For one month I have been at Phare Ponleu Selpak which is in Battambang, northwest Cambodia.
Phare Ponleu Selpak is a school and art center for disadvantaged children. ‘Ponleu’ means light and ‘selpak’ art. It was started in 1994 by eight former refugees who survived the Khmer Rouge as small children and thereafter grew up in a refugee camp on the Thai side of the border. They lived in the camp from 1979 until 1993 when it was finally considered safe to return to Cambodia. In the camp they had met a French woman who taught them art and gave them the chance to express and work through their difficult experiences. Now they wanted to give other children the opportunity to express themselves and overcome the trauma of prolonged war. They based their center outside Battambang town, in a village where many poor live without land and without means.
Today Phare is not only a visual art center but also a music school as well as a circus school. The compound includes a public school — from primary through high school — for the disadvantaged kids living at Phare as well as children from the neighborhood community.
The children and youth at Phare come from a variety of backgrounds: extreme poverty, where the family simply can’t feed them; domestic violence and abuse, a major issue in poverty-stricken Cambodia; children living on the streets with or without parents; and trafficking, where the children have been sold by their parents to Thailand to work as beggars, domestic slaves or in brothels.
One youngster told me one evening how he used to live in Bangkok (how come?, I asked, not thinking). He had been sent there as a child and had been forced to beg on the streets from 4pm until 4am. If he did not return with a certain amount of money he would get beaten. When he was 10 he was picked up by police, put in jail and then sent back to Cambodia, and eventually came to Phare. He is now 19, a talented and promising visual artist.
The trafficked children are occasionally caught by Thai police, or some finally have the gumption to walk into a police station, and they are then sent back to the Cambodian border where Unicef or another rescue organization takes care of the kids and places them at, for example, Phare. These children live at Phare. Others live in the surrounding community with their families but get fed at Phare, and some others just come for school. All who want to take part are welcome and all study for free.
Since I had a few days before starting my workshops at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, I decided to go see Angkor Wat, the enormous temple compound outside Siem Reap. A must for anyone going to Cambodia. There I took the opportunity to clown around with the poor children who run around the temples desperately selling trinkets to tourists. Along with me was Erin Nicholson with her hoolahoop (who had been working with children on a related project in Sangklaburi in Thailand).
I take the bus from Bangkok (northern Mo Chit station) to the Thai border town Aranya. From there me and my traveling companion pile into a little tuktuk with all our luggage (stilts, hoolahoop and all) to take us the rest of the way to the border. The tuktuk driver lets us off on the side of the road by a tent and we get approached by what are supposedly border officials. They insist the price is 1,000 Baht ($30) for the visa, although I had read that’s a scam; the official price is $20. They claimed you only paid $20 if you got a visa in advance. Well, we had to get thru the border, so pay up!
Then we walk for a bit and cross a checkpoint, then walk again some more, through a Welcome to Cambodia huge stone gate, then another arrival checkpoint, past a bunch of casinos (the border is casino central). Then a bus to “bus station”to get taxi. Where they wanted to charge us 2000 Baht to go to Battambang. Ha ha ha, very funny, nice try but no cigar. I guess we looked like easy bait. We walked away. But here was the hairy part. We didn’t have much of a bargaining point. This was no bus station. And there were no other taxis around that I could see. In fact there were no taxis — what they suggested to be our taxi was just a regular car. Earning some extra cash? It was incredibly muddy all around! And how could I drag all my luggage through that? (Somehow I did.) How were we going to find another car to take us? We pretty much had to deal with what was there before us. “Ok, you go find something else, what do you know, never been to Cambodia,” the guy says. “OK, we will!”… Finally, we get in the cab on the premise of paying 800B which was fair. Then, once car finally takes off, after some false starts and driving around here and there and changing driver twice and picking up two other people (Cambodian couple sharing the front seat) — it was smooth sailing down the road to Battambang!By the time we got there it was too late to go to Phare Ponleu Selpak (the school) or rather the taxi didn’t know where it was and I didn’t know either really and it was dark — so we went to a hotel. The Royal Hotel, the cheapest room under the roof (5th floor walk-up) next to the kitchen for $3. By the end of the night, however, I managed to hook up with the folks at Phare and took a moto (motorcycle) — with my huge stilt bag across my lap! (about 5 feet long), and another moto following with the other bag — and dropped the bags off at the school.
