In 2010, the Kinnari Ecological Theatre Project (KETEP) began adapting Southeast Asia’s legends and folklore narratives to address current environmental problems, such as plastic rubbish, deforestation, flooding and animal extinction. These well-known stories are frequently used by local dramatists to counter gender discrimination or satirize political figures but rarely to engage with socioeconomic activities that aggravate degradation in nature. The KETEP plays are not “infotainment,” such as the skits promoted by environmental NGOs, but dramas rooted in traditional culture and branching out to include current changes in attitude and behavior toward nonhumans and the natural world. This essay focuses on the prevalence of human-animal transformations in Southeast Asian performance and how such metamorphoses can be used to present the animal perspective and revive the diminishing import of traditional stories in urban areas by linking them with global environmental movements.
Keywords: Southeast Asian theatre, environmental performance, ecology and theatre, animals on stage
This essay is dedicated to Pak Ledjar Subroto (1938-2017), a maker of masks from recycled materials and the dalang of Wayang Kancil, a shadow puppet theatre he created to protect wildlife in Java. When people said his work was “for children” he retorted, “No, it is for officials.” (fig. 1).
We were sitting informally in a circle on the floor, but the faces were strangely glum. Meeting for the next production of the Kinnari Ecological Theatre Project (KETEP), Southeast Asia’s only theatre dedicated exclusively to staging environmental issues, we gathered at Thammasat University where the flooding in 2011 had been massive. The Thai campus had first served as a refuge for people in the surrounding villages whose fields were intentionally flooded to protect Bangkok, forty-six kilometers away. But when the university itself became inundated and all the modern concrete-and-glass buildings were submerged, only a traditional teak house built high on stilts remained unaffected. By the time we met for the new production about the causes of the flood, the waters had receded, but not the memories.
KETEP, starting in 2010 at the Theatre of the Disturbed’s iUi Festival in Yangon, Myanmar, has produced one or two new plays every year in a different ASEAN country (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The productions are performed by local people (student, community and professional actors) in local languages. They are based on local narratives—folk, classical, modern—that are humorously adapted to address current environmental problems particular to that locale. Since one of the criteria for a KETEP adaptation is that the script be based on a story that is central to the culture of both those presenting it and those watching it, actors and spectators are bonded by their prior knowledge of the original that allows them to consider the aptness of the changes.
Given the short rehearsal period—2 to 4 weeks—this familiarity also helps the actors, especially those with little acting experience, quickly identify with the characters and the situation. This foundation avoids the imposition of foreign and potentially unsuitable storylines while, at the same time, demonstrates that myths, legends and folktales are neither outmoded nor irrelevant to modern life but can support new perspectives on human, nonhuman and habitat relationships in our current Anthropocene era. Adaptation additionally eliminates the time-consuming negotiations required to devise a wholly original script by providing an initial structure that can be amended during the rehearsal process by the actors’ differing interpretations and performance preferences. When traditional narratives are refocused and informed by recent environmental research, they can help bridge the gap between the agrarian knowledge of the past and the technologically-driven urban life of the present.
Given that the choice of a well-known story usually elicits immediate recognition and pleasure, how, then, might one account for the disgruntled looks among the participants? It had been difficult to find a Thai tale that dealt with flooding, even though it was a common enough occurrence in the country, once again displacing a million people in 2021. Instead, a ghost story about a pair of baya birds who escape a wildfire was changed to their surviving a flood. The two theatre instructors working on the project knew the baya bird story and thought its adaptation would work. However, these young actors working in community theatre had never heard of it, and they did not like the proposed script.
When asked what story would work better, they replied in a grinning chorus, “Pla Boo Thong” (“The Golden Fish”). This traditional narrative about a fisherman’s virtuous wife being eaten by his evil second wife had been recently reprised as a long television series and was, therefore, preeminent in current popular culture. Moreover, dealing with water made it more adaptable to the flood conditions, and a new script was written in two days. In the beginning, the first wife and her husband are fishing in the filthy flood waters. They catch nothing but rubbish, including a puppet plastic bottle, surfing the tides to join his relatives at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and a Styrofoam container puppet, begging to be adopted as someone’s pet because she was still so clean, cute and friendly. When the couple finally catches a talking golden fish that pleads for its life, the wife, in her struggle to save it from her husband, topples overboard and drowns. She herself then turns into a golden fish that her dutiful daughter feeds every day until the suspicious second wife and her evil daughter catch and eat it. The fish bones, buried by the good daughter, then grow into a tree that bestows her with leaves of gold. Keeping these familiar characters and their relationships, KETEP’s new additions demonstrated how the plastic rubbish exacerbated the severity of the flood and the difficulties communities had recuperating afterwards. The characters’ actions and dialogues, however, were humourously absurd as they tried to deal with the unsanitary water. Perched on their rooftop, like hundreds of others, the evil second wife—played by a trans actor—engaged in comic repartee with her husband while her evil daughter spied on her sibling (figure 2). It is typical in the Thai theatre genre likay that the villain, especially when female, is performed comically in her transgressions.
