They’ve never been on stage before. But their passion in telling their own true, heartfelt stories lifts this amateur cast above themselves – and takes the audience along for the ride.
FALLEN Leaves might look like just another play. But one fact makes it stand out from the crowd: It is written and acted by people living with HIV/AIDS.
“This is a campaign for future generations,” says actor Azahar Ibrahim, 40, during a break in the six-hour rehearsal on which I sat in. “For me, this is my contribution as a Malaysian to the world.”
Fellow cast member Abdul Manaf, 51, agrees. “Malaysian society doesn’t know much about HIV/AIDS, so I hope that with this play they’ll understand it better. That’s my hope,” he says.
A few months ago, Azahar had been reluctant when he was “instructed” to participate in a drama therapy workshop with creative skills development centre, Cloudbreak.
But during last Thursday’s rehearsal at Dram Projects Studio in Petaling Jaya, his reluctance had manifestly disappeared as he joined his fellow actors in listening intently to instructions (via a translator) from British director, Brian Jones, who works with Cloudbreak.
In a different space
Fallen Leaves, which was first staged at The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur, in December, contains four stories about how people react to people living with HIV/AIDS.
These stories, told in Bahasa Malaysia and English, are based on real – and painful – events in their lives, such as the story about a man who burns clothes given to him by a family member who has AIDS.
Not everyone in the original cast has returned for the play’s June run. Azahar, for one, is a new cast member. While one cast member left because he has started working, Ridzuan Gomu, who acted and helped write the script, died recently, which drives home the reality that these actors are living with the disease.
Fallen Leaves came into being after the Welcome Community Home organisation (which houses people living with HIV/AIDS) asked Cloudbreak to run a drama therapy workshop to help some of their residents think through personal issues and to tell stories.
“Out of the workshops, some powerful stories emerged,” says Jones. “Some of them wanted to share that experience with young people in Malaysia,” says the director who is also the business partner of Jade Ong, founder of Cloudbreak.
“But when I told them about making a play, they were shocked. They asked: ‘Can we make a play?’”.
When I ask the cast if they had previous acting experience, they laugh and shake their heads vigorously. None of them ever thought they’d be actors. Frankly, they’re simply amazed that they’ve done it.
“When we started the workshop, all of us were not confident that it’d (the play) take place,” says Harjit Singh, 49. “It was only two months before December that it hit me for the first time that it was really going to happen.
“We are actors now, but not before,” he adds with a big smile.
The play first took place on a stage, but this time Fallen Leaves will be promenade theatre, which means that the performance will happen with the audience right in the middle of it. It’s an experiment of sorts for Jones.
“Fallen Leaves should be a flexible piece of theatre. We figure that if we can put on Fallen Leaves in this odd space (at Dram Projects Studio), we can put it on anywhere. It’s all about intimacy and being close to the audience,” he says.
The studio isn’t a typical theatre space and has only a small stage and not much room – which would keep cast and audience pretty close.
It’s a real challenge for the actors to perform with people sitting close to them, as it means they have to employ a whole different set of skills from what they used on a stage in a conventional theatre space before.
There will also be a new scene in this incarnation. It deals with the consequences of drug use: how easy it is to get in but how difficult it is to get out of.
“It was one of the things that we felt was missing (in the first play),” says Jones.
The actors are simply delighted by their involvement in the play, and their passion is humbling.
“By God’s grace, I got a chance to act,” says John Sakhamann, 53.
They talk about how thrilled they were when they received thunderous applause from the audience in their first performance in December.
“When people clap their hands, I get courage,” says Bhaskaran Anandarajah Subramaniam, 37.
For Harjit, his involvement in the play has been like a journey.
“There were about 15 to 16 of us in the first workshop. Some have died, some have started working.... (The experience) has been enriching in many ways.
“It has made me more confident and helped me believe in myself. ... I had a lot of anger and bitterness in me. I don’t know what has happened, but it has all gone. Nowadays I get along better with society,” he says.
Jones is impressed with their work.
“I don’t give them concessions, and I don’t lower the bar. I work with them the same way as I would with professional actors. We’re just trying to make a great piece of theatre and I enjoy the fact that they meet the challenge; there’s no self pity nor do they opt out of the process,” he says.
Jones says that the long-term plan for Fallen Leaves is for it to be a road show that will raise awareness and increase advocacy.
“The hope is that by the end of this run I’d be redundant and they’ll take Fallen Leaves away from me,” he says.
All proceeds will go to the Welcome Community Home for People with HIV/AIDS. For more information call Siew Ling at 012-330 5805 or Jade at 012-330 2600.