The Phnom Penh Players make a return to the stage this month. Writer Adolfo Perez-Gascon goes behind the scenes to find out more about the amateur dramatic group’s latest show Life, Love & Other Illnesses.

The capital’s enthusiastic theatrical group ponders life’s senselessness with a series of one-act absurdist plays that delve deep into the bizarre, only to reach dark but sensible conclusions about the human condition and the consequences of failed communication.

Life, Love & Other Illnesses is the name of the new play, which sees first-time director Jessica Scalzo helming the production. “The whole night is about absurdist theatre,” says Scalzo. “Not to be a hipster, but it’s all about our meaning, our existence. It’s an exploration of human communication and language in a very bizarre way, with a lot of extreme, nonsensical and, at times, otherworldly situations”.

Scalzo – a long-time member of The Phnom Penh Players and a performer in memorable productions, including A Streetcar Named Desire and the Wyrd Sisters – will be directing three one-act plays by different well-known American playwrights. In what she acknowledges is her personal homage to the great Edward Albee, the masterful playwright who passed away last year, one of the plays will be timeless classic, The Zoo Story.

The remaining play, La Leçon, is a collaboration with La Troupe de Théâtre Francophone de Phnom Penh (TTFPP) and will see Julia Leyris’s taking over the reins. La Leçon will be in French, with English subtitles projected onto screens that the audience can easily follow.

Life, Love & Other Illnesses supervenes a string of acclaimed shows recently put on by the troupe. But, while the poignancy and ingenuity of plays such as the Vagina Monologues or Kill Friar are still fresh, the troupe’s history of onstage achievements stretches back much further.

Founded by Vicky Rogers in 1992 with the ultimate mission of entertaining and helping the community, the Phnom Penh Players staged six plays during their first two years of existence, including comedies by Anton Chekhov and Noel Coward.

One of their earliest productions, Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn, went to Saigon for two nights. Back then productions came in the form of dinner theatre, with tickets going for about $20, inclusive of a meal.

“The passion of the Phnom Penh Players, or why it even exists, seems to be something that has been carried on from 1992 to today,” says Emily Marques, another troupe veteran and chairwoman of the ensemble’s committee. “In the very beginning, we were just people who wanted to do things different; people who were passionate about performing and creating something new and interesting for people to see,” says Marques.

From stage lighting to script adaptation and writing, all elements of theatre production are handled in-house, with the current number of active members standing at an impressive 91.

For Marques one of the most rewarding parts of being part of the group is the access she enjoys to a supportive community of like-minded individuals. “We are like a little family,” she adds. “The support I’ve received from them has always been very important.”

Made up almost in its entirety of expats from across the world, the city’s theatrical group par excellence faces today similar challenges that it did 25 years ago. Operating in a notoriously transient community, Marques admits that one of the hardest parts of pursuing her acting vocation in Phnom Penh is having to see talented people leave the group, and the city, on a regular basis.

Finding funds to keep the wheels turning can also be a challenge. The money needed to run the group comes mostly from ticket revenue, with sponsorships also playing a role. This has previously included Asian Tigers, Angkor Research and Bruntys.

Faithful to the original vision of the founder, giving back to the community has remained a huge part of the group’s ethos. Most of the proceeds from ticket sales go to support a range of local NGOs. “As always, giving back to this country that has given us so much is very important for us,” points out Marques.

Proceeds from Life, Love & Other Illnesses will be donated to TlaitNo, a local NGO that works to empower artists by teaching them the skills needed to become self-reliant and independent performers.

The Phnom Penh Players is on the hunt for new members so anyone suffering from an acute love for the craft of acting, is encouraged to get in touch with the group and try out for their next play.

Auditions for the 2017 Pantomime, Unsleeping Beauty (original script by Paula Willis), are now open.

Life, Love & Other Illnesses will be playing from Oct. 5 to 7 at PPIIA on Street 51. Tickets are $10.

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