Before I start the workshops Í’m taking the boat to Siam Reap to see Angkor Wat. After that, it’s non-stop work until the end of December!
Family, neighbors, community get to come and see what we’ve been doing with the kids. I lead a sample 1/2 hour workshop, then Pat does his juggling class. We do goofy warm-up movement to music and then move into funny walk. Duuun dtalok! The kids have fun with that for a while. And then I introduce falling — falling backwards (into the mat), and I combine it with bumping into each other and then falling down. Two clowns walking towards each other, accidentally bump into each other and fall down. Two older boys do it and everybody laughs. Classic clown slapstick silliness. Parents and other adults from the neighborhood are lined up along the railing watching what we’re up to. They are smiling and look happy.I wonder how much the kids are absorbing and how much they will use this, what we’ve been doing in clown workshop. Are they getting it? Does it make sense to them, are they liking it? Do they want to use it? Juggling and such is much more tangible and concrete of a skill to practice. What we are doing is a little more abstract. Conceptual. And then of course there is the embarrassment of looking like a fool. Here it is good to be funny. Tini tam dtalok dee!
The kids create little mini shows to present to us. They’re divided into six groups and have to come up with a presentation on their own incorporating what they’ve learned over the past two weeks. What they come up with is incredible! Great choreography and formations, with some juggling and others doing acrobatics around them, for example in the image of a flower opening (backbends away from juggler who is standing in center). Mirroring cartwheels and partner acro positions. Some silly movement and mime. Yey! They are incorporating all the elements. And two girls especially do an extended little clown routine. Doing funny walks and meeting each other but get stuck to each other with their handshake and can’t get loose and then fall down. Bumping into each other. And even doing the silly fake ‘walking down the imaginary stairs’ schtick Liz and I had played with. And everybody’s laughing, so they can see it works — people are laughing and it’s good! I was excited and proud to see them use what we’ve been dong and play with it, making it their own. Woohoo!
In general I was very impressed with what all the groups came up with and in such a short time — just a couple of hours. Creativity and imagination at play! In the end, beyond specific clown schtick and funny moves, I think my workshop has helped open the kids up expressively and creatively, stimulating their creativity and ideas and sense of play. And that is the ultimate goal. Mission accomplished.
The teachers report to me that the kids are very happy and love “teacher Anna.” I’m glad. Because sometimes it’s been hard to gage if they are actually enjoying what we are doing and getting something out of it, some holding back a lot or shy or too cool… But apparently they all do, no matter their varying degrees of showing it in class, since they all excitedly talk about it on their break — and as evidenced by their little shows they came up with.
We continue what we’ve been doing. Mirroring, funny walks, partner acrobatics.
We also play with a ‘duck duck goose’ version with the honker (the horn). Liz sneaks around the circle with the horn until stop at someone, honking at him/her, and then Liz chases the kid around the circle honking. Ha! He lost his seat — now he has to go around the circle and find someone to honk at. He picks Liz again and chases her around, but gets past her and sits down before she gets a chance. This the kids laugh at a lot. Ha ha, got the teacher!October 24, 2008
The children are doing extremely well, the workshop is going extremely well! How great is that. All the kids so engaged and fully participating and playing. We start the class today and the kids have already arranged themselves in a circle, ready to go.
Funny, though, sometimes (some days) they’re totally into it, and sometimes not. Today, with the older group, we do funny walks moving in silly ways, and they, however, were not having it. Normally, they’re totally game.
