In the last decade, I haven’t missed any opportunity to watch an English language theatre play in Bangkok, and one face kept showing on stage all these years – of Bonnie Zellerbach’s. Once in a while I could also spot her familiar face on the big screen, in Hollywood movies. If you have ever watched an English-language play in Bangkok, most chances Bonnie was involved with its production in some way. She acts and sings, she produces, she writes and directs, she designs theatre costumes, and in the last two years – she’s also chairing the Bangkok Community Theatre (BCT). Bonnie is definitely the undisputed queen of theatre in Bangkok’s expat scene, having been involved with countless productions during the 29 years she has lived in Bangkok. In September you will see her on stage in BCT’s newest production, Shipwrecked, which she produces as well. During the rehearsals she took a short break to talk to me about theatre, acting, motherhood, and life.
What brought you to Bangkok?
“I was working for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in NYC and requested a transfer overseas as I have always loved travel and wanted the chance to live in another country. Prior to Bangkok, in my student days, I had lived for a short while in Madrid, on the French Riviera and London; I have always loved experiencing other cultures. So in 1991 advertising brought me to Bangkok where I met my husband, and the rest is history!”
You come from business and advertising background. How did you get into performing arts?
“I was a theatre major as an undergraduate and always dreamed of a career in the performing arts. However, during my senior year at university, I became very disillusioned with my career prospects because none of the performers I knew from the classes above me had done anything except wait tables since they had graduated. I had huge respect for their craft and thought that if they couldn’t get work, what hope was there for me? So after graduating from university, I took a job as an administrative assistant at the League of New York Theatre’s and Producers, which allowed me to see every show on Broadway that year for free, and I also worked backstage at the Tony Awards which was a highlight. I then moved onto a job as a marketing assistant at Citicorp and had a wonderful supervisor who encouraged me to fulfil my potential as a business professional. Two years later I completed my MBA at the University of Virginia and was ready to jumpstart my business career. While at Darden, I took an advertising course and realised I had found my niche! It was the perfect blend of theatre and business – and I found I had an undeveloped knack for strategy. So in 1982, I started work at Saatchi & Saatchi as an Assistant Account Executive. I moved up quickly and was transferred to Thailand as the head of Client Services in the Bangkok Office in 1991. I became much more interested in film than stage through my advertising years in New York. Of course, I still attended the theatre when I could, but I had no chance to be involved — not until I moved to Bangkok
How did your romance with the Bangkok Community Theatre (BCT) start?
“To be honest with you, I went to my first BCT show with very low expectations. I went to support a friend from the office expecting low standards since it was titled “community theatre” after all. However, I was taken aback by the sheer professionalism of the cast and became a convert overnight. Later that year I attended my first Panto (they don’t exist in the USA) and fell in love with that genre too. BCT brought back my love of theatre and introduced me to so many wonderful people as well. I can’t imagine what my life in Bangkok would have been or would be now without it. On stage with BCT I have played countless roles from a minor bit as a dancing tree in BCT’s 1998 production of The Wizard of Oz (was so much fun!!!) to principal parts such as Miss Hannigan in Annie, Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Olive in The Odd Couple female version, Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit, and more recently, the Evil Queen in the 2018 Panto Snow White and Mama Euralie in BCT’s March production of Once on this Island. I also work behind the scenes on lots of shows with jobs ranging from costume design to directing, producing and more. It’s all challenging creatively and great fun, and for the past two years I’ve been Chairwoman of BCT as well.”
You had few small roles in Hollywood and local movies and TV. Which are some of the productions you were involved with?
“I have been fortunate enough to work on a range of projects in the film and TV industry. I’ve done repeating roles in a couple of Thai TV Series and have had some fun parts including that of a creepy ghost in some big films. In terms of western films, I have played a nurse caring for Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, an annoying and in one scene, drunk, tourist in the German comedy Türkisch für Anfänger, a nurse/tourist with Ewan McGregor in The Impossible, a dying mother in Dragonwolf, a businesswoman chatting with Owen Wilson in No Escape, a realtor pushing a property to Blake Lively in All I See is You, a US Senator in She Has a Name, a dying mother in Future Sex, a UN film producer chatting with Wagner Moura in Sergio and a few others that are still in production. I do seem to get type cast as nurses, tourists, dying mothers and businesswomen!” Movie sets and international stars are quite different than our local theatre stage.
Do you have any special experience imprinted in your memory?
“One of my fondest memories on set is when I was working on Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and the Director, Werner Herzog, whose work I have admired for years. The scene involved my caring for Christian Bale in a Vietnam War era hospital so we shot upcountry in an abandoned Thai hospital. No air con, no fans, no nothing. The sun was beating down outside and we had stage lights shining on to the set as well. I was literally dripping sweat and in between takes Werner Herzog was the one who would lean in and wipe my face and straighten the sheets on the actor – no “not my job” attitude from those consummate professionals. While the conditions were pretty miserable, the experience was amazing.”
Let’s talk about Shipwrecked, the upcoming theatre play by BCT. You are holding two hats in this production – one of the producer and another of an actress. What attracted you to this play?
“I worked with the Director, Cian Green, in 2017 as an actress in a small play called Circle Mirror Transformation. I loved working with Cian and have the highest respect for him as a director, so I offered to produce for him in 2019. When he chose to direct Shipwrecked, I became even more excited about being involved in the production and knew that I wanted to audition as well.”
What is the show about? Why people should come to see it?
“Shipwrecked is family friendly storyteller theatre suitable for ages 6 to 96. A small ensemble cast work together to help the central character, Louis de Rougemont, tell his amazing story of bravery, survival and celebrity that left nineteenth-century England spellbound. The story moves between London, the high seas, exotic islanders, flying wombats, giant sea turtles and a monstrous man-eating octopus. Shipwrecked examines how far we are willing to blur the line between fact and fiction in order to leave our mark on the world. Multiple characters will appear from nowhere and melt away in an instant. Random objects on stage suddenly come to life as something else entirely. Shipwrecked is a perfect example of how to capture an audience with the ‘magic’ of theatre. It’ll be staged for two weeks at the end of September and beginning of October at Creative Industries, M Theatre.“
What do you do when you are not on stage?
“When my daughters were still in school, I volunteered on various sub-committees and chaired the Marketing Committee at Bangkok Patana School. Now that they are off at university in the USA, I have retired from those committees and devote my time primarily to BCT, corporate role play jobs, professional film and voiceover work. Being a woman of a certain age, I find I get more voiceover work than anything else these days as my voice is ageless! I also manage all of BCT’s costumes which is a full time job in itself! I am aware that I live a very privileged lifestyle so I try to give back by volunteering as much as I can — and there is so much to do for BCT that I rarely have time to volunteer for other things. I think the organisation is a wonderful way to bring people of different nationalities together in Bangkok – and to have the joy of creating something for the stage. And then there is the joy of sharing that with an audience. That’s really my main focus. I do love dancing, so when I can, I fit in Zumba and line-dancing too!!!
You are a mum to twin daughters; they grew up in Bangkok but now they are overseas in university. How is it to maintain motherhood in a remote control?
“What comes around goes around. I remember being so excited to move overseas back in 1991 and my mother being a bit weepy about the distance between us. We’d been living on separate coasts for years so it wasn’t as though I’d been living at home, but Thailand is literally the other side of the world. Now I have that with my own twin daughters. They were born in Bangkok but are not Thai citizens so they cannot come back to work here for summer jobs, etc. Nowadays we only get to see each other for a few weeks here and there and it is hard! I am very grateful to the advent of the internet which allows us to video chat regularly!!!”
What type of child/ teenager have you been? Back then, what did you think you will be/do when you grow up?
“I wanted to travel, I wanted to perform, and I wanted to have children — I know I am incredibly fortunate to have had all my dreams come true. Sometimes I wonder when the proverbial other shoe will drop…. I am so very lucky!” You live so many years in Thailand. Do you feel you understand by now the culture, people, Thainess? Do you feel Thailand is Home?“I definitely feel that Bangkok is home – I am more at home here than in the USA at this point. I have a great appreciation for the culture and the people, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I understand it!! Speaking Thai, even badly, helps.”
Thailand Tatler has listed you for a few years in a row in its definitive guide to Thailand’s most affluent and influential expatriates. Holding this title, can you share your top tip to inspire other expat women in a foreign city?
“Find something you love outside of what you need/have to do on a daily basis, and make time for it. There are so many opportunities in Bangkok – you can try new things that you never thought of before. And if you want to expand your social circle, volunteer for BCT or another one of the social or creative volunteer organisations. They are a great way to meet new people and develop new skills.”
About the show : Shipwrecked, The amazing adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself)
Written by: Donald Margulies; Directed by: Cian Green; Produced by: Bonnie Zellerbach Cast: Peter Assimakopoulos, Toff Cabuyao, Daniel Smith, Anastasia Adams, Bonnie Zellerbach, Iris Park, Ana Nunez Roma
When: Evening shows September 27, 28 and October 4, 5; Matinees September 28 and October 5
Where: Creative Industries, M Theatre, New Petchaburi Rd., Bangkok
Tickets: at www.bangkokcommunitytheatre.com & Ticketmelon.com
Further info: firstname.lastname@example.org