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Making History

The Five Arts Centre has been known to break conventions in the name of art, and Baling (Membaling), its latest project, did just that. Despite having no fancy props, lighting, and no experienced performers, this production literally took theatre out to the masses. NIKI CHEONG has the story

Wednesday February 1, 2006

THEY threw stools in the air, they used them as stilts, and they even (are you ready for this?) sat on the stools. Yes, if you had the opportunity to catch the Five Arts Centre (FAC)’s Baling (Membaling) recently at selected tertiary institutions and futsal centres in the Klang Valley, you’d be excused (at least in the first few minutes) if you thought the show was about throwing things about.

After all, isn’t that what the title is about? Baling, in Malay, literally means “to throw”. However, for those of you who (unlike this writer) actually paid attention in history class at school – you’d know that Baling, is also a place in Kedah, the very location of the 1955 peace talks between then Chief Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaysia.

Although the context of the performance seems heavy, this history-deficient writer, for one, was captivated.

From left: Chang Yoong Chia, Imri Nasution and Fahmi Reza in a scene from Baling (Membaling)which toured selected local colleges and universities as well as futsal centres in the Klang Valley, in an attempt to engage with students and young people.

And it wasn’t the theatrics. In fact, the whole set-up was pretty simple – one huge sheet of white cloth, three stools, one rattan cane, two overhead projectors and some slides.

What is interesting was how director Mark Teh, together with the three performers – Chang Yoong Chia, Fahmi Reza and Imri Nasution – pieced the play together from actual transcripts of the Baling Talks and recollections by journalist-activist Said Zahari. Interesting as it is, however, having this piece selected to tour youth-centric locations must have seemed to many a futile attempt to stir something in our often-perceived apathetic youth. But it was exactly for this reason that the FAC decided to feature the performance.

“We wanted to take Baling (Membaling) to colleges, universities and futsal centres to engage with students and young people,” Teh said.

“We were interested to see how students might respond to our play, which, let’s face it, is not the most obvious thing to interest young people – Malaysian history, physical theatre, performers with no acting experience.”

If Teh’s original intention was just trying to help young people get ownership of their history (“many young Malaysians do not feel ownership of Malaysian history – it is dismissed as boring, or history is presented as ‘facts’ that are cast in stone,” he said), then indeed he achieved his mission. Each performance (there were 10 locations in all) was followed by a discussion and while many theatre students were asking questions about the physical aspects of theatre and about the performance itself, there was a significant number of students who were questioning the actual content of the play. This, in itself, was a sign of interest in topics that people often think youth dismiss.

“The general assumption is that the average Malaysian student is apathetic and uncreative, but I’m not sure about that,” Teh said.

“In my experience, young people tend to be more open to new and experimental stories and forms – look at the audiences that go and watch the Malaysian Shorts or Documentaries screenings by local filmmakers, or the youth that go to Twilight Actiongirl or are into bands such as Seven Collar T-Shirt and Furniture. That’s the kind of audience that theatre should be trying to nurture, but often theatre companies underestimate our audiences’ intelligence and sense of adventure.”

Credit has to be given to FAC for even giving young people this opportunity. But for them, it is nothing new.

The centre is well known for nurturing of local talent through its many gurus. After all, doyen of the Malaysian theatre, the late Krishen Jit was a founding member. And in talking about reaching out, Teh instinctively quoted Krishen – an excerpt from the latter’s 1985 article “The Myths That Cloak Our Theatre” – which read:

“Why is our theatre seldom performed in the streets, markets, public parks, and other open spaces where large numbers of people congregate? Or why not in closed work spaces like factories ? hospitals and prisons ? Malaysian theatre people are desperately trying to build a professional theatre ... And such visions of a future Malaysian theatre, are provoking theatre people to view the current corporatisation of the arts with awe.”

Oh, how that quote still resonates 20 years on. While Baling (Membaling) may be the first production (Teh didn’t quite see it as kicking off, humbly attributing it to scheduling) from the year-long tribute to Krishen – The Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series – Teh’s work doesn’t end here.

“I suppose on a personal level, this is a challenge for my work in the coming few years,” he explained. “I’m interested to see theatre happen in non-theatre spaces, and to explore how people access performance in these environments.”

Of course, there is also the influence from Teh’s other community works (which, incidentally have garnered him an accolade in the form of a Boh Cameronian Arts Award) such as the Taman Medan project through which he and his colleagues do theatre, visual arts and videos with kids all over the kampung.

Baling (Membaling) may have ended last week but the passion to go beyond commercial and elitist theatre continues.

Was the performance successful? For this writer, it was.

Just look beyond the audience (it was free, and performed many times in an open space) – Teh and his entourage got young Malaysians thinking and asking questions, actually brought theatre to the masses instead of just talking about it, and proved that not all young people are docile.

If that is not success, then what is?