To the students running around Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School, the wide expanse of concrete towards the front of the campus is nothing more than a basketball court.
But to Suon Bun Rith, the slightly raised platform is an arts stage – even if it was covered in dead leaves and an SUV was parked on it on a recent afternoon.
“Arts education is not just about skill, but about creativity,” said Rith, a programme manager at Cambodian Living Arts who is leading a large new pilot program to bring the arts to every public school in the country. “It is about inspiration rather than just knowledge.”
It hasn’t been easy. Even something as simple as getting a derelict gate repaired outside the program’s new offices at Preah Sisowath High School has taken longer than expected. Some students, meanwhile, are more interested in K-pop and modelling than apsara or the chapei. And occasionally, parents have even declined to sign permission slips for their children to attend the program’s arts club, dismissing it as a waste of time.
“It’s an enormous task,” Rith acknowledged. “It’s huge. And it has a long way to go.”
The five-year pilot program has the support of the education and culture ministries, including that of reformist Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron, who has spoken publicly about the benefits of arts education.
But the challenges the program has faced in its first year highlight the enormity of the task in an education system with little infrastructure, few resources and a virtually nonexistent arts program.
The program now runs four after-school art clubs in photography, drawing, dancing and singing out of its offices on Preah Sisowath High School’s campus, drawing roughly 80 students a week.
Rith has also persuaded the high school’s few art teachers to hold one-hour classes on Saturday that are attended by roughly 100 students. “Students never miss the Saturday classes,” he said.
The program has also held workshops, film screenings and other performances every month.
On Friday, the basketball court was indeed transformed into a stage for a theatrical adaptation of Boss with a Thief’s Heart, a book taught in the Cambodian school curriculum about the unethical boss of a transportation company who manipulates his employee into causing a car crash to tarnish a rival’s reputation. Though the employee agrees to do the deed for money, he’s dismayed when it leads to the deaths of three people.
“The show does not tell who is right and who is wrong,” said 12-year-old Visasak Thunni, a seventh grader at the school who said the performance was her first time seeing a play. “I learned that we should not just do the thing that is easy, but do the thing that is morally correct.”
Soung Sopheak, director of the performance group Khmer Arts Action, said that it was the first time he had screened the performance in public with students. “I’m very happy and excited about it,” he said.
However, even Sopheak said he is doubtful that educators can encourage young Cambodians to get involved in the arts due to lack of interest and the widespread perception that careers in the arts earn no money.
Rith, however, remains optimistic about the “ultimate” dream – to fully incorporate arts education into public school.
It is a goal already shared by the Ministry of Education, which in 2015 proposed a new national curriculum that, among other things, redefined art as a separate subject and directed grades one through nine to incorporate one hour of it per week.
Unfortunately, the revamped textbooks for grades one through six are not expected to be completed until 2021, according to Rith. In addition, the country is also facing a shortage of arts teachers – one that may not be fixed for another decade, he estimated.
That’s why Rith said he hopes CLA’s pilot program can jumpstart that process ahead of the ministry’s schedule.
“We need the arts if we want to produce complete humans and good citizens,” Rith said. “I don’t want to wait another five years.”