA, Wesleyan university, Utah State, Georgetown, American University, and UPenn, among other workshops. Additionally, he has taught professional theatre training workshops in Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco for the past 12 years.