A large sign with the words “Bambu Stage” written on it in bold black ink greets you by a rustic track in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The venue is Tangram Garden, a Cambodian restaurant made up of separate pavilions set within a lush tropical garden.
It is quite a spectacle this late evening. Long bamboo rods used as decorative sentries greet the guests. An entrance bonfire adds to the ambience. Guests are escorted along a pebbled pathway lit by garden lights into the reception area for drinks before the show begins.
The show takes place in another pavilion where there is a banquet table setting for the dinner after. Armchair seats cluster around the “stage”.
Bambu Stage is the brainchild of Nicholas Coffill and Jon de Rule. By no means are these two novices at their game, which may account for the crackling-fresh uniqueness of their presentations.
Coffill’s origin is the outback town of Condobolin in New South Wales, Australia. “I went to Nida (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) to study stage design. Struggled with ideas and depth yet loved the experience of the cosmopolitan world of Sydney. I finally found my feet in museum design and planning in my early 20s. I enjoyed the storytelling and the use of media and real objects of history, be they precious treasures or everyday things of popular culture.”
In 1986 Coffill won an international competition to design three of the six travelling pavilions for the Australian Bicentennial Exhibition that toured the country in 1988. He then became a roaming museum design consultant across Australia until the 1990s. In 1993 he moved to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for a decade of consulting work with big Asia-based event companies. By the new millennium he could chalk in consulting museum jobs everywhere from Auckland, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Qatar, Amsterdam, London, and New York to Beijing, Shanghai, Souzhou, Xiamen and Ipoh.
An Englishman from Essex, Britain, de Rule is described as a technical and lighting wiz in his field. “I got a break to go to London at the age of 15 to work with the RAK 24 track mobile recording studio. I worked on Pink Floyd’s The Wall 1980 concerts at Earl’s Court in London which was a life changing experience,” he says.
De Rule went on to work in the music recording industry for five years, doing touring and studio work with Elton John, Sting, and many other artistes across Europe.
“At the age of 20, I went to work at the Royal Opera House (in London). It was mind blowing – the smells backstage, the arcane language and way of doing things that dated back to Victorian days, the creation of a whole new imaginative world from work-a-day materials that, under the lights, created magic….”
In the late 1980s, de Rule’s older brother David asked him to come to Hong Kong to help set up technical lighting and audio systems for a Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet tour – part of Britain’s soft power route into an emerging China.
Thus began de Rule’s journey through Asia, providing the technical know-how and equipment to help Western artists and shows stage major cultural events in this part of the world for the first time.
Coffill and de Rule worked in Asia separately until their paths crossed in 2005 at, appropriately enough, an airport, specifically, Changi Airport in Singapore.
Tired of the big Asian cities, they looked for a challenge that would excite them. After doing the marketing research, financials and necessary planning before starting a new business venture, they chose Siem Reap.
Coffill explains why: “In the end it was a feeling. Siem Reap had tuk tuk culture, boys who cut ice with big saws on the back of trucks, guys using huge anvils made from cow hide, beating sickles into shape. This is technology that goes back 3,000, 4,000 years. People who bring cows along this street and, in the evening, herd them to the abattoirs or under their homes. It is a place where the city and the countryside are well combined.”
He goes on to point out how Siem Reap is surprisingly central to many things: 10 minutes in any direction will take you to the countryside; it’s 15 minutes to the airport. And within 20 minutes you are within reach of more than 15 destinations around South-East Asia.
“There is a hotel and tourist industry. And while there is a pimple in the centre called Pub Street, beyond that are great coffeeshops, new vegan restaurants, boutique hotels, people restoring and repairing old timber houses, archaeologists, research teams – what a fantastic community!”
At the start, Coffill and de Rule worked with new Cambodian artists, guiding and nurturing a company of four young classical dancers who are now Cambodia’s best female contemporary dance company.
They worked with kids at the Krousar Thmey High School For Deaf And Blind Children to make a small exhibition about water in Cambodia and all its spiritual, ecological and emotional ramifications.
“That was really heartwarming, seeing those kids help each other out using saw, drills and hammers. Me deaf? Me blind? Not to worry, I can do it!”
Their first Bambu Stage project was a bamboo remork (tuk tuk) that looks a bit like a travelling chicken cage. It remains a cage-y curiosity that still trundles the Siem Reap streets eliciting many pointed fingers.
They worked on this with Cambodian Wab Peakdeay, who acts as the technical and social go-between and has continued to work with them on other projects.
“Slowly, we’ll develop more pieces that are based on popular Cambodian experiences but have emotional connections that are more universal,” explains Coffill.
Tangram Garden was the perfect venue to start small and test the market with creative TED Talk-like presentations that provided some depth on Cambodia. They are ably assisted by Malaysian Malar Arulappan, who oversees the different menus for different shows, collecting bookings, and managing sales and seating plans.
Their second Bambu Stage presentation entitled Snap! 150 Years Of Photography uses rear projection, drop down fabric sheets, a few snips from early movies and some haunting live music performed by the young flautist Seng Heang.
“It gives meaning to a ramshackle collection of images I’d collected on Indochina over the past decade,” says Coffill.
There have been criticisms – constructive, because they were based on what images were not in, or there weren’t enough of – which suggest that their viewers engaged with the presentation.
Temples De-Coded is their third work, premiering late last year. Coffill and de Rule felt there needed to be a presentation that encapsulated Siem Reap’s – and indeed Cambodia’s – key tourist attraction: Angkor. But it had to be done in a way that changed people’s perception of this renowned site while presenting researched facts that had an element of surprise.
Continuing good reviews of Temples and Snap would suggest that Bambu Stage may be evolving quite fast into a full-blown Bambu Theatre. And, in fact, they do indeed have a perception-changing project in the works.
“We’ve just begun to support a loose group of 12 young students who are studying at the university or beginning their life careers in the basic skills of shadow puppetry. Puppetry has a long tradition in Cambodia and stories like the Ramayana are part of a repertoire that spans across Indochinese, South-East Asian and Indian cultures.
“We think of it (the puppet show) like a shimmering photographic snapshot, illuminated not by digital LEDs but by the magic of firelight – insanely beautiful and haunting.
“We’re working with a natural-born puppetmaker, Sorn Soran, whose family are fisher folk on the Tonle Sap lake. He’s got a youthful enthusiasm to die for and a passion for helping younger Cambodians get a leg up in life.”
Bambu Stage currently presents three shows every week in Siem Reap, Cambodia: Angkor’s Temples De-Coded; Snap! 150 Years Of Photography; and Bambu Puppets. For more information and to book tickets to the dinner shows, go to bambustage.com.