I Have Discovered My Vagina!

Four sunny Saturdays ago, I was invited to an open house at the Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Rumah Teater. Rohaizad Suaidi, who is the entire Theatre Department at UPM, was flustered: the food was late, the people were plenty and hungry, and maneuvering about the small corridor required balletic coordination. But you could tell that he was pleased nevertheless, particularly with his solo performance students. They had just completed a two months theatre course conducted by Rohaizad and were presenting the result of their labour.

Besides the usual my-parents-suck-I-want-to-kill-myself stories, there was a girl who imagined herself a professional witch, a guy who became a gang taiko, and a badminton player who couldn’t decide between study or sport, boyfriend or girlfriend. This last one, acted by Pei Chi, displayed such a confident story-telling style, many agreed that she will go very far. In fact, Pei Chi, who is graduating with a degree in Physics this semester, plans to go to USA to pursue a Masters in Theatre. Naturally, this kind of ambition would warm the cockles of any drama teacher. For the last semesters, Rohaizad has worked hard to recruit bigshots from the local theatre scene to help him teach: folks like Jo Kukathas, Alfian Sa’at, Thor Kah Hoong, Anne James, Nam Ron, Reza Zainal Abidin, Effendy from Ekamatra, Singapore. Join us as Rohaizad enthuses about teaching self-discovery to science students…

Hey Rohaizad, can you just fill us in on your background?

I played a lead role in a school assembly Boy Scouts production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when I was eight years old. I studied dance for six years as a child, but did not act again until I was offered another lead role in a self-penned stage version of the then popular T.V. show “Fame” when I was all but twelve.

During my teens, when I was studying at an all-boys secondary school, I played a significant role in another self­penned stage adaptation of “The Clash of the Titans.”

And then I got acne on my face and never went anywhere in public.

But I did spend nearly eight years in the US studying and getting two degrees in theatre. I have a terminal degree, an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in theatre.

I went to the university of Hawaii at Manoa and did a lot of traditional Asian theatre stuff. I also worked a lot with the graduate students in the theatre and dance department on “fusion” (or, as they called it, “creative contamination”) stuff. I minored in dance and did a lot of modern stuff. I only regret not taking up hula.

Then, I went to study in Northern New Jersey. But I didn’t like it there because the students only cared about acting and wanted to be on Broadway or Hollywood. So, I took the bus into New York city four times a week, and enrolled in the Martha Graham school of contemporary dance. I studied with a butoh teacher who had studied with the first female butoh master (mistress?) Ashikawa. I got an internship at a Marxist, oops, I mean, political, theatre company, and acted in two of their main season shows. My first time on off-off-broadway! But back in New Jersey, they didn’t know what to do with a little brown Asian boy, so they cast me as a little African­American boy in a mainstage production of The Grapes of Wrath.

I lived in Baltimore for four years and that’s where I went and got my MFA. I was one hour away from the White House and the Pentagon. I was living in the same zip code as John Waters. I ate steamed crabs smothered in Old Bay Seasoning. I discovered Main Puteri by accident, and it became the subject of my thesis. I taught theatre courses to american undergraduates who looked like they stepped out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. I met and studied with amazing guest artists such as Mac Welman, and the fabulous puppet and object theatre artist, the divine Ms. Theodora Skipitares, who, let it be known, slept on my couch once. I studied extended vocals with Richard Armstrong, a disciple of Roy Hart who developed the technique, and discovered registers in my voice I never knew could exist in a human being whose name is not Diamanda Galas.

I did musicals. I tried many things I thought hated. I wanted to stretch myself as an artist and as a scholar. I read books and articles on shamanism, trance states, alternative healing, seances, a lot of Crowley, and became a semi-permanent fixture at the interlibrary loan department’s office.

Oh wow. That is quite a monologue there. Okay, please explain the course you conduct at UPM.

