Culture Collective Studio's Loni Berry On The Struggles, Charms And Future Of Stage Plays In Bangkok
In the world condensed with polarised ideas, having a critical mind is crucial. As Loni Berry, a lecturer, musician, dramaturg and the founder of Culture Collective Studio in Thailand believes, theatre offers a cognitive experience television or films cannot. In a world increasingly ruled by mass media and instant gratification, however, theatre is unfortunately in decline.
We meet up with Loni to discuss the struggles of stage plays, despite their allure, and their future in Thai society.
First, tell us about Culture Collective Studio.
Culture Collective Studio is a professional English language theatre that focuses on two things: bringing quality to Bangkok audiences and educating young students in the field of theatre. We opened in May 2015 with the show The Death of Miss America. The purpose of Culture Collective Studio is to offer a range of plays that have been adapted to the social challenges of the 21st Century.
Who watches stage plays in Thailand?
It’s very hard to find a target audience. Our surveys show equal amounts of people in each age category by decades. Culture Collective Studio has a range of people that come, and about 50 per cent of our audience are English-speaking Thais. Seventy per cent of our audience has a graduate degree—that was surprising—and we have about 40 per cent that comes regularly. From this information, I would surmise that they are educated people with enough money to go to the theatre.
So what are the struggles of this art form?
I think the biggest struggle of theatre is that it’s so inconvenient. It’s not as convenient as other forms of entertainment, for instance, a movie, which is much easier to enjoy with a larger group of people. You don't even need to leave your house to see a movie.
I don't think the popular culture in Bangkok encourages people to go to theatres. Just from the fact that there are so few live theatres in Bangkok really proves that statement. Any city in the Western World of this size and this level of sophistication and diversity would be packed with theatres, but there are only two or three professional English speaking theatres here and maybe one or two amateur ones. That's not a lot.
What about the general perception people in Bangkok have towards theatre?
People think 'it’s not for me, it’s something foreign that I would not enjoy,' and I think that’s simply because they've never been to one. In many countries or cultures where theatre thrives, it is part of the people's education process. They go to the theatre as kids and continue to go as adults. I think this is the challenge theatre faces in Bangkok.
What drives you to do what you do despite all of this?
This is what I was put on earth to do, and I chose Bangkok. I believe that what we learn and share through storytelling shapes our lives unlike anything else, and the live experience makes it even more special. These kinds of experiences can change the world for the better in major ways. What you see in a theatre is not real; it is a replication or a simulation of life. It’s not the mundane, boring aspect of life but the dramatic moments of one’s life that we see. These resonate with people on a level that's more substantial than a movie. To experience that face-to-face is a unique experience that people share in a live moment with live actors and audience. It's uniquely special, and as a one-time occurrence, those kinds of experiences have a profound effect on people’s psyche, thought processes and their outlook on life. Because I believe this so strongly, I keep doing it.
What are the charms of live performances our audience should know about?
Being able to share a moment with a group of people live... Same as sports games, you can watch it on TV, but it’s not the same as being there live. And here at Culture Collective Studio, because the theatre is so small, with 60-70 seats, you see everything the actors do. If they trip, they could fall on your laps! It’s so small and intimate, it will make a huge difference in your experience.
Can you talk about some keystone productions you have put on in the past?
I am very proud of all the shows we’ve done. The Death of Miss America was the first show, so that will always have a special place in our hearts.
The Lisbon Traviata with Pan Pan Narkprasert, which was the first time we entered the Bangkok Theatre Festival, won the best production.
Twelve Angry Men was another special one because everyone said that it could not be done—that I would never find 12 men to do the play—but I did. Ironically, the 12 men came from nine different countries, and they were so different. Everybody fit together so well, and it was a nice experience. We brought it back twice, and it was very successful.
Then there was The Vagina Monologues. We had the special fortune of having Tonya Pinkins, who was the member of the original cast in Broadway in New York. She's a friend of mine, and she agreed to participate in the show.
Another one is Miss Julie. I’ve always wanted to do Miss Julie from the time I was in graduate school at Yale. We decided to do it with an all Indian cast. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences. The actors were incredibly talented, and they worked so hard.
The Picture of Dorian Grey was another important one because it became the foundation of the acting company I have now. The actors who were in that play are now still acting for us. We have nine resident actors now.
So what’s happening on Valentine's day?
We’re doing a play called A Streetcar Named Desire. Since the story is set in New Orleans, home to Mardi Gras, we’ve decided to do the show in Mardi Gras season! On three nights of our show, we will have mask balls. We'll have masks for the audience. They will have the ball, with catering from The Chatrium, during the extended intermission. A Streetcar is about love and passion, perfect for Valentine's. But here’s the catch—the audience will get to vote for the ending!
Learn more about Culture Collective Studio or book a ticket here.
See also: In Conversation With Philip Jablon, The Man Trying To Save Independent Movie Theatres Across Southeast Asia