For Cameronian Awards Most Promising Artist winner, Mark Teh, 22, the decision to concentrate on theatre instead of higher education was made for him by circumstances.
His study plans had to be revised due to the economic downturn. While exploring the theatre in the interim, he ultimately discovered himself.
“There was no epiphany, nothing happened to make me realise that theatre and the arts was what I wanted to do. But working in theatre helped me discover new things, and with that my interest and involvement just grew,” shares Teh.
Hence, from merely chilling out, he became a full time arts activist.
“I felt like I was lying to myself and to my friends – thinking that maybe I was going to go to university in six months time, then a year and later two years. The constant reassurance I gave myself that I was just putting up shows until I could continue my studies kept me from really committing to anything. Then in the beginning of last year, I really decided that I wasn’t going to go. It has helped me to really progress, really commit myself to what I belief in,” he says.
Arts for the community
Academia’s lost is Malaysian society’s gain. Building on his work on stage, Teh devised a community arts project with some fellow young artists at Kampung Pinang in Taman Medan, Selangor. Called the Taman Medan Community Arts Project, the six-month multi- arts programme aimed to encourage creativity from the young people in the community.
With the neighbourhood badminton court as their centre, Teh and five fellow young facilitators spent up to six hours every weekend for six months with the youth of Taman Medan to develop their creativity through the arts – visual art, drama, music and film.
Under the sponsorship of the British Council and collaboration with Five Arts Centre, the programme is provided free to young participants, aged 13 to 18, who live in the area’s low-cost flats and squatter houses.
A multi-arts approach is used to engage the youth in their environment and develop their creativity. Together, they developed their art skills by doing drama, music, movement, film and the visual arts to understand and relate the stories of their lives, as well as discuss pertinent communal issues such as race relations and violence.
Currently the programme is in its last leg and the young participants have produced five to 10-minute long short films, which are the culmination of the work and subjects they have developed in the last six months.
“It has been a good experience because it opened my eyes to what was really happening on the ground, it is not like something that I could have theorised sitting at the mamak stall with friends or in the lecture hall,” Teh says, adding that it was quite a humbling experience.
It has made him realise, he continues, that he was really dealing with people’s day-to-day lives, not theory, his own perceptions or something that he has read about.
“I started the project quite arrogantly, thinking that I knew all the issues, but I learnt very fast that I did not really know anything about them. I think that it was more of a learning process for us, the facilitators, than it was for the participants,” Teh explains.
Now, he is relieved that everything is coming together in the participants’ work. The weeks of various activities and art strands can be seen in the participants’ “product.”
Most of all, he feels, “It has really helped me to see things in different lenses, as it has highlighted things I didn’t even think of. I don’t usually take stock of what I’ve done, but I feel like I’m getting more engaged with local issues and am getting somewhere, rising to the next level each time. That is important. No matter what you do, you should try to take it to the next level, try to get to a new place.”
If anything, his experiences in the past few years have taught him that he likes working with young people.
“It’s very liberating. I find it hard to go back to the passive way of theatre now. I am looking at other ways of making arts not only accessible to the masses but also a tool for dialogue,” he says.
A new path
Undeniably Mark Teh, Most Promising Artist 2003, is a more mature and grounded young man than the young actor in Kecoh and Lebih Kecoh.
“Working on the two plays was a great experience for us as young people, but I am ready for other things.”
When the young theatre group Akshen broke into the local theatre scene, Malaysian audience was attracted to their bold and intelligent theatrical voice in their performances Kecoh!, Lebih Kecoh! and the recent Stadium.
Their interesting musings on various issues plaguing today's society, from the true meaning of independence and the ISA to globalisation and even individuality was refreshing in the local theatre.
Despite his hectic schedule, Teh misses his friends. “It’s quite strange because the rest of the group are finishing university while I haven’t gone to university yet. I don’t think that I’m going to university because I’m still on that steep learning curve that I’ve been at since I left A-levels, which was when I began theatre work. And until I reach that plateau, which I think I will in two years’ time, I am just going to keep on gaining new experiences and learning new things,” he adds.
When talking to friends who are studying what he is interested in such as psychology, political science, and philosophy, “I sometimes envy their theoretical strength, their knowledge and vocabulary. It makes me want to go to university,” he says.
Then after a short pause, “But it has not been tempting enough.’’
Luckily, his parents are supportive. “At first they wanted me to go to university but now that they can see the things that I am passionate about, they are quite cool about it.”
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