One month into my role as Diversity Officer in July 2017, I had a series of conversations about how our association with Epic Arts could work, what it would feel like and look like. It had to be authentic, tangible and it had to be responsive to our local areas. For We Are Epic this meant using the resources and people based in the Midlands, and in Kampot for Epic Arts
A part of my wish list, it had to be an artistic relationship which was about working in collaboration, using strengths and best practices from each company, and have opportunities to learn and exchange knowledge between each other.
In the We Are Epic office at the Attenborough Arts Centre office chatting with Ant he mentioned Thouen, who had freshly graduated from Epic Arts’ Inclusive Arts Course in April 2017.
Thouen was eager to continue dancing and had no intentions of going back to work on his family’s buffalo farm.
Thouen wanted to make a performance piece about his stories, and continue developing his artistic skills. He didn’t know what, how, when or who…this was the seed of our collaboration and where Buffalo Boy started.
Richard Poynton came on board as Director and began to interview and chat with Thouen through Epic Arts staff, mainly Emily Gibbs the Dance Tutor. Richard’s questions were translated from English to Khmer and Thouen was invited to respond to Richard’s provocations. Working with Emily, Thouen started creating movement sequences in the studio with Emily emailing Thouen’s response back to Richard in the UK.
Between Thouen, Richard and Emily ideas of scenes, material and dance scores were beginning to appear from the stories Thouen was telling. Thouen continue creating material and was joined by Noth. Noth came on board as a dancer, with over 7 years experience dancing with Epic Arts and also a graduate from Epic Arts’ Arts Course.
Buffalo Boy had taken root in Kampot and was fast taking shape as a performance piece.
Back in Leicester, Ant and I were busy working out how to support the project. I was looking into creating R&D possibilities for Buffalo Boy and figuring out possible ways to make the project happen as an international collaboration. After juggling schedules, workloads, finances and speaking with Arts Council England, a plan was hatched!
Richard, myself and Ant would go to Kampot and do a 10 day R&D. Roo, a musician working with Epic Arts joined the team. We would collaborate with Thouen and Noth, spend 10 days as a creative team developing Buffalo Boy
London to Bangkok, Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Kampot, 2 days of travelling, another day or two to settle in and Buffalo Boy R&D began!
The studio atmosphere on the first morning was full of excitement, high expectations and a feeling on how is this going to work in practice. We had 3 ways of communicating and we welcomed translators as part of our team. We were working in Khmer spoken language, Khmer sign language and English spoken language, with the occasional British Sign dropped in!
Phoun joined us as part of marketing and design. He would work alongside Hayley, Epic Arts Project Manager, to draw and design a logo for the project and design graphics for the projection scenes.
After photographs, meet and greets, and everyone agreeing on the very packed schedule, we started. Thouen and Noth shared the material they had already created and Phoun and Hayley shared design concepts and mood boards.
Emily who had been choreographing with Thouen and Noth unfortunately got very poorly and had to leave the project. I stepped in and became part of the creative team as well as co-producer. I have experience of working in dance, theatre and performance and have my own artistic and Feldenkrais practices. However it was a bit of a surprise to jump into the project in this way, Emily had an excellent relationship collaborating with Thouen and Noth.
A week about getting to know each other and developing sections.
It was integral that inclusive ways of working and best practices were embedded right from the beginning. For me this meant finding pathways for Thouen and Noth to take responsibility, for them to begin to think and work out how best to include their access requirements into the piece, rather than adding them on. It was a bit of a challenge to start with, it was another way of creating work, another layer of the creative process to consider.
Three languages & carving out a creative process.
We were communicating in three languages and this diversity set a wonderful slower pace, a chance to listen, to clarify and to ask questions. I was learning Khmer signs as we went along, more than often mixing BSL with Khmer. Finding clearer ways to speak in English so the translator had a chance to translate my intentions through his different language filters. This rhythm of 3 languages and the time of translations invited trials to make work from Thouen and Noth’s strengths and abilities as emerging performers. It opened up conversations within the whole team about giving them opportunities to voice their opinions in the making process.
It became about Noth and Thouen having more visible responsibility in the overall project, saying what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they didn’t understand. Sometimes finding this newer way of working meant being left with creative tasks and discovering what they could do.
