Culture Collective Studio (CUCO), the English speaking professional theatre company, opened its doors to the Bangkok public at the beginning of this year. Housed next to the five-star Chatrium Hotel, in the Chatrium Residences Riverside on the Chao Phraya river, its boutique black box performance space makes you feel like some sort of theatrical magic is about to happen! This experience could either take place in the workshops for actors or theatre enthusiasts, or the season of plays, one of which is currently being rehearsed by the company’s professional actors. I had the chance to sit down with Loni Berry, the company’s Founder and Artistic Director and discuss his overall vision for CUCO.
“I envision a theatre company that will be well established in the Bangkok theatre scene, with an organized season of top quality performances, a reputation for quality; a theatre company that will have a strong audience base who will come and see the plays regularly. CUCO will offer classes for anyone interested in the theatre as well as classes for professional actors who want to be competitive in the Western markets. CUCO will put on productions that will travel to various countries and host productions from other countries as part of exchange programmes.”
It’s easy for anyone to say that something is destined for greatness; but it’s often harder for people to articulate why something, or someone even, is destined for greatness. Bangkok is known for its entertainment, but is it less known for serious and professional theatre. CUCO certainly offers a point of divergence from this. It is set to begin to put Bangkok on the same playing field as other cities on the theatre map.
Firstly, it is built on the simple yet empowering premise that cultures, people and ideas can come together in a safe space; through a common understanding of the English language, people from different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures can create something new, together. This is a foundation through which many will gravitate towards, because people have and always will seek to understand that which they do not understand. The sharing of ideas and stories, the convergence of cultures, be it through theatre, art, architecture or medicine, is what helps us move forward.
Secondly, CUCO was an idea founded by a man with an overflowing wealth of knowledge and experience relating to the world of theatre. Although Loni Berry claims “to not have made theatre my life,” it is apparent that he is the living proof of why passion comes from theatre. His unique background and experiences are what set CUCO in very good stead for the future.
Born in Clifton Forge Virginia, and raised by parents who devoted their lives to public service, Loni grew up in Florida during the segregation era in the deep South. It was not until he was fifteen that this segregation across all schools was lifted. His experiences growing up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America are ones that have shaped all his work as a director and playwright; they are also what set him apart from many. Throughout his childhood, he had a love for playing the piano, the clarinet, and the oboe. After receiving a degree from Brown University, he started medical school, which we describes as a “disaster.” He then spent the next ten years of his life developing his career in New York as a pianist and music director. He worked as a music director to some of the biggest names on Broadway.
“While doing music in New York, I started working with more theatre companies (The Mirror Repertory Theatre and the American Place Theatre) and I became immersed in musical theatre; I watched what people did and decided I wanted to do it too.” At age 32, Loni went back to Brown to study what he really loved, Theatre.
Having seen firsthand Loni’s directing style in the new upcoming play he wrote, ‘The Death of Miss America,’ Loni’s ability to create music, combined with his ability to write amusingly light-hearted scripts that, at the same time, point to the cold hard truths of the world, are carefully honed skills he may have partially developed through his teachers. One of these was Paula Vogel, the renowned American Playwright who received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, ‘How I Learned to Drive’. Loni began his work as a playwright by sifting through the original works of Langston Hughes, which we was given access to by another teacher, George Houston Bass, then Executor to the Hughes Estate. It was here that Loni put together a collage of Hughes’ poems and short stories and set them to original music, entitled ‘…Love, Langston.’ His academic focus at Brown was ‘American Minstrelsy’ and it was through the first college production of George C. Wolfe’s ‘The Colored Museum’ that he won ‘Best Director’ at the National College Theatre Festival.
“My work on ‘The Colored Museum’ gave me the confidence to say that I could be a good director; I was admitted to the Yale School of Drama to study directing for the next three years; I trained with Lloyd Richards, Earle Gister, August Wilson… now he won two Pulitzer prizes!” Many of the people Loni worked with at Yale now live in the public eye – Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schrieber and Laurence Fishburne to name a few.
Upon graduating from Yale in 1992, he received a Theatre Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts Director Fellowship, which allowed him to study with renowned international theatre directors; he was exposed to the entire world of directing, from Broadway (George C. Wolfe) to Japan (Tadashi Suzuki) to Trinidad (Peter Minshall). In the years following, Loni directed his time towards teaching at such famous institutions as Williams College and University of California San Diego.
In 2000, he went to work for California Governor Jerry Brown, then Mayor of Oakland, California, to start the Oakland School for Arts, where he personally auditioned every single student; in his time, the school grew to include four hundred students and quickly became the best school in the District. Throughout his time as a professor, he directed over fifty plays and has trained such artists as Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Melody Buitu, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Ricardo Chavira, Maria Dizzia, Mary Catherine Garrison, Brian Sgambati, and Jonathan Silverstein.
Since coming to Thailand eight years ago, Loni has taught theatre at Redeemer International School Thailand and in the Film, Television and Animation program at Mahidol University. Having retired from teaching at other institutions, Loni and the CUCO team have taken the bold move to set up something of their own that will really make a difference in Bangkok. The team Loni works with represents a true collection of cultures. Kelly Jones, the Welsh-Thai beauty, actress, singer and dancer as its Director of Development; Caitlin Haas, the Academy’s Director, is Texas born but Thai at heart and is extremely well versed in the entertainment industry of Thailand and Asia; and Saratsanan Savitvirarom, whose studies at Assumption University and unique experiences in IT and Art Design make him CUCO’s cutting edge Technical Director.
“What I see Culture Collective doing is starting a culture in Bangkok where people go to the theatre to enjoy the experience that theatre can give! Bangkok should have the same options for theatre goers as do those living in other cities of this size and sophistication.” CUCO is set to produce a series of plays per year, cast with its 16 senior actors. Its educational branch, the CUCO Academy, is now offering courses and workshops, in both English and in Thai, designed for a wide range of students of all ages and levels.
For more information, please visit: www.culture-collective.com