PHNOM PENH: The Khmer Rouge obliterated Cambodia’s burgeoning arts scene in the 1970’s. Over thirty years later, the country is still struggling to rebuild and nurture its citizens’ artistic endeavors. “I don’t think that Cambodia really has a theater ‘scene’ yet,” said Cambodian playwright Samithi Sok, “At the moment, it’s only a few shows a year, sometimes with months in between.” Undeterred, he is ready to debut his second play, Wind Up Mice, at Java Cafe in Toul Tompoung next weekend.
Born in Phnom Penh, 22-year-old playwright Samithi Sok finds himself in the midst of an arts scene struggling to gain momentum and respect. His stage debut took place in an 8th grade performance of Mulan, when he fell in love with theater and the unique interaction that takes place between the audience and the performers during a live show. He credits his supportive parents along with ISPP drama teacher Elizabeth Hodge for his pursuit of a creative career, which flies in the face of Cambodian societal expectations. “The arts are still perceived as this fringe thing. It’s not something parents are encouraging their kids to pursue.” Samithi was lucky to have received support and encouragement from his teachers and his family. He remarked on the privilege of having parents who support his artistic endeavors and said, “That I was not just allowed to, but encouraged to pursue theater when I went to study abroad makes me feel very grateful for them.”
Having debuted his first play, 12-8, last year, Samithi’s second play, Wind Up Mice, “covers questions of free will and our purpose in life, the breakdown of communication in a relationship, resentment and toxicity, and the power of love.” A story about a couple trapped in a time loop, Samithi juxtaposes the surreal with the mundane to produce a story that asks the audience to empathize with the human condition. “In the face of eternity, all we can do is empower ourselves to carve out our own meaning,” he said, “It was a message I needed to hear, and it’s something that I hope others find in the show.”
Samithi Sok (center) with the cast of his first play, 12-8.
Samithi faces many challenges as an independent playwright in Phnom Penh. He provided some insight into the ongoing struggle for the arts to make a resurgence in Cambodia. As is so often the case, the main issue comes down to money. “Unfortunately, pragmatically, it’s a financial issue. It’s hard to build a scene when no one can make a living in that scene…most people who I know are involved in theater are doing it on the side, because they need a full-time job to feed themselves and pay the rent.” While he doesn’t pretend to know any concrete solutions for addressing the issues facing modern Cambodian art, he does see a place for parents and the Ministry of Culture to step in and encourage young people to pursue their passions. “Maybe it’s a matter of exposure, and people just need to see more plays doing well before they see it as a legitimate thing,” he added.
He holds hope for the future of Cambodian arts, saying, “Younger Cambodians are different, and they are trying and they are going out and seeing Cambodian art. And now that they are being exposed to artists who have made it here and who are successful, maybe that’ll be a good stepping stone.”
While the theater ‘scene’ in Phnom Penh is tiny, Samithi has managed to find people who share his passion for theater and acknowledges and appreciates their help in realizing his vision. “I am incredibly grateful to have such a great cast and crew with me in this process…it’s really made the transition to being independent a lot easier.” The Wind Up Mice production team primarily consists of him and Marika Els, a South African teacher who dedicates her free time to the performing arts in Phnom Penh. “Marika has really been my rock, it’s been great to be able to work with her again after 12-8. Since the production team is quite small, she and I have had to take up a lot of production roles. She’s done a lot to get the show off the ground, and I’m really grateful for that.”
For those looking to support Phnom Penh’s burgeoning theater scene, the debut run of Wind Up Mice will be performed at Java Creative Cafe Toul Tompoung on May 19,20,26 and 27. Tickets can be reserved and bought here: https://forms.gle/AAWTdszkG5qpB9QD9. Samithi sees theater’s biggest weakness as its biggest strength, saying, “Theater is ephemeral. It is a live performance, with live people, that requires an audience to be present there and then. If you’re lucky, you can do a few shows, but after that, it’s done.”