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Play time: Students set to share theatre with community

ISPP’s new stage has motorised retractable seating.
ISPP’s new stage has motorised retractable seating. Hong Menea

Play time: Students set to share theatre with community

Performers welcome invitation to make use of high-tech performance space at new ISPP campus

For years, the Kingdom’s performing arts scene has been in desperate need of a modern, fully featured theatre. And now – with the opening of the Black Box Theatre at the International School of Phnom Penh’s sprawling new campus on the southern edge of the city – it finally has one.

“It’s the first medium-sized performance venue in the country with proper equipment and a dedicated technician,” explained Myles Hallin, ISPP’s events manager.

The purpose-built performance space’s design is entirely modern. Framed by four black walls (hence the name), an unadorned stage sits level with the ground, while motorised retractable seating provides a capacity of 420. There’s standing room for 800 when the seats are moved out of the way.

Up in the control room, technician Joshua Bouw has control over a full bank of theatre lights and special effects such as smoke. A digital mixing desk hooked up to an Apple Mac computer controls the sound emitted from a state-of-the-art PA system.

Other venues – like the similarly sized Chaktomuk Theatre – still rely on much older equipment, Bouw said.

“Nothing else [in Cambodia] really compares, to be honest,” he said.

When the master planning process to move ISPP from its longtime BKK1 campus to the new site began several ago, support for the students’ arts program was a large part of the discussion, according to school director Barry Sutherland.

But the ISPP board realised that it also had a valuable opportunity to design something unique for the Phnom Penh performing arts community, Sutherland said.

Outside of school hours, the theatre will be available for hire for non-school performers, events for partner organisations and private functions, according to Hallin. The drama department in the back of the theatre doubles as a green room, and music practice rooms as recording studios.

Space and infrastructure for the performing arts have lagged behind a growing number of Cambodian artists and producers, said Kang Rithisal, the executive director of Amrita Performing Arts.

The crumbling National Bassac theatre was demolished in 2008, with Chaktomuk Theatre as its only successor. There’s not even a national primary ticket outlet.

“Artists need the proper space for them to do the job,” Rithisal said.

He added that he thought the Black Box Theatre could serve as a model for the arts community and help to develop an audience in Phnom Penh – though its distance from the city centre might present a challenge.

It’s hoped the venue will draw international groups touring to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City for the first time, Sutherland said.

So far, the theatre has played host primarily to school events.

However, in early August, Khmer Arts used it to film scenes from a contemporary Apsara – backed by a Khmer orchestra – that will be part of the company’s upcoming season.

The first event open to the public will be a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost by the Germany-based American Drama Group Europe on November 6.

The retractable seating makes the space versatile, with various configurations possible: one for a standing-room-only performances; another for a private 200-person dinner; perhaps one for a theatre in the round.

“Like the theatre itself, we’re flexible,” Sutherland, the director, said. “The only limits are everyone’s creativity and what they would like to do.”

AUDREY WILSON

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