BANGKOK — People rise lifelessly behind orange road barriers. They take on different identities and personalities through movements alternating between zombies shuffling, mobs lynching, gunmen shooting, spectators cruelly laughing and shirtless students crawling.
“Fundamental,” an hourlong performance by the B-Floor theatre company, opened Wednesday to commemorate the Oct. 6 massacre, which happened 40 years ago, in a physical performance of movement. All minimally portrayed by 13 people, two mops, portable plastic barriers and a Roomba.
“Wherever the materials are, that’s where we are,” director Teerawat “Ka-ge” Mulvilai said at a recent rehearsal of his latest play.
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It was back in 1999, when Ka-ge, then a recent arts grad and part of another Bangkok theatre troupe, wondered what a play would be like without spoken dialogue. That led to the founding of B-Floor, and 10 members who would meet every day at the Pridi Banomyong Institute to experiment with things they’d never done.
“Anything we have seen before, we wouldn’t do it,” Ka-ge said, adding that each of their very first productions consumed nearly six month, dealing with human body and visual elements.
Today B-Floor is still going strong. They’ve staged two performances this year: “Red Tanks” in February and “Fundamental” which runs a couple more weeks. Its members have performed abroad from Singapore to Germany.
Among dozens of productions over 17 years, B-Floor has reflected the issues around them from performances addressing violence in Southern Thailand and Buddhist monastic taboos to the daily injustices of society.
Its approach has put B-Floor at odds with the prevailing values – and in an increasingly fraught climate for expression since the military coup – in the sights of those intolerant of dissent.
All productions share one principal: Act more, talk less.
‘Iceberg,’ a 2015 solo performance by Ka-ge.
“As actors, we train our bodies to find their ‘quality,’” said Sasapin “Pupe” Siriwanij, who has performed with B-Floor since 2008. “With props, lighting and sound; we’re another element to make the director’s vision happen.”
Of course, when it comes to criticizing or questioning something without discourses, B-Floor’s works are often perceived as ‘too abstract.’ Some theatre amateurs would walk out of the studio with frowns, regret buying the tickets.
“Thai audiences in general just like being told,” actor-director Pupe said. “So when we don’t tell them directly, the audiences would think our work is too hard to understand … They think not understanding what’s going on is a failure.”
Any tips for enjoying B-Floor’s shows? Ka-ge says just trust yourself. Believe in what you see and feel. Time will help.
“If you’re gonna obsess over a certain scene – ‘What does it mean?’ – it’s impossible,” he said. “You need to sit and watch what happens, think and feel it. Let it sink in.”
Multi Director, Diverse Productions
B-Floor considers all members equal, but most performances are directed by either Ka-ge, Pupe or Dujdao Vadhanapakorn.
Ka-ge’s known for ensemble casts with themes that question society’s structure, while Pupe does something else.
Dujdao approaches things in a wholly different way.
“My works focus on individuality,” said Dujdao, known as the country’s only dance movement psychotherapist. “I look at the social issues, dig deeper into each individual and make them feel most connected to the issue.”
Last year at Dujdao’s “Secret Keeper,” the audience sat around a shallow, water-filled pool in which they would whisper their secrets to the performers beneath a steady drip of melting ice. Their secrets told, some looked relieved; others broke down into tears.
A promo for Dujdao Vadhanapakorn’s ‘Secret Keeper’
Unlike Dujdao, B-Floor co-founder Jarunan Phantachat has a different approach. She said her recent interest has been the interaction between audience and performer. She wants to have a conversation with her audience. She wants to know how they feel living in the same room.
Jarunan credits the 2014 coup for giving birth to last year’s “The Test of Endurance.” To attend, people first had to pass a test, including exchanging emails with the production crew. Some failed. At the play, “qualified” audience members were asked to wear sarongs before entering a room to watch traditional Thai dance.
Dead fish hung around the room provided a rank odor. Audience members could walk out at any time. The show ended when the last person did so.
