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Last act for Bassac Theater

Last act for Bassac Theater

Tracey Shelton

Phnom Penh's beloved Bassac Theater may be facing demolition with local artists being ordered to vacate the premises by the end of the month. Despite partial destruction by a 1994 fire, the theater still serves as a key location for performers of numerous endangered Khmer art forms.

The death knell has sounded for the crumbling Bassac Theater - an architectural gem

of Cambodia's Golden Era of the '60s and the favorite creation of its revered architect,

Vann Molyvann.

The 315 musicians, dancers and singers, who use the shell of the Preah Suramarit

National Theatre to rehearse and who live in the Dey Krahorm squatters community

nearby, were told by Ministry of Culture officials to leave by the end of the month.

They will be relocated to a building on Mao Tse Tung Blvd, but the performers say

the new site is too far away and inadequate for their dramatic artistic performances.

Like Angkor Wat's Ta Prohm Temple, much of the theater has been swallowed up by jungle.

It survived the war, but was gutted by fire in 1994. Still, it is much loved by the

performers and its architect holds no hope that it will escape demolition.

"I regret losing this building very much," Molyvann said in an interview.

"When the artists leave it'll be declared off limits and they'll destroy the


"I don't want the company to destroy it because it's a fresh, open place for

performing and training," Molyvann said. "They didn't consult [me] about

the design of the new building. I don't think it will be up to standard and a building

people cannot use is a waste of money."

The structure officially known as the Preah Suramarit National Theatre, inaugurated

in 1968, is said to be the favorite work of the architect who also designed Chaktomuk

Conference Hall and the National Sports Complex. The building's peaked pyramid roof

over the main stage and flat split level design for seating were inspired by American

architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The 81-year-old architect on August 16 made an emotional visit to the building -

located in the Tonle Bassac squatters area, near the Phnom Penh Center. "Molyvann

couldn't say anything," said one of the building's caretakers who asked not

to be identified. "He just wandered around the place, watched some rehearsals,

and left."

The Preah Suramarit National Theater, or Bassac Theater, as it is known, nearing completion in the late '60s. The theater was designed by Cambodia's most famous architect, Vann Molyvann, and was his personal favorite.

According to newspaper reports, the Ministry of Culture agreed in 2005 to have tycoon

Kith Meng renovate the theatre in exchange for land around the building. Meng - who

owns the Cambodiana Hotel and is partners in many ventures including ANZ Royal Bank

- would return the building after an unspecified period of time. The type of renovation

was not disclosed by the Ministry of Culture.

Kith Meng refused to comment, saying all questions should be directed to the ministry.

Since it was ravaged by accidental fire in 1994, time has been running out for the

building. Much of the theater now lacks a roof.

"The building is old and dilapidated, and we are afraid that it will collapse

sometime soon," said Ouk Socheat, under secretary of state for the Ministry.

"I don't think renovation has been on the table for years," said Darryl

Collins, co-author of the recently published Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture


Just before the ministry made the deal with Meng in 2005, Amrita Performing Arts

led a petition to the King to save the building.

"We met the King and tried to find a way to restore the theatre," said

Suon Bunrith, cultural coordinator for Amrita. "We were surprised to hear two

months after this that the theatre had been sold. There is no guarantee about its

restoration from Meng. We couldn't get any concrete information about that, and I'm

sure even the director of the national theater had nothing concrete."

Whatever the fate of the building, the artists are unhappy to be losing their open

air rehearsal stage.

"We have not been allowed to see [the new building]," another of the building's

caretakers said. "We heard the ceiling is much lower, there'll only be one place

to rehearse, and the building is not up to standard for performing. We have many

separate places here, because we have many kinds of performance - like Yike and L'khoan

Bassac [traditional forms of theater and dance]. The new place will be too small

and noisy - they're making us live in a mouse-hole."

"We know the new place is not as large as the old one," said the ministry's

Socheat. "But they will be able to perform for the public in this new place.

If we can, we will build other buildings for them in the future. We know they have

specific performing groups so they need different places, but we cannot exceed our


The ministry has offered $300 in compensation to each artist. The artists say they

should each receive $700, as was offered to Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA)

staff when its northern premises were moved from Tuol Kork in 2005. The new building's

location on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard would incur high travel costs, they said.

"It's not fair, as we have worked here since 1979," said one of the caretakers.

"We are just asking for money to support our families. All 315 of us sent a

letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen a month ago, but we've had no intervention yet."

The artists said 55 musicians from the theatre are supposed to go to Gyeongju, South

Korea to perform in September. "They were forced to sign for the $300 compensation,

otherwise they couldn't go," the caretaker said.

"This $300 is the limit of the ministry's budget," said Socheat. "We

have sympathy for them, but we cannot help them any more than that."

Heavy emotion surrounds what looks like the Bassac Theater's last curtain call. A

stone's throw from the theater is another Molyvann masterpiece whose fate is also

uncertain - Bo Ding, the avant-garde apartments from the same era.

Molyvann said when he was at Bassac Theater he met some of his former architecture

students who were forced to move out of the old RUFA site at Tuol Kork to a new center

in Russei Keo.

"The new site is too far away so they have now come to study at the Bassac Theater.

But now they'll have to move again. They have no proper place - they're just like

street kids."


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