Notes on Lao theater and performing arts

In the US and Europe, academic study of the Lao performing arts are still in their early stages. Professionally there has been an increase in efforts to assist more Lao in the US to become playwrights and actors, with many demonstrating an interesting in cinematic work as well.

Among those who immediately come to mind in the US are figures such as Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan, Lidet Viravong, Kulap Vilaysack, Kaysone Syonesa, Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, Samson Syharath, and Khankham Phaxayavong.

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In San Diego, we know of one project that attempted to encourage several emerging Lao playwrights, including Pim Siripanyo, Viliya Ketavong, Carol Manisouk, Kinnalone Bee Savatdy, Khamp “Nong” Thongrivone, Phatthason Manisouk, Bidone Salima, Sunny Chantharathip, and Bandith Xaysana. However it does not appear much follow-up work was done with them to encourage continued theatrical output. There’s a growing capacity for live theater works but more can clearly be done.

Souphine Phathsoungneune was one of the first Lao composers in the US to receive substantial recognition and a commission to create one Lao opera which was performed in Vermont in 2004, along with assistance from poet Phayvanh Leukhamhan.

To understand the journey of Lao American performing arts and theaters will require emerging scholars to consider how these artists are responding to (or lack access to) traditions such as lam, which is typically considered central to the Lao approach to performing arts.

The late 1800s saw Southeast Asian urbanization and the rise of musical theater forms. Laos particularly supported the lam luang style, which combined improvised singing and storytelling, acting and dance. It has its roots in the lam pheun style. Lam luang often has musical accompaniment that was a natural approach to the singers (also known as a mo lam or moh lam) beginning to act out all of the parts in their story. The mo lam in this era began changing their costume and movements with each character to the delight of the audience.

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Scholars will want to examine the Thai likay, Khmer yike, and Vietnamese cai luong traditions to understand the dynamics of the tradition. At its height, lam luang performances were said to involve over 30 performers in multiple roles, and soon incorporated both traditional Lao and western instruments.

In Laos, the Pathet Lao established the Central Lao Opera (Lam Luang) Troupe in 1972  to promote lam luang as a national popular art form. Its popularity in the cities has waned, but continues to thrive in many rural areas of Laos with performers using the techniques to educate the public about social issues such AIDS, drug awareness, and health. One could see this technique used in San Diego, and the TeAda Productions presentation of Refugee Nation also has more dramatized versions of characters working through topics such as the generation gap, UXO, PTSD and immigration reform issues, among others.

It will be interesting for researchers to take a look at how other communities with roots in Laos have developed and expanded their performing arts traditions (or not) since arriving in the US. The Hmong in the Midwest have a particularly strong tradition since Pom Siab Hmoob theater and the work of playwrights such as Katie Ka Vang, and May Lee Yang, among several others. They have often worked in close collaboration with Asian American theater companies like Mu Performing Arts and the Minnesota Playwrights Center, among others. However, it can be difficult to find details of how the Lue, Khmu, Tai Dam, and Iu Mien have been engaged, if it all, with the performing arts.

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The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theater refreshingly has a discussion on Lao theater that’s particularly informative for us, arguing that there area three kinds of forms are important to consider: 1) the proto-theatrical, indigenous forms, 2) the court forms which emerged from the 14th century and influence from the Khmer-Thai models of theater, and 3) the modern forms.

The modern styles came from combining folk forms with parts of popular Thai theater, especially the likay style which, over the last 80 years brought what the researchers considered “flashy costumes, wing-and-drop scenery, repertoire and stock character types.”  Thai likay troupes had been touring in the 1920s, and ultimately, Lao combined these techniques with the lum pun tradition that brought in the khaeng and mor lum singing. The lum pun tradition is now a rare, ancient tradition in which a chanter sings jataka, epics or histories with a khaeng. Some lum pun performances took over three nights in a verse form.

One researcher found that two variants of modern Lao theater emerged in the 1950s: one was a comic style of theater that added the lute and western drums to the khaeng, while a second form was more serious in tone and use of traditional instruments. But the staging, musical focus and repertoire of jataka, thai legends and Lao history are common to both styles.

Modern Lao theater in Asia during the 20th century typically took place on temporary outdoor stages about 30 x 15ft, and do not employ complicated lighting, usually only suspended electric bulbs for nightlong performances. The scenery was mounted on bamboo poles to depict general locales “such as a court, a forest or a town.” The microphones were usually immovable and staged action never took the actors or actresses far from one.

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In the 20th century, the troupes were typically 20 or so members. Interestingly, the Cambridge Guide notes “Since the 1970s these forms have increasingly shown the impact of Western popular culture- rock music and mini-skirted go-go girls becoming standard.”
It further suggests: “Everywhere singing skill remains the prime requisite for a good performer, and acoustics, rather than dramatic factors, govern the staging. What is heard, not what is seen, matters most to Lao theatre-goers.”

This is a daunting proposition for many emerging artists given the lack of voice training opportunities for many of them in Lao, English, or other relevant languages. Consistent support for the Lao performing arts presently appears to be strongest in Minnesota, Seattle, Tennessee, and California.

It will be interesting to see what innovations emerge within the Lao American community as many train and perform in American venues and with a wider range of access to resources and support, including opportunities to connect with other Asian and Asian American theater traditions, the influence of hip-hop, spoken word and other contemporary art movements.

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