If you followed the rehearsals, Srikanlaya Onchoysakul's English was improving by the hour. A good thing too, because the fourth-year English major at Khon Kaen University was about to hit the stage in the lead role in "Grease the Musical".
Srikanlaya, playing Sandy Dumbrowski, led the all-student cast through three days of performances earlier this month. The musical was the university's fourth English-language play, and the aim, as always, was to boost those speaking skills.
"Grease", a romp about American high-school students best known from the 1978 film version starring John Travolta, had already been a Broadway hit for years thanks to its lively charm and catchy tunes.
"'Grease' is a classic - it was really popular when I was young," says English lecturer Annie Preis, who coached the student cast in acting and enunciation. "American students love 'Grease' and have done many of their own fabulous productions, and I thought Thai students could do the same."
The cast started rehearsing six days a week in October. Early on, to be sure, their pronunciation was difficult to understand, but it improved remarkably fast.
"I talked to everyone in English every day," Srikanlaya says. "I sang the songs in English every day. I got better because it was fun - all of us were happy to do it."
The musical isn't that well-known in Thailand, but there were more than a thousand people in the audience when it opened, with local university and high-school students and teachers being joined by many foreigners who live in Khon Kaen.
"Our main target audience was Thai students, and they tend to think English is hard to follow," says director Thanandon Wongkittithon, a fourth-year English major.
"Our previous English plays didn't get many people out, but the musical was different. It was easy to understand and the story sounded interesting to young people - as well as everyone who'd seen the film."
There were 18 students in the cast, not all of whom study English, and nearly 100 behind the scenes, raising money, selling tickets, making costumes and preparing the Thai surtitles. They learned a lot about working as a team.
"Besides giving me a chance to practise my English, I learned about adjusting to a bigger community," says Narat Winiyakul, the fourth-year student who played Danny Zuko. "I learned that putting on a show requires responsibility and a community-service attitude."
Any fatigue he felt, Narat adds, was forgotten when he realised how much prestige the university would earn from the production and how much encouragement it would give freshmen.
The play cost Bt110,000, much of it donated by local sponsors who put the students' education above advertising benefits. Other funds came from the university's own student-development fund and the English Programme.
"We believe extracurricular activities develop the students' potential," says Asst Prof Araya Vithsupalert, chairman of the university's English Programme. "We've backed many projects to improve their skills and team spirit. We evaluate projects that the students present too, and give them money as appropriate. This English play was very useful in our eyes."
Viewers didn't get anywhere near the English practice that the performers did, of course, but it was generally agreed that their appreciation of English was improved by the experience.
"English is very easy!" says Narat. "Thai students can be good at speaking English if they just practise a bit."
Special to the Nation