Translation of Episode 1: B-Floor Theatre

October 1, 2019

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Episode 1 Excerpts

We interviewed Teerawat "Kage" Mulvilai and Jarunun "Jaa" Phantachat, the co-founders and artistic directors of B-Floor Theatre, on the occasion of the company's 20th anniversary. Kage and Jaa discuss B-Floor's past, present, and future.

On how they got into the arts (3:55)

Kage: "I actually studied fine arts [at Chiang Mai University]. Back then the Faculty of Mass Communication had only one theatre class. I was part of a performing arts club, which was pretty much dead at that time, so I took it over and proclaimed myself the head of the club. At that time, there were friends from different faculties who were interested in doing theatre. And one of the first things I did was with a protest organized by a student political party, the Yuwathipat [Democratic Youth Party]. They were interested in environmental issues, and they wanted other types of performance other than the Hyde Park–style speeches and playing “pleng peu cheevit” [literally “songs for life,” a genre of political folk music] at their protests. So I did some mime performance. I had been taking some mime and contemporary dance classes at Payap University. I really started from zero and just put [everything that I was learning] together. Then we had a chance to participate in an activity called Chiang Mai Jadwang Sangkhom [Chiang Mai arranges the society]. We got to perform in non-theatre spaces and public spaces. I got to see other people’s works and works by foreigners […] It was something that opened my eyes to the world of performance."

Jaa: "My interest came from not knowing. When I was in Grade 11, I remember waking up in the afternoon one day and watching something on TV, and I thought, “How come the story is moving so fast?” And the camera angles were kinda strange. But it was so good, and it ended so quickly, and I didn’t have to wait to see the ending the next day […] When the end title came up, I found out that it was a play by Dass Entertainment [former name of Dreambox theatre company] called "Sood Sai Plai Roong" [The End of the Rainbow]. I thought that it was so good that there was something like this [...] but I still didn’t know what theatre was really like. Then one day while I was in college, I had to go to some initiation activity. We had just got down from the mountains, and we had to run around the university first before we could go back to our dorms. And there was a friend who said that she wasn’t going to do that because she had to go audition for a show and apply for membership with the performing arts club. I didn’t want to go running, so I went to the audition with her."

On working with the International WOW Company (8:00)

Jaa: When I was a freshman or sophomore in college, in 1995, there was Duan Silp Klang Suan Lum or BBB (Bangkok Berlin Bali) festival in Lumphini Park in Bangkok. There were artists from Bangkok, Berlin, and Bali who showcased their works in the park. There was also an American theatre company. I don’t know how they got into the festival. They were called GAle GAtes, but I think it was because Manuel Lugenhorst, a German curator who was based in New York and Indonesia and eventually settled down in Chiang Mai, invited them. At that time, GAle GAtes [a now-defunct Brooklyn avant-garde theatre company] was kind of hip in New York. There were 10 or 20 of them. After performing in Bangkok, they went up to Chiang Mai for a small festival. And there were people who stayed on and kept doing things, exploring stuff. They were just in their twenties. There was an artist named Josh Fox [founder of WOW], who just graduated. We all went out together, dancing, and he was like, “Oh, you guys dance! Interesting. I can do a workshop for you.” [Kage and I and our friends] had been studying modern dance at the time?

Kage: We were studying contemporary dance. And we were performing in clubs, and everyone was like, “Wow! So weird!”

Jaa: Back then, there were no tables in clubs. They were like discotheques, so there were dance floors […] and places for us to be like, “OK! Let’s go perform our dances!” […] So Josh conducted a workshop for us, for like two or three months actually. A little too serious maybe? [laughs]. And so we started creating performances together.

 On working with Crescent Moon Theatre (11:09)

Kage: "I was part of the Permanent Theatre project that was hosted by Saeng-Arun Art and Culture Center. The company planned their programme a year ahead, and the actors received a monthly salary. It was like having a full-time job, except you were doing theatre. It was totally new at the time. I was in Chiang Mai before that, doing plays for an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. Khru Kamron [Gunatilaka, one of the founders of Crescent Moon Theatre] invited me to join the project, so I came down to Bangkok to join Crescent Moon. It was called New Crescent Moon then because they had just come back from a hiatus. We put up four or five shows that year. We trained in physical theatre in the style of Kamron, which had some Grotowski elements in it. We did that for a year. Then the Tom Yum Goong crisis hit."

