BWW Interview: THE KING AND I's Kavin Panmeechao
Opening tonight at the Saenger Theatre is the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic THE KING AND I. It's the story of an English governess who is brought to the court of Siam to educate the king's children and wives at a time when Siam is in danger of Western colonialism and women are still used as a peace offering between nations. With familiar songs like "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance," this is a gorgeous show with an incredible message of compassion, compromise, and empowerment that audiences of all ages can learn from and enjoy.
Actor Kavin Panmeechao who plays Lun Tha, the young Burmese man who falls into treasonous love with the princess Tuptim, chatted with me about his road to a professional acting career, life on the road, and what makes THE KING AND I so memorable. Keep reading to hear what Kavin has to say about this beloved story.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in theatre professionally?
I always did community theatre as a kid. I'm from Los Angeles, and I grew up doing community theatre. I actually put it away for a few years and in high school I got into theatre again. I had a really great, strong high school theatre program, and it really sparked my desire to become an actor. So, I auditioned for a few undergraduate programs and got into a few. I ended up going to undergrad for theatre and then have worked professionally ever since I graduated.
Do you feel like living in Los Angeles you had a little bit of a leg up in the industry because so many people don't even have exposure to theatre where they live?
That's very true. I think LA is a wonderful melting pot of a lot of different types of arts, and I think it definitely gave me a huge exposure to the arts. Not just theatre, but also film and television. The studios are right in my backyard so to speak, and mom worked in film while I was growing up. So, it's very close to me, and I totally feel like growing up in LA I had a huge leg up on being exposed to the arts of all kinds. I'm very lucky.
Is film something that you would eventually like to get into?
I would love to do film. I love any chance to grow, any chance to work in different mediums, and they all have different skill sets, so I don't care what it is as long as it's good.
So you're on a national tour right now. Is this the first tour you have done?
This is not. This is my second, actually. The first tour I ever did I was right out of college. I had just moved to New York at the time, and I did the non-eq[uity] tour of [THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY] SPELLING BEE. That's actually how I met Jose Llana, who plays our King. He originated the role that I played on Broadway. It's kind of a nice full circle doing this tour with him.
What is touring life like?
Touring life is really interesting. You see so many new places that you've wanted to visit for years, and you get the chance to. You get to explore the country. And, you get to really meet some fascinating people. That's, I think, the biggest take away I take from tour. I meet such interesting people, and I also eat a lot of food.
That's hilarious! Well get ready for New Orleans, then!
This is my third time in New Orleans. You do not understand how excited I am to be in New Orleans. I'm like, it's right before Thanksgiving. I'm going to be a blimp. My jeans won't fit. But it's gonna be ok.
It's totally worth it!
It's totally worth it.
Where are some of the other places you've gone on tour that you've maybe been surprised by?
Gosh, that's a good question. I loved Fayetteville, Arkansas. Interestingly enough, theatre is very well supported there. The University of Arkansas is based there. It's a really charming college town, and it just has this really great sort of main street America sort of feel to the place. I really found that so charming. Where else did I really enjoy going to? I really enjoyed Minneapolis. It was dead smack in the middle of winter, and they have these covered walkways that connect all the buildings downtown so no one ever has to walk outside especially because it's cold. It's so funny, and these walkways weave through between stores and hotels and people can travel through the entire downtown area through these walkways.
What are some of the more difficult parts about being part of a traveling production?
The difficulty I think most is that you miss home. You miss your friends, your family, your bed. I think you miss your routine a little bit. The big balance for tour is trying to find... you know, exploring the new cities that you're in, but also setting up a bit of a structure for yourself so you can still feel a little bit like you're at home. A lot of people do that by cooking at home a lot... or at the hotel, you know, if we have a kitchen. Some people bring pressure cookers or slow cookers. Some people have their favorite pillow that they bring with them that make them feel more comfortable going from city to city. I touch base with my close friends at home. We have like a schedule, so that really helps.
