Known to University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa theatre department contemporaries as the energetic, enthusiastic and eager “student from Siam,” Surapone Virulrak (PhD in Asian theatre ’80) is now recognized by Thai royalty for his achievements.
In a July 22 ceremony held at the Chitralada Palace in Bangkok and presided over by Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Virulrak received the Dushdi Mala Medal. The medal, Thailand’s Highest Garland for Arts and Sciences, was created by King Chulalongkorn, Rama V.
As a child, Virulrak became interested in dance and music and intrigued by ancient Thai buildings. Earning a bachelor’s in architecture at Chulalongkorn University, he was drawn into theatre activities by the architecture students’ annual theatre production for the public.
Teaching in the Department of Speech Communication and Performing Arts, he developed courses that use theatre as a tool for disseminating knowledge about such things as nutrition, birth control and AIDS. He reinterpreted a character in an early Bangkok era play as the victim of abuse, used Lakon Saw folk theatre to address deforestation and wrote an original drama exploring forced prostitution. One of his students created a rock opera about drug use based on Buddhist Jataka tales.
Virulrak earned master’s degrees in architecture and theatre from the University of Washington and returned to Bangkok. “I tried my hand at many possibilities but always ended up in theatre, movies and television,” he says.
After attending the 1975 East-West Center Folk Theatre Conference, he received a grant to study in Hawaiʻi. He lived meagerly with wife Kim on a minimal scholarship. “My first semester was summer. There were very few classes to choose. I picked Shakespearean comedy. I ended up crying every night” trying to understand how such plays were produced.
Then Professor James Brandon advised him to start over in Asian theatre, Virulrak says. Brandon visited his protégé during field research in Thailand and arranged for a fellow student to assist with dissertation writing. Professors Roger Long and Kathy Foley helped him produce the Thai play Magic Lotus.
He studied Lamaze along with academics, and Thai and American friends were godparents to his son, who was born at Kapiʻolani Medical Center in Honolulu.
“My life in Hawaiʻi and UH was so dramatic. The bitter and sweetness when looked back were so beautiful as the colorful sky over Honolulu,” he reflects in poetic, if imperfect English. “Being touched by the rain, I felt as if I was blessed with wisdom, and when I looked up into the sky, the double rainbows at Mānoa inspired me to dream for the better future of my career.”
Virulrak used methodologies learned at UH to start advanced degree programs in performing arts and cultural management and to document oral traditions in books and articles. Many of the 300 undergraduate, 150 master’s and 8 PhD students he has supervised now teach Thai theatre and dance around the country. He heads the Thai chapter of the World Dance Alliance and was involved with UNESCO cultural programs.
In an email to Brandon about the Dushdi Malal award Virulrak wrote: “These achievements were made possible because of your kindness in teaching and guiding me to devote myself for the betterment of the performing arts in Thailand. Please accept this greatest honor of mine as a tribute to you, my great guru.”
Brandon responds in kind. “He was a marvelous graduate student—sincere, delightful socially and very mature. He had a powerful drive to obtain the PhD in order to contribute to his country, which he has done so well for 30 years.”
Preview Kennedy Theatre’s 2012 Asian theatre production, Indonesian Randai play The Genteel Sabai.