Lights, Cameras, Action! Globalteer volunteer stages landmark kids’ production

Canadian volunteer Puja Uppal knew that she would probably have to draw on all her multi-tasking skills when she volunteered with Globalteer’s Cambodia children’s project. But she had no idea that her background in theatre and TV would lead to her becoming casting director, wardrobe manager, scriptwriter, producer and director for a very special one-off performance at the Globalteer-supported Cambodian Street Kids Project in Siem Reap.

Puja was expecting her placement to involve supporting the project’s Khmer teachers with English, General studies and “workshop” classes, but during her project orientation with one of the long-term managing volunteers the subject of her acting background came up, and very quickly an exciting idea was born – why not put on some drama workshops, and maybe even a production?

Puja’s Play gets the green light

With the project director’s backing , Puja suddenly found herself facing the mountainous task of training up a group of Cambodian youngsters who had never acted before, and putting on a full-blown English language production complete with costumes, singing and dancing and even a purpose-built set. And she had less than nine weeks to do it.

Puja worked initially with students from the project’s advanced class, starting with a brainstorming session to decide on the subject of the play. The popular idea of a ghost story was rejected in favour of a love story called ‘The Price of Love’, that touched on some of the real issues facing Cambodian youths and their families today: the clash between modern western ideas and traditional Khmer culture.

The protagonists are a young couple whose love for each other is frowned upon by their parents, who believe they are “unsuitable” for each-other. The young girl’s family already has a suitable partner lined up for her. But as with all good love stories, eventually the heart triumphs over the head and the couple lives happily ever after.

Puja wrote the play which was then translated into Khmer by one of the project’s teachers, Sreylin. Whilst the performance would be entirely in English, it was important that the students understood what they were saying in order to play their roles convincingly.

“Because the play was in English I was basically teaching English as we were working on the play. I even held a vocab test of the big words used in the play and the student who got the highest mark got to come with me to the market and buy a wardrobe piece for their character!” explained Puja.

Daily challenges

Language was not the only challenge. Some of the students couldn’t make it to weekend rehearsals as they needed to help with the family business or look after younger siblings. Puja’s time was also stretched, and she found herself standing in for volunteers or teachers at the project if they were off sick.

Acting is not something that comes easily to young Khmers who are mostly shy and reserved by nature. Persuading them to actually take part was a struggle in itself. In the end, when no one in the advanced class wanted take on the two lead roles, the actors had to be chosen from the project’s young adult programme. But that wasn’t the end of it as Puja explained:

“My first male lead was just too busy with his job at a local hotel to commit the time needed to memorise his lines, and the female lead was intimidated by the amount of English dialogue and was afraid she wouldn’t do a good job. Then with about two weeks to go our new male lead told me he wanted to do the play but was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do a good job and didn’t want to disappoint me. I assured him that he would do a good job which seemed to diminish his insecurities and he agreed to continue with the part”.

D-Day approaches

As the date for the performance approached and rehearsal time became more and more crucial, Puja had trouble finding a suitable rehearsal space. The project had plenty of outdoor space, but in the tropics it gets dark by 6:30pm so she needed to find a big enough space to rehearse in that also had electric lighting!

A quick ask-around resulted in the large rooftop lounge at Globalteer House, our volunteer hostel in Siem Reap, providing the emergency stage, and the cast and crew were ferried over from the project on bicycles and tuk-tuks!

Then to top it all, Puja also managed to lose her voice with just a week to go, which made giving director’s instructions more than just a little bit tricky...

“I was demonstrating how loud I needed the kids to speak and I killed my own voice! The next few days I was limited to whispering and teacher Sreylin literally became my voice”.

Despite the pressure and the stress of rehearsals and preparations Puja did manage to find some down time and fit in a few visits to the local gym, hitting the treadmill and the weights. She could also be spotted with fellow volunteers wrapped around a drink or two at the bar and pool at “Aqua” one of the many friendly watering holes not far from Globalteer House.

The Big night

Finally on Saturday, February 4th the performance went ahead to a packed house at The Butterfly Garden just of Siem Reap’s leafy riverside. With the exception of a few forgotten lines the night was a huge success and enjoyed by all who took part or came to watch. Puja finds it hard to pick just one highlight, but has great memories of a particular scene from the play:

“At one point the lead actor and his friends serenade the lead actress with ‘Can’t take my eyes off you’. The boys memorised the words to the song (and I’ve been told they still sing it at school), and I had them do dance moves along with their singing. Their performance was perfect and the crowd cheered really loudly, and I just remember when the boys came back stage, the pride and happiness I saw in their faces was just priceless. That’s when I could tell they were loving every minute of it!”

Puja admits that that she was reduced to tears after the show when the children presented her with flowers, letters, gifts and lots of hugs, asking her to come back soon and not forget them.

“I think the kids were truly surprised, as I was, that it all came together. However, every time I faced an obstacle I knew I couldn’t give up because the kids were counting on me, and I wanted to show them that even something that seemed like such a huge feat was possible if you just try hard and put your mind to it. And to be honest, that’s what I hope each of them took away from the process”.

Looking back

Puja has now left Siem Reap to continue her travels, but hopes to return to Cambodia soon:

“I would definitely come back, I felt at home in Siem Reap and cheesy as it sounds, my heart is still there. I fell in love with the kids and the people. And I will definitely recommend volunteering through Globalteer to my friends. I wouldn’t have met such great people and good friends if it weren’t for volunteering through Globalteer”.

To find out more about how you can help by volunteering with children in Cambodia, please visit our Cambodia children’s project page.