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Friday, February 12, 2010

The world is her stage

By Myles Murphy
Ashland Daily Tidings

Helena de Crespo always has been fascinated by the ancient complex of elaborately constructed temples of Angkor Wat deep in the jungles of Cambodia.

During a trip to the nearby island city-state of Singapore three years ago, de Crespo couldn't resist taking a side trip to satisfy her lifelong curiosity.

It was a decision that would set her life on a new track.

"I really stepped into another world," de Crespo said.

While returning from the temples, she saw a huge, colorful stage set up on the side of the road, complete with proscenium, painted curtains, lights and a large group of actors, stagehands and theater artisans. Herself an actor (she appeared most recently in Ashland in the one-woman Oregon Stage Works production of "Shirley Valentine"), she felt compelled to stop and learn more about the group.

"As I began talking to them, I began to learn more about Cambodia," de Crespo said.

A period of political unrest and violence in Cambodia in the 1970s climaxed when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. For the next four years, people were forced out of cities to work in the fields, banking and currency were abandoned in favor of an agrarian society, torture centers were created and public executions became common. Between starvation and killings, as many as 3 million people died during that period. Cambodia's population at the time was about 7.5 million, according to the U.S. State Department.

"Actors were among the first killed by the Khmer Rouge because they were keeping alive cultural traditions," de Crespo said. "Anyone closely resembling an intellectual was killed."

Many villages across the country had their own theater groups, which traveled from place to place retelling old stories, histories and mythologies. De Crespo had come across one such group that has been struggling to revive the tradition.

She decided to help. By using her connections to the theater community in the states, she was able to draw support and funds toward building a theater and housing for the group in Cambodia.

She also made contact with the Cambodian community in the U.S., which is how she met Portlander Kilong Ung, himself a refugee from Cambodia. Ung is speaking Saturday at the Ashland Branch Library as part of a collaboration cosponsored by Gallerie Karon and the Friends of the Ashland Library.

"He lived through it," de Crespo said. "I'm just a peripheral observer."

Searching for the most efficient way to help the Cambodian thespians, de Crespo learned that they were essentially homeless and that in the rainy season, their incomes dropped to nothing.

"They can't perform during rainy season and the company goes through hard times," she said. "The best way to help was to build a permanent housing complex with a performing area, stage, housing and buildings to construct costumes, sets and puppets."

The puppets are made from cow and buffalo leather punched with holes to allow light through to make for interesting silhouettes.

De Crespo has brought many examples of these puppets to Ashland for the show at Gallerie Karon.

De Crespo also will give a talk and slide show about her experience in Cambodia from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Gallerie Karon, 500 A St. No. 1. For information on de Crespo's Cambodia project, see the Web site

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at

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