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Traditional shadow puppetry forms just one part of the new production. Photo supplied
Traditional shadow puppetry forms just one part of the new production. Photo supplied

Artists, mediums combine to explore powerful themes

"A sort of Days of our Lives, Khmer style," is the billing for a new show hosted by Bambu Stage at their outdoor theatre at Tangram Garden behind Wat Damnak.

The show is work of Bambu Puppets, a collaboration between the creatives behind the two-year-old theatre company and young Cambodian puppet maker Sorn Soran, who approached them in 2015 to ask for support in developing the more creative sides of his work. They jumped at the chance.

“He was so honest,” said Nicholas Colfill, the creative director at Bambu Stage. “Honest about his family history and the difficulties of working on the marginal edges of farming and fishing life on the Tonle Sap, his own capacity and his incredible generosity towards others. He has, of course, a natural sparkle in his personality, but underneath that is a guy who is deeply concerned about others less fortunate.”

Much of the activity at Bambu Stage over the past year has been quietly directed towards supporting Sorn’s work, which has now come to fruition in a three-piece performance integrating his puppets, music by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, paper cut-outs, video installations and modern dance to create a different version of the traditional puppet theatre that is an integral part of Cambodia’s cultural heritage.

Over the course of the past year, Sorn has assembled a small troupe of storytellers, dancers and creative minds who have honed their skills with the likes of Phare, the Cambodian Circus and Cambodian Living Arts. Together, they created a series of narratives that touch on such themes as drunkenness and jealousy, loneliness and remembrance, and the destruction of Cambodia’s most vital resource: water.

“It’s different in a number of ways,” said Colfill. “First, they write all the stories themselves, based on their own life experiences and seeing the multiple threads of life around them. Secondly, they break boundaries in production.”

Fully exploring the physical space available to them, the performers also boost the fun factor by introducing each character and the puppeteer before the show starts so the audience can root for them as the story unfolds. For their first season, the team has kept the themes relatively simple, while they explore the more technical possibilities open to them. But they’re also keeping it earthy, and Bambu Stage technical-whiz Jon De Rule has taken a step back, said Colfill.

Frog-catchers’ head lamps, LED garden lights on mobile power cords, battery-operated torches, and a few small theatre lamps illuminate the stage, giving the team flexibility in setting the colour temperature and focus throughout the shows.

For Colfill and the team, Bambu Puppets is about keeping a tradition alive, while also pushing it to find new dynamics and “challenge conventions about tradition and performance”, he said.

Performances are followed by a traditional Cambodian banquet dinner in the open garden. Tickets are $25, or $12.50 without dinner. Performances of Bambu Puppets are every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, starting at 6pm, with show-start at 6:45pm.

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