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Sunday August 31, 2008

Telling Malaysian tales

Among the host of exciting things happening in the arts scene is the rise of a new generation of writers in theatre.

MALAYSIAN theatre appears to have had a new spark of life over the past few years. While the industry remains relatively “small”, there is little doubt that works have moved on by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades.

For one, the faces have changed. The generation hailed as pioneers – that of the late Krishen Jit, the late Leslie Dawson, the late Kuo Pao Kun, Datuk Faridah Merican, and Chin San Sooi – have already passed the baton to a new generation of heavyweights.

These thespians – Datuk Zahim Albakri, Datin Seri Tiara Jacquelina, Jo Kukathas and Jit Murad, among others – began their journeys almost 20 years ago but have finally taken over the mantle and become elders of sorts.

Now it appears that we are facing yet another renaissance, and in the driving seat is a generation of new writers who are determined to bring Malaysian stories and Malaysian voices to the stage.

Of course, the attention given to performing arts of late has to be largely attributed to Tiara’s efforts in producing what was arguably the biggest local theatre production the country had ever seen.

Shanon: I write because of people like Jit Murad.

The adaptation of her award-winning movie Puteri Gunung Ledang (PGL) to the stage in 2006 has sparked a wave of large-scale musical theatre productions, almost non-existent before. The closest effort would probably be Jit’s The Storyteller back in 1996.

But it is efforts by these elders that seem to have lit the path for the new writers.

“We need original text and stories that Malaysians can hold on to,” says 30-year-old Shanon Shah.

“I write plays not because of people like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. I write because of people like Jit Murad.”

Finding a voice

Indeed, Shanon’s first play, Air Con, debuted last month and has been hailed as the breakthrough play of the year by aficionados, not only because of the solid performance, but also because the story struck home with the audience.

The play was essentially in Bahasa Malaysia and English with a bit of Chinese thrown in. Even so, many of the characters speak Bahasa Malaysia with a Kedahan pelat, and accents like those are unique to our country.

“If I had never watched Jit’s shows, I would never have realised that I can have my own voice,” Shanon opines.

It is this local sensibility that seems to be driving them on. While many will agree that there is the need for a balance – of both local and foreign scripts – the problem Malaysian theatre is facing is the lack of original text, what more text that is thought-provoking.

“My problem with Malaysian theatre is that there is too much focus on shows that are just ‘entertainment’,” shares Mohd Fared Jamaluddin, 23.

Fared, or Ayam as he is fondly known, is a recent graduate of Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara).

Among the productions he worked on while still a student were two critically acclaimed ones – Tanda and Waktu: Experimental Merdeka, both last year.

Teng: ‘PGL - The Musical’ has led to a big momentum

He adds: “It’s okay to be entertaining, as long as the show has ilmu (knowledge). Teater sepatutnya mendidik, menghibur dan boleh buat orang fikir (Theatre should educate, entertain and make people think).”

The good news is, with writers like these, things are bound to change. Then there is also a whole new generation of theatre practitioners who are emerging, thanks to the many education options available now, apart from Aswara.

That said, there is still a need to educate people in specialised areas, and efforts are being made – last year Tiara organised a musical theatre boot camp, and the duo of Teng Ky-Gan and Lim Chuang Yik have similar plans. Teng and Lim created the 2006 hit musical Broken Bridges.

PGL – The Musical was a really massive production, and is probably a turning point in Malaysian theatre ... it has led to a big momentum for musical theatre,” Teng says, referring to the flurry of musicals over the past couple of years including M! The Opera, P. Ramlee – The Musical, Rose, Rose I Love You, Tunku – The Musical and the recently staged Ismail – The Last Days.

The problem, he says, is that there is a lack of “musical actors, directors, conductors”.

“It’s not just a learning experience for writers but also for actors, producers and directors,” Teng says.

Of course, with more attention given to theatre, comes higher expectation.

And because the stories have been so localised, people want to watch more productions that speak their voices.

Naturally, the writers will have to lead the way with this.

“I think (Malaysian theatre is like) rojak, ice kacang, and the ever-changing ingredients in ban chang kueh.

“If the ingredients and recipe are right, then you will get a very special and delicious dish. If you don’t do it right, it won’t taste good and you won’t want to eat it,” Koh Choon Eiow shares.

The 36-year-old Koh, who has a background in Chinese-language theatre, is currently based in Taiwan, where he has just completed his Master of Fine Arts degree from Chinese Culture University's Theatre Arts Department, majoring in playwrighting and directing.

His latest play has been translated recently by a theatre company in the Philippines under the title Ang Dalawa Niyang Libing for a local audience at the Virgin Labfest festival.

Fared: We are providing a platform for the next generation

“In Malaysia, we have a unique mixture of different races.

“And I trust that there'll be more opportunities for future development and collaborations, across races and across languages,” Koh adds.

Building bridges

This seems to be an opinion that all four writers share.

Theatre in Malaysia has long been fragmented – until recently, most collaborations between the different languages were isolated productions.

There seems to be a conscious effort to collaborate – most significantly the 2006 Break-ing (Ji Po) Ka Si Pe Cah, a multi-lingual joint effort between Kukathas, Loh Kok Man and Nam Ron, respected within the English, Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia language theatre communities respectively.

“Just look at the works of Low Kok Man, who has been trying to narrow the gap between the races and to overcome the language barrier.

“I believe we will see more of this kind of style and trend, and experimenting by mixing different languages together,” observes Koh.

Fared feels that the solution comes from “sharing” an audience.

“If we can share the crowd, then these people will help change Malaysian theatre,” he says.

“Take Air Con for example – it was predominantly in Bahasa Malaysia but it still attracted the English-theatre crowd.”

Where the future takes us is, of course, uncertain.

As we move ahead over 50 years since Merdeka, there is an increasing call for a more united Malaysia and one that sees beyond race.

Performing arts has a history of pushing socio-political boundaries, so who is to say that it cannot lead the charge to a new Malaysia too. These writers seem to be paving the way.

That said, change may not come so quickly but at least the current practitioners are attempting to blaze the trail.

“It doesn’t matter if what I do now doesn't have a big impact,” Fared concludes.

“We are providing a platform for the next generation and hopefully they can see the path.”

The likes of Zahim, Tiara, Jit and Kukathas have already continued the legacies of the pioneers before them and it seems that this tradition is set to continue.

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