Bambu Stage has pitched its tent in Siem Reap’s Tangram Garden, where their natural creativity and curiosity is leading them down interesting paths. They’ve so far developed two shows with very different styles: Snap!, an exploration of Cambodia through the lenses of those who have recorded the Kingdom for the past 150 years, and Temples Decoded, an ingenious way of introducing the uninitiated to the mysteries of the temples, without dozing.
Bambu Stage may sound like a theatre company, but they’d be more accurately described as a theatrical production company. They don’t stage plays, but creative explorations and presentations of insider knowledge focusing on Cambodia’s culture and history. Founder Nicholas Coffill describes the shows as something like TED talks, only with a bar attached.
“I enjoy the company of specialists,” said Coffill. “Cambodia has much to offer in that regard, but being able to make the specialist knowledge part of a popular narrative is part of my museum upbringing, I suppose.”
Coffill, an Australian who has spent a long career working on exhibition design at some of the word’s best-known museums, brings to Bambu Stage a sense of dramatic presentation tempered by the need to enlighten. Partners in the enterprise are Jon de Rule, who expands and supplements the creative side with his technical wizardry, and Malar Arulappan, who hosts the banquet dinner that follows each show.
Snap! was developed by Coffill and de Rule after they chanced upon a copy of Jim Mizersk’s book Cambodia Captured: Angkor’s First Photographers in 1860s Colonial Intrigues. Inspired, the two men, both inveterate geeks, spent months trawling through archive materials and the internet, and asking friends who had their own collections, before creating a visual narrative that explored Cambodia’s complex relationship with the colonial and pre-colonial French, dress and textiles, the heyday years of the ’60s, and the tragedies that subsequently unfolded. The difference lies in the way that Coffill, who hosts the presentation, nudges the audience into viewing the images: the meaning of a look, the significance in the wrap of a cloth.
Temples Decoded takes a completely different approach and was partly inspired by the tedium of many temple guide books. “All this careful instruction about ‘Go left at the second doorway, 30 metres on your right is a carving of Vishnu, and on the fourth gallery . . . ’ Where’s the fun in that?” said Coffill.
A more positive inspiration came from a trip Coffill took to Phnom Kulen two years ago, when the object of the journey was constantly derailed by side trips to smaller sites of Neak Ta shrines.
“It got me thinking about the connection between the fundamental natural and spiritual nature of local and pre-classical cultures throughout all societies,” said Coffill. “Before the permanence of religious shrines built of stone, we had shrines to local spirits embedded in the minutiae of everyday life. Where is the thread from that to Angkor?
“If I could sew those threads, from the natural to the classical temple, then you can slowly get the traveller to see the big picture. Give the audience the keys to that and they can take it to any temple.”
While the show has a strong pictorial narrative, in common with Snap!, it is much more interactive and involves actually building a temple from the ground up using a model it took the team four months to create.
Snap! is currently showing every Friday evening, and Temples Decoded will be unveiled on a separate evening in July. The plan is to eventually have seven different shows, one for every night of the week, all exploring, in Bambu Stage’s decidedly unique way, different elements of Cambodian history and culture.
The shows are all followed by a Cambodian dinner hosted by Arunapallar and attended by de Rule and Coffill, who are happy to further elaborate on the presentations. Tickets are $25.