With so many corporal transformations occurring in the original story (woman–fish–tree), adding jesting rubbish to examine the micro and macro causes of the flood did not disrupt its aesthetic and ethical world. Although the subject of the play was the ubiquitous use of non-biodegradable single-use plastics, the fish-mother was the vehicle. Metamorphosed and hybrid beings are common in Southeast Asian stories and their stage reenactments. They portray an all-inclusive cosmos inhabited by humans, animals, animistic deities, spirits and demons able to communicate with each other. The Kinnari that give their name to the theatre project are bird-women, originating in India but thriving in the forests painted on Buddhist temple walls in Southeast Asia, a culturally diverse region that extends from Myanmar in the west to Borneo and Irian Jaya in the east.
Therianthropy is an accepted convention in many Southeast Asian traditional theatres. Retaining elements of pre-scientific belief systems, these theatres reflect a world without ontological boundaries, an organic whole in which the mutual relationships among the species can be characterized as contingent, continuous and interdependent. While such beliefs may no longer have the potency and centrality they once did, and real sylvan, riverine and marine environments are disappearing and being degraded, their stories, nonetheless, remain important touchstones in the cultural imaginary, which KETEP uses to connect them with local and global movements for environmental protection.
While the fourteen KETEP productions performed so far have addressed a variety of environmental issues—from overuse of plastics and marine pollution to deforestation and the imposition of genetically-modified monocrop plantations—the actants of the narrative are often animals and animal-like beings, and thus the preservation of their species is also a major component. Traditional animal characters commonly undergo transformations and are able to speak, as is the case with Golden Fish and one of the last Burmese tigers. Mythical hybrids populate the skies and seas, such as the Thai and Lao Kinnari bird-women, the colonially inspired hybrid Dyesebel and the Filipino sirena (mermaid). Both human and animal characters transform into each other. For example, Ho Nguyet Co, the Vietnamese fox, and Bai Suzhen, the Chinese white snake, undergo austerities to become human females, while three Cambodian sisters reverse the process and become Koun lok birds to avoid human cruelty (figure 3).
In some KETEP adaptations, well-known literary figures keep their identifying animal features, while the subject of their quests is changed, such as Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey King, going in search of sustainable electricity sources rather than Buddhist sutras, and the Burmese monk with one goat’s eye and one bull’s eye, whose philosopher’s stone turns objects into plastic rather than the original gold.
Because this multispecies realm is represented in regional television programmes and films, the presence of nonhumans onstage is not the awkward intrusion it is in Western realistic dramas. When Lourdes Orozco describes how puppetry was used to effect the “improbable transformation” of a dog becoming a man in A Dog’s Heart (2010) in a London theatre (73), the difference is not in the use of puppetry but in that it is a technique with only symbolic reality on the Western stage, while it can be reflective of a cultural continuum depicting an actual reality beyond the stage in Southeast Asia. For people outside of the region, this permeable transmutable state of being can seem an excursion into the exotic. Europeans relegated their own folk wisdom that integrated human life with nature into tales for children, fantasies not to be taken seriously or literally. And because European settler cultures who colonized the Southeast Asian region did not have longstanding affiliations with the land and rivers, it was easier for them to divorce mythopoetic from scientific views to exploit nature. Moreover, their Christian beliefs in a single exclusive omnipotent god that created a hierarchal universe in which only human beings possessed souls segregated them from the rest of nature. These European attitudes were imposed upon, but did not eradicate, Southeast Asian beliefs and the two continue to coexist.
