By Ghafir Akbar
Sometimes I feel that my life is a missing episode on Drama Minggu Ini. The episode where the son denies tradition, follows his heart and aspires to become… an entertainer! He wants to pursue his dream in the kota. But his father forbids him to leave the kampung. He runs away anyway and when he arrives in the kota, he finds out that it is not so easy after all. But as luck would have it, he meets a kind stranger who helps him get back on his feet and become an award-winning actor. The ending goes like this: his father becomes his number one fan.
Perhaps the episode isn’t missing after all.
When I first had the faintest thought of wanting to pursue something arty, I was seated in a chemistry lab at uni with my fellow bumiputras, learning about acids and their conjugate bases. Sure, chemistry made a lot of sense then, but now, Acid and their Conjugate Bases sounds to me like a Sondheim musical featuring the hit song ‘I’ve Got My Ion You’. My familiar environment moved from a Pyrex laden chemistry lab to a rundown leaky underground theatre. Everything that led to the latter consisted of anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, hope, and an American named Rey Buono.
Rey The Educator
Rey was the director for plays like The Merchant of Venice (co-directed with Jo Kukathas), and he directed me in Gross Indecency and Baltimore Waltz. In the arts scene, though, he is generally known for his remarks. It’s not that he is mulut laser, it’s just that Rey often says what Rey wants to say. Which often raises more than a few eyebrows. But these days, he is staying far from trouble. Rey the educator recently announced that his project – the one he has been working on for years – will now be fully realised: Malaysia’s latest performing arts programme under the School of Performance + Media at Sunway College.
I can tell you that as a teacher, Rey really knows his stuff. After all, he grew up in 60s America. In his “Introduction to Theatre” class, he knows or has met at least half the people we studied in our textbook. So now that this programme has been approved by the Ministry, I make my way to Rey’s office at Sunway College to find out more. To all of you out there, particularly those who have shamelessly advertised yourself on the Kakiseni notice board (or even thought of it), listen up!
To begin with, the school offers a six-semester course leading to a Diploma in Performing Arts. That’s going to take you about two and a half years to complete. But what makes this programme different from others lies in the name itself. Notice how it’s called performance AND media. “We train people for the profession,” Rey explains. The first year foundation programme itself will cover courses in theatre, media and film history, and theory from both Asian and Western practice.
And to balance all that theory-schmeory, foundation students will also be exposed to practical work in its three acting classes: ‘Acting and Improvisation’, ‘Characterisation and Mask’ and ‘Scene Study’. Now, even if you don’t become an actor, you will be working closely with them either as a writer or director.
At the beginning of the second year, students will choose their desired paths either on stage or off. Wannabe actors will attend an audition to qualify, while wannabe directors and playwrights specialise in their respective fields. Once you made it through your second year, you have the option of transferring to an overseas university for a degree or complete your diploma at Sunway College itself. And now that the college has just graduated into Sunway University College, it won’t be long before it is handing out Performance degrees too!
His Very Own 3R
Now, Rey can’t possibly do all this on his own. He is proud to announce his very own combo of 3R: Rey, Ray and Rohaizad. Ray Langenbach is an academic, writer and public intellectual, currently lecturing at a few departments in Sunway College, mainly in areas of media. Rohaizad meanwhile, an ex-UPM lecturer and having just returned from a directing stint in the US, was last seen working the catwalk in his fashion opera: Ops Ophelia. Right now, Rey is negotiating on getting working professionals in film, television, theatre and media.
Perhaps Rey can also invite established Malaysian artists abroad to come back and teach. Professor Dato’ Michelle Yeoh maybe?
Two years ago, when I embarked on a twinning programme at Sunway, this programme was not available. Nevertheless, with Rey’s help, I’ve managed to get a place in Western Michigan University’s Theatre programme (starting this December, hopefully*). That’s what Rey is busy working on now: to establish degree connections with foreign universities. He is also setting up an advisory board. “The board will primarily serve to oversee the programme,” Rey says. “It will also keep track of current practice in performance and media; and provide internship places for its graduates.”
It’s important, therefore, to get teachers with regional experience. They will impart the knowledge we need to survive not just in Malaysia, but in Asia, and may be able to get us in touch with their business contacts. Furthermore, a student body consisting of regional peers will enable students to establish immediate networks for future collaboration.
The Forensics Scientist’s Dilemma
Our chat was interrupted when Rey received a student interested on finding out more about the programme. Sara, 18, reminded me a bit of myself. She is at present, a scholar for the PSD (Public Services Department) and is working her way in university to become a forensics scientist. But she is planning to apply for a minor in theatre when she transfers to Stanford University.
“I want to do this only out of interest. I know I am doing science and arts at the same time but my passion is stronger for science. So that’s why I am majoring in science,” Sara confessed. But her passion for theatre was shining so bright through her eyes that it was hard to miss.
I asked her if she would ever consider going into the arts full time. She replied, “What? My mom will say – “I’ll kill you!”
Rey sees this all the time; young people with the talent and desire to go for it but have parents balk at them for wanting to become an actor. “Of course, there will always be those who do it anyway, but there are many more who fold their dreams into an envelope and sign up for law or mass communication,” he says.
Coming from a newly liberal family myself, my plunge into theatre some years back met with really cold water. My family – both immediate and distant – was absolutely petrified to hear my plans. “You want to be a what?” Naturally, I resented their disapproval. While trying to respect their wishes, I kept talking to them about it, asking them to trust me, making them listen, until my persistence won out. I got the chance to dip my toe into the pool, acting at first in plays by The Actors Studio, and then the Instant Café Theatre. When more acting jobs started coming in, my parents began to soften. Now they come voluntarily for all my plays. Just another episode on Drama Minggu Ini.
Rey continues by saying that we need local opportunities for training in the performing arts – there’re just not enough places for people to pursue their ambitions here. Perhaps he has a point. With more arts schools, more people will warm up to the idea of performing arts as a career. When more parents get familiar with the idea of a career in the arts, more students will enrol in these schools. Which will provide more trained graduates to fill the job seats. Hopefully, it will mean a better profile for the entertainment industry, and less parental resistance for future students.
The World’s Fastest Growing
“Asia is the world’s fastest growing market for the entertainment industry,” Rey points out. “Television and cable networks are proliferating. The Asian film industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Theatre companies are sprouting up as affluent, educated urban audiences demand more sophisticated entertainment. A new performing arts center is being built in Sentul West even as we speak. What do these media all demand? Content, content, content!”
Sara wishes to experience more theatre to better her chances at Stanford. “I don’t watch a lot of theatre. When I left Ipoh to come to KL, I went straight to university. And we can’t really go out because of the curfew. So even if I wanted to watch a play, it takes a lot of planning and preparation.” Her timetable now leaves her little time to do anything remotely artsy. Even coming to see Rey took a lot of planning. Rey is quick to remind Sara of her opportunities in Stanford. She will have to compete with the Americans for the limited seats available in the theatre department there. Sara seemed fully aware of this and was even more determined by the limitation. She will need to send in her audition tape to Stanford for acceptance and asked Rey if he could help in any way. Rey replied: “My programme will start September and will run to December. Why don’t you enroll?” Sara gives a reluctant smile. She is stuck with PSD.
Rey, however, offered to help Sara where he can. When she left to think about her future, Rey and I discussed about the future of his school. He foresees a 300-seat theatre to accompany the existing Rooftop Theatre. “And maybe a nice dance studio,” he added. He will invest more on the already impressive collection of books on media and performing arts in the library. For his media students, he anticipates at least four studios being built complete with editing studios, a TV production studio and media rooms.
I am always excited to hear Rey talk about his dreams, which is essentially to build the dreams of others. There’s a lot of young people out there who could use someone like Rey and his school to help get their bearings right. I know for a fact that there are too many young talents out there who often give up before they begin, because they believe there is no point aspiring for such dreams. I was fortunate enough to have met and worked with Rey who told me that there are always opportunities for those who seek. With this diploma programme at the School of Performance + Media, he will meet more people like Sara and me. Some with clear ideas; some just needs to be told that they can be what they want to be. And if you’re reading this and you are somewhat interested in what the school has to offer, drop by his office for a chat. Tell him I sent you. And make sure you don’t leave the place before seeing ‘the sexy lights’ in the Rooftop Theatre. It’ll be worth the trip.
First Published: 22.08.2004 on Kakiseni