Friday, September 20, 2019

A dress rehearsal for life

Jun 07. 2019
Courtesy of Next Company
Courtesy of Next Company
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By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to The Nation

11,244 Viewed

Despite strong performances and deft staging, a new musical looked and sounded like it had arrived a few decades too late

IN THIS DAY and age when we, willingly or not, get to read and watch many intriguing stories on our smartphones, we automatically wonder what kind of stories can be told on stage and in film. We probably also ask how such productions should be told in a way that will surprise and maybe even teach us a few life lessons to the extent that we feel it’s worth coughing up the ticket price and making the effort to get to the venue.

Courtesy of Next Company

At the end of “Workshop: A New Musical”, whose world premiere production ended its run last Sunday at Thailand Cultural Centre’s small hall, I suddenly thought of the award-winning Chinese film “An Elephant Sitting Still”. As the title promised, the realistic drama set in rural China had me glued to my seat despite its running time –six minutes short of four hours – without even a toilet break. The new play “Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner”, which I had watched six days earlier, also came to mind. In that, a Singaporean playwright shed light upon the lives, and troubles, of international workers, rather than the refugees we’ve become more acquainted with.

With the subtitle “a dress rehearsal for life”, “Workshop”, in English with Thai surtitles, introduced the audience to 11 characters who, one by one, were seeking help from a life coach at a personal development workshop for a particular problem. All too familiar to us, their problems ranged from a eating disorder, sexual abuse, racism, shyness and so on. A quick glance at the song list in the programme book had already revealed that each and every one of them, the coach included, would have his/her own song in which an individual woe would be heard and, of course, solved – a musical structure that’s too predictable in the 21st century. With a running time of about two hours, this meant that each case could only be touched upon and never deeply explored.

Courtesy of Next Company

The mastermind behind the musical was American pioneer in human development and motivation Cherie “Mother of Coaching” Carter-Scott, also an author of many best-selling books, some of which were available at the front of house. Carter-Scott co-wrote the book of this musical based on the vast resources gained through her experiences in more than 30 countries. She also composed its songs. And therein lay a setback.

Dramatic art is a composite and collaborative art and oftentimes the more partners-in-crime the merrier. Had a professional playwright been involved in the creation process, some problems might have been less ordinary and a few characters might have been combined into a more complex one – each of us usually has more than one problem. Had a professional composer been there, the audience might have heard less familiar tunes.

The all-Thai cast members, most of whom have some musical training, formed a strong ensemble and credit goes here to seasoned director Napisi Reyes. English-language acting coach Jeremy Stutes helped them to be as comfortable with their dialogues as their musical numbers, all of which combined to make this a life-affirming experience. 

Courtesy of Next Company

Commendable characterisation work could be found in veteran actress Janya “Yah” Thanasawarngkul, whom I couldn’t recognise when her character Karen first appeared as well as in Pol “Pete” Nopvechai, whose Venda was always truthful and his acting prowess proved that he’s much more than just “The Star” second runner-up. Two voice professors Chorlada Suriyayothin and Pitchaya Kemasingki formed an endearing couple of Rose and Ernie, whose story, no matter how brief, touched many hearts. As the life coach Randi, Bussayapat Aunchittikul could carry the whole show and while her costume and make-up might have reminded some audience members of the hostess on TV show “The Weakest Link”, her inner care and optimism shone through.

Set designer Nuttakom Chamyen cleverly used thrust stage configuration, which brought the drama closer to the audience and allowed them to also see the six-piece band upstage right. And while Napisi’s staging was well in accordance with the configuration, audience members filled less than half of the seats on the main stand that Friday evening. A more communal spirit could have been created had they been asked to move to the side rows. Lighting designers Supatra Kruekrongsuk and Yuth Autayarnin made this small venue look very different than our previous times there.


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