Back to camp - arts producers make connections in Thailand

Three New Zealand performing arts producers connected with kindred spirits, re-affirmed old connections and built new ones on a visit to Thailand in March where they took part in workshops, visited arts spaces and attended an international performing arts meeting. The three producers were director of Satellites Production House Rosabel Tan, CEO of WORD Christchurch Festival Steph Walker and arts producer with SquareSums&Co, Sums Sevarajan. In this Q&A, we chat to Rosabel and Steph about their Thailand experience: who they met, what they did, saw and heard and why events like these are important to New Zealand performing arts practitioners. The trio's Thailand visit was supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation Arts Practitioners grant.
a group of people sitting on chairs in a circle talking with a giant notepad with notes on it beside them

A public session with the arts community in Chiang Mai where issues around representation across our different cultural contexts were discussed

Can you describe the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting?

 Rosabel: The Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting (BIPAM) — like many other arts meetings and markets — is a place where artists, producers and festivals converge to showcase work and take part in discussions related to the sociopolitical concerns explored in the work being presented, along with broader issues surrounding performance.

We heard from practitioners who had travelled from Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Australia — covering everything from the idea of capturing quiet, difficult histories to the current state of art making in Hong Kong to the decolonisation of arts management and new approaches to dramaturgy.

Events like BIPAM are especially rewarding because they allow you to understand more deeply what types of conversations artists are exploring, and they create space to forge new relationships and collaborations. 

People in a gallery with photos printed on fabric hanging from the ceiling

The trio visited Zero Burning photo exhibition at Makhampom Art Space in Chiang Dao District, Chiang Mai

What about the the Asia Producer Platform Camp, what was that about?

Rosabel: The Asia Producer Platform Camp is a more intensive version of this [the Bangkok Performing Arts Meeting]: it is a ten-day research programme that involves spending time with artists to more deeply understand the sociopolitical and cultural environment in which they are making work.

What makes APP feel so special is that it started through friendship: through a small group of independent producers from across the region who believed that meaningful work starts with a foundation of deep understanding — in this case of the complex cultural contexts that they might need to navigate in their work.

It's so rare to get this opportunity to share space with people from so many different countries and to hear what’s happening for each of them. I never went to summer camp, but I think this is the vibe: the nervousness and excitement of making so many new friends, the intensely long hours, the shared meals, and the familial joy of seeing old friends (I say old friends but this is the second time I’ve seen most people) — and that feeling each time of being changed forever.

A group of eleven people posing for a photoRosabel: "It's so rare to get this opportunity to share space with people from so many different countries and to hear what’s happening for each of them."

Steph: A lot of people snort a little with the name Asia Producer Platform Camp but, as Rosabel suggests, the notion of going on camp, on a shared adventure is the absolute vibe of it, beyond the twee notions of school camp and into a more mature, more thoughtful and less hierarchical activity.

As part of the camp we split into research groups which means we each have unique experiences from one another, coming together to share what we’ve learned and discuss further.

Did you make any interesting connections you think might lead to future collaborations?

A grop of eleven people posing for a shot in front of a screen with the words Asian Producers Platform Camp 2023 projected on it

At the Producers Platform Camp participants were divided into groups to discuss issues relating to performing arts

Steph: At the heart of the work I’m doing at the moment is storytelling, which is such a universal thing. I had some fascinating discussions with fellow producers across Asia, and there are certainly projects that are likely to come to fruition out of these conversations.

Rosabel: It’s very hard not to. Something that becomes really apparent when you have this opportunity to spend time together is how you’re often all working towards very similar goals, just in different cultural contexts.

Was there anything you heard or did, or anyone you met that really stood out?

A performer on stage in a bright pink dress and holding a yellow sun umbrella, watched by an audience sitting on the ground

Attending a performance of Lanna Dream The Slum Star by SIRISOOK Dance Theatre at Makhampom Art Space in Chiang Dao District

Rosabel: I really loved meeting and learning about the work of Pichet Klunchun, a Thai choreographer and dancer who spent many years studying the traditional Thai dance form called Khon, before abstracting out its core principles and re-inventing it using a more contemporary language, much to the disapproval of his masters.

He spoke about the company he has built and beyond how incredible his work was, I loved how much he thinks about accessibility (under 18s and people who live in the neighbourhood where he has built his theatre can attend shows for free) as well as how he thinks about his role in the arts ecology.

He talked about how he signs his dancers up on a ten-year contract, and for the first few years, they train (and do not perform).

When they are ready, they perform. And in their final years, they make a work of their own before being nudged out into the world. “I want to create artists, not dancers,” he told us in his theatre, and I think that’s a radical, beautiful way to operate.

Steph: We spent some time in the Chiang Mai region visiting several spaces created for artists to come develop and make work including Lanyim Theatre, and Makhampom Art Space in Chiang Dao.

It was incredibly valuable to see these spaces, not full of bells and whistles to make work with but full of heart, imagination and community.

While I am all for a well-resourced, comfortable space to make work, it reminded me that creating opportunity and community doesn’t need the top-of-the-range gear. It just needs a willingness to bring people together and make magic.

Why are events like these important/valuable for NZ performing arts producers to attend?

A woman speaking to a group beside traditional-style Thai houses

Visiting Empty Space arts centre in Chiang Mai

 Rosabel: Opportunities like this to spend time with one another kanohi ki te kanohi are so immeasurably valuable.

The relationships that I’ve been able to build over the years have meant that I have a deeper understanding of the different cultural contexts artists are operating in across Asia, which is proving to be so valuable as we start to work more internationally again.

There are so many artists we would never even be aware of — so many vital conversations we would never be able to have — without opportunities like this. I am so grateful to be able to be connected with so many amazing practitioners from across Asia through opportunities like this.

 Steph: We live on a series of isolated small islands, which means we often have a bad habit of looking inwards when it comes to how we work, particularly over these past few years.

The opportunity to think globally, to consider how we can work together cross-culturally and to spend time having such vital conversations and experiences together is incredibly important - for our own professional development, but also for how it improves what we bring to the wider performing arts ecosystem here in Aotearoa.

It is revitalising and inspiring. Attending events like these make me want to strive harder in my mahi.

There are plenty of residencies and intensives for artists around the world, but an opportunity for producers like this comes few and far between. We are more often the ones producing the residencies and intensives for other people.

To be able to consider our practise as producers and to share skills and tips - from favourite excel formulae and software to ways of talking about the value of arts, culture and creativity - it is a gift. Producing can be quite a lonely venture, so the chance to gather and share is affirming.

The Foundation's arts programme aims to bring Asia into the mainstream of New Zealand arts by inspiring New Zealand arts professionals to grow their connections and knowledge of Asia. It also supports the presentation of Asian arts in partnership with New Zealand arts organisations and events.

The Arts Practitioners Fund supports New Zealand professional arts companies, events and organisations to deliver projects that will grow New Zealanders' awareness and knowledge of Asian arts.