Sometimes it was them finding ways to record what had happened that day and how they could document their process so they could shape the next days work and have shared ownership of their artistic trajectory. Many times we ended up showing, sharing and relying on the non-verbal communication rather than the strength of verbal words. Approaching the creative process through this lens provided opportunities for Noth and Thouen to discover other ways of the making working
The inclusion of music was a focus throughout the R&D, Roo the composer was embedded in the making process, in the room with us, listening to Thouen’s stories and responding to the cultural music landscape he found around Cambodia to create bespoke scores.
Roo and Noth struck up a conversation around feeling the beat and music ques. Identifying as part of the deaf community, Noth relies on the beat (and visual) ques for his entrances and exits. As we were embedding access into the R&D and using access to influence Buffalo Boy I shared with Noth some of my experiences of working with dancers who required non-hearing ques. Noth, Roo and I spent time playing with louder, low frequency sounds for Noth feel his que, Roo translated some ideas into his compositions. We worked together with Thouen so that his visuals ques were clear enough in a particular movement sequence that Noth definitely knew his ques. Working in this way Thouen and Noth found more ownership in their work, their abilities to create work without relying on staff for ques and scene orders. Roo continued to compose, Noth continued to find ways of asking for clarity in the music. This conversation continued over the whole 10 days.
Mid day sun
The two-hour lunch break in the middle of the day was a much needed rest. Out of the studio and the heat. Down to the Epic Arts cafe for food or a bike ride along the river to feel the breeze, or a 30 minute nap to process and refresh. A coconut straight from the tree was always a welcomed treat in the afternoon.
As the weeks progressed the work was becoming stronger, abilities within the team were growing and conversation about piece, the scene order and material was steadily shaping up. Thouen and Noth had created ways to remember their material, to document what they had done. I was in and out of meetings with Epic Art staff about costumes, finances and meeting with Sokny and Ant (Co-Directors of Epic Arts) about plans for the piece when Ant and I get back to the UK. It was busy.
Back in the Buffalo Boy studio Thouen and Richard were working on performance skills, the importance of eye contact, having presence on stage and owning material. A big topic which was talked about a lot was looking after themselves, having breaks, warming up and down and finding a balance between rehearsing and performance modes. Richard introduced puppetry skills for the firefly section and taught acting skills.
The firefly section is Thouen’s main section.
He told us stories of enjoying watching the fireflies at night, how he feels and the slowness the world has when he sits and watches them. I had never seen fireflies and so the team went on a night river-boat cruise.
We watched as the fireflies clustered in groups, they were beautiful, like lots of tiny but quite fast, flickering lights high up. Silence, as they flew to a new position, re-gathered themselves and again lit up the tree. A cluster here, darkness, another cluster lit up as they moved around the trees. Quietly, in the dark we sat, noting the movements, the timing.
The next day Thouen, Noth, Richard and I continued to work on this section. Thouen was really creating artistic material from his experiences of the fireflies. The feeling of the material was deeper, the section flowed in a smoother, more knowing way. Being in the room and being a small part of developing that section will stay with me for a long time.
Towards the end of the R&D was a small sharing to the Epic Arts staff and students who were around. Noth and Thouen’s performance was received with waving hands, clapping and many teary eyes from teachers, staff and students who all saw the passion they have both put into the 10 days of work.
Epic Arts building is light, white with many windows, completely different from the black box set-up in the UK. The technical equipment is old and crackly and with little lighting capabilities. We hired The Royal Cinema, in Kampot Cinema for our final sharing. There’s a beautiful awarding-winning film about the cinema which was produced by Junction 15 Productions and Epic Arts.
Leading arts orgs and disability sector NGOs came down from Phnom Penh, Epic Arts were hosting an international school and they came to see, family and local supporters from the town came.
There was lighting, sound and after introducing the work, the project, Thouen and Noth spectacularly took the stage and performed Buffalo Boy. A standing ovation, waving hands, clapping and many teary eyes marked the end of 10 extraordinary days in the studio.
Back in the UK Ant and I are talking about how to develop the project, to continue to enrich the skills of everyone in the team, and following up conversations with individuals and organisations who are offering their support to keep Buffalo Boy alive.