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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Scene and Heard: Ritirong Jiwakanon, Theatre Designer

(1,350 words, 5-minute read)

My name is Ritirong Jiwakanon. And my nickname – all Thai people have nicknames – is Hong. I live in Bangkok. I teach in Chulalongkorn University, in the Faculty of Arts. Actually originally I’m from Yala Province at the border between Thailand and Malaysia. I moved to Bangkok when I went to school, and later I went to the United States to learn theatre design. It was actually a coincidence, because at that time, I didn’t know anything about theatre.

Over 20 years ago, theatre was not seen as a serious profession. It’s getting better now, but even today, we cannot really earn a living from working in theatre. After our undergrad studies, we all went to work for TV commercials, doing production design. There were no professional theatre companies at that time. The theatre companies that were more ‘permanent’ were supported by the government, who was only interested in traditional theatre. They were not really interested in contemporary or modern theatre.

At that time there was one group known as Theatre 28 – who are now my friends – who had come back from the States and set up their own theatre company. They staged Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo in 1985. People were crazy about it – they had never seen anything like that before. I joined them on their third production, The Man of La Mancha, in the National Theatre, which was really popular. That was my introduction to modern theatre.

Lady White Snake, directed by Suwandee Chakraworawot

 

I did visual art in Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok. I learnt painting, sculpting, graphic design, all the applied arts. My visual art background gave me the flexibility to pursue set and costume design. But I still didn’t think about theatre as a career. When I went to the States, I thought I would be a painter.

But I realised that in art school, they don’t really teach you anything. They teach you more about how to present your work, how to sell your work, how to survive in the art business – which I didn’t like. So one day I just walked into Yale School of Drama, one of the biggest theatre design schools in the States.

It was summer so there was no one in school. I walked into the administrative office and asked to speak to the head of theatre design. And they said, you’re lucky, the professor is here today, why don’t you go into his studio and meet him there? So I went to this room, and someone said his name was Ming Cho Lee. I had no idea who Ming Cho Lee was. I told him I wanted to apply to the school but I didn’t know where to start. He was really kind. One week later, I met him in his apartment in New York with my portfolio. I didn’t know he was one of the biggest designers in the States.

Set design of Peer Gynt at Yale.

 

I realise that with these famous schools, it’s not so difficult to get in but it’s difficult to get out. You have to really work hard, if not they will not give you the degree. I was in school for three years. After that I worked in New York as an assistant designer for two years. I had the chance to work on Broadway a few times.

I came back to Bangkok – there’s only one reason, because of family. I knew I couldn’t make a living as a theatre designer in Thailand. The only way I could do it was to take the whole of Asia as one country. So I could be based in my hometown, but work in Singapore, Philippines, Japan, China.

Theatre made me understand myself and understand society. I always tell my students, even if you don’t end up working in the theatre, there are three things you will learn. One: How to work with people. Two: How to take on responsibilities. Three: That people are all different – you can start to understand someone, even if you don’t agree with them. In Thailand, a lot of people still don’t see theatre in that way. They go to the theatre for entertainment.

In the beginning I misunderstood. I thought theatre design was all about creating pictures on stage. But actually the more important thing is telling a story through the picture. So it’s more about literature, interpretation, analysis and that kind of stuff. It got me more and more excited.

FAME, the Musical by Steven Margoshes and Jacques Levy.

 

I prefer set design. With costume design you have to work with actors a lot, but I prefer to work with the space. It’s more challenging. People think designing a set is about the location – the kitchen, the living room, the background. But it’s more about designing the environment, not just the thing you see, but what you feel.

The set and costumes should support the actors and the action, not overwhelm them. If the audience comes out of the theatre saying “Wow, the set is so beautiful, the costume is so beautiful”, if that’s what they remember, then that’s a failure of the design.

Four years ago, there was a play called Mom The Musical by Dreambox Theatre. It was set during World War 2 in Thailand and the main character was a dog. So the challenge was how to create this dog on stage. Not just one dog, but 20 dogs. My colleague, the prop master, designed 20 puppets that had to be manipulated by 20 actors. I designed the picture on the stage, how the puppets could be used onstage. It’s interesting working in theatre, because it’s so collaborative, you will have new experiences and new ideas all the time.

Mom The Musical by Dreambox Theatre.

 

I work with Dreambox a lot. They are one of the two commercial theatre companies in Bangkok. The other one is Rachadalai Theatre. Commercial theatres aim for profit, so they do a lot of musicals because the audience loves it and they can sell a lot of tickets. The rest are small theatre groups, who earn enough to survive till their next production. There are some groups that can sell themselves internationally, they apply for grants like from the Japan Foundation, perform abroad and then they come back to perform in a small space.

Another type is the theatre in the universities, who do it for education purposes. You have traditional theatre, who mainly perform in the National Theatre. Then there are the theatres involved with tourism. They do cultural shows in big theatres with 2,000 seats. There’s one in Bangkok, and one in Phuket. There is also the performance shows by Thai transgender artists – in Bangkok, it’s called Calypso.

We have a problem that the younger generation won’t go to see traditional Thai theatre anymore. Lots of people have Western education, but they cannot use those same standards to appreciate traditional art. To appreciate Asian theatre, you need a different approach. It’s much more interesting and more complicated than Western theatre for me. Asian culture has such deep roots, so no one can come from the West and imitate that. They can learn the form, but they don’t get the philosophy of it.

In Thailand we have lots of people working in theatre, but no one was really thinking about how to support the audience. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia you have big theatre festivals. We have the Bangkok Theatre Festival, which is much smaller. At first I didn’t have any hopes for it at all, so I missed it for a few years. Last year I went and I was amazed.

I saw so many new and younger audiences. It was not because of the productions themselves – I don’t think they did their homework about what productions to watch – but because the productions received social media attention. The world is changing. Influencers are really big here. They give a new image to theatre – if you watch theatre, you are sophisticated. I think it’s a good thing, but I don’t know how long it’ll last.


The above is a transcript of an interview prepared by Nabilah Said. All photos courtesy of Ritirong Jiwakanon.

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