Melody Butiu is a Los Angeles-based actress working in theater, television and film. Here, she reflects on her experience performing “Land of Smiles” this past December in Changmai, Thailand:
“When I first encountered LAND OF SMILES, I had never heard of the Kachin State and the Kachin People. I knew there was political strife in Burma, but I didn’t know how it affected Thailand, and it was all so very removed from me. When I participated in the early readings of the piece, knowing it was based on over 50 interviews conducted by Erin Kamler, delving into the countless complexities of human trafficking and NGO work in Thailand, I felt the weight of how special this piece was. The musical was incredibly moving, filled with emotion, had a gorgeous score, and a story that hit the core of, “How do we set out to change the world?” and “What do we do when we discover that nothing is black or white? Where do we take a stand when the ground keeps shifting beneath us?” When Erin invited me to perform the piece in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and told me that we would get to meet the people who inspired this incredible story, it was an opportunity I could not pass up.
There was a bit of anxiety coming to Thailand. How do we do this piece justice? To give voice to a people, to share their story, is a huge responsibility. Knowing we would be doing a theatre workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed (founded by Augusto Boal, led by Kimiko Broder), I was nervous to meet the young interns studying social justice with KWAT (Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand). I thought, “We are telling the story of the Kachin people, of their war and their struggles. They have been through so much. They have lost family members, friends, entire villages have been wiped out. Who do I think I am? I’m an actress in LA, always looking for the next gig. They are fighting for the survival of their people. What do I have to offer?” Yet, when we were all in the room together, playing theatre games, talking about creating a dialogue through art and expression, those anxieties fell away. The goal was to give them tools to talk about issues that are most pressing to them, ways to connect, and ways to think outside the box. We laughed, played, and made discoveries together. And they prepared a delicious Kachin lunch for us. I’m so grateful for our new friends.
The preparation for mounting LAND OF SMILES was fast and furious. 40 hours, off book, fully staged, with tech? Half of our cast was from Thailand, and the other half was from Los Angeles. Everyone was hard-working and dedicated, and working on a show always feels like an instant family. One of my favorite new family members was Yardpirun Poolun, a young student from Chiang Mai University, who was often my scene partner, and we both played multiple roles. She’s from a small village north of Chiang Mai. Her parents are farmers. Yet, she traveled to Michigan as a high school exchange student to learn English, and this was her very first English speaking role. We’d have pronunciation drills and projection exercises, but Yard was very much a natural on stage. Watching our fellow cast members, Jennie Kwan, Amanda Kruger, Ann Fink, and Marisa Mour tell the story, singing Erin’s songs with their hearts wide open, brought me to tears every night.
We did have some time for fun and exploration. Walking around the city, riding the songthaews (two-bench red cars), shopping for friends and loved ones (and ourselves) at the walking markets, contemplating the hundreds-of-years-old Wats around the city and up in the mountains, riding an elephant, floating down the Ping River, the food (oh, the food!), the Thai massages…These are all experiences I will never forget.
Then came our final show. I was most nervous about this one because half of the audience would be Kachin migrants, from our social justice friends to Kachin domestic workers and other immigrants. Many of them did not speak Thai and most of them did not speak English. There were translations in Burmese projected onto the backdrop onstage, but we learned early in the performance that something was amiss with the translations, and a translator volunteered to give the Kachin audience members a summary of what they were seeing. One of my characters, which I hold very close to my heart, was Soon Nu, a freedom fighter, who helped Kachin migrants cross the border, and ran money from kachin workers in Thailand back to Kachin State, to support their fight for freedom. When I sang her song, “Kachin Women are Proud and Strong,” which chronicles Soon Nu’s story of losing her family, running from the Burmese army, becoming a refugee with no rights and no home, and choosing to fight for freedom, I felt like I was going to collapse into tears with every breath.
When Erin took her final bow at the piano, she turned around and there was a look of surprise on her face. A woman in the front row stood up and gave her a big hug. When the cast met backstage, Erin had the woman with her and said, “Melody, this is Auntie Shirley. This is the woman who inspired Soon Nu.” I was so overwhelmed that I burst into tears, and we all cried together. She said simply, “Thank you,” and couldn’t say anymore. When we finally got to see our new friends from KWAT after the show, they showered us with hugs and congratulations, and said over and over again, “Thank you for giving us a voice.” I was the one who was thankful. The power of theatre, to tell stories, to give voice to people who have a story to tell, to share and connect and inspire and be inspired, was never more apparent than in that moment.
Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I’m again that actress looking for the next gig. I have an episode of “Raising Hope,” airing on FOX this week. I did a reading of a new play called CHISERA, by Paula Cizmar. And I’m hopeful about the future of HERE LIES LOVE, a show I did with David Byrne (of The Talking Heads) in New York City, that made several Top Ten lists in Theatre for 2013. I will be forever changed by my experiences in Chiang Mai, the people we got to meet, the stories we shared, and the friendships we forged. The social justice interns we met just graduated from their program at KWAT, and I hold them in my thoughts and prayers.”