A few of the guys I’m working with on my Cambodian adventure with Epic Arts are Deaf and speak Cambodian Sign Language. I speak a certain amount of British Sign Language, having got my first qualification a few months ago, and we have had fun finding the similarities and differences between our languages.
For me, the most beautiful moment came when I arrived on my first day of work and was greeted by a group of artists all repeating the same sign. My translator explained to me that they had given me a sign name. In both British and Cambodian deaf cultures, a hearing person is not allowed to choose their own sign name so I was thrilled to learn that they had already taken care of this for me. This is what it looks like:
[I apologise for how clammy I look in this video. It is hotter than the sun here in Kampot.]
The sign is a reference to the small red nose that I often use on stage. It is incredibly similar to another word, as I discovered when I had spent two days accidentally telling people “Hello, My name is Monday.” As the week has gone on, I have learnt a few more Cambodian signs and our ability to communicate has grown.
I was having an interesting conversation the other day with Seangly – a very talented physical performer who is clearly inspired by artists like Chaplin and Mr Bean. We were discussing a Buster Keaton short film that I had just shown them. Seangly told me that he loved the old movies and that there aren’t many “funny men” in Cambodia anymore, although they used be be very popular. He then used a Cambodian sign that I hadn’t seen before. A colleague next to me translated: Seangly was telling me the funny men were now all dead. The very graphic and visual sign he used next – describing their brutal execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – needed no translation.
I already knew the story of Cambodia’s history but the wonderful, warm, friendly attitude of all those I’m working with made that history very easy to forget. It’s just not in the front of your mind out here. Hearing the reality of the situation from someone who lives here – from someone whose sense of humour has brought me so much joy all week – hearing it from him felt devastatingly powerful. Right at that moment, the rest of the group returned for our workshop to begin again and our conversation was cut short.
The team get back to brainstorming ideas.
The group I am working with are professional performers with a few years of experience. I have been very keen to ensure that I am not telling them precisely what to do nor what is funny. How a clown behaves is inextricably linked to the cultural expectations of the environment around them. They need to be doing Cambodian clowning, not another version of the clowning that I perform in Europe. I’ve therefore been running exercises to teach them them mindset of a clown so that they can create the performances themselves to show me later in the day. On that Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours after my conversation with Seangly, they performed a short sketch about a man with new shoes that had me in full belly laughs. Even now I am beaming with joy while thinking about it.
This is what I look like beaming with joy.
(Image Creative Commons – Maureen Ravelo)
So where are all the Cambodian “funny men”? They are still here. They are in the room with me every day as we work. These are incredible performers who are working hard to bring messages to their audiences with exactly the same spirit that drives me in my own work.
It is a privilege to say that I am working with – and learning from – the new generation of Cambodian funny men and women.
Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I wish you all the best,
This project is kindly supported by: