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Mariam Arthur
Mariam Arthur, manager of Hollywood Cookies, which has created a stripped-down performance space for actors. Kimberley McCosker

‘Black box’ theatre opens in pink cafe

The Hollywood Cookies cafe looks like it’s been decorated after a sleepless night drinking fizzy pop and sticking Legally Blonde screen grabs onto mood boards with bubblegum. The chairs are pink, the shop sign sparkly and the walls adorned with framed pictures of silver screen darlings. A life-sized Marilyn Monroe, skirt aflutter, takes in the surroundings from her cardboard pedestal.

It’s not a venue that shouts “experimental theatre”. Or if it did, it would probably do so with jazz hands and confetti. But, from this weekend onwards, the small room at the back of the cookie cafe will be used for just that: a stripped-down performance space for people looking to test out new material on an informal crowd.

The space is an example – perhaps the city’s first – of a “black box” theatre: just a room with a small, unadorned stage. The minimalist design is intended to make for maximum flexibility.

“One thing that is still missing [in Phnom Penh] is grasping the concept that actors need to practise their craft to improve their skills,” says manager Mariam Arthur. “We decided to create a free space where actors can perform monologues and ‘one acts’, and customers can watch to provide the live energy and feedback actors need.”

It’s a concept that first originated in the experimental theatre movement of the 1960s: a time when rambling monologues blurred the divide between theatre and art, and students searched for cheap ways to mount ad hoc, experimental shows.

Appropriately, the theatre at Hollywood Cookies is as dour as the front cafe is pink thanks to floor-to-ceiling sheets of black material on the walls and the absence of any exterior windows.

Arthur is chairperson of the Cambodia Oscar Selection Committee, a body set up to assist Cambodian filmmakers whose work is deemed worthy of international acclaim. All profits from sales at Hollywood Cookies are supposed to go towards providing grants to young filmmakers, although since it opened as a cafe in October last year, the accounts have remained in the red.

Low prices (a small cookie is only 1,000 riel) and selling wholesale to other venues around the city have helped build the brand’s reputation, and now Arthur hopes that the prospect of checking out some ad-hoc live performances while customers snack will provide the spark needed to get people through the door.

At Friday’s opening event, performances included script readings from filmmaker Thien Marshall Thach, poetry from Tony Frisco, and stand-up comedy from a man who wished to be known as Mr Sok Sabay.

Arthur doesn’t see the space as a competitor for established event venues such as Metahouse, Java Cafe and Show Box, rather a pre-cursor. “People who enjoy seeing the ‘finished product’ will hopefully also enjoy participating interactively in the creative process,” she says.

Hollywood Cookies is located at #72 Street 154. Find ‘Hollywood Cookies’ on Facebook for details of scheduled events.

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