Thailand 2016 – Week Two

January 25, 2016

Interact Thailand for the week of January 17-23, 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.

The famous piano building at Rajanagarindra Institute for Child Development (RICD)







Learning Dream Keeper Theme

The staff teaches the melody for the Dream Keeper theme.

This week in Chiang Mai the weather swung from 98 degrees on Saturday to 49 degrees on Sunday night.  Everyone put on layers of sweaters and couldn’t stop talking about how it snowed in Laos. I kept silent, considering my friends back home in MN.

This week also included writing a new song for The Dream Keeper, hiking up a mountain and welcoming Ryan Evans (and friends) from the Wilder Foundation. The Wilder Foundation will be working with Interact Theater in MN this coming year on a variety of agency strategies and other related projects including the translation of the project summaries from Thailand.

On Wednesday, my translator DJ and I took Ryan and his friends for a three-mile hike to the top of Doi Suthep to enjoy Wat Phra That Doi. The hilly terrain was challenging, but ultimately worth every step. The weather was heavenly – sunny and cool.

On Friday, Ryan and Co. visited RICD where the staff provided them with a generous array of Northern Thai foods including keaw gi (roasted sticky rice), ho nin gai (chicken “stew” steamed in banana leaf) and sai ooa (Northern Thia sausage). Breakfast was followed by a tour of the piano building and some shopping at the Mae Rim street market. In the afternoon, Pong and Tan taught them a part of The Dream Keeper theme in Thai and that evening we all enjoyed a traditional kantok dinner.  Everyone was very grateful they took the time to visit and explore the programs offered by RICD Drama and Music.


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Fluke and Gaew

Gaew is the newest member of the RICD staff and will be directing The Dream Keeper.  Originally from Bangkok, she earned a degree in Mass Communications from Kasesart University.  Her love of theater began at Kasesart where, each year, her department put on an original large-scale theatrical production. Over her four years, she performed a variety of roles and eventually began directing. In her final year she worked at a television station as an assistant director, but decided she preferred the theater.

After university, she became a company member at Moradokmai Theater in Bangkok. Moradokmai is a Buddhist theater focussed on social action. It’s director, Khru Chang, is a well-known Thai theater-maker who uses both traditional Thai and non-traditional forms to create original work – often used in educational environments to illuminate marginalized rural perspectives. Gaew’s experience with Khru Chang helped her “study how theater can change people’s behavior – in the actor and the audience.”

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Gaew leads a physical warm-up

When asked about her new role at RICD, she responded “I’m very excited use the skills I’ve learned to help a disadvantaged group of people gain the ability to better communicate their stories.  I have taught theater to typical actors for a long time and see the opportunity to work with disabled performers as the ideal challenge.”



Progress continues to be made every day. Like in the U.S., all the staff artists have several jobs so I a lot remains in flux. Admittedly, there are times I get confused as to whom I should be collaborating with, but it all works out in the end. I have found it’s best to always have a back-up plan so if everyone has suddenly gone missing, I can work on Plan B.


The Dream Keeper gives a dream

In The Dream Keeper, a magical spirit called visits young people who are struggling to figure out what dreams mean and why they are important. Each person’s case is different: sometimes he gives dreams, sometimes he takes dreams away, sometimes he explains what a dream means and sometimes he creates confusion.

This week we worked on a section of the show where a young man with cerebral palsy struggles with his dream of being a musician.  He loves the sounds of the trumpet and guitar and piano, but his muscles won’t allow him to play an instrument.  The situation is made worse by the fact that his father is a famous conductor and is disappointed with his disabled son.


The Dream Keeper takes dreams away

When the Dream Keeper visits, he tells the young man that the answer is “right in front of his face” but then the Dream Keeper disappears.  With this information, the students, staff and I composed a fun song in which the young man interacts with an orchestra – almost like his conductor father would.  In the end, the young man remains frustrated that the Dream Keeper didn’t fully answer his question and decides to go on a quest for the answer.

2016-01-16 12.48.49OTHER ADVENTURES

Last Saturday I returned to Dulabhatorn Foundation where I lead a community-driven song creation session. The students chose to write a song about dancing. We only had an hour-and-a-half, but they reached their goal with enthusiasm. The Dulabhatorn staff then wrote some fun guitar chords and the students were able to dance and sing their way out the door. You can listen Dancing Kids by clicking here.


The staff mentioned they thought the song would be perfect as an anthem for their summer camp program starting in March, but I challenged them to keep writing and refining. A lot of the melodies they used were from modern pop songs or well-known folk songs – which is fine – but I challenged the staff to help the students write songs exploring their own melodies and styles. If only we had more time! Hopefully, they feel empowered to experiment more with some community-driven techniques.


Of course, more delicious food was et this week including some of my old favorites. The food at the kantok dinner was excellent and, because the owner was muslim, we ate things like naem gai (sour chicken) instead of naem moo (sour pork). Maem gai was equally good in my opinion although couldn’t help but wonder what my American friends would think of raw chicken left out to ferment for three days. One of my favorite discoveries of this trip is that they now have sour pork with the chilies and ginger available at the Seven-Eleven up the street.

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Northern Thai sausage


Naem moo (sour pork)

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Thaiyai noodles with cabbage, tomato sauce and fried tofu

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Fried and marinated pork in spicy sauce

Thailand, Week Five (Final Week)

February 14, 2015

Interact Thailand for the week of February 9-14, 2015.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

A weekly update of the activities of artists from Interact Minnesota (Artistic Director Jeanne Calvit, Story-teller Kevin Kling, Actors Lhea Jeagar and Dominic Zeman and myself) as we create musical theater with the staff and artists at RICD/Interact Thailand.  Interact Theater’s mission is to create art through radical inclusion that changes society’s view of disability.


The famous piano building of RICD







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Jeanne, Lori, Dan and Kevin bow to the actors.

We couldn’t have packed more into this week. Along with tech rehearsals (adding costumes, lights and sound in two days!) and opening The Love Showwe had a barrage of dinners, special visitors, meetings, recording sessions and last-minute shopping. There was barely time to sleep.

On Monday, Lori Leavitt, Interact Minnesota’s Development and Marketing Director (recently turned Interact board member) visited us during a coincidental family trip to Chiang Mai. It was such a delight to have Lori and her husband Dan here experiencing first-hand the transformation happening with the Thai performers.

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Gade and Tao prep for the performance.

It was interesting to see that the boys at RICD are much more into make-up than the girls. In fact, opening night reminded me of several middle-school productions I’ve directed where a group of unsupervised pre-pubescent girls came out of the dressing room proudly looking like “ladies of the night” from the late-1990’s. Here it’s primarily the boys. And they spend a LOT of time on it.

It also reminded me of sitting on a stool next to my older sister Rachel’s vanity watching with fascination as she curled, sprayed, fussed, colored, plucked, teased, applied, wiped, re-applied and was generally annoyed with me being there. For me, there’s always been something entrancing about people putting on make-up and what it does for them. Again, transformation.

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A ceremony for the return of Kevin’s spirits.

After rehearsal on Tuesday, the entire Love Show team (interns and all) went to have a special dinner at May’s father’s house in Mei Tang. The meal was rustic Northern Thai cuisine and included larb moo (both cooked and raw), namprick (chili paste), saa (beef tar tar) and gang tom kai (sour chicken curry. All of it, especially the pork tar tar in pig blood) was magnificent.

Before dinner, a Buddhist monk performed a ceremony to help Kevin’s spirits to find their way back home – the Buddhists believe you have 32 spirits in total and sometimes those spirits get separated from people because of trauma and accidents. The ceremony was to help Kevin regain the spirits that he lost in accident in 2001. The monk said they would be there waiting for him when he got back to Minneapolis.

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Chinese-style vegetable

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Papaya salad

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Larb moo (pork tar tar in pork blood) – DELICIOUS!

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Pong getting a little slap-happy around the end of the session.

On Wednesday, we added the microphones. There’s nothing quite so special as a lot of children experiencing microphones in a resonant space for the first time. And nothing quite so peaceful as the end of that rehearsal. After rehearsal, Pong and I dashed off to his friend Pon’s recording studio to lay down some tracks of the show before I left.  In the next months, they will be producing a full recording of the show.

When we walked out of the studio at 10:30pm, Pon’s mom had a lovely dinner prepared for us. It was one of those moment’s where I truly wish I could have sat and savored the food a little longer – it was so delicious – but we had an hour ride home and an even crazier next day. Thanks, Pon and Pon Si!

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Aaron with Pon outside the recording studio.

Thursday was our final day tech and, to the great credit of the RICD staff, it went swimmingly. Everyone was very relieved after. It was also our last chance to go the Waworot Market (one of our favorite places) to buy spices and coffee and other sundry. We only had an hour to shop as they close promptly at 6pm and start packing up around 530pm. As I walked along the back alleys of the market, the proprietors kept slamming down their metal doors as if to say: “We open at 5am! It’s your fault for running so late.” I managed to get a new suitcase which was my primary objective as my other suitcase is brimming with gifts, but didn’t really peruse like I love to. So many treasures. And with dinner often costing about $1 and a nice gift costing about $3-$5 it’s easy to get carried away.

