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Erin Kamler: Fuelling debate on the theatre Fringe

By | Published on Friday 15 August 2014

Life Of Smiles

Erin Kamler’s musical ‘Land Of Smiles’ tackles the complex issue of human trafficking, interestingly casting a critical eye over the anti-trafficking movement. We spoke to Kamler about her research on this topic, the viewpoint she has reached, and why she chose musical theatre to share her message.

CC: The issue of human trafficking has been explored at the Fringe in the past, though interestingly your starting point is to cast a critical eye on the anti-trafficking movement, a cause I think most of us would be innately sympathetic towards. What is your criticism of this cause?
EK: My criticism is that many of the policies designed to fight human trafficking often harm the very women they are supposedly intended to help. When people hear the word ‘trafficking’, they often think of young women held in bondage, forced into prostitution against their will. Now, this is certainly something that happens, it’s a real and very serious problem. But often sex workers, many of whom are migrants seeking a better life in a country far from home, know what they are getting into and do so by choice. Anti-trafficking initiatives, often funded by private donors and the US State Department, say they work hard to fight trafficking. But the problem is, many do this by trying to eradicate prostitution and curb migration, resulting in policies that can be harmful, rather than helpful, to women.

CC: Do you believe the problems you identify are widespread?
EK: The problems are numerous, complex, and yes, quite widespread. One of the problems we grapple with in the show is the ‘push factors’ that lead to women’s irregular, aka ‘illegal’, migration.

Lipoh, one of the main characters, migrates from Burma’s war-torn Kachin State to Thailand in search of work. As the story unfolds, we learn that the money she earns in the brothel where she works is actually allowing her to take care of her family and an entire community back home. We also learn about the conditions that led her to migrate; namely, the atrocities that are being committed by the Burmese government against the Kachin people. These ‘push factors’ were common themes among the women I interviewed in Thailand. The problem with the anti-trafficking movement is that it often fails address these push factors. Instead, NGOs swoop into brothels and arrest the women working there in an effort to secure prosecutions. This does little to help the women’s families and communities back home who are struggling to survive.

Another problem identified in the show is the ongoing debate between feminists over the issue of prostitution. ‘Abolitionist’ feminists believe that all prostitution is demeaning and oppressive to women, while ‘pro-rights’ feminists argue that sex workers have the right to consent and that voluntary sex work should not be considered a form of human trafficking. This debate affects policies on prostitution, which is still criminalised in many countries throughout the world. By criminalising women who engage in sex work, governments automatically set up a “victim-criminal binary”, in which women who are caught working in the trade must either identify themselves as a “victim” of human trafficking or a “criminal” who has consented to working in the industry. Forcing women into these categories strips them of agency and reduces them to being pawns of the state.

CC: As you say, there are clearly numerous elements to this issue and debate. Do you explore the various differing elements and perspectives in ‘Land Of Smiles’?
EK: We cover many, yes. Every character in the show is based on composites of various people I interviewed during my research in Thailand. I try to explore, for example, the complexities of the Christian NGO worker who has dedicated her life to “saving” the girls caught in brothels, but who thinks that a better life means they should all become good Christian girls. I explore the policies of the Thai government through the character Achara, a Thai NGO worker whose mission is to build the rule of law in Thailand.

The idealistic motivations of the United States are explored through Emma, the American case worker who comes to Thailand wanting to “save the world”, only to discover that things aren’t as black and white as she first thought. Finally, issues of warfare, migration and allegiance to family and nation are explored through the character Soon Nu, the Kachin freedom fighter and Lipoh’s ‘auntie’ who helps her cross the border into Thailand. Through these, and other, characters, we glimpse a world where there are more questions than answers, and where issues that once seemed abstract are now human and real.

