Telling Malaysian tales

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    By NIKI CHEONG

    M

    ALAYSIAN theatreappears to have had a newspark of life over the past

    few years. While the industryremains relatively small, there islittle doubt that works have movedon by leaps and bounds over thepast couple of decades.

    For one, the faces havechanged. The generation hailed aspioneers that of the late KrishenJit, the late Leslie Dawson, the lateKuo Pao Kun, Datuk FaridahMerican, and Chin San Sooi havealready passed the baton to a newgeneration of heavyweights.

    These thespians Datuk ZahimAlbakri, Datin Seri TiaraJacquelina, Jo Kukathas and JitMurad, among others began theirjourneys almost 20 years ago but

    have finally taken over the mantleand become elders of sorts.Now it appears that we are fac-

    ing yet another renaissance, and inthe driving seat is a generation ofnew writers who are determined tobring Malaysian stories and Malay-sian voices to the stage.

    Of course, the attention given toperforming arts of late has to belargely attributed to Tiaras effortsin producing what was arguably

    the biggest local theatre produc-tion the country had ever seen.The adaptation of her award-

    winning movie Puteri GunungLedang(PGL) to the stage in 2006has sparked a wave of large-scalemusical theatre productions,almost non-existent before. The

    StarSpecial, SUNDAY 31 AUGUST 2008SS 16 NATIONAL DAY

    Telling Malaysian talesAmong the

    host of excitingthings happening

    in the arts scene

    is the rise of a

    new generation

    of writers in

    theatre.

    Local flavour: The 2006 hit musical Broken Bridges, created by Teng and Lim, is set in Ipoh and deals with how people respond to progressand the changes it brings.

    closest effort would probably beJits The Storyteller back in 1996.

    But it is efforts by these eldersthat seem to have lit the path for

    the new writers.We need original text and sto-ries that Malaysians can hold onto, says 30-year-old ShanonShah.

    I write plays not because ofpeople like Arthur Miller orTennessee Williams. I writebecause of people like Jit Murad.

    Finding a voice

    Indeed, Shanons first play, AirCon, debuted last month and hasbeen hailed as the breakthroughplay of the year by aficionados, notonly because of the solid perfor-mance, but also because the storystruck home with the audience.

    The play was essentially inBahasa Malaysia and English with

    a bit of Chinese thrown in. Even so,many of the characters speakBahasa Malaysia with a Kedahanpelat, and accents like those are

    unique to our country.If I had never watched Jits

    shows, I would never have realisedthat I can have my own voice,Shanon opines.

    It is this local sensibility thatseems to be driving them on. Whilemany will agree that there is theneed for a balance of both localand foreign scripts the problemMalaysian theatre is facing is thelack of original text, what more textthat is thought-provoking.

    My problem with Malaysian the-atre is that there is too much focuson shows that are just entertain-ment, shares Mohd Fared Jama-luddin, 23.

    Fared, or Ayam as he is fondlyknown, is a recent graduate ofAkademi Seni Budaya dan WarisanKebangsaan (Aswara).

    Among the productions heworked on while still a studentwere two critically acclaimed ones Tanda and Waktu: ExperimentalMerdeka, both last year.

    He adds: Its okay to be enter-taining, as long as the show has

    ilmu(knowledge). Teater sepatut-nya mendidik, menghibur dan bolehbuat orang fikir(Theatre shouldeducate, entertain and make peo-

    ple think).The good news is, with writers

    like these, things are bound tochange. Then there is also a wholenew generation of theatre practi-tioners who are emerging, thanksto the many education optionsavailable now, apart from Aswara.

    That said, there is still a need toeducate people in specialisedareas, and efforts are being made last year Tiara organised a musicaltheatre boot camp, and the duo ofTeng Ky-Gan and Lim Chuang Yikhave similar plans. Teng and Limcreated the 2006 hit musicalBroken Bridges.

