Interact Thailand for the week of January 10-16, 2016.
A weekly update of the international collaboration between composer Aaron Gabriel (Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts) and the artists at Rajanagarindra Institute of Child Development (RICD) as they create new musical theater in the spirit of radical inclusion.
Saturday night, after a smooth 32-hour journey, I was welcomed back to the verdant hills of Northern Thailand. As we exited the plane, many Thai passengers stopped in the glass walkway and paid their respects to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – the golden temple high on the hillside that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai.
I was greeted by my colleagues Mr. Ronasingha and Pong. As soon as I stepped outside, I paused to enjoy a huge draught of mild tropical air – an indulgent treat considering everyone back home in Minnesota was suffering through sub-zero wind chills.
Pong and Mr. Ronasingha then delivered me to my accommodations for the month – the new hotel at RICD hospital. People travel from across Southeast Asia to benefit from RICD’s modern technologies and holistic approach to disability therapy. The very comfortable RICD Hotel offers the families of young patients a convenient place to stay during treatment.
For the past six years, RICD Music and Drama and Interact have collaborated on ways radical inclusion and community-driven theater can creatively engage the people of Chiang Mai (and beyond) with the disability community. I have had the privilege of helping create music for the past two shows and this year am overseeing the staff while they create the music themselves. It has been thrilling to watch this program blossom, mature and become more self-sustaining. Past shows include Wake-up and Dream, Searching for Sanook, The Song of Songkran and last years very successful The Love Show. (NOTE: You can read about our experience creating The Love Show in my 2015 Thailand blog.)
Radical inclusion invites people with and without disabilities to create art side-by-side. It does not ask to make disability invisible, rather it focuses on the inherent talents of every individual and believes the sharing of those talents contribute to a deeper understanding of the world around us. Interact Theater has been a pioneer in this field and 2016 marks its 20th year “creating art that challenged perceptions of disability.”
Community-driven theater leads with the idea that everyone has a story to share, but not everyone has the opportunity, experience or resources to share that story. The participants help shape how their story is told – through songs, scenes or movement – and can choose to perform the work themselves or have others perform it for them.
This year’s show The Dream Keeper follows a mystical “sandman”-esque figure who lives inside people’s dreams. The show poses the question: will the dream keeper help the dreamers achieve their dreams or will they have to do it themselves? The story will be told in the Luk Thung style – a very colorful, highly romantic Thai musical form popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. (Click here or the link under the audition notice to listen.)
I was truly thrilled to see that team at RICD had completely laid the groundwork prior to my arrival. The concept and theme were decided, audition notices were posted, a new director for the performance had been appointed and the staff was busy making a production calendar. When I expressed my excitement to Mr. Ronasingha, he said: “I listen carefully and do little things one step-at-a-time.”
Any fledgling arts organization must dedicate a lot of time to arts advocacy: convincing donors, administrators, government officials and community members why the creation of art is important and how it benefits the community. And we need to do this while continuing to create the art that needs to be validated. It’s exhausting, but the staff at RICD (led by Mr. Ronasingha) has risen to the challenge.
This week’s auditions were very moving. The performers who have been with the program for several years showed distinct improvements. One of my favorite personalities, Fluke (who has cerebral palsy) is now walking up steps, sitting up in his chair without the support of his elbows and – for my musical friends out there – is able to easily sing a four-bar phase without sneaking breaths. Thanks to the continued work of his parents and the RICD staff, his diaphragm and lungs (which have been weakened and compressed from years in a wheelchair) are finally able to support his rich beautiful singing voice.
There were many new (and precocious) personalities as well. A number of students had spent considerable time preparing material for their auditions. There was doo-wop, interpretive movement, breakdancing, rapping and more.
NOTE: No one who auditions is turned away from a community-driven program. The “auditions” are more a chance to observe a person’s general comfort or willingness to perform. There are several people who expressed interest in being involved, but asked not to be performers.
I was particularly moved by one young girl named Mona. At first, she appeared too anxious to perform, but then she opened her mouth and produced a huge ROAR. She then proceeded to show us some pretty sophisticated dance moves. Mona doesn’t have a disability but auditioned because she wants to “be to perform with other fun and talented people” – the very spirit of radical inclusion. Perhaps the most inspiring thing is that Mona came to audition even though, last week, her dad died from a motorcycle accident. What a role model!
This week I lead the RICD production team in a song-writing workshop where they learned a variety of techniques to help the participants write their own songs. The staff were asked about their own personal dreams and then challenged to write poetry, melodies and musical accompaniments. Once completed, their song will become the theme song/finale for the show. We had a lot of fun and ended the song with a challenge to the audience: What are you doing to achieve YOUR dreams?
On Saturday I visited Dulabhatorn – a center for disadvantaged and disabled youth about 30 minutes outside Chiang Mai. Here they offer activities in performing and visual arts, martial arts, farming and eco-sciences.
Dulabhatorn reminded me so much of visiting Siddhartha Central School in Kollam, India last fall. In my opinion, the focus on the arts, sciences, sustainability and community should be a model for schools around the world.
Hopefully, next weekend I will be able to do a small song-writing workshop with the young people there as well.
As usual, I had the time of my life trying all the amazing food my Thai colleagues offered. By now, they are fully aware of my adventurous palate and generously prepare food, buy samples of interesting local delicacies or take me to exciting restuarants. This week we ventured out to have khanom chin – special fermented rice noodles that you can top with a buffet of fresh or pickled vegetables, nuts and curried sauces. It was spectacular. This trend needs to make its way to the Twin Cities tout de suite.