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Cambodian Circus Gives Hope to Starving Artists

Cambodian Circus Gives Hope to Starving Artists
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[Editor’s Note: It has been 40 years since the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, which implemented policies leading to the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. The country continues to heal. That’s what we’re going to talk about today … healing through the arts. Craig Dodge, the Director of Sales and Marketing of ‘Phare’, the Cambodian Circus, in Siem Reap, recently dropped by VOA’s TV Studios in Washington DC.]

Manilene Ek: Thanks for coming to talk to us today.

Craig Dodge: It’s an honor to be here.

Manilene Ek: First of all, what is ‘Phare’ and how does it benefit the people of Cambodia?

Craig Dodge: ‘Phare’ is an NGO school that was founded in 1994 by nine young men who were refugees during Khmer Rouge. And when they were in the refugee camp there was an art teacher from France that used drawing classes to help them through the trauma - the experience. And they were so moved by it that when the war was over they went back to Battambang, to their hometown, and the art teacher went with them to found and create this school to use art as therapy to help their community heal. Now 20 years later, there are 1200 students that get free education there every day. The education includes artistic as well as academic. It started with the visual arts – painting and drawing, and now that grown into graphic design and animation. There’s music, theatre, and now circus.

Manilene Ek: Tell me about the social enterprise ‘Phare’ the circus.

Craig Dodge: Yeah, what happened was they were taking kids out of poverty and out of these really tragic circumstances. Giving them skills but the job market just didn’t exist. So the school said, “What can we do to help them use their skills to earn a good living?” And then also earn money to make the school more financially self-sustaining. So they open the social business which is ‘Phare’ the Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap. And we have performances seven nights a week where these young people can earn a good living.

Manilene Ek: Wow, is it always sold out? How are the ticket sales?

Craig Dodge: You know, we had an amazing high season. We were sold out or nearly sold out every night through the high season. Now it’s low season so it dropped a little bit but it’s still beyond any expectation, so it’s great.

Manilene Ek: Now on a personal level, who has the organization helped and can you tell me a little bit about their stories?

Craig Dodge: You know, that’s what really attracted to me to the organization because it is transforming lives and to just give you one example there is a young woman who is here recently, her name is Poonam. When she was a little girl she was a trash picker. Her father forced her to go out and collect trash and recyclable to earn money to support the family. She was abused by her father. Her father gave her mum HIV, burned down the house just unimaginable. She found out about the school because they were giving away free food and she was hungry. So she went to the school and she picked up a skill and now several years later – she speaks French, she speaks English, she has an education and she performed around the world.

Manilene Ek: Now did she come in with these talents already in place or was it fostered?

Craig Dodge: Yeah, the school really helped her find this talent inside of her. I think people’s talents are innate but I think the school really helped her develop it.

Manilene Ek: What is ‘Phare’ going to do, you know, looking forward to the future? How are you going to help these artists or performers to be successful in their own lives?

Craig Dodge: That’s a great question and the school does an awesome job in giving the skills and the education. The social business picks up where they leave off to give them professional development. We have career development programs; we have personal and professional development. And we act as their agent so we’re working very hard to find them job opportunities both inside and outside Cambodia. And also if they express interest in the business side we have a program where they can follow us and learn what we do so that maybe they can move to that side of the business.

Manilene Ek: So this is an ongoing nurturing program it’s not something you give them for a couple of years and then they are on their own after that.

Craig Dodge: No, we’re there for them as long as they want to be in the program and some of them go on to other things. We just have one artist that was picked by a Chinese circus and we’re happy to foster that too but whether they stay with us or move on, we are here for them.

Manilene Ek: And if people are interested in knowing more about ‘Phare’ where can they go to get more information?

Craig Dodge: ‘Phare’ the school has a website –, the circus, the social business side, is We’re on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Manilene Ek: And you’re on google?

Craig Dodge: Google Plus, Twitter, and Trip Advisors.

Manilene EK: Great reviews, I hope.

Craig Dodge: Yeah, it’s really top of Trip Advisors, a number one evening activity.

Manilene Ek: And to just wrap up, is there anything you want to add before we go?

Craig Dodge: Yeah, we are really excited. For the first time ever we’re going to be in the US this fall – performing at the Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota [Florida] on October 15 – 18, it’s our very first trip to the US.

Manilene Ek: Thank you so much for dropping by to talk to us.

Craig Dodge: Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure.