Monday, February 6, 2012

The Somdet Theater - Somdet district, Kalasin province, Thailand

The Somdet Theater looks fairly good for a building abandoned more than 20 years ago. With crowning letters fully intact and a facade vibrant in color - free of mold and other tropical outgrowths - to the uninformed passerby, it might even be mistaken for operational.

A closer inspection, of course, will reveal its true state of being as a leisure-time relic in the sticks of Isan.

Somdet - the town/district after which the theater is named - seems an odd location for a theater of such mass, pastoral as the region is. But in the theater's inaugural year of 1981, Somdet and the surrounding villages remained to be linked to the electricity grid. Powered by means of diesel generator, the Somdet Theater was the premiere destination for nearby agriculturists and townsfolk alike. Being the only such venue between Kalasin City and Mukdahan, it had to account for the entertainment of lots of people, thus warranting its cavernous gauge and title as the province's largest ever theater.

By the mid-1980's, rural electrification had been duly applied to Somdet. Movie-goers normally dependent on the cinema for their entertainment needs began to opt for domesticized television and its accoutrements instead.

Profits dwindled as attendance shrank, and just 10 years after its inception, the Somdet Theater was out of business.

A leafy frame for a concrete dream.


Today this massive structures sits idly off of route 12, surrounded by empty fields of grass.

In a nearby electronics shop, the dual two-reel projectors once at the Somdet Theater are prominently displayed.

A few minutes walk from the theater stands an electronics shop crammed full of household and industrial appliances. The shop belongs to a man named Jatuchok, who in his younger years ran the Somdet Theater in partnership with his father, the builder. Since closing it down in 1991, Jatuchok has done virtually nothing to it, aside from removing its seats, sound and projection systems.

Seemingly annoyed by my probing questions and general presence, he adroitly turned the tables to conduct the interview on me. "What ideas do you have for my theater?" he spat. "Do you think there's a way to make it appealing again?"

I rambled on in broken Thai about a mythical 'new generation' of Thai youth, harboring pent-up yearnings for a more personalized urbanity than the one now smothered in today's sluttish consumerism. 20-somethings, I charged, with a nostalgia for a past they never knew, but have seen in old photographs. A new breed of thinkers, nourished by social media and a desire to 'make a difference,' challenging themselves to exist outside the box. These eager youngsters will fill your theater with an audience the likes of which you couldn't conjure in your wildest dreams, if only you'd welcome them.

Humored by the tirade, Jatuchok patted his stubbly chin hair and cracked a slight grin.

"I've often thought that I could get groups of kids to come in and perform their own dubbing" he said, referencing the once-popular practice of having voice actors dub movies live. "They could rent it out by the hour, like a karaoke hall, and take turns making their own dialog to a film projected onto the big screen. "

He ended coyly on hopeful note before excusing himself to attend to business, denying my request to photograph his theater's interior.

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