Penang Pedagogues

“School does not let us scream, run whenever we like,” says agitated sixth-former Johann Dzulkifil. “We have to be… civilised.” Throwing decorum out the classroom window, he exploded in an uncivilised outburst of creativity when he took part in Young Theatre – Penang’s recent work-in-progress showcase, The Dragon Who Lost a Whisker. Through developing script, sound, music, and movement largely on their own consensual terms, Johan and a bunch of youngsters his age had brought to life the story of the fierce, but ultimately remorseful dragon who lost one of his magic whiskers.

Facilitated by Janet Pillai, the production culminated a six-month arts workshop for the young. Guided by trainers in musical composition (Razak Abdul Aziz and Tan Sooi Beng), dance (Ang Bee Saik), and movement-for-stage (Rohaizad Suaidi), the programme was primed towards introducing, nurturing, and ultimately, materialising the latent creative resources of an otherwise uninitiated – and bored of school – group of children.

“Sugu Kingham and I first developed this model for children’s theatre,” explains Janet, “based on the theory of multiple-intelligences, approximately 13 years ago.” The theory of multiple-intelligences proposes a holistic perspective of the human mind. It asks us to give equal regard to each and every innate ability of a human being. First, to identify these, then to encourage, nurture, fortify, and help them come to expression in whatever ways possible.

A lecture-demonstration cued us in to this very process of ‘humanised learning’. Abstractions recently acquired – time, movement, structure, improvisation, space – came lithely and imaginatively alive through illustrations of specific movement techniques like body structuring, and compositional strategies such as vocal scrambling (berkelamuk).

It was beautiful watching two boys sculpt their messages with their evenly paired, malleable-like-plastic, tensile-­like-cane bodies. The bent knees, lowered center of gravity posture of the Timang Burong dance of the Pahang court was convincingly utilised to portray the perennially restless movements of two kelip-kelip, fireflies, who functioned as the chorus – commenting, teasing, advising, directing the dramatic flow.

“Learning about movement and stage presence was enlightening,” says Shazwan B. Mustafa Kamal, 17, “it opened up for me concepts like spatial level, contrast, dynamics, and how to use the body to convey my message.” No kidding. They don’t call theatre “theory-in-practice” for nothing.

Naturally, acting is challenging for the young ones, many of whom came in with one common personal obstacle: shyness. They had difficulty breaking out of their shells, talking to people, and using their bodies.

“It was extremely frustrating,” explains Shazwan, who had to wear a huge dragon-head mask, for his role of dragon head, the entire time, “I have to say everything I need to say through my body alone, minus the aid of facial expressions.

Certainly, unburdening ourselves of the weight of language is liberating for many. The performative moment thus turned out to be what could possibly be a blueprint of sorts for, clichéd as the term may be, ‘Malaysian theatre’. The fact that these are children is secondary.

Janet Pillai’s enduring aim is to formulate, re-formulate a Malaysian Theatre that is cognizant of its accumulated inheritance of a collective Asian theatrical heritage – one which equally exploits the strengths of all of the arts, which takes Gesamtkunstwerk, Total-Arts, seriously, and that is rooted in the Malay-theatrical practice of an outline-plot that is improvised upon during actual performance.

So, script-writing took on its own spontaneous, consensual twists and turns, as suited childish fancy. “A year ago, I would never have thought of acting like this… This is more unconventional, more exciting to come together to create, impromptu the text and plot,” says the Shazwan, who was also the primary script-refiner.

“I contributed ideas and helped with the Malay,” adds Johan, “making it closer to commonly-spoken language, rather than the formal, classical bangsawan-style language often used in Malay theatre.”

Is this then the modern, Malaysian theatre that is physically, audially, visually, and dramaturgically rich, along the lines of traditional Asian theatres?

Since the early 1990s, and over the course of ten productions, Janet Pillai has refined the model based on the multiple intelligences theory. While the core idea hits bulls-eye in terms of effectiveness as a pedagogical method, it has been less easy developing an actual system which feeds into itself – ie. the child-participants become either part- or full-time arts practitioners who have the requisite pedagogical knowledge to do the same for others. Such knowledge is simply not available here currently.

The overriding concern, it appears, is the lack of the notion, and presence of, what Janet calls, ‘Drama Pedagogues’, in Malaysia. The showcase highlighted the fact that while children thrive from having their diverse intelligences identified, nurtured and brought to full expression in artistic forms, there is, sadly, a total dearth of facilitators in this country with the trained ability to identify, nurture and bring anything to fullness.

Not surprisingly, there is no venue for the cultivation of such skills in the formal school system. And not that we expect it, ultimately.

Hence, the call for an ‘institution’ to be set up by the national cultural body, one that would recognise the urgency of developing children in a manner which could counter the weight put upon dissecting and compartmentalising knowledge, as is the premium in our mainstream school system.

Whereas the scientific and mathematical abilities of children have been afforded the time by human civilisation to be developed, the other, though equally important – to the well-being of humanity, that is – intelligences have often-time been relegated to third-class existence, brushed to the margins, quietly dissuaded, snuffed out, really. Be a doctor over a pianist, really. Its no wonder mental health care institutions appear with equal vengeance world-wide. How about putting some drama pedagogues in the health ministry for starters?

Young Theatre – Penang’s effort would be an ideal “road show” piece with which to make the winning point to a ministerial audience sitting to decide on the amount to allocate a new, citizens-tax-funded, independently-run programme termed “Dramatic Arts Pedagogy” or something akin to it. Two to four years, up to you. (Just don’t change your mind every second year!) These trainers would then fan out to as many kindergartens, youth organisations, orphanages, as possible. Heck, they could even start their own innovative “tuition centers” with a difference.

The children’s showcase is an example of how such an educational experience, which attempts to give balanced regard to each individual’s particular strengths, could likely be the type of humanising education we all ultimately seek.

“Its something we can’t learn at school, through formal education. You become more vocal, you dare show your personality to people, and you become a better person,” earnestly persuades Shazwan.

“It took time for us to learn that this was indeed not school,” says Johan, “Here we break free of constraints, scream, run around crazy! Even when they scold, we don’t mind. It’s not like when teachers and parents scold. We speak openly to each other and can direct our anger at them through the arts. It’s the bond.”

And the bond is almost tangible. As the youths each received their certificates-of-participation, and specially­-conceived prizes for selected outstanding contributions, the kids hugged equally child-like Janet Pillai with huge, tears-wetted smiles.

“She’s my fren, the cool-est Cat on earth!”

And what of the lost dragon whisker? Well, if in their next installment next year (hint), the dragon manages to retrieve his whisker, he may just be able to conjure up its magical powers to give us a national situation where the teaching of drama is equated with the notion of a rounded, child-sensitive education, where both verbal and non-verbal skills are encouraged and utilised. Or maybe it is up to us to conjure it.

First Published: 28.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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