Icon NOW: Bua Rajadhon Talks Persistence, Perfection, Connection in Theatre

In our Icon NOW interview with acclaimed stage director Bua Rajadhon, we talk about the power of theatre to transform our communities.
Rachel Kwok

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Icon NOW: Bua Rajadhon Talks Persistence, Perfection, Connection in Theatre

What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.

In this Icon NOW interview, thespian-director Pattarasuda “Bua” Anuman Rajadhon opens up about her quest for new ideas, perfection in an imperfect medium, and the gift of connecting with audiences.

Bua preparing in the dressing room of the Thailand Cultural Center for Les Mamelles de Tirésias, produced for La Fête Franco-Thai Cultural Festival 2014. Source: Chayapol Sukdee / NUNi Productions

“Theatre is a gift in essence to the audience,” Pattarasuda “Bua” Anuman Rajadhon declares, as she goes on to describe the process of transforming strings of words into a live experience. To the critically acclaimed stage director with 17 years of experience, deep connection is crucial.

“That’s the main thing about theatre. You feel less alone. You can talk to people. You link to the characters on stage. You associate with the audience,” tells Bua. 

A year after Bua returned to Thailand as a new graduate of Goldsmiths, University in London in 2006, she kickstarted NUNi Productions (Never Underestimate New Ideas). To Bua, NUNi is the manifestation of her never-ending quest for the new and novel and an ongoing exchange of ideas.

A full house on opening night of My Mother’s Kitchen, produced at Siam Pic Ganesha in Bangkok, Thailand in February 2019. Source: NUNi Productions

“This is very important for the arts to grow. You can’t just have an idea. You have to exchange them and then it grows from there. The exchange of ideas is what makes the art meaningful.”

While she continued to work on opera scenes, she also dabbled in a spectrum of productions, from musicals and plays to short films. Over the years, NUNi Productions has rolled out an array of notable performances: Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Poulenc at La Fête festival in 2013; Sákuntalā, a Schubert-Sanskrit opera in 2016; and My Mother’s Kitchen in 2018, a play to commemorate 500 years of Friendship and Trade Pact between Portugal and Thailand.

More recently, Bua directed a three-performance run of Le Père (or, The Father) at Alliance Française Bangkok in February 2021. Coincidentally, the play was adapted into the Oscar-winning movie The Father by the original playwright and film director Florian Zeller the same year.

A poster promoting NUNi’s Thai-language production of The Father for Alliance Française Bangkok in February 2021. Source: Pimnara Nuangjamnong / NUNi Productions

Bua’s The Father was a huge hit. She delivered the play in Thai with subtitles in French and English as well as a post-show talk in Thai. The play led the audience into the labyrinth of dementia, moved them to tears, and drove people to open up about their personal struggles.

For the first time, Bua witnessed how a play could break down the social façade of Thai theatre-goers and prompt them to share private family matters. It is precisely these moments that drive her to pursue new ideas and to use the theatre as a way to bring about transformation in our communities and society. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, The Father was not only postponed three times, but one of the characters had to be re-cast three times. However, Bua remained stoic in these uncertain times. In fact, after holding extensive online rehearsals, she found that the remote settings “made it even better.” When in-person rehearsals finally resumed, the performances were electrifying. “It happened instantly.”

Bua leading a post-show talk onstage with the cast of The Father, produced for Alliance Française Bangkok. Source: NUNi Productions

Always on the go, Bua lives a colourful life on stage and off script, playing the part of theater director, actress, animal welfare activist, and educator. As a multi-disciplinary lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and Silpakorn University, she uses performing arts as a vehicle for business management students grappling with skills like leadership, communication, and building rapport.

A person who resists easy definitions, Bua later laid bare her secret to playing her many roles so successfully. In a nutshell, she casts herself as a perfectionist. Her sharp instincts and straightforward demeanour allow her to convey a precise vision, but one that allows her actors and students to find freedom in how they achieve it. But how does she reconcile her perfectionist work ethic with the spontaneity of theatre?

“Let’s be honest. People mess up.”

“Let’s be honest. People mess up. But it could still work,” she chuckles. While admitting that there are always many elements that could go wrong in a show, Bua contends, “That’s what makes theatre fun and beautiful. It always needs you to be alive, in the moment.”With innovation always on her mind, the veteran director has been hard at work behind the curtain. Currently, she is archiving Rama IV’s Thai plays in preparation for a very different interactive performance at the quaint surrounds of Phayathai Palace. Keeping the pandemic context in mind, she is designing a play that will allow small groups to follow in the footsteps of Rama IV through the royal chambers. She also has plans to collaborate with the Embassy of Portugal once more to produce a screenplay adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness (Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning Essay on Blindness), which was also adapted into the 2008 movie of the same name.

Bua thumbing through a well-worn script for My Mother’s Kitchen before the final performance at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand in June 2019. Source: NUNi Productions

Between the scenes, between work and rest, Bua lives to the fullest as the protagonist of her life, urging herself and others not to give up.

“Persist. If you’re positive and active, something will come to you eventually,” she said, and by chance, an idea will present itself as the catalyst for not only conversation but meaningful connections. In times of hardship, Bua asserts that we should never forget the power of art.

“When you are constantly doing things, you always find an answer.”

Audio

Rachel Kwok

As a copywriter, editor, and translator, Rachel prides herself on delivering clear, concise copy for a range of audiences, with work spanning the hospitality, lifestyle, and medical industries. After earning degrees in English literature and Japanese language and culture from the University of British Columbia, she has gone on to serve as managing editor for acclaimed wine critic James Suckling and LifestyleAsia.com.

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