I thought I knew all about a king who ruled Thailand (once Siam) in the 19th century, as I served there in the Peace Corps from 1989 to 1990, where I learned much about Thai society and the country’s history. One odd aspect of government policy then was that of censorship and modesty in films shown in the country; if a scene involved intimacy or even partial nudity, the screen would be veiled and opaque until it was over. This seemed strange in a society that tolerated transvestites and flamboyant displays in the seamy entertainment enclaves of Bangkok while at the same time maintaining an innocence with its young boys and girls that reminded me of my own youth in California. Certainly, no one in Thailand was allowed to view the classic “The King and I” film version, and when I left my assignment there it was still banned from movie theaters in Bangkok.
However, I was allowed recently to be a background choral member in the St. Thomas’ Playhouse production of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about the Thai king and an English teacher. I am satisfied that in spite of the drama, the composer and librettist got it right in their portrayal of the incipient sea changes in Siam that resulted from the conflicts of cultures as exemplified by the exchanges between the king and Anna. Indeed, the king’s son, Chulalongkorn, became the benevolent leader of a country that was able to escape the occupations of foreign powers during the tumultuous end of the 19th and the first years of the 20th century. He also lightened the lives of his subjects by creating the masterful system of klongs, or canals, which serve so well the agricultural and societal needs of that country. He is justifiably revered in Thailand.
Being in the cast of this production brought back many memories of my time in Thailand, but that is not the most important impression I received from being with this terrific cast in my beloved town. What I gained was yet another perspective of the joys of living here, benefits I have long extolled in previous columns. A relative once commented to me that my younger daughter, living in L.A. and being a struggling actress, would “probably end up just like you, doing community theater.” At the time I was insulted for my girl and also for me, as if the luck of the draw and repeated attempts to perform in L.A. and New York were only frustrating because somehow we were not talented enough to succeed in “The Biz.” Of course on any level that is patently untrue: I know more talented people than I could easily name who have not hit the “big time” or received a profitable career in film or theatre.
So I need to testify to the truths that living here enhance. We live in a community where people are given chances to perform, write, sing, paint or sculpt, and fulfill any artistic effort one desires. Community theater here features so many brightly creative and talented people who have chosen to live in the Wood River Valley for its beauty and also for our community connections that it’s hard to simplify my responses to what I see year after year. Just this last week I could have attended some production every night of the week, from “The King and I” to “The Crucible” at Wood River High School, followed by “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Community School and flamenco at the nexStage and the brilliant Company of Fools production of “The Woman in Black.” If I didn’t have to eat, sleep, work and care for my doggies, I could attend an event almost every night!
Since I moved here in 1982, from my first volunteer theatrical effort with Laughing Stock, doing props for “Cowboy” (where I carried saddles outside in the snow to the opposite side of the theater), to my current camaraderie with and admiration for the skilled performers in “The King and I,” I count myself lucky to be able to participate in the rich brotherhood of artists who choose to live here.
“Just community theater”—hah! What a limited view of happiness and satisfaction! If you haven’t treated yourself to music, dance and theater in our town, check them out; you won’t be disappointed. Along with the professional presentations we are privy to enjoy, you might be surprised at how delightful “just community theater” is here.