Western theatre, reflecting this division between humanity and nature, reduced animals and plants to a metaphorical function, allegories of human traits and values, such as in the Capek brothers’ The Insect Play (1921). As Una Chaudhuri points out, in order to produce a more bio-centered theatre, Western dramatists must re-literalize plants and animals to assert their autonomy and importance (“There Must be a Lot of Fish” 29), a quest at odds with the growing dominance of virtual reality. Southeast Asian dramatists do not have to reconnect humanity with nature, but they reconnect their cultural animals, which emanated from a time when they shared life more closely with nature, with a new concern for the actual individuals being threatened in the wild today.
One source of acculturated animals are the canonized metamorphoses described in The Jatakas, the Buddhist rebirth stories. They describe The Buddha’s path to enlightenment, during which he transforms into numerous types of beings whose stories provide the plots for much of Southeast Asian traditional theatre. In addition, Guido Sprenger notes several qualities of Southeast Asian animism that pertain to theatrical representation, suggesting that although the region partakes in dominant transcultural religions—Theravada Buddhism, Chinese cosmologies, Islam, Christianity and certain forms of Hinduism—these meld with animist belief in life-forces and spirits, which runs below, or beside, or within the seemingly dominant world religion in place (32).
Sprenger makes an observation about one ethnic group that I believe has a wider application in the region, in that the spirits worshipped as
the ancestors of rice, the animals etc. have intentionality and a biography, but the individual plants and animals do not. The latter only have life force, which assigns them to a lower order of the hierarchy, where they are subordinate to the human beings handling them. Only as a category do they achieve the degree of complexity in their relation with human beings which constitutes their status as persons.42
The distinction between category and individual somewhat explains the practice of both worshiping the deity and indifferently killing the individual animal.
Although theatrical representation reflects the cultural assimilation of animal beings, this does not necessarily translate into empathetic treatment toward real animals or their habitats. When Chaudhuri states, “Whatever is said or implied by cultural performances about the other animals will inevitably—however circuitously—affect the way those animals are treated by humans out in the real world” (Introduction 7), that probability is far less certain in the Southeast Asian context. Filipino anthropologist Myfel Joseph Paluga suggests that though the cultural and economic domains in which animals exist might overlap, their status within those domains does not necessarily influence each other:
In Bali, snakes or dragons predominate in magical illustrations while monkeys predominate in folk narratives. Two points might be derived from these facts: (a) that valuations given to animals could be domain-specific (i.e., a given animal is highly valued in one domain, like in oral narratives, but not so much in another domain, like in visualizing practices); (b) both story-telling and magico-mystical valuations of animals might not necessarily translate to ecology-oriented conservationist valuation as this might be another cognitive domain. These cognitive patterns, in tandem with changing social conditions, might be the reason why snakes or other culturally potent animal images are assigned symbolic powers but their counterparts in real life could just as well be overexploited as other ordinary animals.121
Sprenger concludes with an open-ended query:
Animism is the ever unfinishable project of socializing humans and non-humans in the project of life-producing difference…If this does not necessarily result in a stable cosmology, the question is: Which types of difference do Southeast Asians use to assemble their relations with non-humans, types which make such relationships comparable across events, myths and rituals, across villages, cities, strata, institutions, networks, ethnic categories and regions?44)
KETEP utilizes this constant negotiation to connect the culturally spiritualized animal that appears onstage with the real endangered individuals in the wild that are being terrorized, killed and trafficked. Because transcorporality is an ancient construct, and somewhat taken for granted in the Southeast Asian cultural imagination, KETEP has to experiment with innovative retellings to challenge traditional assumptions. Since “Anthropocene” signifies that human activity impacting the planet’s geology for the first time in the earth’s history, and nature can no longer be assumed to be either infinite or eternal, a new kind of animism needs to pervade the play, and transformations are opportunities to promote more ecologically sound behavior.
KETEP updates the original narrative by introducing scientific information as well as enacting the conflicts of competing interests in real life situations, acknowledging the difficulties of finding workable solutions. Increasingly, however, the stories most embedded in specific places are being erased by global narratives, so that young participants are less informed of what was once considered their cultural heritage. While the revision of famous traditional epics has been used extensively by regional theatres to address gender and social injustices, it has not been much employed to highlight environmental misuse and exploitation. Much of contemporary performance is engaged in political critique in which environmental issues might be included, but are rarely the central focus. Unless a performance is a protest geared to stir local people into action about a particular environmental problem that negatively impacts their lives directly, or is a form of “infotainment” used by governmental and nongovernmental organizations to encourage people to change their behavior to protect themselves and their livelihoods, environmental issues are usually subsumed in the larger push for political reform.
The Process of Adaptation
Most KETEP performances do not have such rocky starts as Pla Boo Thong, but each show has encountered unexpected obstacles as well as surprising outcomes. As an ad hoc operation, KETEP has no fixed schedule, cast, target or funding. It produces a show through the collaboration of individuals and groups previously encountered through my twenty-five years of researching performance in Southeast Asia. The lessons learned from one workshop rarely apply to another, so that the whole process must be constantly reimagined and remain flexible to face sudden changes in cast, rehearsal and performance spaces and times. Moreover, sensitivities about what and how a topic may be publicly critiqued and the occasional intrusions of censorship not only vary in the different Southeast Asian countries, but ongoing negotiations with bureaucracies might require cuts to the script, or adopting alternative approaches.
The challenges of working in different countries are multiple. Sometimes, a lack of common language among participants requires the services of translators, and even then, misunderstandings about procedures and goals arise. Funding is also a significant area of contention—who provides what for whom. Some performances were done on a completely volunteer basis under the auspices of a festival. Other times, the lack of clarity about whether the host institution was to offer gratis or be paid for the use of its facilities, or how much compensation should be offered to student versus professional performers created confusion. With different groups being accustomed to different theatre-making practices—such as how long rehearsals are allowed to be or whether actors are expected to contribute their ideas or passively accept whatever the director tells them to do—means that there has to be a willingness on the part of everyone involved to “go with that particular flow.” It is always a challenge to balance the demands of art, entertainment and environmental urgency with the general disinterest of urban theatre practitioners in ecology.
KETEP performances play with anachronism, reflecting the various syncretic pre- and post- colonial, local, foreign, global cultures that simultaneously percolate through Southeast Asian societies. The plays combine the traditional styles of theatre costume, dance movement and literary characterization with modern songs, current idiomatic expressions and ecological predicaments. The legendary stories and characters meld and clash with recent events and contemporary props, while the script remains open to improvised satirical commentary. Adopting this postmodern approach that employs both fusion and juxtaposition of ideas and styles, KETEP reflects the layered state of being in the region, as Charlene Rajendran and Marcus Tan note:
theatre and performance in Southeast Asia today is inevitably tied to the past, to history and to tradition, their aesthetic practices, principles and beliefs, even if that relationship is marked by resistance and transformation. This umbilical affiliation reflects the inevitable regard of Southeast Asia’s identity . . . as a consequence of the postcolonial imagination.11
KETEP adaptations use the familiar story to resist the familiar outcome, but in concern for the safety of the performers, does not risk direct political confrontation.
Adapting Traditional Narratives
Since KETEP adapts local narratives for its plots, it seeks stories that readily accommodate ecological re-interpretation to which some narratives fortuitously lend themselves. But powerful effects can also be achieved from texts that less obviously support such interpretation and require more dramatic revision to challenge the original outlook. Two productions of animal-into-human stories demonstrate the potential of both. A smooth transition to an environmentalist perspective occurred in The Snakes (2015), and a more deliberate reversal of values took place in Ho Nguyet Co Becomes Human (2017).
The sixteenth-century Chinese classic White Snake is about two snake sisters, White and Green, that both become human. Though it has been performed in numerous adaptations, differing in genre and interpretation, the KETEP version at Soochow University in Taipei was the first to present it with an ecological emphasis. This was not difficult because the White Snake marries a traditional pharmacist. Since Chinese medicine and the consumption of rare animals for status are currently responsible for bringing many species to the brink of extinction, in the KETEP adaptation, White Snake’s husband is adamant about not using any animal material in his medicine, while his competitor specializes in exotic animal body parts. The conflict comes to a peak in the context of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a zoonotic disease originating from the wild animal markets of Guandong, China. The Western world was little impacted by this virus, but in Asia societies and economies were severely disrupted.