We do mirror game: impromptu, as part of music and dancing decided to incorporate mirroring exercise, and had the kids do it with each other, in two’s. Worked quite well! They understood the game without any verbal instruction and had fun with it. (Mirroring exercise= face each other and follow each other’s movement, one lead and the other follow, but slowly as if moving simultaneously and you can’t tell who the leader is.)
Duun dtalok! Funny walk. Explore further. And put together with juggling or acrobatics, for example a funny character doing a juggling routine. Liz and I demonstrate different walks contrasted to each other, for example: Liz moving hunched over in a slow rhythm with big arm and leg movement; then, in contrast, I do something where I’m straight and tall with small quick and jerky movements. Together we make a funny couple. The kids do it, and some really go for it. Playing with being funny. What’s funny, what’s making people laugh, what’s fun and funny to do? Good! Then we do funny walk with a trip into a roll on the mat, putting together a little sequence.
We also introduce partner acrobatics. One person lying on ground with feet up and the other “flying” on the feet (lying horizontal across with hips on bottom person’s feet). I’ve done this flying-on-belly position since I was a little kid, a classic one, but they seem to never have seen it before. Lots of ooh’s and aah’s. And we do another position with one person standing on the other’s knees (both standing vertical and holding each other’s arms and leaning back from each other, balancing). Everyone wants to go, especially (again) in the 2nd group — girls calling my name and saying me me me! First group not as eager. I think they still want to try, but just more shy.
October 22 and 23
Great day. The first group so much more engaged and with it. We tried a “new” game (we had done it a little last week with tambourine): move and dance in all kinds of (funny) ways and when music that’s being played stops, freeze in whatever position you’re in. It worked well! They really got into it, dancing like crazy. Got them moving! In their own way. Having fun! Even got them to move all around the room (not staying in circle).
We start every class with passing a clap around the circle. And “boing!” And they initiate the “boing!” themselves. We don’t have to tell them. They still think it’s the funniest thing. Then do a little warm-up to music. Swinging and rotating shoulders, arms, legs. Shake it out (shake shake shake!). Play with contrast in movement in size and rhythm. Make yourself really big, reach up and out. Then small, teeny teeny ball, curled up. Then grow bigger and bigger and bigger! Big faces! Waaaah! Exaggerate facial expressions. Small face, scrunch scrunch, and then again, open wide eyes and mouth. Play with goofy faces. Tongue game — out, side to side, up, in (controlled by pulling ear, etc.).
Then — clown noses! — and do funny movements, funny walks. And clown around with balls. Clown juggler. Drop ball and accidentally keep dropping it or kicking it away, fumbling like a fool. On purpose, of course! And practice tripping. Then practice an acrobatic roll into juggling into dropping and fumbling, then juggling again. Liz and I show. They laugh. The kids do it, and laugh. Funny — great! Then practice a trip into an acrobatic roll into a juggling routine which turns into dropping and fumbling, then juggling again. Etc.
We also do ‘rhythm orchestra’ — divide the circle into sections and each section do a specific rhythm and movement, and then all together.
Interesting the different dynamic of the different groups. First group less focus, and a bit less engaged and/or some much more shy. Have to really encourage them to play and do the exercises. Some girls do not want to do the acrobatics, even the simple rolls. They sit in the back. A few of them embarrassed that they can’t do it well. Finally I take one mat over to them. Invite them to come participate. Coax them, take by hand. Friendly, jokingly, gently. Come! You can do it! And they come! Great. With a little coaxing they go ahead and do it and have fun with it, too. They just needed some individual attention and encouragement.The second group (same age) is much more gung-ho, and when I bring out the stilts and ask who wants to try, all the hands shoot up, me me me!
Good day today! We shook things up a bit. Did a little show for the kids before each class. Some classic clown scenarios, slapstick and relationship play (status — one the boss, the other the doofus/ one straight, the other the jokester, e.g., or as in clown terms referred to as “white clown” and “August”). The kids laughed a lot! Great. I wasn’t sure how it would go over, if they would laugh or just look at us strangely wondering what strange antics we were up to now. So great to see them laughing away all together. Humor truly is universal since the classic schtick we are doing they find hilarious too. Tripping and falling, dropping things, one clown making fun of the other, interrupting the serious clown with various antics and general goofing off. We riffed and improvised and kept the playing going — playing off of the kids and each other — and Liz discovers a game with the kids using the horn (honk honk), where we take turns chasing each other and have the kids chase us.