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Mr. Valentine (Aomsin)

Friday, January 13 at 7pm we opened The Love Show to a huge crowd of friends, family, community and dignitaries. The audience reaction was amazing, especially to Ning Nong’s doctor sketch, Lhea’s amazing turn as Juliet (which really had me laughing from the piano), and, of course, Film, Future and Kong’s ‘Arroi! Arroi!’ rap had everyone clapping along. But it was really Aomsin as Mr. Valentine with Kevin Kling on harmonica that brought down the house. The crowd really went wild after his blues number “Mrs. Valentine” where he sings about how so many women give him attention: flowers and chocolates, but his heart belongs to Miss Thailand. Talk about a signature song – and it was entirely Pong’s idea. Way to go Pong!

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Mon and Fern!

This week’s featured volunteer/performer combo is Mon and Fern.

Mon was a GREAT help during the show: translating, performing, instructing, helping with costumes. She was a super-volunteer. (She also played Miss Thailand.)

Fern is Mon’s daughter and has struggled for many years with stomach issues that have left her bed-ridden. She hasn’t know much more than the room in which her grandmother would take care of her.

Now that her health is better, it is very important to Mon that Fern start having a social life.

In Mon’s words: “Before RICD and Interact Thailand, Fern wouldn’t speak or play with other children. Sometimes, if they tried to play with her she would hit them. For the first time, Fern is looking around and seeking out other children to talk to. She’s learning words to songs gaining confidence to speak up. Fern’s favorite part of the show is most definitely the rap song ‘Arroi! Arroi!’  She knows all the words and sings it at home. Now, she wakes me up every morning and asks to go to the theater. Fern can’t wait for the next show.

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Will and Carly

Carly and Will are our interns from the Spring Semester in Thailand program. They have spent their afternoons with us since week one learning blocking and music and helping wrangle the younger performers.

Carly Richardson is from San Fransisco, California and goes to school at Westmont College in Santa Barbara where she studies Kinesiology. In her words: “I love Interact’s model of radical inclusion and working with a group of actors with such a large range of abilities. At first it was challenging because it was so professional and we had to help everyone learn things so fast, but now that everyone knows the show it’s really fun. It’s nice to form relationships with people.  ‘m really impressed with Ning Nong and Tan – how they work so hard and make their story the center of the play and at the center of the program.

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Khim teasing Will at dinner.

Will Thompson is from Orlando, Florida and goes to Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee where he studies Sociology. In his words: “I’ve really enjoyed watching the process because I’ve never done theater and it was really fun to see things from the inside out. Working with the staff and children was amazing. Watching the music and poetry come together from scratch and enabling the actors learn and perform it really rounded out the experience. I have to say, I really connect with Khim. She’s so funny. I’m really grateful for this experience.”

This is great because last year, Khim would barely speak with anyone and was very stubborn. This year, she knows all her blocking and rarely needs some one to cajole her.


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It takes two to tango! Lhea and Dominic in The Love Show

Lhea and Dominic are visiting performing artists at Interact Thailand from Interact Minnesota. They have done an excellent job rolling with the punches being that there have been a bevy of last-minute changes and the majority of the show is in Thai. They’ve embraced the culture, the language and their new friends with aplomb.

Lhea, in her words: “My favorite part of being in Thailand has been working on the show. I’ve always to play Juliet and now I finally got a chance to. I’ve loved learning the Thai dances with Tan and learning to say things in Thai. The Thai songs are difficult, but I’m trying my best. Sometimes the food is a little spicy.

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Dominic and Lhea on the set.

Dominic, in his words: “I’ve never been to a foreign country and I love Thailand. I love the people, the religions, RICD, the clothes, the shopping, the cooking classes and Christoph and DJ. I think a way to connect with God is to meet people I’ve never seen before and become attached to them.  It’s hard to split apart though. I love to dance, so I’m glad I get to dance with people in the show.


Last (but certainly not least) I sat down with Dr. Samaii, director of RICD and spoke with him at length regarding his thoughts about Interact Thailand.  In July, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn will visit the hospital and see an abbreviated version of The Love Show.  Something we all hope Interact Minnesota can be a part of. Dr. Samaii, because of his vision and dedication, has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these young and gifted performers. Six years ago, none of this would have been thought possible.

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Cast members Lhea, Mina, Non, Carly and Dr. Samaii.

