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Giving voice to the voiceless

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Lynn Nottage guides actors through a Khmer translation of her script during a rehearsal at Amrita Performing Arts last Friday.

Khmer actors discover an award-winning play about the pain and suffering of women in war-torn Congo resonates with their experiences in Cambodia.

WE ARE NOT JOURNALISTS – THEATRE ARTISTS ARE SOUL HEALERS.

At a public reading in Phnom Penh last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage made her case for theatre in regions torn by violence and oppression.

Theatre can heal cultural horrors and is necessary for human survival, she said.

“It’s like oxygen,” Nottage said. “If we cut off the source, the culture withers and dies.”

Nottage leaves Cambodia today after two weeks helping Royal University of Fine Arts artists direct scenes in a new Khmer translation by Sok Sokunthy of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined.

Ruined centres on the tragedies of exploited women in the Congo, in a horrific ongoing war zone that Nottage visited in 2004. She said the experience had moulded her budding play into a story of women’s suffering.

“So many women wanted to tell me their stories that I couldn’t hear them all,” she said. “Rape was a word repeated so many times that I was physically sick.”

Ruined is set in a Congo brothel, where tough-as-nails proprietress Mama Nadi protects and exploits the women living under her.

Brutally raped by soldiers, then rejected by their communities as “ruined”, these companions survive amid constant war and their own anguished emotions.

Translating emotion
Nottage said the script underwent minor modifications in translation for the RUFA students.

“All of the curse words have been removed from the script,” Nottage explained.

“They’ve found ways of softening it for the Khmer actors because the language is quite salty.” However, this has not taken the sting out of any of the play’s raw feeling.

“I don’t understand the translation – but I understand the emotions,” said Nottage of the student rehearsals she saw.

At the showing of the Ruined workshop last Friday, four master teachers presented four scenes from the play.

Still carrying scripts after only three days of rehearsal, students engaged the material deeply, committing to the continuity of their characters beyond the missed cues.

In several scenes, tears rose in the eyes of the actresses playing the brothel workers, and songs performed by Sun Ratana as the character Sophia set a haunting mood.

Moeung Sok Lorn, who has been on the faculty for four years, described Nottage’s workshop as “a new, modern form that I never did before”.

Nottage led teachers in the techniques that dominated American theatre over the past century, helping actors create their own character interpretations through guided script analysis.

“Usually when we learn in the school, the master always teaches how to follow,” Moeung Sok Lorn said. “You do this. You walk one step, you turn around, and then speak.”

He said he had more freedom working on Ruined.

“The writer or director explains how to make the full character, and then you must understand the story by yourself, read carefully and think what is right or what is wrong,” he said.

Chhon Sina, a teacher who directed one of the scenes, said she discovered something new – how to differentiate internal feelings and external appearance.

“In some scenes the character shows themselves very happy, smiling and laughing,” she said. “But actually it is really sadness inside. That energy has to contact the audience.”

Playing the role of Josephine, student and actress Chiek Chanthy found images of unsettling familiarity in the story. “[The play] is similar to Cambodia because the character of the bad man who gets drunk in a bar is seen a lot,” Chiek Chanthy said.

Nottage said she used her work to give voice to “marginalised people, the voiceless, women”.

“We are not journalists,” says Nottage. “Theatre artists are soul healers.”

The ideas brought by Nottage will be powerful tools for these artists, after she shared with them the same strong voice she lent to the women of the Congo.

Nottage’s visit was organised by the US embassy with help from Amrita Performing Arts and Cambodia Living Arts.

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