“Each performance is unique. They can’t be the same,” Jarunan said.
Stage Under Junta’s Spotlight, Meets Controversy
Soon after the military came to power and began to stamp out dissent, it paid close attention to the arts. It even took up a case of royal defamation against two student activist performers for 2013’s “The Wolf Bride.” It would send them to prison for two years.
At a B-Floor production in 2015 at Thong Lor Art Space, two military officers were among dozens attending the production. They recorded the whole play. Every day before skipping the final two performances.
In fact B-Floor needed to get permission from the military for the first time Ornanong “Golf” Thaisriwong performed “Bang La Merd” there that January.
Golf’s solo performance wasn’t new. Inspired by the conviction of Ampon Tangnoppakul for insulting the monarchy, it had first been staged without incident in 2012 at Pridi Banomyong Institute, the theatre troupe’s home. In 2015, she was invited by the curator of Thong Lor Art Space to restage it there.
“I wholeheartedly said yes,” Golf said. “I felt that at the time the play could still speak out to the audience. It was a short while after the coup and the [Thai Criminal Code] section 112 remained occur almost every day.”
For 2015, she decided to update the performance by basing it on the cases of make it current. She created a literally dangerous space by hanging razor blades and changed its real-world basis to the that of Pornthip Munkong and Patiwat Saraiyaem, the two actors jailed for “The Wolf Bride.”
“We grew up with these issues. We had been taught to not talk about some specific topics in public,” the 35-year-old said. “If I talked about these issues in England or France, it would be very trivial for them. But in Thailand, it’s critically serious.”
Apart from the two officers sent there to observe the play, did the audience enjoy the it? Not everyone.
An unexpected, emotional outburst broke out when a woman stood up in the first 15 minutes of the play while Golf mimics a teacher instructing the audience in “the Siamese smile.”
“Your show sucks, your show sucks, your show sucks!” the woman yelled in English. While everyone was stunned and shocked, Golf said she approached the woman, who told her she felt insulted and wanted to walk out immediately.
Although Golf thinks it’s not fair for her work to be judged at the middle of the play, she was glad her audience spoke up.
“I was thankful she expressed herself. It’s her right not to watch the play,” Ornanong said. “I wanted someone like this, someone who dares to speak out what they feel or think without using violence.”
So Who Cares?
By throwing out conventions to do experimental theater on challenging topics, B-Floor is definitely not theater for the masses. In fact, it may just be for other like-minded people, judging from the same faces which appear in their audiences. And no matter how artistically compelling their productions may be that they create and perform around the world, the group agrees their support in Thailand is small.
Without any hope of commercial success, their natural ally would be government support for fine arts. But that may be unlikely for a group that wouldn’t hesitate to bite the hand that feeds them.
“At no time, has any government given full support. Plus, people in general think our work is not entertaining,” Jarunan said, but said she’s not so surprised. “In every country, there are more movie-goers than theatre-goers, and more cinemas than theatres.”
Golf agreed the imbalance is about people’s personal preferences, as with any mainstream versus marginal culture. But what matters most, she said, is having a diverse space for expression.
“There’s no way the audiences [for movies and plays] can be even,” Golf said. “But I don’t believe that they would stick to seeing the same thing all the time … I think diversity should be encouraged so the people can choose what they want to watch.”
After 14 years with B-Floor, she said it’s a topic that has been put to rest.
“We shouldn’t hope for the government’s support,” she said. “If we did, we would have packed it in a long time ago.”
What’s important to Ka-ge is mostly support from other artists. To him, expression through the arts must be free, regardless of how different or opposed the opinions.
“No matter how they may think differently from us, when self-expression through art is forbidden – that’s dictatorship.”
Check out B-Floor through their Website, Facebook and Twitter. Their performance of “Fundamental” continues daily except Mondays and Tuesdays through Oct. 2 on the fourth-floor of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre. Tickets are 550 baht at the door and can be purchased in advance for 450 baht.