In the original legend, the heroic figure is not the pharmacist, however, but a Buddhist monk who alerts the husband to the nonhumanity of his wife and the impropriety of their union. The White and Green snake sisters are actually powerful nature deities of wind and rain, and the legend pits early animist beliefs against the newer masculinist Buddhism. Since many recent versions have already recast the monk as the meddling villain destroying a happy marriage (figure 4), it was not difficult to push his puritanical enmity further and portray him also as a hypocrite secretly lusting after the younger sister, Green Snake, like Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. She battles with him, but the ending is equivocal as to who wins and what “winning” means in the context of consuming endangered animals as remedies against zoonotic diseases. The original legend made nothing of what contents were used in medicines, but highlighting their sourcing today fit into a theatrical world that reflected both the panic of the villagers demanding stronger (animal) medicine to combat the mysterious SARS virus and the horrific treatment of illegally poached and marketed wild animals.
KETEP’s adaptation of the Vietnamese classic Ho Nguyet Co Becomes a Fox into Ho Nguyet Co Becomes Human reversed the trajectory of the original legend to challenge the Buddhist hierarchy that places the human male at the apex of mortal life. Like the snakes, the female fox, Ho Nguyet Co, aspires to become human through meditation, but after accomplishing her desire and becoming a martial arts specialist, she is betrayed by her human lovers. The dance of her painfully devolving back into a fox, contorting her body in grotesque writhing, has become a set piece for actresses of traditional cai luong and hat tuong performance. It had been learned by all the cai luong actresses at the Ho Chi Min City University of Theatre and Cinema, who played the three different aspects of the fox in the KETEP adaptation.
The dance has been re-choreographed by modern dancers, but the value assumption that all animals desire and strive to be human had never been addressed. The KETEP production upended this hierarchy by showing the fox being cajoled against her will to become human by the famous real turtle, Cu Rua, living in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake who asks her to change form to help forest rangers catch poachers (figure 5). She pretends to fall in love with the poacher and entraps him by reversing the traditional seduction scene in which he feigns illness and says he requires her “jewel of humanity” to cure him. When he speaks, his original lines pleading with her to give it up, however, she ridicules him, letting him know she is not fooled by his lies. Instead, she slyly offers the jewel to him in a manner that allows the ranger to capture him as she joyfully resumes her fox shape.
Three actresses portrayed different dimensions of Ho Nguyet Co’s character: a real fox, her traditional cay luong representation and a contemporary female ranger. The last actress’s challenge was to perform the final dance scene of becoming a fox without the customary contortions and replace them with supple animal grace. While allowing the performers to demonstrate their cai luong movement skills, the adaptation challenged Buddhist values privileging humanity. However, in Vietnam, there are no real foxes, only shape-shifting fox spirits in the cultural imaginary, and thus she had to work on behalf of other real animals being driven to extinction in Vietnamese and neighboring Lao forests.
Sometimes, an appropriate traditional story cannot be found or is no longer well-known enough to establish the necessary familiarity for adaptation. Instead, a popular modern tale is altered, such as in the Philippines, where a contemporary sirena, Dyesebel, featured in The Mermaid’s Dream (2018). This production was a collaboration between KETEP and Artist Inc., a thirty-five-year-old community-based arts organization that hosts an annual Likhandula Festival on the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines.
Appearing first in graphic novel form in 1952, Dyesebel adapts several features from Anderson’s Little Mermaid and has been performed by numerous Filipino television and cinema stars. Because she lives in the ocean and transforms herself into a girl to follow her lover Fredo on land, her story was suited to dramatize the country’s first marine reserve, set up on the small island of Apo by marine biologist Angel Alcala along with the NGO EcoTipping Points in 1982. When the Apo fishermen could no longer survive because of their own destructive practices and the encroachments by foreign trawlers, they agreed to put part of the reef off limits to all fishing and, instead, opened it for diving tourism. Not only did the reef fish recover, but the community became more prosperous. Many islands began setting up their own Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), but few have been as successful as the original on Apo and The Mermaid’s Dream examined some of their problems.
The adaptation combined the original love story between the sirena and Fredo but made him an anthropologist intent on proving the Aqua Ape Theory on Palawan Island. She changes not only species but also her gender and becomes Alcala’s son, sent to assist in setting up an MPA to protect her reef kingdom. Thus, Fredo is bemused by his attraction to the male marine biologist. In addition, the play included a subplot of the sirena being kidnapped by a hotelier who pursued her for his underwater casino, notably an actual construction proposal by a Filipino entrepreneur at the time. Unlike in the original plot, KETEP’s Dyesebel does not give up her hybrid identity for love, nor does she remain on land with Fredo, but returns to her home in the protected reef (figure 6).
