Thanks to how often its citizens flash a grin, Thailand has been nicknamed as the ‘Land of Smiles’. But particularly over the last few years, we’ve seen how the country has begun to experience greater unrest among its people, over problematic government policies, and disillusionment amongst its youth. Is everything really OK?
All that and more comes into question in OK Land, a production by Thai contemporary theatre company Circle Theatre, which streams as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival this week. We spoke to director Paspawisa Jewpattanagul, and playwright/producer Nuttamon Pramsumran (Por) to find out more about the origins of the show, and the culture of saying ‘OK’ in Thailand, even when things are clearly not.
OK Land‘s title refers to a fictitious franchise of convenience stores, where the play takes place. On a single fateful night, a hungry aunty rushes into the stall, demanding to speak to the boss of the chain, as classes clash in a seemingly innocuous location. “It can get really hot in Thailand, and because convenience stores are so common, it’s quite normal to see people from low income families spending time in them when the temperature gets hot. They never buy anything – all they want is to enjoy the air conditioning.” says Por.
“It’s funny how it’s the one place where people of different classes gather in one place, to force them to interact with each other, compared to how they might otherwise pass each other by in the street,” she adds. “Convenience stores are also very common in Thailand, but one thing we don’t realise is how the entire industry has been dominated by the same players, where the same corporation owns 7-11, Tesco Lotus and the majority of the market share.”
“7-11 is particularly interesting, because in Thailand, one of their slogans is ‘whenever you’re hungry, come to 7-11’, but not everyone who’s hungry has the means to get food from 7-11,” adds Paspawisa. “Over the years, our local retailers have slowly been erased by these convenient stores, because it offers everything, but at the same time, you realise all these products are branded with the same logo.”
Coming back to the title, Paspawisa explains how just as commonly as Thai people smile, they also have a habit of saying ‘ok’ to just about any situation. “When I came back from London, I became very aware of how my country loves to say the ‘ok’ so often, as a response,” she says. “Even when something bad happens, they just say ok, when something unjust happens we say ok, so when everything is not ok, we still say ok. And that was a good opportunity to mock it in our play.”
“A lot of people in the younger generations are finally saying this is not ok anymore,” she adds. “But it’s so hard, because saying things are ok is such a big, deeply embedded part of our culture, and even when we face terrible things like oppression, we carry on. Historically, we’ve never had a big war or lost something, so perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to just forget everything and think things will be ok, maybe that’s why so many of the songs we have are just about smiling and waiting and seeing how things turn out.”
Perhaps one of the reasons things are always ‘ok’ is how Thai people do have it good, for the most part. Or at least, that’s the ideal that they’ve been inculcated with. “Since young, it’s always been emphasised how we’re so lucky to be born in Thailand, where we have so many natural resources, and thus should be grateful,” says Por. “Buddhism is so embedded into Thai culture, and we believe that even if this life isn’t good, if you make merit, and help people as much as you can, then maybe, your next life will be rich and good and everything will be better. All we do is keep hoping for the next life, to forget all the pain and keep hoping for something better. And if you’re suffering now, it’s not because of the system, but because you did something bad in your past life.”
Things have gotten so dire, that a majority of Thai youth have expressed a deep desire to leave the country altogether. “There’s this online group titled ‘Let’s Move Abroad’, and there’s like 2-3 million people following the page, all wondering which country they can escape to,” says Paspawisa. “People there keep talking and discussing how best to move out, and it’s scary how much they want to leave. There came a time when there was a protest, and my mom said to me, if you go to the protest and know you can make a change, then I will support you. But because I cannot see that possibility, the worst thing that could happen is that I lose you, you go to jail and still nothing will change. Our generation thinks, if we don’t lose anything, we will not gain anything, and it’s really difficult to fight against a law that can imprison you without reason. We still hope, but still deal with reality, and find solutions for our lives.”
Still, there is some hope, but it will take time, one both Paspawisa and Por believe is more of a marathon than a sprint. “The system can change, but it’ll likely take at least another 20 years,” says Por. “We’ll need a new government to make amends to the constitution, but for now, it’s all static. With COVID-19 an economic protests, people are suffering all around us. The government doesn’t see that, and we turn back to all these other organisations that help people through donations, but the structure still stands. We can only hope that as time passes and a new generation succeeds us, the protests keep going, and express themselves more.”
How then, can theatre and the arts possibly make any change in the face of such oppressive, seemingly unchangeable administration? “Nowadays, all our interactions take place online. We no longer experience things together,” says Paspawisa. “For me, that changes in theatre – the most democratic way of looking at a situation, where the audience sits together and experiences it as one. Online, you might repost the same thing over and over again and there’s no debate. But in theatre, there is so much diversity in beliefs, and can provoke an immediate reaction compared to how people think and edit before posting or commenting.”
Theatre is of course, difficult to put up anywhere, but especially so in a country like Thailand, where support for the arts is limited, and the community, as a result, is very small. “The reason we started Circle Theatre was just to put up shows each year, and slowly expand to include more members,” says Por. “So far, before OK Land, we also had the devised piece Burnout in 2019, and Make Love, Not War in 2018 about abortion. Our goal really is to address issues in Thai contemporary society that affect our society so much.”
“If you think about it, all our past productions do deal with the concept of ‘circles’, such as how audiences are seated across from each other in OK Land, to make sure the audience sees each other, and to create a dialogue,” says Paspawisa. “A dialogue itself is a circling of conversation that creates more circles, and we always talk about these things within the small theatre industry. Audience members get bored seeing the same actor in the same kind of role, so we need to collaborate more with new people and even if they come from a different industry, we find ways to help each other, such as a 3-D printer and illustrator. Or even talking to collaborators overseas, who learn so much about Thailand in the process.”
Reflecting on the Fringe theme of The Helpers, both Paspawisa and Por do feel they’re making a difference in some small way, and hope that with their work, they can raise some awareness and stir some kind of debate and discussion. “I think it’s in our culture to help each other in Thailand,” says Paspawisa. “And I do believe that we’re not just being hopeful, but by ‘making merits’, to give away as much as we can, it starts to be something that makes you smile, every chance you get a chance to help, it ends up making you and others feel better. And for theatre, our goal is to help by making the unheard voices heard, and make it more significant, with theatre being the only outlet that can help speak up that other media cannot do.”
“I’ve been thinking about it recently, where I wonder, theatre is about invoking and inspiring them to think about the issue, says Por. “What’s ultimately so special is watching audiences watch the play, and seeing how it can sometimes lead to other things about their life and any other idea and I like those dialogues so much – it’s what gives the theatre form life,” she concludes.
Photo Credit: Rinrada Pornsombutsatien
OK LAND streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here