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Friday October 25, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday October 25, 2013 MYT 8:40:29 AM
by natalie heng
Lim Soon Heng
It’s never too late to discover your inner thespian.
IF YOU play your cards right, there are two windows to self-discovery: the carefree years of young adulthood before work and family obligations take over, and the golden years when your nestlings have taken flight and the roost is yours again.
It is all about perception: retirement can be seen as a twilight zone with too many hours to fill, or a time for experimentation and learning new things. Former systems analyst Douglas Hale, 66, chooses to see it as the latter. He had always been interested in theatre, so why not do a course in it?
That was where he met Mary Teoh, 57, a stockbroker; Paramjeet Kaur, 59, a part-time English literature teacher; and Sharifah Mariam, 49. All four had decided to step out of their comfort zones and sign up for Theatre for Seniors, a nine-day course run by Mano Maniam at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).
They joined four other seniors, bringing the class to a total of eight.
Paramjeet had originally thought it would be interesting to do the course because she often teaches dramatic works such as Shakespeare, to her students. It turns out, however, the experience was more cathartic than expected.
“You get the opportunity to be this other person,” explains Paramjeet.
“To be in someone else’s shoes,” chips in her course-mate, Sharifah.
Hale joined because he has always been a theatre enthusiast. He loves watching, analysing and thinking about plays.
“It’s not like I’m a budding actor or anything; what I came here for was primarily intellectual,” he says.
He wanted to do the course as a way of going beyond just watching theatre, to gain insight into the back-end of production.
However, Hale found himself writing, directing and acting, too – apparently it’s never too late to learn. He and his contemporaries ended up creating their very own show, from inception to execution.
The result, Now And Then, is a tale that spans four decades, with multiple story lines woven into the canvas.
It begins with Hale, an American living in North Carolina, who makes his first visit to Malaysia in 1970, when Paramjeet and Sharifah were just kids, playing hopscotch in the compounds of the suburbia.
The dialogue and scenes then move through time. Hale moves on with his life, the girls excitedly wait for their Malaysian Certificate of Education as they discuss their hopes for the future, and two maids gossip about their employers, whilst two employers gossip about their maids. In the end, the multiple story threads tie up at a traffic jam at the Black 505 rally – the culmination of a tide of events, symbolising the cumulative impact of change over time.
“We all had to write our own mini-play overnight, and Mano helped us tie the individually-generated plot lines together,” said Hale.
They had two rehearsals before the 45-minute script went live, to an audience of family and friends.
It was a mad, kamikaze rush into the unknown, but they did it – improvising as they did not have time to memorise the script ad verbatim, and learning about the importance of stage cues and voice projection in the process.
“I was the waiter, the driver, his wife (gesturing to Hale), and a politician,” marvels Teoh, who admits to never having done any acting or writing before.
Despite spending the last 30 years in the dog-eat-dog world of stockbroking, Teoh harbours a secret aspiration.
“I’ve always wanted to do storytelling like this,” she says, pulling out a newspaper cutting about Sister Nancy Murray, a globe-trotting nun who turns the stories of saints into plays to be performed all over the world.
Now that she is in her late fifties and all the “serious” stuff is over, she is making a start – after all, you have to start somewhere, right?
A generation of stories
KLPac co-associate artistic director Mark Beau de Silva, helped initiate the Theatre for Seniors course. He says the idea for it cropped up during a conversation with Mano.
Many of his friends who acted in the 70s and 80s had casually said to Mano, “There doesn’t seem to be anything for people our age. All the theatre stuff now are for young people.”
Mano wanted to do something for his friends. Anything. Acting or studio work, whatever – and so a pilot course evolved into what it is today, encompassing theatre appreciation, insights into what goes on behind the scenes, and a hands-on component where participants put everything they have learned, into action.
Theatre for Seniors has flourished. It now runs twice a year. Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Gerontology took note, and invited Mano to run a similar, but shorter course as part of their University of the Third Age, a project under the institute’s Lifelong Learning for Older Malaysians project.
They have had two classes so far, at the request of seniors themselves, and more are in the offing.
Theatre, whether acting, writing or directing, entails a degree of analysis – of the scripts, of the characters and how to bring them to life. It is a different type of stimulation from tai chi or crossword puzzles. It fires up the creative and imagination-based engines of your brain, forces you to think about context and history, and the meaning behind words. And the end product is something that is strangely tangible; stories played out in the flesh – with an outcome that is shared.
And for some of the participants of Theatre for Seniors, it has been a very positive experience as hundreds of people come to watch the international theatre festival, Short + Sweet, held at KLPac every year.
“We told some of the workshop participants that their scripts were good, and suggested that they submit a version to Short + Sweet for judging,” explains De Silva. Two Theatre for Seniors graduates did, and both their scripts were accepted, though only one made it to last year’s Short + Sweet festival.
This is precisely what Mano wants out of his workshops. The goal is to develop and instil confidence in seniors and encourage them to draw upon their wealth of memories and unique perspectives, to put stories on paper, to be passed on and shared.
Mano recounts how he was walking in his neighbourhood in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, some time ago when he was stopped by an old man.
“He shook my hand, held it for the longest time, and he told me, I have done senior people well – and that made me feel very emotional, because that’s when I realised, that all old people want sometimes, is to be recognised.”
A senior himself, Mano explains how your status seems to change when you hit a certain age. You are no longer the breadwinner, the one that people rely on.
“Sometimes older people can feel left out, forgotten, unimportant, as if people are indulging them rather than turning to them. But these are the guys who were around during the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Merdeka. They have so many stories locked up inside of them, and I want to use theatre to empower them to bring those stories out, to be recognised and passed on.”
The idea is to build a kind of critical mass. To develop and encourage a core group of seniors, who gradually become more able and confident in their abilities to contribute, either in terms of writing or acting or anything, to the Malaysian theatre scene.
“It seems like nine times out of 10, the actors playing older characters are younger in age, but rather than whiten people’s hair, and making them look old, why not develop and encourage more seniors to actually get involved in theatre?”
Besides, as De Silva points out, older people bring something different to the table.
“They don’t come in thinking, I want to put myself out there, they often just want to express themselves. Which means that the skills and approach they have is very different.”
The theatre courses aren’t expensive; RM400 for a nine-day Theatre for Seniors workshop, after which subsequent courses are free. And the ones run by UPM’s Institute of Gerontology under the University of the Third Age cost a nominal sum of RM30, although the next one will probably only take place sometime in 2014.
On the whole, it seems that opportunities to engage in theatre as a senior are currently fairly thin on the ground, and geographically restricted to small portions of the population.
As Malaysia’s aging population grows, there will be a lot of people out there with a lot of free time on their hands.
“And culture is changing. We have more nuclear families, more older people are living alone, and independently from their families, supported by their own investments and pension funds,” Mano points out.
There is a lot of potential. Town halls and rotary clubs can be used to run theatre clubs or small workshops. Mano thinks there are plenty of theatre practitioners who might be willing to run theatre workshops, who just happen to be constrained by time,
Until it catches on, however, there is always Short + Sweet, Theatre for Seniors and hopefully, some future workshops to be run by the University of the Third Age if you want to get out of the house and exercise those creative muscles.
>> To find out more about the Theatre for Seniors workshop, visit http://www.klpac.org/?p=5295 or to learn more about University of the Third Age, check out http://u3amalaysia.wordpress.com/.
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Family & Community, Dramatic geriatric, KLPAC, Theatre For Seniors, workshop
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