Lao American Theater and the Lam Luang Tradition

The steady rise of Lao American theater and performing arts have led many of us at Sahtu Press to consider how these efforts might connect to the traditional Lao theater form of Lam Luang.

Lam Luang is a form of Lao theater where morlam singers and others dress up to enact various characters from Lao folklore and our legendary epics. This is a sung story but they range from the family-friendly to the lewd, with serious and bawdy works among the repertoire.

In Lam Luang, several stock characters might appear in such works. These include the hero, ພຣະເອກ, heroine ນາງເອກ, king father, queen mother, clown, villain ຜູ້ຮ້າຽ, and supernatural forces such as gods, demons, spirits, or Nyak. In Lao American theater, this would call for an understanding of which characters are intellectual property of the playwrights, and which are in the public domain.

One question has to be: How might we make this cost-effective and interesting to mount different productions in the United States, and what might be the community's larger development advantage if they were able to successfully popularize it.

As you might expect, the Lam Luang form includes Jataka tales of the Buddha's life but can also reflect contemporary development projects and community concerns such as UXO. At the present moment, we're seeing modern and classical Lao music incorporated into this form. But there are other possibilities.

As artists, at Sahtu, we think our responsibility has to be to push it as far the form as far as it can be pushed. To straddle that odd line between mastering the traditional form with excellent production values but to still do what no one has done before, due to various constraints of time, space, budget, and talent.

If we consider the matter as arts developers? Given the current level of philanthropic support for Asian American theater, should Lao American theater go after the same funds or strive to develop independently? Much as the research shows saying your book comes from an indie publisher doesn't really affect people's decision to buy that book, does saying you're an Asian American theater production over a Lao American theater production bring in that many more audience members or funding dollars to underwrite the development and production costs?

Without a sustained commitment from Asian American philanthropists or Lao American philanthropists, the question is really in the air. But as is the common credo in the arts, what works, works, and we hope Lao American performing arts companies will feel encouraged to try anything to see what works best for them that's sustainable not only for the bottom line but for creating culture shift.

Nor Sanavongsay