Sekolah Main Wayang champions storytelling as an accessible cultural activity


Orang Asli youths from Kampung Ulu Batu in Gombak, Selangor improvising short scenes with wayang puppets that were made during the Sekolah Main Wayang workshop late last year. Photo: Fairuz Sulaiman

In Sekolah Main Wayang’s pilot project last year in the Temuan village of Kampung Ulu Batu in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, one of the workshop participants made a puppet with cardboard arms and LED eyes that lit up like the sun. But you had to get the angle just right, or else the lights wouldn’t turn on.

In any other situation, this would be quite a technical disaster. But with this Wayang TEK-tek theatre workshop series, every little win is celebrated.

“When the eyes light up, it is well worth the half an hour you just spent fiddling with the puppet,” says Fairuz Sulaiman, a multimedia artist, who is also the programme director of the Digital Art+Culture (DA+C) Festival.

Together with Ayam Fared and Sudarshan Kumar, they make up the Main Wayang team, the people behind the "Sekolah Main Wayang" workshop programme that aims to provide youths with skills for creative storytelling.

Marrying tradition and technology, Sekolah Main Wayang has been running multimedia-oriented workshops since 2015. It believes in arts education as an integral facet of creative youth development. The programmes are designed to spark interest in the performing arts among local youths by providing a nurturing and encouraging space for main (play), which emphasises on local knowledge and memories to create a better understanding of the world through innovative re-tellings.

A workshop session for Sekolah Main Wayang where participants are introduced to the world of storytelling and the creative lo-fi side of multimedia arts. Photo: @tagklakadaA workshop session for Sekolah Main Wayang where participants are introduced to the world of storytelling and the creative lo-fi side of multimedia arts. Photo: @tagklakada

Notable projects include the Rakan Muda creative mentorship programme under the Ministry of Youth and Sports where the team conducted workshops in three secondary schools in rural townships across Malaysia that culminated in a performance at Festival Belia 2015 in Putrajaya.

Another workshop was conducted in collaboration with Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) and Yayasan Chow Kit, for at-risk teenagers from the heart of urban Kuala Lumpur, where a public performance was staged at a satellite show for the upcoming YSD Arts Festival 2016.

Spirit of exploration

Wayang TEK-tek, the latest theatre workshop series by Sekolah Main Wayang, continues this spirit of exploration through play.

Focusing on Orang Asli youths, it champions community engagement and collaboration to promote creativity and open dialogue, while celebrating Orang Asli culture and heritage.

The modules are designed to build different iterations of puppets by synergising Orang Asli knowledge with DIY smarts and technology. These puppets are an investigation of natural and man-made materials, designed and constructed from materials found in the surroundings.

Marrying tradition and technology, Sekolah Main Wayang has been running multimedia-oriented workshops since 2015.  Photo: Ahmad Firdaus Marrying tradition and technology, Sekolah Main Wayang has been running multimedia-oriented workshops since 2015. Photo: Ahmad Firdaus

The Main Wayang team is currently rolling out their second Wayang TEK-tek workshop series, this time with the Semai community of Kampung Tumbuh Hangat and surrounding Orang Asli locations in Bota, Perak after last year’s Gombak-based community engagement series.

The Wayang TEK-tek name is a play on two components: traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and lo tech or DIY tech (tek), coming together into a wayang-like performance.

The project is supported by the High Commission of Canada in Malaysia.

“Through an introduction by cultural activist and artist Ronnie Bahari, we connected with the community of Kampung Tumbuh Hangat through informal hangout sessions at warungs and shadowed them going about their daily activities like fishing, foraging and cooking. We not only learned different traditional weaving techniques from them, but also appreciated how much time and effort it took to gather the raw materials and prepare them for this purpose,” says Fairuz.

In the weeks that followed, there were plenty of opportunities for the team and the Orang Asli youths to sit down and talk, exchanging ideas and sharing perspectives on various topics, from social norms and social ills, to their favourite hangout spots, the ever-changing landscape of their kampung and everyday challenges faced by the community.

Workshop facilitators Fairuz (left) and Ayam Fared in a kelarai (pattern) weaving session. Photo: Khairul Effendi Workshop facilitators Fairuz (left) and Ayam Fared in a kelarai (pattern) weaving session. Photo: Khairul Effendi

“We try to create a safe space where they can express themselves, a space where their voices are heard. We have conversations, and not just verbal ones – because sometimes expression comes in the form of drawings, craft, puppetry or acting,” says Fairuz.

Wayang TEK-tek also provides RM200 each for the 15 Orang Asli participants to buy basic material and get them ready for this arts project.

Good vibrations

Sound is also a big part of this outreach programme in rural Perak, this time with guest facilitator Thai experimental sound artist Nongyao who conducts sound exploration workshops using lo-fi tech and found materials.

His practice centres on experimentation with vibrations in our surroundings and how they interact with each other. He brings this approach to Wayang TEK-tek, where he observes and listens, and invites everyone involved to do the same.

“Everyone has a unique vibration and each community has their own vinyl records – not an actual record, but the vinyl record of our minds. I love to listen to these distinctive vibrations, it inspires me a lot," says Nongyao.

"My experiment sets out to discover our vibration together, through daily life, in the objects we use, the machines that are part of our lives, and the animals around us. There are no wrongs or rights in such an experiment, we just have to approach it with an open mind. We listen to each other and we compose together, and soon enough, we will figure out the vibration we are rolling on,” he adds.

A young workshop participant presenting a poster of life in her village in Kampung Tumbuh Hangat in Bota, Perak. Photo: @tagklakadaA young workshop participant presenting a poster of life in her village in Kampung Tumbuh Hangat in Bota, Perak. Photo: @tagklakada

At the end of the Wayang TEK-tek programme, these youths – whose ages range from 14 to 20 years old – will put together a public performance in the village, merging puppetry (and masks) with acting, sound and storytelling.

This two-part show is scheduled for March 16 and will be approximately 40 minutes in duration.

So far, the stories in development are about urbanisation efforts involving property developers and various other powerful individuals, and being caught between modern medicine and traditional methods and time-tested wisdom passed down from generations ago.

The puppets, masks, musical instruments and props will be made mostly from materials that can be found around the village.

“There’s plenty of bamboo, mengkuang and coconut trees here, so we will probably be able to come up with something from these. I think the performance is going to be amazing. These are real life stories about real people and real challenges.

“I look forward to watching it be performed to an audience who are just as affected by these issues, as the performers are. I hope they laugh and have a good time, but also find space to reflect on the villains in their lives and understand them a bit better,” adds Fairuz.

Makcik Zaini (centre) demonstrating how she prepares the kayu bertam for the Sekolah Main Wayang kelarai weaving workshop. Photo: Khairul EffendiMakcik Zaini (centre) demonstrating how she prepares the kayu bertam for the Sekolah Main Wayang kelarai weaving workshop. Photo: Khairul Effendi

In the long term, the team hopes that Orang Asli stories will become part of the “mainstream” narrative, where the community and their voice will be heard loud and clear.

Main Wayang understands that the framework for a programme like Sekolah Main Wayang must be inclusive and flexible enough to allow for adjustment to meet the needs of each project. This is part of the challenge, but it is also a huge part of the fun.

For Fairuz, he imagines he is designing a programme for his younger self.

“This is what I didn’t have as a kid, but I would have enjoyed it very much. If I could go back in time and design something for myself, this would be it,” he concludes.

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