One couldn't tell that just one day earlier, Phunam Pin was doing cartwheels on stage and climbing up the shoulders of her circus troupe mates as part of yet another arts-for-advocacy performance by the Cambodian circus and awareness theatre troupe, Phare Ponleu Selpak. On the night that Imaging Our Mekong programme's director of Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, Johanna Son, spoke to the 15-year-old performer in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, she was like any other youngster, dressed for a party and eager to go and dance with her friends.
Here, she talks about how she got involved with the Battambang-based circus and awareness troupe since she was 10, and what she asserts is her contribution to empowering young people with knowledge about reproductive health and human rights.
To Phunam, the issues that Phare Ponleu Selpak addressed in its September performance in Hanoi - as part of the 2nd Mekong Performing Arts Laboratory -- were all too familiar from her social environment at home. These ranged from poverty to sexual abuse to HIV/AIDS.
The circus troupe, part of the work of the non-government group PPS, was launched in 1998 in cooperation with the National Circus School of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Working with visual arts, traditional music and circus performance, the circus group -- which has also performed aboard the Phnom Penh-Battambang train, has more than 30 people. It was among 10 theatre groups that took part in the arts laboratory organised by the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) Mekong Partnership Project in September-October 2006.
Q: How did you join Phare Ponleu Selpak?
A: My family is poor and PPS had gone to visit the children (in my community) one day, and so I registered to participate in their organisation. At first, I just went to study (with PPS support), but after that I became involved in the circus troupe. At that time, I had never thought that the circus was really important, I just went to study. But finally, I found I have my own skills and so they brought me to perform on stage. . .Because my family is poor, I didn't study regularly. I just went (to class) sometimes because I needed to be a rubbish taker to make money. Because of this situation, PPS took me to live with them. . . .
Q: How did you discover that you had circus skills?
A: At first, when I performed on stage, it was like a kid playing. But after that, I had more technical skills.
Q: How different is the (Mekong lab) performance in Hanoi from what you do in your performances in Battambang?
A: The difference is -- before, I just performed on the circus, although sometimes the performances involved drama. I have never never mixed theatre and the circus like this (at the Mekong arts laboratory). It's the first time for me -- and now, I perform in the circus and also play a character in the performance.
Q: The storyline of the performance you showed here in Hanoi shows that two orphans had dreams of joining a circus but had their own problems - the elder and younger sisters had to find work and had different experiences there. How did the circus group think of this story in the arts lab?
A: We get real stories from society and the people around us. Also during the laboratory, I also observed the other artsts' work and learn from their experiences and then, we created our story.
Q: Is a story like this common at home? In the scene when the younger sister's employer tries to attack her, the older sister tells her not to tell anybody. What is your message here to the audience, when the elder sister advises her sister to avoid confronting the boss?
A: The message is for the youngsters to be brave, and to face the boss. The older sister thinks that if you say something 'wrong' to the boss, the boss will fire the employee. The message is to make them aware (of situations like this). All poor people always respect people in the higher position.
Q: What three things did you learn most in this arts lab?
A: One is about gender, sexuality and sexual health. The second one is about integrating art forms into advocacy work, and the third is how to write a script and how to create a story.
Q: Why do you say that focusing on gender, sexuality and sexual health are issues you want to include in your arts for advocacy work?
A: This is because in Cambodia, people have little education about gender, sexuality and sexual health. Also, when I perform the story, I believe that the people who have these problems need to be brave and know their rights. Gender, sexuality and sexual health are really important to me because it's about real stories in my hometown. My friend -- her parents are dead. She's an orphan and was raped. And also it's the story of other people very close to me who have died of HIV/AIDS. That's why I think these are very important.
(The Mekong Performing Arts Laboratory 2006 was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, with additional scholarship support from UNESCO Bangkok.)