So tell me about this show that you're in. I remember seeing THE KING AND I when I was really little. That was, I think, probably one of the first shows I remember seeing on stage at the Saenger, and that was twenty whatever years ago. I'm excited to see this again in adulthood, but for people who are unfamiliar with the story, tell us what this show is about.
The show is about the King of Siam, in 1860 Siam, who invites an English governess to come and teach the children and the wives of the court, the royal court. And, over the course of this, she and he begin to... how do I explain this? It's about their cultures kind of coming together and working together and learning how to work with each other. He is trying to prevent encroaching colonialism from Western powers overtaking his country. All the countries surrounding him have, at this point, fallen to Western powers. And so, him inviting her is kind of his way of teaching his court the skills they need to interact with these foreign powers, and, hopefully avert possible colonialism.
Where does your character fit into this story?
My character is Lun Tha. I am a Burmese adversary from the court of Burma. I am here escorting the Princess Tuptim from the court of Burma to the court of Siam as a gift from the King of Burma to the King of Siam. At this point in history, marriages... I've read up a lot about the structure of marriage in Siam at this time. A lot of the... the kingdom of Siam and, by extension, treaties with other countries were enacted by marriage. So women, you know, high positioned women in different courts and villages throughout Siam provinces or tribes or whatever... would send their high ranking women to the court of Siam to be married to the King as a form of treaty. It was like a treaty in these different villages, and that therefore unified the country. And so, I know this is very long winded, the King of Burma has now offered this princess to the King of Siam to cement a relative peace that is very new between the countries. Actually, at the time, Siam and Burma has just ceased war. They had been fighting for a hundred years, and they had just ceased warfare about ten years before the events of this play, so the peace is very tentative at this time. So, basically, I escort her and I actually fall in love with her and she has fallen in love with me. It's a very treacherous and treasonous act.
Oh man! All of the drama!
That was very long winded, I apologize.
No, don't! That was great! I love hearing the history and back story of shows because a lot of times, and not just with theatre... with movies and with music, people don't take the time to learn ok what is this actually about? Yes, there's a nice story, but what's the underlying issue here? What's actually on a deeper level going on? So, I love that.
Well, I'm glad you found it useful!
How do you think this story is relevant to today, to the times that we're living in now, and what can we kind of take away from it?
There are two main things that I take away from it that are very relevant to today. One is the show shows the ability to work together. There are two, basically, differing cultural viewpoints, and shows us how to work together compassionately, collectively, but still honoring each other's viewpoints as valid. The second thing is that the show, especially as Bartlett Sher our director has crafted it, is really about the empowerment of women. There are three huge female characters in this play that, I've already said once but I'll repeat it again, embody three different things: a woman who fights the system, a woman who works within the system, and a woman who runs away from the system. This is a very patriarchal society. So, you see, in this play, you see a huge move towards the education of women and that women have power. It shows empowered women, and how those women react and move within these confined, restrictive circumstances. That's what I love about the play. I love that it shows these strong female characters who have great autonomy, who have great emotional and mental power, and who are incredibly strong willed and smart, and use those abilities to really either advance their viewpoints or who fight for what they truly believe in.
Do you find that when you guys are traveling that different audience have different reactions or takeaways from the show depending on where they live?
I think, yes, in a way. But, what I found is actually how universal the response has been. I think that's surprising and heartening at the same time. I think Bartlett Sher and Ted Sperling and all of our creatives have really sought to make that aspect of the show very clear. That's the big takeaway, though. A lot of people seem to have taken. And, definitely when I've done talkbacks around the country people have noted how strong the women are and how much the sense of collaboration and mutualism occurs in the show. People think a lot about the romance, the unrequited romance between the King and Anna, but with this production a lot of people take away the idea that oh my gosh it's more than that. It's literally about these women who are working within this patriarchal society, and also at the same time about two cultures that are striving very hard to work together and work through their differences and become better people for it.
THE KING AND I opens tonight at the Saenger Theatre. Gather your kids, friends, neighbors, co-workers, anyone you can think of, and come out to see this amazing show! Visit http://www.saengernola.com for tickets and more information