Khmer playwright’s work makes stage debut

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Actors Pingann Oung (left) and Hiratsuka Niki, as characters Hok and Ally, in a scene from the slice-of-life play 12-8. PHOTO SUPPLIED

A young Cambodian playwright is working with a South African director to produce his first play. The play, titled 12-8, will be performed at Java Creative Cafe in Tuol Tompoung in the capital’s Chamkarmon district.

The script is an original piece, written by Khmer playwright Sok Samithi, who will co-direct it with Marika Els. It is produced in association with the Phnom Penh Players, a non-profit theatre group founded over 25 years ago by a group of international expatriates, but now composed of a mix of foreigners and Khmer artists and actors.

“12-8 tells the story of two young Khmer adults working at a Phnom Penh convenience store as they try to figure out their lives, their relationship and their future,” said Samithi, who has published three novels – Midnight, Knightfall and Nikolai – since 2012.

“I was a theatre student at the University of York, but I’ve been in love with theatre since the 8th grade. I owe a big thanks to my drama teacher, Elizabeth Hodge, for setting me on this path, for her constant support, and for opening my eyes to the possibility of even pursuing this in the future. This is my first time working with the Phnom Penh Players,” he added.

Directing 12-8 has been a great experience, and I’ve enjoyed the process of building up this fantastic play with actors, crew and Marika, my co-director. The work was intensively collaborative, and it has been a true joy to work with my actors, and my team, to realise our vision for the play. I can’t wait to share our vision of a quiet little Phnom Penh convenience store with you all! I hope this sets a good precedent for more work on original Cambodian theatre here in Phnom Penh,” continued the 21 year old.

It tackles change and transition, as the characters spend the show ruminating on the uncertain state of their lives, the love they once had, and the ambitions and fears they share for their future, he says.

The play is very similar to Samithi’s story, as he was going through an uncertain time in his life while working to support himself while studying abroad.

“It felt like being in a state of limbo, and I think that’s a very familiar feeling to a lot of people, especially after the past two years, so I set out to write a play that really captured that,” said Samithi, who just returned to the Kingdom after being stuck abroad for what felt like forever, told The Post.

The performance is the Phnom Penh Players’ 3rd show of the 2022 season. It is being produced at Java Creative Cafe in Tuol Tompoung, with the support of Creative Generation, an innovative performance series featuring up and coming Khmer artists.

Though the play is the third edition of 12-8 this season, it’s an original standalone piece that is not affiliated with the other two shows, said Samithi, adding that none of the shows were linked to each other.

“12-8 captures the imagination as well as encapsulating relevant life stories. Samithi wrote an excellent slice of life and it’s been a privilege to work on it with him,” said Els.

She was formerly a professional actor, director, and puppeteer in South Africa before she moved to Asia in 2012.

She became involved with the Phnom Penh Players in 2017 and has since done several productions with them, including The Nether and Stuck inside, to name but two.

She has been co-directing 12-8 for the past few months and has enjoyed the collaboration with Samithi very much.

Els said that there’s always a creative decision to make a fire or put one out. It’s been a joy to be part of this production and she is looking forward to future collaborations.

“Six talented performers have worked so hard to bring this complex and colourful group of characters to life,” she added.

The two main characters, Hok and Ally, are played by Pingann Oung and Hiratsuka Niki respectively, according to the young writer and co-director.

“We are always trying to encourage Khmer actors to join the Phnom Penh Players and they have shown their talents in previous productions. The Phnom Penh Players also contribute to the local community through their charity work,” said Els.

“Ally’s character voices the inner tension of today’s female Khmer youth, who are born with one foot in the modern world and one foot pulled back by centuries of ancient cultural expectations and pressure,” said Niki of her role as Ally in the play.

“As a woman, I relate to her on many levels, and I feel very honoured to play a part which expresses sentiments of untold stories in the female collective unconscious” said Niki, an Art Therapist and Counsellor at CamEd Business School.

The other lead, Pingann said his character Hok id full of emotions. He mostly expresses his joy and pain through his writing.

“Like many of us, including myself, Hok is still on a journey to find himself and not wanting to feel misplaced,” said Pingann.

Samithi said they’re supported by an ensemble cast composed of Sam Thomas, Laurent Villatte, Arttu Karppanen and co-director Els.

He says Sam and Laurent play the two Teens, a hilarious comedic duo who spend their time loitering around the store, killing time. Arttu plays the Cashier, an important staff member at the store. And finally, Marika plays The Drunk, who is just going through a really rough time.

Maria LaFollette-Bruno, producer and head stage manager, said, “I was mesmerised from the moment I first read the script. It’s been a pleasure to work with the directors, the cast and the crew. You will leave this show with a new appreciation for the beauty and the mystery of life and the future.”

As stagehand in the show, Raven Norwood said that working with the Phnom Penh Players on this show has been such a fun experience.

She says the actors are brilliant, the script is an unrelenting slice of life, and the crew is incorrigible riffraff.

The show runs for approximately 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval, and opened on September 30 at 7pm. Further performances are scheduled for October 1st at 1pm and 7pm, October 7th at 1pm, and October 8 at 1pm and 7pm.

“The proceeds from 12-8 go to supporting Exceed Worldwide Cambodia, a local NGO who work to provide prosthetics and orthotics free-of-charge to people with disabilities, helping them achieve mobility independence,” said Samithi.

Tickets are available from the Phnom Penh Players, via social media.