At one particular residential school in Thailand, theater — along with some travel — is the basis for most of the students' education.
"We are learning by home-school method, and the world is a big classroom for them," said "Gai" Chingchai Saisin, a teacher at the Moradokmai Theatre Community and Homeschool.
That explains why six students were getting an impromptu lesson in tap at the Downtown Dance Collective this week. They carved out some time while stopping in Missoula on a four-month tour of their play, "Lonely Tossakan," which Chingchai wrote. It's brought them from San Francisco to North Carolina, with stops in Washington, D.C., where their "classroom" has been in places like the Smithsonian Institution.
The school has been touring the United States every year for the last six or seven years. It was founded by Chandruang "Chang" Janaprakal, who came to California for college in the 1970s. He had to pay his own way, and saw a job posting in Yellowstone National Park. While there, he heard more and more about Glacier National Park. He wanted to be close by, and so he transferred to Flathead Valley Community College, and then came to UM for his MFA in theater. He still refers to Randy Bolton, a UM theater professor, as his "guru."
Moradokmai is a free residential school based on communal living, including growing their own food, and they use theater as a teaching method.
"We teach every subject through theater. If you wanted to learn about science, then we made a story about Einstein," Janaprakal said. Mason Wagner, who leads an independent theater troupe called BetweenTheLines, went to the school last September and taught them Western theater methods. He led a production based on "Hamlet," and helped the group line up its stop here, with a show at Free Cycles on Thursday.
A traditional tale
The students translated "Lonely Tossakan," into English, line by line, as they made their way across the U.S., predominantly performing for Thai communities.
"Lonely Tossakan" is adapted from a classic Thai tragedy that the country in turn adopted from India, he said. It's a play about good and evil and choosing wisdom to control your impulses.
It opens with Rama, a king, preparing to go into battle to save his queen, Sida, who has been kidnapped by Tossakan, a demon with 10 heads that symbolize characteristics like ego, lust, anger and greed.
Rama has sent all of his allies into battle to save her, but they've all been killed except for Hanuman, a monkey warrior who symbolizes wisdom. Hanuman can't save her, though, and so Rama decides, against warnings, to undertake the task himself, with potentially tragic consequences.
"The whole thing is a metaphor for fighting the evil ways within yourself," Janaprakal said.
Chingchai said they want to be contemporary without leaving the roots of "a real Thai epic."
The story will be portrayed by the students with an adapted version of Thai mask theater. In keeping with tradition, they won't speak while wearing the ornamented masks — a narrator might step in. Or they might remove the mask and use it like a puppet.
They don't wear the traditional, tightly-fitting garments of Thai theater, but employ some of the movements, such as stiff body gestures. They've brought in techniques they learned in America, such as contemporary dance or jazz, in a "fusion" of older and newer Western and Eastern styles.
There's a live band that does the same, with touches of rock and jazz and traditional Thai instruments such as xylophones, a Thai oboe and percussion.
"The kids are versatile. They sing, they dance, they perform, they play music," he said.
He thinks it should appeal to those familiar or unfamiliar with Thai culture.
"Do you like Thai food? It will be more delicious after you watch it. And for those who haven't had any taste of Thai, then this is the first taste," he said.