CC: You mentioned your study on this issue. Tell us about that. What kinds of people did you interview as part of it?
EK: I’ve been researching issues related to trafficking and migration in Southeast Asia for the past five years as part of my PhD at the University Of Southern California’s Annenberg School For Communication And Journalism. The musical, while fictional, is inspired by interviews with over 50 migrant women, primarily ethnic minority women from Burma, NGO employees both secular and faith-based, government officials, immigration officers, community-based migrant organisations and sex workers rights organisations. I found that each of these groups approaches the issue of trafficking from their own perspective and with their own agenda, yet each must adhere to policies that are being imposed on Thailand by the US State Department, which has made it a worldwide mandate to combat trafficking.

CC: How has the research informed the fictional story told in ‘Land Of Smiles’?
EK: The show is designed to untangle and expose the complex interplay between these characters and their various agendas and needs. Since musicals are naturally emotional – music being a vehicle for moving the heart, not just the mind – the musical takes us more deeply into these characters’ aspirations, dreams and shortcomings in a way that, I believe, a policy report or an academic paper just cannot do.

CC: I sense one of the points you are making is that, while human trafficking is of course an important issue, there are other important issues in Burma that are less well documented, and which are sometimes overlooked even by those who set out to protect the oppressed in the region. Am I right? If so, what are those issues?
EK: Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s the ‘push factors’ I mentioned – issues like warfare, poverty, and economic disparity that are being woefully overlooked by the international community. In Burma, the government has supposedly embarked on a reform process intended to promote democracy. But the problem is that numerous human rights abuses are still taking place throughout the country. This leads to migration and often, real circumstances of labour exploitation. But again, anti-trafficking policy stops short of dealing with any of these issues. Instead, the focus is on criminalising prostitutes and satisfying prosecution quotas.

CC: Some people might be surprised that such serious and complex issues are being dealt with through musical theatre. What would you say to them?
EK: I think musicals can be an extremely powerful story-telling vehicle for serious issues, because of the emotional nature of music, and the power of theatre as a live medium. When we witness a serious event through music, we engage in a different way, using all our senses and our emotional intelligence. Combine this with a rational, critical look at the world through drama, and you have a very powerful tool for communicating complex issues.

CC: What kind of musical is it, musically speaking?
EK: ‘Contemporary musical theatre’ is the best way I can describe the musical style. In composing this piece I didn’t try to be ‘culturally authentic’, but rather, simply express the characters’ emotions and narrative arcs. Stylistically it’s a play with music; the book and score are distinctly separate entities.

CC: How does your partnership with director Rick Culbertson work?
EK: Rick is the producer and director on ‘Land Of Smiles’, and also my husband. I’m incredibly lucky to have found in him a brilliant collaborator who pushes me to achieve my best work as a writer. Crafting a musical like this takes every fibre of your being, and we’re both committed to seeing this journey through together. The whole process has deepened both our personal and professional relationship.

CC: You’ve describe the production as an ‘activist project’. Is the show achieving that aim, in fuelling debate on human-trafficking, and the West’s attitude towards it?
EK: I hope so. We performed the show in Thailand last December to an audience of the migrant women and NGO employees who participated in my original interviews. We followed those performances with focus groups designed to generate dialogue about the issues raised in the show. The result was overwhelmingly positive – the migrant women felt that their voices were being heard in a new way, and the NGO employees reflected on the difficulties involved in maintaining their roles within their institutions. This type of dialogue is important place to start in any project dealing with policy change.

CC: What motivated you to bring the show to the Edinburgh Fringe?
EK: We wanted to share the show with a wide, international audience – perhaps one with less first hand experience with the issues than our audience in Thailand – in order to raise awareness and continue generating dialogue.

CC: What are your future plans for the show?
EK: We feel very fortunate to be performing ‘Land Of Smiles’ here at the Edinburgh Fringe, where our audience hails from all around the globe. Our hope is to continue to reach an international audience by staging the show in other countries around the world, and continue generating dialogue around the issues raised in the piece.

‘Land Of Smiles’ was performed at Assembly George Square at Edinburgh Festival 2014.

Photo: Rich Dyson