In his words:

RICD Music and Drama and Interact Thailand are revolutionizing how we think about treating disability because for the first time we are asking the community to be part of the treatment. The truth is, the community needs treatment as well. For centuries, disabled people in Asia only been seen solely as those who take from society. At Interact Thailand and RICD they are allowed to give and even more to inspire others with their gifts.

In order to be successful, we must constantly be developing new ideas for how to help our community – like working with Interact Minnesota and the idea of radical inclusion. We must network with people from all over the world and help them set up similar community programs.  And we must collect date, create assessments and produce educational materials so the academic and scientific world has proof of our success.

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Jeanne received flowers from the General Director of Mental Health Dr. Jessada Chokdarmrongsuk, presented by Dr. Samaii.

We cannot predict what will happen in life, we only have our hearts to guide us. We don’t know if our plans will be successful or not, but we have to try. The rest is up to the heavens.

We can only do our best. And know we can do nothing by ourselves.  If you don’t have a friend to help you, you cannot share the passion, the success, the lessons and the failures. So, then first we must learn how to share.


I could go on an on about this week as so much happen, but I’ll finish with some production photos (supplied by Pong) and let them speak for themselves.   I’ll have a follow-up blog next week, so look for more information to come!

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Thailand, Week Two

January 24, 2015


Thailand Update for the Week of January 12 – 16.

A weekly update of the activities of artists from Interact Minneapolis (Artistic Director Jeanne Calvit, Story-teller Kevin Kling, Actors Lhea Jeagar and Dominic Zeman and myself) as we create musical theater with the staff and artists at RICD/Interact Thailand.  Interact Theater’s mission is to create arts through radical inclusion that changes society’s view of disability.  

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Baby Please with Pong in #loisknits

Bear with me: but I have to start every blog with the obligatory Baby Please picture. This week we have her sporting a handmade knit cap from Grandma Lois.  I struggle to imagine ways this child could be any more adorable.




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Exploring ways to celebrate for ‘The Love Show.’

Week two is now behind us and we’ve created four new scenes and three new songs for The Love Show – a show about all the different ways we find love in life. I’ve included the Enligh translation of lyrics for our new song To Love and To Mean Itbelow.

In July, an excerpt of this show will be performed for the Princess of Thailand.  She will be visiting the hospital for its grand opening so it’s important that the songs and scenes really showcase the stories and talents of these unique performers.

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Lhea gets her hand kissed by Future. Unfortunately, he’s a little young for her. Pretty cute though! (see below)

The guest artists from Interact Minneapolis, Dominic and Lhea, haven’t hesitated one bit when it comes to the theater creation. They are great role models and have really inspired the other here in Thialand with their confidence.

Our (very resonant) rehearsal room is always filled with laughter and positive energy.  We have a lot of new faces including this year including Non, Mooham, A, Jing, Jo, Kate, Fern, Pi-Pi, Kong, Mon and Future. I hope I have time to feature everyone, but let’s start with Future and Kong.

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Future (who Kevin Kling lovingly refers to as “Mini-Me”)

Future is eight-years-old and actually participated in the program three years ago.  Now he’s back for more!

In his own words: “I like Interact Thailand because everyone is very funny and I have good friends here.  I love acting because it’s healthy to have fun and laugh.

When asked what super power he’d like to have: “I would be “Ee-say” (a Japanese anime character) because he has a big magic dragon arm that gives him power within.



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Kong giving an example of the “culture of cute” that is so popular in Asia.

This is Kong‘s first time working with Interact Thailand and he’s grown tremendously in the past two weeks. He’s very articulate, full of passion and ideas, and improvises poetry.

In his own words: “Interact Thailand is very fun!  I used to be very shy but I’m not shy anymore.  I have so many new friends and it’s best when we can do theater together.  When I finish the program, I hope I can teach my friends at school how to make theater.  Also, the food is delicious.


He’s right!  Everyday, RICD provides a hot lunch that makes American hot lunch look like garbage (which isn’t difficult). Everyday we are greeted with green curry or pad see ew or stir fry and soup.  It’s really delicious (arroi mat mat) and generous of RICD.  Some days, they even include a beautiful dessert! #nomorechickennuggets

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Pad See Ew

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Barbecued pork with cucumbers.

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The occasional dessert.



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Mr. Singh visits rehearsal

Our featured staff member this week is the Mr. Singh.

Mr. Singh visited Interact in Minneapolis in 2011 and then took a course at the Child Development Institute of Los Angeles.

Mr. Singh is now the director of the Psychology Department at RICD and the founder of the Music and Drama Therapy program.  He studied theater and film-making before going into Psychology, so combining his two passions is a dream-come-true for him.  He also started a program for parents of disabled artists called ParentClassroom.

