Battambang-based Lakhon Komnit Organisation (LKO) is making waves in the world of theatre, as it helps to preserve and develop Lakhon Niyeay, a form of traditional Cambodian theatre. Unlike the more well known traditional forms like Bassac and Yike, Lakhon Niyeay does not employ music or dance, but tells its stories entirely through the words of the actors – mush like traditional western theatre.

LKO is more than just a theatre group – it is a force for change in its community, using theatre as a tool for social transformation.

“Watching a LKO show often leaves people with a newer, deeper understanding of a group or issue, and with some ideas about actions they can personally take to improve a situation,” said LKO co-founder Chhit Chanphireak.

The term “Lakhon Komnit” translates to “thinking theatre” and the organisation is driven by the goal of encouraging people to engage with the themes of its plays.

“Our audiences are never still and silent because we specialise in ‘forum theatre’. This means we invite audience members to interrupt the performance, come on stage and replace the actors or try to change the outcome of the story,” added Chanphirak.

He also warned that Lakhon Niyeay is at risk of disappearing due to the scarcity of professional theatre groups, with only three in operation in the entire country.

Despite coming from challenging backgrounds, LKO’s team members have had positive experiences with theatre.

“As an informal group of theatre artists who were all friends, we started running projects with women facing violence in 2017,” Chanphirak explained.

“Our work caught the attention of a donor, who offered to support us. As a result, we were able to register as an NGO in 2019,” he added.

The goal of the organisation is to incorporate unheard voices into every one of their performances, while creating opportunities for the production, performance, and participation of theatre that showcases personal stories from Cambodian society.

LKO often partners with other NGOs to engage audiences on specific topics. Recently, for example, it worked with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to create &Our Land, a show about the risks of landmines and other UXOs.

“All of our plays are derived from real life issues that Cambodian people face. Whether we are working with marginalised groups to share their stories, or partnering with large NGOs to create a topic-based show, our main source material is always community members’ real experiences,” he said.

Late last year, a group of Battambang women performed a play called &Silent Night, which was based on their own experiences of intimate partner violence. The performance was part of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” held last December.

The play was attended by community members and government officials, and a video of the performance is available to watch.

The Banteay Srei NGO often invites LKO to take part in their events – the organisation shared &Lucky Fish in Battambang town Centre in 2019, and &End of Love in Banan district in 2021.

Chanphirak said women who participated in LKO’s programmes could also receive support, including legal advice and access to a safe house, from Banteay Srei’s team.

“Violence against women and girls is an urgent challenge for our community, so LKO often works with this target group,” said Chanphirak.

LKO collaborated with Partners for Rural Development (PRD) for the play &Ups and Downs, which focused on the struggles of cassava farmers.

“We recently made &Ups and Downs, about cassava farming, in collaboration with PRD and the University of Melbourne. Last year we worked with Samaritan’s Purse on an anti-trafficking campaign,” he recalled.

“It was fascinating to see the combination of performing arts and agricultural knowledge working together towards the common objective of helping cassava farmers overcome their difficulties,” he added.

Chanphirak believes that theatre not only builds confidence and self-understanding for individuals but also fosters positive discussions and supports communities in facing challenges.

“In some projects we support community members to create their own shows which amplify their voices, such as &Silent Night by women facing violence, &Our Roads by people with disabilities, and &White Dress by members of the LGBTQ+ community,” he told The Post.

LKO regularly tours outside their home province of Battambang, engaging audiences in Samlot, Pailin and Ratanakkiri. The group have plans to tour far more extensively in 2023.

“Our work involves enabling community members to raise concerns about issues such as discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, exclusion of disabled individuals due to poorly designed public and private spaces, and lack of community intervention to prevent violence against women,” said Bonny Coombe, also a co-founder of the group.

“Our audiences frequently mention two other issues, even when the topic of the show doesn’t directly address either,” she added.

One of them is being unable to repay high interest informal loans, which leads to other risky choices like undocumented migration or foraging on land which is known to be dangerous due to remnants of war.

The other issue is alcohol and drug addiction, which worsens the physical abuse many women and girls suffer. LKO is looking for opportunities to tackle both of these issues in the near future.

Chanphirak conceded that one of the troupe’s main challenges is that most Cambodians are familiar with other traditional forms of theatre, but have not heard much about Lakhon Niyeay.

LKO, therefore, works very hard to create captivating shows and workshops, and share them with as many people as possible.

“Our main focus is targeting hard-to-reach and marginalised audiences in community settings, but we also engage youth audiences in high schools and universities, and young children enjoy our creative puppet shows too!,” added Chanphirak.