The course, Solo Performance, is a three-credit college degree course that is one of the theatre courses offered at UPM, under the Performing Arts Unit (part of the Faculty of Modern Languages and Communications). Any student at UPM may declare a Minor in Theatre by successfully completing eight Theatre courses.

The goal of this Solo Performance course is to create actors who are “self-producing artists.” This means the students are expected to write, perform, direct, design, and produce.

Actors in societies with highly developed theatre and arts scenes such as in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, are no longer finding it satisfying (or possible) to remain “mere” actors at the mercy of casting directors looking for “types.” More and more, we are seeing exciting new works in theatre by solo performers who mine their unique experiences and talents and abilities, developing highly original pieces based, often, on the fact that they do not “fit” into the Broadway or mainstream theatre machine.

Eve Ensler and her phenomenal Vagina Monologues is just ONE very well known example of solo performers who have found critical and, for some, commercial success with performance pieces they have developed on their own.

Our goal here at the very small Performing Arts Unit at UPM is to bring this practical awareness to the students studying theatre today, and at the same time, empowering them to take the creative and art-making process into their own hands. For example, the students are required to design and construct their own mock production funding proposal, complete with a cover letter to the would-be sponsor, a professional resume, a proposed budget, fund-raising and marketing strategies. In addition, the students will also be evaluated on the design and construction of the program and publicity poster for their (mock) full production of their solo pieces.

The lessons seem quite exhaustive, covering from writing to performing to self-directing. Are these the kind of instructions that theatre students overseas get?

I did not want the students to only focus on one or two disciplines – writing and acting – because like I said, many actors are not getting work out there, and many of them realized, hey, I can write my own material, hey, I can direct and design my own shows, hey, I can take care of my own career, my life, I can do it all! I am self empowered! I have discovered my spiritual center, and strength, and I can see my life as it comes out shining! I have discovered my vagina!

I admit, not too many undergraduate theatre programs in the US offer courses such as this, at least not quite like this. I know several graduate programs do it.

As far as I know, this is the only place in Malaysia (or anywhere else, really), where a student who is not a Theatre major or minor, and who is pursuing a fulltime degree in a non-Arts discipline, and who, after having taken at least one basic acting course, may enroll in a course in which she is demanded to free herself to create an original, self-written, self-performed, self-designed, and self-produced solo performance piece.

Would you prefer to teach theatre major students or electives to non-theatre majors?

I have taught acting and theatre majors in Malaysia and in the US. I like that with students who have chosen to do theatre seriously enough to want to get degrees in them, you can take them pretty far in terms of technique. However, there are many theatre and acting majors who carry with them bad habits or “baggages” that they bring into the acting classroom, and that gets in their way and makes it very difficult for them to be free to be creative.

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE teaching non-actors and students who have never acted on stage before, and who have very little or no knowledge or experience of theatre. These students are a great joy to teach, because they think they know nothing about theatre, and WANT to learn, they WANT to discover WHAT theatre is. They carry very little baggage into the classroom. Sure, we all have expectations and preconceived ideas about things we know nothing about, but these students, they are simply some of the best I’ve ever had. I love my job!

Oh, one more thing – I used to be a math tutor. I used to be very good in math. I love that it’s all so imaginative and tricky – I mean, natural and unnatural numbers? Probability? Binomial and poisson distributions? I love these puzzles! I only started to not enjoy mathematics when my ‘a’ level tutor basically told me to shut up and just solve the problems in the quickest, most efficient manner possible.

But now that I am teaching students who speak the language of math and physics and statistics, I find I am free to use these scientific metaphors in lecturing about theatre and acting.

When I talk about theatre and actors, and the relationship between space and time and bodies, the arts and humanities students stare blankly while the science students get it!

When we do vocal exercises and I say sound is energy, the science students get it!

When we do physical and contact improvisation exercises and I talk about kinesthetic response, well… YOU get it.

Who are the students?

There are nine students taking Solo Performance:

Pei Chi is a young woman majoring in Physics, who wants to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Theatre.

