Founding Save World Art
This is how it began. There was no starting bell but from the moment I got out of the car a sequence of events followed that have not stopped. And they began when I got out of the car on that dusty back road near Siem Reap in central Cambodia. At the beginning of that November morning, I had followed my guide around the temples of Angkor Wat; marvelled at Angkor Tom; and driven on to the temple of Bayon with its four faced heads, climbing up among the saffron robed priests, drinking it all in. I was fulfilling a long ago hope of being able to see these wonders of the World for myself. and being on tour in Singapore for a few days had brought me close. A short flight and I was landing on the airstrip in Siem Reap, being met by a guide/interpreter and a car I hadn't anticipated. He was standing holding a hand written card with my name on it. "Helena." How odd, someone else on the plane with my name. I walked down to the end of the ramp. All the other passengers had left in various cars so I turned and walked back risking English. "That's my name, you know!" "Are you Helena ?" "Yes." "I have come to take you to your hotel." His name was Tam and his English was excellent. Surprised, I followed him to a car that was waiting with a driver, who spoke no English, and they took me to my hotel. Someone must have arranged this but I never found out who, when or how. Tam insists to this day that he had been sent instructions from his office.
The temples that I was able to see during that short stay are a minuscule part of a complex covering 72 square miles I learned later but that was not what I was there for obviously. My heart began racing when I saw what was a mobile theatre set up at the back of an open stretch of ground on the side of the road. I had to take a closer look. "Stop the car." Tam followed me. A few people were standing around, a few sitting on the grass eating. The structure was gorgeous. Stage level easily four feet off the ground, stage breadth easily 40 feet, and the height of the proscenium with drapes and lights perhaps thirty feet higher with exotic painted drapes of Angkor Wat in reds and gold. Fantastic. I sat on the ground next to a graceful lady who was serving food out of a pitch black cooking pot. She offered me a piece of fish on a banana leaf. No one seemed surprised that I was there. I salaamed with my hands pressed palm to palm in front of me. "Ask them who they are and where they have come from. What are they doing here." Tam launched into Khmer. "They are from the north. They have never been this far south before. They hope to perform for tourists tonight. They do opera. I love what they do. I used to see it when I was a child, but now it is no more." "Tell them what I do. That I am an actress, that I have travelled like this in other countries." Everyone now looked interested. I was shown everything: the hammocks slung under the stage for them to sleep at night, the dressing room spaces jammed in between, the costumes, the generator made out of an old reconditioned car engine, the musical instruments (some made out of the shell casings from the bombs dropped by the Americans when Nixon said they would not be going into Cambodia during the Vietnam war), the children dancing and quoting texts to impress me. "We do Bassac, an ancient form of opera," Len Chouen the Director told me."I was born into a Bassac performing family. Everyone was killed around me by the Khmer Rouge. I was small then. The bodies hid me. I was able to escape. We are the last ones now." It was time for me to go. Tam was insisting that he had to get me back to my hotel before dark. I couldn't stay for the show. I was leaving, walking back towards the car. Len Chouen was following me closely. He went down on his knees. "Please help us. Please help us. We are starving." The tears were pouring down his face. "Please help us." Helplessness came over me in floods.
But that is how it started. The steps were slow and unguided. I returned to the States and contacted all my unions: SAGAFTRA, AAE and Equity in Britain. England came through for me and funding organisations in Europe were gradually convinced to donate moneys. A permanent home and performing facility is now being built in North West Cambodia for the Company, which, when finished, will benefit the local economy, and they are beginning to thrive. Food and clothing have been acquired along the way. SaveWorldArt has grown out of this endeavour, being the text book example of survival of a society being inherent in its support of its indigenous art. I learned that the Bassac opera of Cambodia has a history going back over 3,000 years telling the story of the Ramayana to people who could not read or write. When Pol Pot made the decision to annihilate artists, the society crumbled.
Helena de Crespo