On Chiang Mai and Bangkok theatre scenes (13:20)

Jaa: The first time I came to Bangkok was with Josh [Fox]. At that time, Saeng-Arun Art and Culture Center had activities and small festivals showing new works. The first time I performed in Bangkok, we also conducted a workshop, but I felt that most of the shows were straight plays. At that time, the theatre company Song Pad (Two Eight) was still well-known. They did absurdist plays. I had only seen one play by Crescent Moon Theatre—A Midwinter Night’s Dream. And they had dialogue and movement. But our work, as someone who knew nothing back then, we said we liked to dance, so we got to dance. And the director just created one scene after another. There’s wasn’t much of a story, but there was a lot of individuality. It was experimental—WOW Company, I mean. But at that time, there was not much of a scene in Chiang Mai. There was an art scene that looked exciting, but as for theatre, there wasn’t much.

Kage: At that time, there was already Kad Suan Kaew Theatre, but it was commercial. They should have had some small theatres to support locals […] But in Bangkok at that time, there were Patravadi Theatre, Dass Entertainment [former name of Dreambox Theatre], Moradokmai Theatre by Khru Chang [Silpathorn artist Janaprakal Chandruang] at the Elephant Building. Saeng-Arun [Art and Culture Center] was also one of the spaces. We didn’t have BACC back then, except Tadu Gallery that sometimes presented live performances. It was all kind of spread out and loosely connected. There wasn’t much.

 On why they formed a physical theatre company (16:08)

Kage: It was from realizing what I liked. I prefer movement. I wasn’t skilled in speaking or playwriting. I wasn’t a director who liked to interpret texts or create characters. When I looked around me, I asked myself, “Can I do purely physical theatre work?” That made our company stand out from the very beginning. The company was born out of the desire to do this kind of work, to experiment. In the beginning, we used to take a long time to create a piece. We would take six months. We would do workshops and trained and trained. We didn’t know what we would get out of it, but the people who were part of it at that time trained like crazy. We were the B floor, the basement. We weren’t even on the ground floor yet. We were more like a lab, a theatre lab. We opened ourselves up to dance and different types of movement. […] B-Floor became the name for this new group of people, which we used on certain occasions. But as we did more work together, the name stopped being something ad hoc.

On being artists then and now (26:32)

Jaa: I don’t feel it’s changed much. It keeps coming back to being challenging. In my 20s and 30s, I had a full-time job, which I eventually left to freelance and do more theatre, but I earned my living through freelance gigs. Today, it’s still the same, but I do less freelance work. Maybe it’s because I’ve become more selective with my freelance gigs. But now the economy is like when we started, around 1997, 98, 99, when there were many small theatre companies. And none of the companies had much audience. It’s a different kind of challenging, but has it gotten more difficult? Some things are harder; some things are easier.

Kage: When we started doing theatre, we found that there was no one who could make theatre continuously. When people reached a certain age, they had to get a real job. They couldn’t just keep doing theatre. I’m lucky. Maybe I’ve never been hired by a company, or maybe I didn’t try hard enough to find work. It was difficult, but sometimes I’m surprised that I’ve kept going for this long. I still consider myself an actor. I can audition or take various jobs. And films, commercials, directing, or technical stuff—they’ve always been able to keep me going financially. They’ve allowed me to keep doing theatre. There are also more new theatre companies, which I think is an interesting phenomenon. It would be more interesting to see how long these new companies will go on for.