Ching Yee is majoring in Engineering.  She says that taking Theatre courses helps to “balance her life.”

Langgeswary is pursuing a degree in English, and hopes to teach. Just before starting this course, she made the discovery that her late father, who died when she was very young, used to be a stage actor.

Peter is majoring in Mandarin, and minoring in Theatre. He will be leaving for Japan on the 20th of September to study Japanese language and culture at a university in Tokyo for a full academic year.

Sanjivan is president of the Indian Cultural Group on campus, and has overseen lavish productions such as last year’s Shakuntala.

Deordre “Odie” describes herself as Sino-Kadazan, and is a major in Biology. She is not minoring in Theatre, but got hooked after taking Acting and Improvisation 1 to fulfill a free elective requirement.

Shirley is studying Human Resources by day, and supports herself by working the cashier at a hip and trendy club in KL (hint, it’s near the Beach Club!) in the weekends.

Phoebe is a major in Statistics, and might as well declare a minor in Theatre now that she’s taken four theatre courses.

Kevin is majoring in English, and this is also his fourth Theatre course.

How did you settle on these teachers?

I wanted the course to be taught as a series of intensive workshops where the students get to meet and work with a writer, an actor, a director, and a producer. So I called up people I know, whose work in theatre I really like because they have moved me below the neck.

I asked Jo Kukathas to come in and work with the students as an actor who has developed and performed some brilliant solo theatre pieces (think Atomic Jaya, From Table Mountain…).  She said yes.

I called and met Nam Ron for the first time, to ask him if he would come in and work with the students on how to direct their pieces. I like what Nam Ron is doing in theatre, especially what he is doing to the Malay language and Malay cultural identity in his pieces. He said Yes.

Nam Ron blows everyone away by saying something totally non-academic, shaving away at pretense and artsy talk by cutting straight to the point, cutting through all the bull. Students sometimes react with something like shock when this happens because perhaps they did not expect such brutal honesty to be hurled across a classroom on a university campus.

I wrote Alfian Sa’at an e-mail asking if he would like to come up to teach writing to the students, and come to KL more often and that way hang out here more. Alfian has done some pretty amazing, kickass writing in Malay for a number of Ekamatra’s productions. I LOVE his Madu Dua (now published in an anthology of Malay Singapore theatre and available for all!), in which he deconstructed some beloved popular Malay cultural icons by using lots and lots and lots of humor – which always works in theatre, but which is one of the most difficult things to do in theatre. And Alfian said yes.

And then I called Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the artistic director of Ekamatra to ask if he would come talk about his work as producer. Fendy said yes, and ended up doing a really fabulous exercise with the students in which he turned preparing and applying for a grant to fund a performance project into a game, sort of like Monopoly meets SimCity.

I ended up getting exactly who I wanted. I didn’t settle on these folks. They were indeed sent from up above.

Do your students have any idea how lucky they are to get these teachers? What do you think they have learnt?

They damn well better know how lucky they are! I think they’ve learnt that theatre is work.

Acting means doing, and that means working and sweating.

I think they’ve learnt that theatre is not all fun and games, but it can be a LOT of fun if you allow yourself to learn the rules of the game and then learn how to break the rules so you can create your own games.

I think they’ve learnt that both Chekhov and Alfian Sa’at have medical degrees.

I think they’ve learnt that their lives are worth living, and that their experiences and their stories are worth sharing and worth giving a voice, a shape, and a color to.

I think they’ve learnt that you have to work very hard to get out of your own way to get to the center, to the truth, to the real shit that needs to come out but won’t come out because you are taught and conditioned everyday of your life NOT to let the real shit come out. Because the real shit is potent. The real shit is scary. The real shit is what makes you you and different from the others.

I think they’ve learnt that Mr Rohaizad Suaidi is probably not going to last very long if he continues working 80-hour weeks.

First Published: 31.10.2003 on Kakiseni

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