A powerful and thought-provoking performance titled Community Voices: Behind the Door debuted in Battambang on August 25.

Members of the audience included provincial authorities, police, NGO representatives, community members, high school and university students.

The emotionally charged production delves into the real-life experiences of women facing violence, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals, leaving a profound impact on the audience.

The organisers said “the stories in Behind the Door are all drawn from reality, and are necessarily hard to watch”, with the three storylines all taken from the real life experiences of the performers.

Battambang community members developed the performance in collaboration with Lakhon Komnit (Thinking Theatre) Organisation (LKO), as part of Breaking Barriers, a theatre for empowerment project by LKO, supported by Voice Global via Oxfam in Cambodia.

“The storylines don’t represent any one person’s experience, but are an amalgamation of situations and challenges the group members have faced.

“By sharing their voices, they invite the audience to consider what actions we can all take to end violence and discrimination in our families and communities,” said LKO co-founder and managing director Bonny Coombe.

The play’s scenes paint a vivid picture of the challenges faced by individuals from marginalised communities.

Chakrya, portrayed with haunting realism, finds herself dragged through the audience by her husband, in an act of violence witnessed but left unchallenged by bystanders.

In another scene, Vicheka, a wheelchair user, overcomes years of anxiety only to encounter verbal abuse and physical barriers in her path.

The play reaches its emotional climax with Solida and her mother – torn apart by homophobia – unable to reconcile their relationship, with one member of the audience speaking of “shock” at the denouement.

“I was so shocked watching this performance. Violence was happening right in front of us. He dragged her right past – we all just sat there like nothing was happening!

“If this were real, that woman would be in serious danger because none of us intervened. It’s terrible,” said an elderly male audience member who asked not to be named.

Director Chhit Chanphireak, known as “Hou”, leads LKO’s forum work, an interactive form of theatre developed by Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal.

During the performance, Hou engaged with the audience, asking them to shout “Stop!” whenever they believe something different should happen and even encouraging them to step on stage and replace the actors to explore alternative outcomes.

“No two performances are ever the same,” Coombe noted, highlighting the power of audience participation.

“The development process of the production was a journey of transformation and empowerment,” she said.

Coombe said participants, many of whom had faced severe marginalisation, gradually built confidence, trust and relationships through theatre workshops and rights training sessions at LKO’s studio in Battambang.

She explained that the sessions provided them with a deeper understanding of the broader context of their experiences, legal frameworks, and support services.

“Since 2017, we have worked a lot with women facing violence, and the Breaking Barriers project gave us an opportunity to upscale our work to reach disabled people and the LGBTQ+ community, two groups who face significant discrimination in the community where we live,” she said.

She believed the artform can be a powerful tool in transforming the communities they live in, and that the methodology will result in an inclusive and diverse Lakhon Niyeay sector.

The cast members, who themselves overcame formidable obstacles, forged strong friendships and support networks throughout the production.

‘Overcaming challenges’

One participant, who identifies as lesbian, shared her initial hesitation, but emphasised the profound growth and learning she experienced by staying committed to the project.

“I didn’t want to do the project at first. I’d just split up with my girlfriend because her family didn’t accept her sexuality.

“I joined for the first few days and then I thought it’s better if I just quit. My friend told me I should leave the project and get a job, that making money would be a better use of my time.

“I had these competing ideas in my head all the time – but I stayed. I’ve learnt so much, and I’m so glad I did,” she said.

The project began with welcoming participants to theatre workshops and rights training sessions at LKO’s workshop studio space March last year.

At first the sessions focused on simply building confidence, trust and relationships, as no one knew each other.

Many had faced such severe marginalisation – particularly in the case of the disabled participants – that several people were physically shaking and unable to make eye contact at first, said Coombe.

As they grew in confidence, she added, they started to use drama exercises to explore their stories, before gradually developing still images into full scenes with dialogue and action.

Rights training sessions from support networks and organisations like the Banteay Srei Organisation, PAFID and SafeSpaceBtB ran alongside the theatre workshops.

“The performers also needed strong improvisation skills so they could respond, in character, to an unlimited number of audience suggestions. This is challenging even for experienced actors – and here we were working with amateur performers.

“We dedicated quite a lot of rehearsal time to practising responding to a variety of potential scenarios, and having experienced performers Sok Doeurn, Sem Sinak and Pov Sovan in the cast alongside the community members also helped them feel supported,” said Coombe.

The cast members themselves overcame significant challenges to participate. One performers is a single mother who had to get up at 3am so she could complete her cleaning job before rehearsals started at 9am.

Wheelchair users travelled long distances on difficult roads and in bad weather to get to the activities.

Coombe said she hopes that after watching the performance and participating in the forum theatre session, people become more aware of the realities faced by others and feel empowered to intervene when witnessing similar situations in real life.

Sok Chan Chhorvy, programme manager of Oxfam in Cambodia, praised the performers.

“I think the whole audience was captivated and very emotional at times. I wouldn’t have known the performers were amateurs – they played their roles perfectly.

“I urge the performers to keep raising their voices and talking about the problems they face.

“Speaking up makes it possible to work on solutions together, ensuring that no one is left behind,” she said.

Keo Dana, deputy governor of Battambang Province, commended LKO for using art to address important issues, noting that human rights apply to all, regardless of gender identity or sexuality.

“The three stories we’ve just seen, showed us real situations that happen in the places where we live – villages, communes, districts and provinces.

“By taking time to think about the stories, we will fully receive the message the performers were sending us,” Dana said.

And she strongly encouraged everyone, especially neighbours, to help by sharing information and reporting abuse – working together to tackle such problems.

‘Accessibility for all’

Dana recently participated in a national level meeting on the national disability action plan for the next four years, and she acknowledged that some development processes can take time.

One of the things discussed, she said, was the inclusion of accessibility features as a requirement in all new buildings, both public and private.

“This will take time, but government buildings will be first to adopt these measures.

“And I’m happy to say that some commune buildings in Battambang have already made improvements, with ramped access to make services accessible for all,” she said.

She also addressed LGBTQ+ rights, noting that the government does not prohibit same-sex relationships, and adding that the road to same-sex marriage requires perseverance, as we have seen in other countries.

As the Breaking Barriers project continues, community members plan to establish self-sustaining support groups, invite new members to join, and share their knowledge to combat exclusion.

Additionally, LKO is working on producing filmed versions of the three storylines in Behind the Door in order to reach wider online audience.

Coombe said she expected the three films to be on Lakhon Komnit’s social media channels by the end of the year.

“We hope that everyone comes away from Behind the Door with more understanding of their fellow community members, as well as being more aware of actions they can take personally to end violence and discrimination in our families, institutions and communities.

“And of course, we hope the audience finds a love of theatre and wants to see more,” she said.