Published on August 16, 2007
Seats at the musicals sold relatively well before the purpose-built Muang Thai Ratchadalai Theatre opened earlier this year with "Fah Jarod Sai", but business is now tumultuous.
TV production company Workpoint debuted its theatre arm with the comedy "Chai Klang" at the new venue, and theatre owner Scenario is all set to stage its first comedy, "Luk Khun Luang".
Next month Scenario is putting on a new production of its successful musical "Bunlung Mek", and in November it will team up with BEC-Tero to bring in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats".
And, with new partner CM Organiser, Dreambox Theatre now has a better chance of succeeding after struggling to survive as Dass Entertainment.
Are city folk really shunning TV and the cinema in favour of live shows, or is it just a fad?
"The Ratchadalai Theatre is being managed well," says Nation theatre critic Pawit Mahasarinand, but although the scene is "definitely booming, a lot of it is the result of media coverage, and because people tend to be excited about new things".
"I wonder what will happen once when they get used to it," says Nikorn Saetung, who runs the 8X8, a 30-seat cafe-theatre upstairs at a shophouse in Samyan Market. "Maybe their enthusiasm for theatre will die out."
Writer-producer Daraka Wongsiri, who's been coping with the ups and downs of Thai theatre for the past 20 years, is even less optimistic.
"Whenever a new theatre shows promise we get our hopes up, and then, after a few years, it's gone. The arrival of the Ratchadalai reminds me of the prosperous days of the Montienthong Theatre, the birth of the 28 Theatre group and the success of Dass Entertainment.
"They all did well at the beginning and we thought the theatre business was at last flourishing, but they were all forced to close in the end," says Daraka, who was behind the staging of such masterpieces as "Onlamaan Lung Baan Sai Thong" and the musical "Khoo Kam".
Pawit points out that this time the production company owns the theatre and has strong financial backing, and the venue is in a good location at the Esplanade on Ratchadaphisek Road.
He stresses that the theatre companies need to prove their worth.
"Big production companies must also support small troupes. In Broadway theatres it's common to find leaflets for off-Broadway or even off-off-Broadway productions. They help each other, and that props up the community as a whole."
An issue that concerns Pawit, Daraka and Nikorn is the skyrocketing cost of a ticket. The average price is around Bt1,000, making it hard for most people to catch more than one or two performances a year.
Dreambox and Patravadi, among others, provide generous discounts for students, but they have to pay full price at the Ratchadalai.
"It's hard to lower the price because it might ruin a show's image," Pawit says. "The public would misunderstand, thinking that if it's cheap, the show's no good."
And putting TV soap-opera stars on the stage as a gimmick to sell more tickets just wouldn't work, he says.
"Theatre is an alternative form of entertainment, which people seek out when they're bored with television and movies. It would be no good for the theatre business if, after the initial craze has died down, the audiences are seeing nothing different from what's on their TV screens."
The current boom, Pawit notes, has benefited young theatre students, who formerly had to settle for jobs in television and cinema.
"They're relieved at having a chance to work in the field they've studied," he says, but he quickly adds that those graduating from the classes where he lectures are still struggling to make ends meet.
While the stars of such musicals as "Fah Jarod Sai" may well earn seven figures, the ensemble and extras are lucky to take home Bt100,000 for four or five months' work.
And cast members rehearse harder and can't take leave. Unlike their Western counterparts, they have no union protection.
"In theatre, actors and dancers can't take on sideline jobs to supplement their income," Pawit says. "It's hard to see how they can survive unless they're paid a decent wage."
"I don't think the theatre business will survived if we don't get support from the state," Daraka observes. "As I keep saying, theatre should be encouraged as part of education. If we succeed, there will be more scriptwriters, directors - and theatregoers."