Road to English mastery

Student showcase: The staging of The Actors Studio Academy Speech and Drama programme in 2015.

Free theatre classes Exposing children to theatre at a young age can help improve their English proficiency.

Getting young people to play or perform in an immersive environment will undoubtedly help improve their English proficiency, KL Shakespeare Players co-founder Lim Soon Heng told StarEdu.

On March 2, The Star on its front page highlighted how eight years after the Roadmap for English Language Education in Malaysia (2015-2025) was implemented, proficiency in the global language among teachers and students is still below par.

“Although they will still need encouragement at home, to improve their receptivity, it is beneficial to expose students to, and engage them in, the arts, not merely to learn skills, but as modes of learning.

“But theatre is not a panacea, or the silver bullet. For sure, most English classes can incorporate more play to encourage the use of the language, not unlike speech and drama classes.

“However, there should be a process and progression. Facilitators can ask questions of the young to encourage their speaking up, guiding them to be aware of how they think and process information to create knowledge,” he opined.

Registered in 2014, the KL Shakespeare Players has since presented over 90 live and online shows at schools nationwide, as well as in Milan, Italy. The company’s main activities are conducting workshops on almost anything related to Shakespeare, as well as specific theatre skills, especially with schools that offer International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) Drama.

Drama educator Tan Meng Kheng pointed to two primary ways of incorporating theatre in schools: conducting classes solely dedicated to drama, acting and performing arts-related skills, and theatre in education, where students engage in performative sessions, often to explore an idea or experience.

He explained that there are two main aspects of theatre in education: the performative aspect where students build confidence to speak before an audience in public; and the technical aspect where one is taught discipline and the preparation involved in performing as a team.

“The point about theatre education is not to train the next generation of future performers, although that is a huge plus. The aim is to improve their emotional and mental well-being,” said Tan, who runs EM Drama with his partner Esther Liew in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

The school offers speech and drama, communication skills and public speaking coaching for acting and public speaking for young students.

“No other academic subjects touch upon the human connection quite like theatre education as it forces you to analyse human behaviour and empathise with the characters in a story, and then perform the character to an audience. It is also a way to understand the student’s own identity better through the rehearsal and eventually performance,” Tan said.

The Actors Studio and The Actors Studio Academy co-founder Joe Hasham pointed to how theatre also helps in advancing creative thinking and communication skills.

“We have witnessed, over the years, the value of the performing arts. They inculcate belief in oneself, creating a more balanced approach to everyday life situations,” he said.

In 1989, Hasham and partner Datuk Faridah Merican formed The Actors Studio Academy, which now offers speech and drama courses using theatre techniques for those aged between three and 16.

And in 2018, the Taylor’s University & The Actors Studio (Tutas) performing arts conservatory degree programme was launched. Kicking off with five students in its first year, the school now has close to 50 students, with its numbers steadily growing.

“We were concerned at the lack of theatre arts education in our school system and we hoped that we could, in a small way, help to remedy this by introducing the performing arts to children and teens.

“We currently have the T4YP, or Theatre for Young People programme, a free four- to six-month course catering for young adults aged between 17 and 25,” Hasham shared.

While some may associate theatre education to be the sole domain of actors and people in the performing arts industry, Lim does not believe this to be the case.

“Theatre provides all students with the tools to find their voices and to discover what their bodies communicate. It also offers students another space to deal with difficult issues in a safe way. Whatever careers they take up, they will need self-awareness, empathy and effective communication skills,” he offered.

If we think of art as a mirror of society, then it is through theatre that we get to see ourselves and humanity as a whole, he added.

Theatre has been defined as a place where the audience pays to be seen, Lim said, adding that it helps inculcate empathy. And while reading good literature allows that, it is devoid of human interaction.

The great Bard may have left the world in 1616, but Lim and his team believe his words are as relevant today as when they were first written centuries ago.

“His stories are compelling, and he deals with issues we continue to face today – racism (Othello, The Merchant of Venice), misogynistic patriarchy (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and The Taming of the Shrew); the poor use of power (Richard II); the lust and abuse of power (Richard III and Macbeth), for example.

“His stories are also about familial relationships, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, offering great insights into humanity,” Lim said, noting even Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim recently echoed a famous Macbeth quote in Parliament, saying that the accusations made by his opponents were “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Acknowledging that it is a Herculean task to incorporate theatre education as a pedagogical method in schools, Lim said it is nonetheless a necessary move if we are to ensure the welfare of tomorrow’s students.

There is an urgent need to depoliticise our national education system and to focus on holistic education, he stressed.

“Train teachers and give them the freedom and encouragement to collaborate with theatre practitioners.During the Covid-19 pandemic, through our online shows, we managed to reach out to schools nationwide – many in remote areas – and we know that there is a hunger for theatre. Both sponsors and the Education Ministry have recognised the impact of this project so it’s a good starting point.”

EM Drama’s Tan added that the current state of Malaysian theatre education is mostly focused on big cities like Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru. Rural students, who need these theatre programmes most, are left out in the cold, he lamented.

Calling on the ministry to include theatre in the national education framework by making drama a part of the school syllabus, he said private and international schools have already had a head start in doing so and their students are reaping the rewards.

At most, national schools only have theatre cocurricular activities, he said, adding that this is not enough.

“We need a national push to stress the importance of theatre education.

“Teachers will have to be equipped with at least a basic understanding of theatre. It could start with every school just having speech and drama for the early and primary years.

“It could be an amalgamation of public speaking and theatre, a more general subject that could encourage them to deep dive into theatre education as they get older into their teens,” he offered.

Path to proficiency“

My daughter studied in a Chinese primary school before transferring to an international school at Year Five. She attends theatre classes, which help her improve her English. This is the only enrichment class she has attended for over six years, and refuses to quit. Thanks to these classes, my daughter is no longer scared to go on stage for public speaking or to be an emcee at events. I am a strong advocate for all parents to send their children in vernacular schools for theatre education. It is a great way to help children learn English in a fun way and build their confidence at the same time, as they are trained in stage performance and public speaking. What’s more important is for your children not to regard the class as an academic session, but rather as fun play for them.”

– Karen Tho, parent

“I take drama classes. I enjoy them because they have made me a more mature person. Theatre classes are where I feel comfortable to be angry, sad and emotional without the fear of being judged. Attending them has also helped me with my confidence. Taking theatre classes has made me more comfortable about speaking up, and also improved my public speaking skills.”

– Chai Yunna, 15, student

“As an English teacher, I value the written word, but part of the beauty of writing is when it is given voice through performance. There is little that stirs and moves us more than a shared experience of words given body through drama and the performing arts. As storytellers, argument-makers and people engaging in discourse through words, our children need to understand that they can make something beautiful and powerful through the spoken word. From reading a text out loud to singing with an ensemble, performance is another level of richness that we can bring into the world of children, who are often living in dry, repetitive, silent lives together with their textbooks and screens.”

– Joanna Lim, parent and English teacher

Date: March 18, and May 13 and 27

Time: 9am to 11am

Venue: Ampang Jaya Municipal Council Gallery, Menara MPAJ,

Pandan Indah, KL

Details: WhatsApp 011-1190 5747 (Shima) or 011-7302 4108 (Zakiah)

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