Then we did some clown movement and dance with the kids. Focus and participation good now.
And then, acrobatics! Rolls, cartwheels, headstand. The kids loved this and we had a lot of fun.
Boy, between the show (w/costumes on in the heat) and the acrobatics, we sure had a work-out today!
All in all a great week, great start. One more week to go (thru the 27th).
Well, after another day or two more, the kids are opening up, finally getting the game and coming up with movements and expressions on their own in the exercises/games we are doing. Yey! We do a lot of movement and silly dance; movement and sound together, rhythm and formation, and general games to be silly and goofy. I try to get the kids to engage their bodies as much as possible.
Continuing same exercises, we play with movement and sound. I incorporate English lessons (the school wants us to teach them) in the workshop. Have them repeat words of what I’m doing. “Circle”… “Movement!” and “Sound!”… “Make a movement.” And demonstrate physically. I get Pat to teach me how to tell the kids in Thai to “do your own movement and sound” — “tam muen gan daeh kwam kit koun!” (i.e., do the same but your own idea). They get it (most of them) but still too shy to do it. But they are starting to! One little girl who is quite precocious gets the game quickly and starts to suggest to her fellow kids when they hesitate what movements they might do. Everyone together do same, and then one by one passing around the circle a different movement and sound combination. Then build imaginary machine. It’s all very silly to the kids. We pass a clap around the circle and I specify to look at each other, make eye contact, and clap at same time — and I exaggerate the looking part with my eyes and this they think is super funny. We do funny exaggerated faces. I pass out clown noses for the kids to wear. Liz and I improvise a little wearing our noses, clown and goof around — and the kids get a kick out of this.
Nonetheless, the kids are very unfocused today, towards the latter part of the workshop. Tired? It seemed even hotter yesterday than today. 4th day fatigue? Bored with doing same thing? Off day?
Today the kids are much more engaged! I think it helps to have smaller groups. Now about 40 per class — three groups instead of two. They are warming up to things.
We work on movement and sound. For now I lead and initiate the creative movements, but ultimately I want them to initiate and come up with expressive movements on their own. We’ll get there (I hope). It’s a challenge to get them to do it at all. But they are starting to follow along more and do the movements. And they look to be having fun, even if still a little embarrassed. The older kids, too, so much more into it today! First day, they were way “too cool.” (The typical junior high school kid.) I work on loosening them up a bit, get them to play and express themselves freely. They find the “woosh” and “boing!” game very funny (silly); laughing and giggling. (A simple theatrical warm-up game: passing a “woosh!” around the circle — or “zip!” or a clap — and when someone jumps and shout “boing!” the woosh reverses the other way around circle.)
First day of workshop. October 13, 2008.
120 in the school and first day they put 70 kids in one class for us to do our workshop! Holy cow. After that we arranged three groups so we have a more manageable amount for each class. The kids are very shy and held back. I don’t think they have ever done or even seen anything like this before. Silly goofy movement, especially done by an adult, in a class. On purpose! I see them act and move silly and freely when playing on their own in the school yard, they’re kids after all. But to do so consciously, in a structured way, as requested by a teacher. To express themselves with purpose — freely and assertively with creativity and imagination. That’s not done in school. There is no creative play in school. No exposure to expressive arts, to theater and dance. I am told that in Thai schooling, children are taught to follow rules and not to have any ideas of their own. Total conformity. This can be said for a lot of education, in the Western world too, but especially true in Thailand, so it appears. Indeed, it’s been a challenge to get them to move freely about the room, not in a circle or a line.
I wonder how they are receiving what we are doing. Not too many tourists come to this area; they are not used to seeing foreigners — and here I am making all kinds of silly movements and sounds, acting like a fool! And wanting them to do it!