    PGL The Musical was a reallymassive production, and is proba-bly a turning point in Malaysiantheatre ... it has led to a bigmomentum for musical theatre,Teng says, referring to the flurry ofmusicals over the past couple ofyears including M! The Opera, P.Ramlee The Musical, Rose, RoseI Love You, Tunku The Musicaland the recently staged Ismail The Last Days.

    Shanon: I write because ofpeople like Jit Murad.

    Teng: PGL - The Musical hasled to a big momentum.

    We've come a long way interms of democracy,especially in recent years. I amwaiting for the day that weare not classifiedas Malay-Indian-

    Chinese-Otherswhen fillingout forms.

    Lisa Lui, 23Engineer

    ChangingMalaysia

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    The problem, he says, is thatthere is a lack of musical actors,directors, conductors.

    Its not just a learning experi-ence for writers but also for actors,producers and directors, Tengsays.

    Of course, with more attentiongiven to theatre, comes higherexpectation.

    And because the stories havebeen so localised, people want towatch more productions that speaktheir voices.

    Naturally, the writers will have tolead the way with this.

    I think (Malaysian theatre islike) rojak, ice kacang, and theever-changing ingredients in banchang kueh.

    If the ingredients and recipe areright, then you will get a very spe-cial and delicious dish. If you dontdo it right, it wont taste good andyou wont want to eat it, KohChoon Eiow shares.

    The 36-year-old Koh, who has a

    background in Chinese-languagetheatre, is currently based inTaiwan, where he has just com-pleted his Master of Fine Artsdegree from Chinese CultureUniversity's Theatre ArtsDepartment, majoring in play-wrighting and directing.

    His latest play has been translat-ed recently by a theatre company inthe Philippines under the title AngDalawa Niyang Libingfor a localaudience at the Virgin Labfest fes-tival.

    In Malaysia, we have a uniquemixture of different races.

    And I trust that there'll be more

    opportunities for future develop-ment and collaborations, acrossraces and across languages, Kohadds.

    Building bridges

    This seems to be an opinion thatall four writers share.

    Theatre in Malaysia has longbeen fragmented until recently,most collaborations between thedifferent languages were isolatedproductions.

    There seems to be a consciouseffort to collaborate most signifi-cantly the 2006 Break-ing (Ji Po)Ka Si Pe Cah, a multi-lingual jointeffort between Kukathas, Loh KokMan and Nam Ron, respected with-in the English, Chinese and BahasaMalaysia language theatre commu-nities respectively.

    Just look at the works of LowKok Man, who has been trying tonarrow the gap between the races

    and to overcome the language bar-rier.

    I believe we will see more of thiskind of style and trend, and experi-

    menting by mixing different lan-guages together, observes Koh.Fared feels that the solution

    comes from sharing an audience.If we can share the crowd, then

    these people will help changeMalaysian theatre, he says.

    Take Air Confor example itwas predominantly in BahasaMalaysia but it still attracted theEnglish-theatre crowd.

    Where the future takes us is, ofcourse, uncertain.

    As we move ahead over 50 yearssince Merdeka, there is an increas-ing call for a more united Malaysiaand one that sees beyond race.

    Performing arts has a history ofpushing socio-political boundaries,so who is to say that it cannot leadthe charge to a new Malaysia too.

    These writers seem to be pavingthe way.That said, change may not come

    so quickly but at least the currentpractitioners are attempting toblaze the trail.

    It doesnt matter if what I donow doesn't have a big impact,Fared concludes.

    We are providing a platform forthe next generation and hopefullythey can see the path.

    The likes of Zahim, Tiara, Jit andKukathas have already continuedthe legacies of the pioneers beforethem and it seems that this tradi-tion is set to continue.

    StarSpecial, SUNDAY 31 AUGUST 2008 NATIONAL DAY SS17

    Fared: We are providing aplatform for the next generation.

    Koh: I trust that there'll be moreopportunities for collaborations.

    Thought-provoking:Shanon's AirCon looks atteens in anall-boysschoolscoming toterms withsexuality,bullying andsocialprejudice.