On the two eras of B-Floor (34:00)

Kage: I want to divide B-Floor into only two eras. The first era is from 1999–2007. That was the Aspirational Era. The sky was golden. We had a lot of time. I don’t know how we could rehearse almost every day and for about six months [for each show]. I didn’t have a car back then. I would come in to Bangkok [from Nonthaburi] by bus and went home by bus. I would get home at two in the morning. It was like that every day. It was craziness. We were young then. We grew increasingly serious. Many of our productions were strong. A little before 2007, we weren’t as active. Many of us started having other responsibilities. Some of us had to start getting full-time jobs or go to graduate school. And our membership dwindled down to the two of us. Then we called everyone back for a meeting because we just got our own space at Pridi Banomyong Institute. We wanted our members to commit to the group. We started talking about planning ahead for the year—creating a year-long program. Should we do four productions this year? Who wants to direct? We started taking turns being directors, producers, performers. And that’s how we’ve been working ever since.

On the issues they tackle (41:40)

Jaa: We don’t require our members to address certain issues in their productions. As people living in society, each person has different issues that move them. Sometimes we have similar experiences or feel the same way about some issues. So sometimes our work become political. But B-Floor isn’t all about politics. We’re open to other issues. Some of the works can be very personal as well.

Kage: [He returns to this question while answering the question about dramaturgy (48:45)] I talk a lot about politics. But in the new work [“The (Un)Governed Body”], I sliced off a little bit of that to make the work broader or go beyond the state vs. the people. I’ve asked myself whether I address the state directly in my work. I don’t think that’s what I do because there’s the audience. I actually want to communicate with the audience. So whether or not our works address those in power—sure, we talk about them—but in actuality it’s about wanting to present to the audience and asking them what they think as people living in the same society. So I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be targeted by the state because my work doesn’t address the government, but the audience.

On working with dramaturgs (45:00)

Jaa: The way I used to work with Kage was kind of like dramaturgy, but I don’t think I knew what it was then. I was like his consultant. I think directors want new challenges. We don’t only work with dramaturgs. We’ve also worked with dancers and choreographers or designers to get new input, and we get to learn new things as well. Since 2008, when Nana [Dakin] joined B-Floor, she first worked as an assistant director [on several productions], so I decided to just become a producer instead, though sometimes I ended up writing scripts for B-Floor shows. I started stepping back a bit because I wanted distance. Kage also wanted new ideas. And we wanted new exchanges with other people or else we’d just be stuck with one style or one way of working.

Kage: The first time I used a dramaturg is with “Fundamental.” Olan [Kiatsomphol] was the dramaturg. Usually, I like to have someone from the outside come see the work and reflect on it and tell me what they see. When we’ve been doing something for a while, we sometimes repeat ourselves, so we have to find new [perspectives] like Jaa said. It helps us as artists to escape from ourselves. […] We inevitably put our signatures all over our works. But it’s also about how we move forward.

On training (49:50)

Kage: Now we have about four to five directors. At the beginning, we all came from the same training background. We had training in Viewpoint, acrobatic, butoh, Laban, physical theatre à la Grotowski. But as each director grows, they find other techniques and develop their own style. So now B-Floor directors’ works are really varied. The details in our works are diverging from our shared foundation. But when we do B-Fest every two years, that’s when we return to the basic training of B-Floor. We open it up to the public and do five days of training so that the participants can understand our tools and use them to create a showcase within a short period of time.

On Pridi Banomyong Institute (51:50)

Jaa: [Pridi Banomyong Institute] helped us continue as a company to the present day because the space that was given to us there [B-Floor Room], despite its size, meant we had a place to rehearse and develop ourselves. We also got to exchange with other artists. It even gave birth to new companies that came in to use our space […] The place helped build a community of performing artists that spurred exchanges and meetings. Crescent Moon Space was right across from us. Babymime sometimes rehearsed in the courtyard. So exchanges and circulations took place, and the network and community became more pronounced. I feel Pridi Institute was significant in that way. It generated a diverse range of artistic creations and ideas. Sometimes when we met other artists, even though we didn't always end up working with them, we at least knew what they were working on.

Kage: A public space like Pridi Institute is something the government should provide for us. It was an easily accessible space. For 20 years, Pridi Institute was where artists could work and grow. B-Floor owes its continued existence to Pridi Institute. I still can’t imagine how much rent we would have had to pay for a place outside of Pridi Institute. We probably wouldn’t have been able to survive. I feel it was a space that gave us many opportunities. When it was run by Sinsawat Yodbangtoey, it had annual events, like Silpa Nana Pan, film screenings, and seminars about current issues in our country. There were many speakers and thinkers who circulated in and out of that space, so we had a chance to listen to, participate in, or help out with these events. So social movements experienced more development and dynamism […] We now have a new space to rehearse, so that’s good, but don’t forget that there are still so many companies that don’t have their own space. You used to be able to just go in and use Pridi Institute, but now you have to rent everything. Management becomes then more difficult, but that’s the reality. That’s why I said that a space like Pridi Institute is something the state should provide for artists. They should create a central space where everyone can access.

On the possibility of B-Floor without Jaa or Kage (1:04:15)

Kage: B-Floor members are semi-independent. We make some decisions together—like money and management matters. But when it comes to creating works, everyone is completely free. B-Floor is a central space for every member to create the kind of work they want to create. We don’t have a system where a senior member is doing quality control, telling another member to change their work. We don’t have a teacher-student relationship with one another. Everyone has full artistic freedom, so it’s a chance for the artists to test out their work with the audience directly. Artists learn from dealing with the audience. So even if the two of us were no longer there, the company could still run on its own.

On the impact of B-Floor on the Bangkok theatre scene (1:05:45)

Kage: We’re part of the scene. We’re artists, not researchers. We just want to have an impact on the audience [...] We’ve been doing this for 20 years, so should we be considered an institution? But I’m talking more about knowledge building […] We’re in the process of building a website and creating an online archive so that people can see our styles, methods, and photos from [past productions]. The website should come out [soon]—the first draft of it. We’ve done just enough for people to see what we’ve been up to in the past 20 years.

On the future of B-Floor (1:07:40)

Jaa: I guess we’ll continue to be a collective like this. We started out as a typical company—everyone moved in the same way and studied the same techniques. Now we’ve expanded. We’re a bigger family. There’s also more individuality, to the point where sometimes we’re not sure what B-Floor is anymore. So we’re at least a group of people who work together, who share resources, share certain aesthetics.

Kage: In the past five years, my goal has been to bring more of B-Floor works outside of Thailand. I want to collaborate more with international artists. When I was at the physical theatre festival at Storehouse [in Tokyo], we talked about creating a network of people who do physical theatre or other types of movement-based works. I believe there are so many more artists like us in this region. In the future, with a network, we hope to be able to bring our works abroad or bring others’ works into Thailand more often so that Thai audiences can see more productions from abroad. I think there aren’t many of these types of works being shown in Thailand.

Lightning Round

1. Which of these two film directors would you invite to direct a B-Floor production?

Anocha Suwichakornpong vs Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Both: Apichatpong

Mum Jokmok or Poj Arnon

Jaa: Mum Jokmok

Kage: Poj

Wisit Sasanatieng or Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Both: Wisit

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit or Chookiat Sakveerakul

Both: Nawapol

Chatrichalerm "Than Mui" Yukol or Pundhevanop "Mom Noi" Dhewakul

Both: Mom Noi

2. If you were stranded on an island, you would prefer to be stranded with the books of which of these two authors?

Prabda Yoon or Uthis Haemamool

Both: Uthis

Sri Dao Ruang or Veeraporn Nitiprapha

Jaa: Sri Dao Ruang

Kage: Veeraporn

Binla Sankalakiri or Kanokpong Songsompan

Both: Kanokpong

Zakariya Amataya or Angkarn Kalayanapong

Both: Zakariya

Mukhom Wongthes or Kam Phaka

Both: Mukhom

Win Lyovarin or Thommayanthi

Jaa: Thommayanthi

Kage: Win

3. Which of your own productions do you like the most?

Kage: Iceberg

Jaa: Ceci n'est pas la politique

4. Which B-Floor production by another director do you like the most?

Kage: F*ck Tong, directed by Dujdao Vadhanapakorn

Jaa: Iceberg, directed by Kage