Sunday, 28 June 2009

'I saw a great need'

Actlor Helena de Crespo hold one of the pieces, a shadow puppet depicting Kenorra, a demon from Cambodian mythology, that she will offer at fundraiser in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven
Jim Craven

'Cambodian Treasures' brings attention, support for itinerant actors

June 27, 2009

By Bill Varble

Actress Helena de Crespo was traveling near the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 2006 when she came across an impoverished group of itinerant actors. The Reasmey Angkor Bassac Theatre Troupe had been touring rural Cambodia on foot, setting up a crude stage where they could, presenting classic Cambodian drama and contemporary "teaching works" designed to educate people in the countryside.

"There was a stage in a grassy area, and they were having lunch," says de Crespo, a native Englishwoman who is starring in "Shirley Valentine" at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland through July 13. "I was fascinated."

Through an interpreter, she found that a leading actress in the troupe had escaped a massacre of actors by Pol Pot's forces in the late 1970s and survived by hiding in the jungle for four years. Others had their stories, too, and when they learned that de Crespo was a professional actor in the United States, it opened the floodgates. She listened and was touched.

"As I was leaving, the man who led them asked if I could help," de Crespo says. "I saw a great need. I felt I had to do something."

The actor has since been raising money to help the company. Her latest effort is a program called "Cambodian Treasures," which will be presented at 6 p.m. Sunday at Peace House, 543 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. Admission is free. De Crespo says she hopes to raise money through an auction of various items, including filigree leather work, imported silks, traditional Cambodian shadow puppets. Some of the items can be seen at

"The puppets are extraordinary," de Crespo says. "They've been made by the puppet master to the king of Cambodia."

Five Cambodian immigrants now living in Portland and not connected with the theater company will perform traditional Cambodian dance.

"It's a very tiny community in Portland," says de Crespo, who lives there. "I didn't even know it existed when I started this work. They're very aware of the lost cultural heritage of their country. It was almost wiped out."

Under the Communist dictator Pol Pot, who took control in the wake of the Vietnam War determined to turn the country into an agrarian collective, Cambodia became a vast killing field. Artists and intellectuals, in particular, were targeted. By some estimates, 90 percent of the nation's artists and writers perished.

Other items up for sale or bids include a Cambodian cookbook, photos of the Cambodian temples and memorial bricks with a $10 price tag.

De Crespo has lived and acted and taught in England, Los Angeles, Virginia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Portland.

"She's really a world citizen," says Ashland playwright Molly Tinsley, who met de Crespo three years ago when de Crespo directed one of her short plays in Portland. "She's always talking about going someplace. The last time she was in Cambodia she bought them a truck. It's traditional there to have the theater travel."

De Crespo has worked with actors' groups to win grants for the troupe. Any money she raises goes directly to the troupe, since she doesn't trust the authorities. She says she's raised about $16,000 through various efforts, enabling the company to buy a piece of land on which to set up the scaffolding that makes their stage.

"They're in the north of Cambodia," she says. "If you went now you could see them perform."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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