04 Jul 2012
Portland actress Helena de Crespo was travelling through Cambodia about four years ago, when an accidental encounter changed her life.
After visiting the famed temples of Angkor Wat in that battle-scarred country near Siem Reap, she headed down a road with her interpreter. There on the side of the road was an ornate traveling theater. De Crespo, born in Spain and raised in Britain, was familiar with outdoor theatre, as years ago she had traveled in South America, performing with a troupe that mounted shows in various venues, some of them outdoors.
But she hadn’t seen anything like this, especially amid the poverty of the land.
“I told my interpreter ‘Stop the car, I want to meet them,” de Crespo recalled. The Cambodians along the roadside accepted her visit calmly. She urged her interpreter to ask them who they were and what they did, and in turn, to tell them that she was an actress. When they found out she was involved in theater, they welcomed her openly. They offered her what little food they had, and invited her to take photographs.
They showed her how they powered the stage lights with an old generator run by a car engine. They showed her their costumes, and how they lived under the stage. Amid dire poverty and life in substandard conditions, they were performing live theater in Khmer (Cambodia’s official language) regularly to local audiences, who regularly number over 1,000 at a single presentation.
After more than two hours had passed, she had had animated discussions with company director Len Chouen, and she learned his amazing story. Len Chouen had come from a theater family who performed the ancient art form of Bassac, a mix of opera, theater, music and dancing dating back 4,000 years, disciplines he learned as a child. When all artists in Cambodia were slated to be killed during the Khmer Rouge, his family members were wiped out by Pol Pot’s soldiers, but because he was small he was hidden under their dead bodies, and was able to escape. De Crespo learned that Len Chouen had formed his company, about 86 members in all–including orphans wandering the countryside–in order to preserve Bassac. As she was about to leave, he begged her to help the company, which is titled the Reasmey Ankgor Bassac Theater Troupe.
“I was leaving the next day,” de Crespo said. “All I could think about was them. I was really ignorant. I didn’t know anything about Bassac. All I could see was those people suffering. I thought, ‘What can I do? Where can I turn?’ Bassac, she learned, is an ancient art form originating from India, using many of that country’s mythological characters, and was inspired by the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic that is an important part of the Hindu canon. Ramayana thematically explores human values and the idea of dharma, the principal or law that orders the universe. So many people were unable to read, so through traveling theater they learned about the gods and their traditional stories through theater.
When she returned to Portland, de Crespo started contacting various social service agencies to help raise money. No one in America answered her request, but through her connection with England’s Actors Equity, she found International Performance Aid Trust (IPAT), a group operating out of Britain and Belgium. Eventually, their funding enabled the Bassac company to purchase land for their theater center. Other improvements are in the works, including a water pump, health center, school and a more permanent theater space. “They’ve got some pigs and chickens and a pond for fishing, and papaya trees have been planted,” de Crespo said. But she said there is much more that they need. During the monsoon season, she added, the theater group members are forced to move elsewhere due to lack of shelter.
De Crespo and a group of other Portland people sympathetic to her cause have recently formed a not-for-profit group titled Save World Art. The Cambodian project, originally called “Cambodian Treasures–The Bassac Project,” will be the inaugural effort of this fund-raising group. And to raise money de Crespo has launched her own money-raising project, the performance of a chilling, dryly funny one-woman play titled “Elective Affinities” by Syrian-American playwright David Adjmi. A site-specific playlet about a wealthy woman with no humility, it is designed to be performed in opulent private homes, and is by invitation only, although de Crespo says that could change. She has performances slated in the Portland area and in Ashland this summer.
“Many people in Cambodia are still struggling to say alive,” de Crespo said. “Between 1975-1979, two million Cambodians perished during the genocide. Even after 30 years their infrastructure is still very bad.” She added that Save World Art is geared toward helping with buildings, health, sanitation and self-sufficient food production. But it’s also aimed at something more that could help the entire country–reviving an ancient art form that can enhance tourism as well as the quality of life for Cambodians.
“Who would have thought,” de Crespo said, ” that my stopping a car and walking out to meet a group of people in the Cambodian countryside would have such a great effect on my life?”
You can contribute a tax-deductible donation to help the Cambodian project here or here.
Watch “Cambodian Treasures: Preserving Bassac Theatre”