Incorporation of Local Arts and Local Talents
Working on a shoe-string budget, KETEP relies on the popularity of the story and talents of the performers rather than on elaborate sets, following the custom of traditional theatres before they adopted Western realism. Its design adopts the modified folk aesthetic of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, which uses puppet forms and easily available natural and secondhand objects, refashioning them so that everything onstage indicates transformation. Natural materials gleaned from parks as well as commonly used household items suffice as props. In the Burmese Master Po and Tiger (2010), brooms made from dried grasses were converted into wings for the unlucky chicken eaten by Tiger; palm fronds were hung up to suggest rooftops, and long seed pods became Rabbit’s ears (figure 7).
Also borrowing innovations from Larry Reed’s Shadowlight Productions, KETEP performances employ shadow puppetry to provide not only evocative backgrounds of forests and ocean realms but also liminal spaces where the actors and dancers can enact their human-animal transformations and communicate between worlds. They emerge and disappear through a split screen which allows their transitions to be either smooth or abrupt. In some Southeast Asian theatres, shadow puppetry is a longstanding tradition, such as the Malaysian wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) incorporated in KETEP’s Princess Gunang Ledang (2011) and Cambodia’s sbek toch (little leathers) in Song of Koun Lok (2020). In others it is a novelty seldom seen on the local stage, such as the large shadow puppet of Dyesebel in The Mermaid’s Dream or the turtle in the Vietnamese Ho Nguyet Co Becomes Human. The shadow worlds create low-tech but mysterious underwater and sylvan environments, even as they also represent sites of violence from human overfishing and wildlife snaring.
In addition to all kinds of puppetry (figure 8), KETEP utilizes the specific talents of each cast. Since much of Southeast Asia’s theatre is musical dance-drama, performers’ abilities in song and dance are integrated into the plots whenever possible. The Golden Fish began with the cast singing a traditional fisherman’s song before transitioning into the flood scene. Dance was a major feature in Manola’s Lemon Tree (2015) performed by the National Spoken Theatre of Laos. Since performers were well versed in the traditional Kinnari dance, it was performed first as a group and then, at the end, as a solo, when Manola successfully brings about a reconciliation between her mythical forest kingdom, the Lao paddy farmers and the highland Hmong people. Dance movement provided transitions between the shadow transformations in the Vietnamese Ho Nguyet Co Becomes Human, and the Khmer dancers also used their training in folk and classical movement to effect becoming birds in the Cambodian Song of Koun Lok.
Costuming is another visible anachronism, and any appropriate materials at hand are used. The Lao troupe had a wonderful collection of traditional costumes, especially those of the Kinnari bird-women, but when, in rehearsal, the Hmong farmers battling a forest fire were wearing the ceremonial dress in which they were commonly portrayed on the mainstream Lao stage, it was suggested that they switch to more appropriate work clothes. Malaysia’s National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) supplied traditional batik costumes for the Princess Gunung Ledang (figure 9). In the Golden Fish, however, participants opted for costumes resembling those in the television series but also commonly worn in villages In all of the KETEP productions, traditional and modern appear together, replicating the hybrid reality of everyday life, the juxtaposition of pre- and post-technological material cultures.
Theatre’s Efficacy to Produce Change
Can KETEP’s ecologically themed adaptations stimulate change, or even the desire for change as Rajendran and Tan inquire: “What impact can political theatre, distinctively, have on its audience and the situations or conditions it seeks to critique even as it represents these? Except by exploring ideas for better governance and the theatrical possibility of its imagining” (23). Lisa Woynarski, skeptical about hyperbolic claims of theatre’s unique ability to alter behavior, modestly suggests that eco-performance can “open up different and diverse ways of thinking about our relationship to ecology, through artistic and creative modes of engagement” (19). Theatre’s particular combination of presenting imagined worlds with the corporal presence of actors make it potentially a rehearsal for the future, a place where experimental hypotheses can be played out and even the direst consequences can be considered without actual harm. It is precisely theatre’s freedom to create simulacra of life while imagining its possibilities from the outside that allows its creators and spectators to contemplate alternatives.
Unlike the subjects of other sociopolitical theatres which critique racial, gender, class, neocolonial social injustices, however, nature does not buy tickets, applaud, sponsor performances, write reviews or even appreciate the efforts of dramatists working on its behalf. KETEP plays are about absent subjects, performing only their imagined representations, and this situation leaves an artistic lacuna. Moreover, it is the audience that completes the performance, and eco-theatre makes the human audience complicit in the problems which nature, staged in absentia, condemns.
Can theatre’s impact, then, be measured in terms of individual or collective action? Whether spectators leave the performance with greater conviction to protect the environment or feel only vaguely better informed often depends on how they felt before the performance, not to mention the probability that the people who one really wishes to see it will not even be there—ergo Pak Ledjar’s complaint. Moreover, when one attempts to provoke change subtly through the plot and character development, rather than as direct propaganda, which some Southeast Asian audiences are groomed to expect and some NGOs insist upon so as not to obscure their environmental message, the impact is even more difficult to evaluate.
KETEP is not activist in the sense of being a theatre of protest to incite disruptive behavior. Instead, it works to provoke a discontent with the status quo and repudiates the framing of environmental issues as a choice between economy and ecology by demonstrating that good ecological practices mean long-term economic prosperity. It strives to connect the dots between urban consumption and its environmental repercussions and between the accepted cultural animals on stage and real animals in forests and seas. It juxtaposes Southeast Asia’s pre-and post-technological social customs to find ways suitable to the particular conditions of the region by aligning individual, communal and governmental responsibilities.
As the Southeast Asian nations continue to grow in population, infrastructure development, and middle-class consumerism, they face increased forest depletion from logging hardwoods and planting oil palm, rubber and coffee (Zeng et al.); water depletion from global warming-induced drought and extensive dam building (Hoang and Seth); and wildlife depletion from habitat destruction, snaring and overfishing (Duckworth et al.), often pitting small stakeholders against local bosses, foreign corporations and complicit governments. Southeast Asian societies suffer from air pollution, caused by the burning of forest biomass and increased use of fossil fuels (Koplitz), and water contamination from industrial effluent, pesticides and poor sanitation infrastructure (Lee et al.). Most of the plastic pollution devastating the world’s oceans comes from eight Asian rivers (Patel). With so much vested interest in resource extraction by entities accountable to no one, the role of whistleblowing environmentalists and journalists is a dangerous one with the Philippines being recorded as the worst in Asia and third in the world, after Colombia and Mexico for most killed in 2020 and 2021 (Bolledo).
Confronted by such a range of issues, compounded by lax environmental protection laws even more lax enforcement, what can a small theatre project do? It can promote the activities of more directly involved community activists and environmental protection NGOs. It can also help to counter feelings of helplessness by making spectators aware of how their own consumer behavior bears wider consequences and encourage them to make better informed choices, as well as pressure their government officials. It is probable that KETEP performances have had a greater impact on the participants than on the spectators for whom it is a one-off entertainment. Although the rehearsal period is short, it is, nonetheless, a cumulative learning process. Before each opening, the actors appear to no longer only play at their roles but to seize them with a new found conviction. In this transformation to perfect their performances, the actors simultaneously invigorate the conservation themes with more passion. The external change stimulates an internal commitment, and even though most of the performers have little prior knowledge about the causes and repercussions of environmental damage, the performing experience adds to a growing momentum of awareness and concern.
The only conclusion I can confidently make, therefore, concerns KETEP’s impact on myself. My favourite scene in Manola’s Lemon Tree immediately comes to mind: taking a rest from battling a forest fire, a Hmong swidden farmer and the mythical Kinnari Princess Manola sit quietly together sharing a cup of cool water, the first time two such characters have ever appeared on the Lao stage together (figure 10). As the two women calmly discuss the future of the forest, transcending the historical enmity between their lowland and highland communities, the young actresses suddenly seem wise beyond their years. I felt that if all of the environmental problems KETEP had addressed could have been brought before them, they would have resolved them through their mutual respect and dignity.
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*Catherine Diamond (戴雅雯) is a professor of theatre and the environment at Soochow University, Taipei, Taiwan, and the director/playwright of the Kinnari Ecological Theatre. She is the author of Communities of Imagination: Southeast Asian Contemporary Theatres (2012) and numerous articles about the performing arts in Southeast Asia, where her current projects include investigating the region’s zoos and insect metamorphosis onstage. She is also a flamenco dancer and has choreographed flamenco dramas in Taiwan.
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