Born in 1991.Soran comes from Donom Village, close to the great Angkorian temple of Bakong, 18 kms east of Siem Reap. Soran's Dad is a fisherman, using a motorboat and the long line fishing technique. His Mum smokes the fish for selling to the markets.
At school Soran liked Khmer literature and reading about the old stories and myths of Cambodian history. "At thirteen I asked my parents to study at the puppet workshop because the school didn't have painting classes. They said no, but two years later I asked a second time. Soren's persistence paid off. “”They said yes.
His teacher was Nhoek Sereyrottana, a leather carver of the shadow puppets, well regarded for his talents and passion for sharing and supporting.”
In the mornings I went to school, studying the usual stuff , but I really liked classical studies and Khmer literature. In the afternoon Sereyrottana taught me about drawing and how to make the metal tools of the puppeteer. At night I’d help the younger kids with school and study, sort of being their uncle. It was wonderful memories”.
At 21 he came to Siem Reap and started studying English at University Cambodian Mekong, working in hotels as a waiter or receptionist, or being a credit officer for a small micro-loans company to earn money for tuition fees. He lived with six other guys from the old puppet school in one room. The loans job meant riding a motor bike and then rowing a boat out at the flooded fishing villages offering loans of up to $500 to local families. By the time I got back at night it was 10pm and I still had to write reports. It was tough” he said. ÏI felt it really wasn’t what I really wanted to do”.
One evening while working at the Siem Reap Arts Night Market he met Vannak, a local painter. He taught Soran how to paint in oils,
creating works on light canvas of the faces of the famous Bayon temples and image of sunsets over Angkor Wat. “Ï got 20% of the sales price” he grinned.
He then moved to the south of Siem Reap, living at a small studio at an artist’s house. He met people connected with arts and architecture and people working in NGO’s helping revive Cambodia’s lost heritage. It was a time for connections.
But in early 2016 the house was leased to a local hotel. He had to move again. Then by chance he met Nick Coffill, a friend of the historian Darryl Collins who helped him out with gardening odd jobs.
“Nick offered to give me a three week study program with two other artist friends to learn about using paper to make puppets. It rekindled my interest in the craft.
“”When I returned back to Siem Reap I said I wanted to start a puppet troupe, so Nick said OK, and that was it””. He spoke to friends at university and from local villages who had music or art background- one was a good tattooist- and within weeks a gang of twelve was practicing regularly at sunset on the grounds of Bambu Stage.
“We sit down together and write the scripts ourselves, based on our own lives”” said Soran, while hammering away with a wooden mallet, knocking out punched holes from an enormous reddened cow hide he tanned himself.
The cow skins are bought hot and steaming from a local abattoir, and stretched out horizontally on a rough wooden frame. A butcher flenses back the fat and tissue. He then motors to the forests around Angkor Wat looking for the red bark of the kandal trees, rich in tannins. The bark is boiled in an old tin bucket, the swabbed across the pink skin. Three days later, under the hot Cambodian sky, the skin has turned to leather.
The first show was Buffalo Story, an adaption of a local folk tale about two drunken farmers celebrating Khmer New year. Their jealous of each other’s buffalo, so they bet higher and higher stakes as to who’s the best. Of course it leads to a big fight, and of course there is a looser and a winner.
While the tale has strong moral overtones, the troupes performing techniques have quickly garnered the attention of local audiences. Unlike other companies they allow their own bodies to be the performers as well as the puppets. And using multiple light sources- from old car headlights tied together with tape and loose electrical lines, a whole new energy and multiplicity of overlaying shadows is created. And the puppeteers come out in front of the screen at the most dramatic of moments, breaking the idea of the sacred screen as the buffalo puppets bellow and fight to the dysrhythmic sounds of wooden xylophones, drums and flute from the musicians sitting at the edge of the stage.
He uses video and photography too, projecting images of old Cambodian colonial photographs of fishing communities at the edge of the great Tonle Sap. With had-written scrawls from a local love poem, these projections add a dark mood to a piece that reflects upon the personal loss of the buffalo farmer. The haunting music of Ravi Shanker and Philip Glass fill the tropical night.
Another piece, a work in progress, is a form of a dream sequence, as the now familiar puppet characters approach an elderly survivor or the Khmer Rouge. As the sun sets she settles down to read at her bedside. Sleep overtakes her and a moth flies into the bedroom, capturing her soul and brining into the history of her past lives. Here Soran has invoked the multiple spirit words of Buddhism and animism, so intertwined in this country of rich messages and conflicting stories.
Each few weeks they’ll add new stories to form brief tableaux of Khmer history, dropping out those that down work, polishing those that do.
With Coffill’s backing and the Bambu Stage willing to invest in a small theatre space in Siem Reap, it appears SORN Soran will have many more good memories to add to his childhood success.