He says he witnesses the transformative power of the arts and disability every day and believes that someday, Interact Thailand will be the epi-center of radical inclusion in the arts for South East Asia.   They already have several satellite programs in Chiang Mai and weekly visitors from around the world.

(In fact, last week, a mental health worker from Malaysia named Chuah Yee Lin observed our rehearsals. She took one of the Interact Education guides and was very keen on starting an Interact program in Malaysia.)

He also says he looks forward to years of continued collaboration with Interact in Minneapolis. NOTE:  Mr. Singh is a fellow foodie and is the one responsible for introducing us to weasel coffee.  #weaselcoffeeisthebest  #thankyoumrsingh #lifechanger


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Tha Phea Gate Walking Market

One of the great parts of being in Chiang Mai is the amazing (and crowded) Tha Phae Gate Walking Market on Sunday nights. Thousands of people descend on the center of town near the canal to sample amazing Northern Thailand cuisine and buy hand-crafts.  The city shuts down the streets to traffic and allows hundreds of vendors to set up shop on the sidewalks for one kilometer end to end.

Last Sunday I was able to meet our translator from last year, Nattie and catch up with her.  I was so excited to see that many of the vendors from last year remained in their same locations. Especially the Ancient Ice Cream stand (ice cream which isn’t actually from thousands of years ago, but is made from coconut milk) which features flavors like taro, pandanus, black bean (my favorite) and, of course, coconut. #ancienticecream #chiangmaistreetfood

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Ancient Ice Cream Stand

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Black bean ice cream

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Stuffed crab shells

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Pork balls with thai salsa

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The food court

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Barbeque chicken

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Fun desserts

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Nattie and Mu Tsum


In other news, Interact Alumni Alan Ernst was here last week and was able to visit rehearsal and even play along. And Interact Development Director Lori Sudit will be joining us for a couple of days next week on her family vacation.


Leapin’ Lizards!

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The scene of the crime: our front porch at Rasiya.

As it turns out, my roommate Kevin Kling and I have a family of lizards living in the rafters above the table outside our room.

About five minutes after Kevin went inside the other night, the mother lizard (probably about a foot-and-a-half long, 2 lbs) fell with a smack right where Kevin was sitting.  Imagine the sounds someone dropping an uncooked chicken on a tile floor. Anyway, it then slithered under the chair where he had been sitting. Of course, I wanted to take a photo, but when I moved the chair I startled it and it darted – DIRECTLY INTO OUR ROOM!

I spent the hours of 11pm-1am moving every piece of furniture in room, trying to find the creature. Finally, giving up, I moved Kevin’s suitcase back to where it original location and out she popped.  She then proceeded to run up and down the wall over Kevin’s head, down on the floor behind his bed and then disappeared somewhere in the wall.

We both went to bed, but throughout the night, we continued to hear her panicked scuttling around us.  I decided to leave the door open so she could leave freely.  Let’s hope the whole family didn’t decide to move in.  #kevinhasanewroommate #notafanoflizards

Lyrics to Love It and Mean It

[I used a similar song model for Interact’s residency at the Mississippi Arts Magnate School last year.  All the lyrics were taken from an exercise where the performers were asked to describe their dreams of love.  Let’s hope this one is just as successful.]


Last night in my dream the King and I were painting

Painting the happy Thai people

The king asked me why all the people were happy

I said, my King, it’s quite simple:


Everyone has something to be happy about

Though everyone’s reason is different

Reasons to be happy are infinite, like stars

To be happy is to love and to mean it


Love is cleaning the house for my mother

Love is being hugged by a handsome young man

Love is giving friends the things that they need

Love is to dance and dance and dance


Love is a kiss on the cheek from my daddy

Love is a walk in the woods

Love is deciding not to be too naughty

Love is doing what I should to be good


Love is a dream of kissing Rhianna

Love is a dream of marrying Blue

Love is a phone call from the girl who works at Seven

Love is my parents giving me money so that I could buy cookies and cake every day for the rest of my life (pause)


Love is being a red and black butterfly

Love is always having a job

Love is being trustworthy and honest

Love is being in love


That’s when the king put down his paint brush

And asked me to tell him one thing:

“How do you mend a broken heart

If love is the thing that is missing?”


Most love takes time to understand

Remember there are always two sides

And remember to not be too serious

Let a happy spirit be your guide


Everyone has something to be happy about

Though everyone’s reason is different

Reasons to be happy are infinite, like stars

To be happy is to love and to mean it





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