Coming soon to Java Creative Café Tuol Tom Pong is a new play by playwright Samithi Sok, Wind Up Mice, co-directed by Samithi and Marika Els. Samithi was good enough to sit down with Kumnooh this week to discuss the world of theatre.
“This is the second play that I’ve written and directed,” says Samithi. “Wind Up Mice is about a couple who are trapped in a time-loop and they are forced to relive their relationship over and over again from start to finish. It explores ideas of free will, resentments and toxic relationships, trying to preserve what we can really hold on to. Three sets of actors represent the one relationship in three different time-frames.”
Theatre’s low profile in Cambodia meant that it has been mostly learning-by-doing for Samithi, who got involved while attending ISPP, taking part in teacher-led and then student-led drama and musical productions, and by year 11 had caught the theatre bug enough to take it as a subject in his IB. This was followed by studies at the University of York, unfortunately cut short by COVID.
Last October his first play, 12-8, was produced by Phnom Penh Players. This time he and Marika wanted to strike out on their own. “The Phnom Penh Players are very well-established, they’ve been around for a long time. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it independently. I have a great team to support me – I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I didn’t have my co-director Marika. She is my rock, and she has helped me in every step. We’ve got a great team – our performers are really giving their all – especially we have two actors who have never done a show before, but they are working hard, really doing their very best.”
Independence has its costs as well as benefits, he admits. “The biggest hurdle with this show is trying to get the word out. Theatre is already very niche globally, and particularly in Cambodia it can be a challenge to find people to come to auditions, people who are willing to take on production roles, and importantly, to find and encourage audiences to attend.”
Although born and raised in Phnom Penh, the 22 year old is one of the new generation finding their expressive voice through English. “I’m more comfortable in English than I am in Khmer. When I was very young I lived for some time in Switzerland, and there were not many people I could speak Khmer with, so I feel a little stunted in my grasp of the mother tongue. I struggle with this – the previous play 12-8 was about two young adult Cambodians working in a convenience store and trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, and I grappled with myself, is it really authentic if I’m writing in English all the time? I decided that if I’m going to limit myself to only writing in Khmer then I’ll never be able to say anything. More and more young people are learning English now. And it’s there in the writing – the characters both speak in English and so feel alienated from their own society, they have trouble to connect, even though they want to fill that gap.”
Rehearsals in progress. Photo: supplied
So why would a young Cambodian pursue something as obscure as theatre? “What I love the most about theatre is the collaboration between the actors and the audience. Knowing that it is a stage, and there’s a real live person in front of you, there’s an inherent layer of artifice. It’s not like a movie where the aim is for super-realism. You are already suspending disbelief – I am watching you be a different person in a different room. It’s an interesting dynamic that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
“And the magic of knowing that each performance is only going to happen once. It doesn’t last, it shouldn’t last, and that is also what makes it so hard. Anything that happens on the stage is only going to happen one time. Opening night is all adrenalin and the excitement, when the energy is the highest; by the time you get to closing night the actors are the most comfortable with the play and they can play around a bit more. It really feels magical – it happens once and it will never happen again.
“One of my favourite plays is 70 Scenes of Halloween by Jeffrey Jones. It blends a surreal presentation with horror-esque and strange goings-on with a very human story about a couple whose marriage is failing. I like that blend, leading the audience in with something weird or funny, then follow up by hitting them with something quite affecting.”
Wind-up Mice may be experienced on 19, 20, 26 and 27 May at 7 pm, with an additional matinee at 1 pm on 27 May, at Java Creative Cafe Toul Tom Poung. Tickets $12, available through this link.
Rehearsals in progress. Photo: supplied