It’s a bigger town than I expected. I thought it was going to be a podunk one-horse little town. It has a rather nice city center with a lake and fountains and a pagoda with a large Buddha statue on a little island in the middle.
Well, the school we are teaching at is outside of the city, about a half-hour drive. We pass endless rice paddies, endlessly, along a red dirt road. Small neighborhoods with clusters of scrappy houses bunched closely together. Simple cement structures or wooden houses on stilts. Laundry hanging and various scraps littering the space below and the yard. Cows, chickens and dogs wander among the houses. And little kids. Suddenly, next to a scrappy shack with a corrugated metal roof, there’s a big fancy house with white-washed walls, clean and new, and a beautiful blue tile roof, as well as a gilded gate and fence. And then another scrappy shack. Peculiar contrast. And cows everywhere, grazing between the houses and along the roads, in front of municipal buildings, on the soccer field, and in the grassy divider section between highway lanes.
We travel in the back of a pick-up truck. Common mode of transportation here. I like the sun and wind in my face. But sometimes it’s going a bit fast, especially over the potholes in the road.
We live in one of the school principal’s houses, sandwiched between a Thai boxing place (which interestingly is housed in what looks to be a cow shed, next to cows grazing in a field) and a temple. At night one hears the monks chanting, filling the air with peace and serenity, and then on the other side the “pow! bam! boom! aargh!” from the boxers.
Every morning at 6 am I am awakened by announcements on a loudspeaker with the occasional music and chanting. Apparently, the temples broadcast announcements (local news?) across the neighborhood. The ultimate public radio. I am pretty much ready to get up at that time anyway. The sun just having risen, the day starting. We go to bed early instead. By 8 or 9 o’clock we’re beat — after a hard day’s work jumping around with the kids!
We work at the school from 9 am to 3 pm. I teach three intensive classes. It’s hot. Already after the first class I am soaked with sweat! At the end of the day I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. But it’s great! Cuz it’s good work and the kids are getting so much out of it.
The other teachers along for the ride are Liz Knox (from Canada), who’s clowning with me, and then Pat, a Thai juggler, and Tony, an American ex-pat juggler, and they are teaching (you guessed it) juggling.
We are in Roi Et in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand, here to clown with the kids. Isaan is an impoverished area relying on rice crops and often facing drought or, conversely, flooding.
School: Dondaen Konwaisamakee. The project is located in Roi Et province, Dindam subdistrict.
The children who will benefit from this program are from underprivileged families in the Roi Et province. Children face problems of poverty and some even to the point of being like an orphan where their parents migrate to Bangkok for work leaving them with their neighbors or their ageing grandparents. Students are often involved in working or harvesting to gain a small amount of money to get through day by day. The circus activity is another effective channel that can increase their income but at the same time give them a chance to exercise and practice their acrobat skills. Villagers participate with students sometimes, and the children create shows for the community in return for rice. Up until now, the income from these shows is sometimes more than harvesting where they do not have to face the problems of droughts or flood.
We will be doing workshops in the hopes of creating a permanent structure for using performing and circus arts as an educational tool or simply a way to build confidence and resolve feelings of isolation and abandon in youth cornered by complex problems such as poverty, human trafficking, war, and AIDS/HIV. A simultaneous project is being done in Sangklaburi near the Burmese border where artists are working with Burmese refugees.
Above information from Circus Action International.
More info can be found under “Circus Action International” at; http://www.jerrysnell.com/.
October 4th I took off from NYC flying to Bangkok via Detroit and Tokyo. Two hours plus thirteen hours plus six hours! That thirteen hour flight was a killer, especially since I got food poisoning on the way. But I survived and finally arrived in Bangkok at midnight October 5th (going on October 6). A few days to acclimate and get ready and then off to Roi Et in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand to start the project working with the kids!
Finally got a chance to get on a good computer with good internet and create a blog so that I can now give you all a full report of what we’ve been doing with the kids and to show some great pics!