E-Travels With E.Trules.....VOODOO...Borneo, Malaysia, Travelogue
some of you doubting toms and tomettes
seem to think that
I NEVER WORK
i've gotten the subtle suggestions, the caustic
i can see you all sitting there with those knowing,
smiles on your faces
"ah, that trules has done it again
pulled another fast one
gotten another subsidized free ride to the far side of the world
just to continue his self-indulgent dawdling
his lazy-ass peter pan philandering
his verbotic, self-centered mis-adventuring"
i can hear those nasty, ungenerous thoughts
i can read between the silences and sparsely returned
"and he expects us to read about it
be entertained, amused, enthused about it
well, slitherin' salamanders
i do work
and at the risk of boring you all
i thought i'd tell you a little bit about it
what i do
the pedagogical lowdown so to speak
in mostly lay terms
so as to try to keep your interest
well, as i think i've told you, i was hired/given this grant to teach creativity here in malaysia. first, here in sabah, on the island of borneo in east malaysia for 4 months until april 30, then in the malaysian capital, kuala lumpur, for another 4 months from may 1 august 31. the 2nd leg approaches rapidly
well, last sunday, a group of ten students of mine, appeared as both clowns and monologists in, of all things, a "monologue" festival, hosted here in sabah by my home university, the university of malaysia sabah (UMS). i was pretty amazed that they were having their 2nd annual "monologue" festival, since that is my specialty field, but when i found out what they were calling "monologue", it turned out to be quite different from what i was doing. whereas, as many of you know, i do and teach "solo" performance, the writing and performing of one person shows, often also called "monologue", the UMS "monologue" was a specific hybrid of poetry and performance done by a group of 4 actors, one person speaking at a time, usually about the same subject or theme, but never to each other. it was an interesting form to me, but quite different than my solo form. i wondered who developed it and how. but since they had a very rigid definition of "monologue", my group performed out of competition on the last night before all the VIPs before the awards ceremony. and this same group of student actors (along with one ambitious faculty member) greeted and improvised with the arriving audience and VIPs as clowns.
now let me back up a few steps. because whereas i know neither of these two activities would be seen as extraordinary in america or perhaps in most western cultures, they were in fact quite out of the ordinary here in malaysia. why? because as i've already mentioned before, this is a very non-individualistic culture. children are raised to be polite, to defer to their parents, elders, and teachers, to respect authority even fear it and as such, they are not taught to think for themselves, to have original thoughts, to doubt or argue with elders, teachers, or authority, or - to perform as clowns! students generally parrot their teachers, don't answer questions when asked, and almost never want to be singled out of the group. even at the university level. the modus operandi in the culture is to fit it, not stand out, follow tradition, follow rules, do as the parents and teachers desire, get married, have children, defer to the government which has had a single prime minister for the past twenty years, and to tow the line. sound familiar? 1950s america? perhaps many civilizations on the planet, throughout history.
but certainly not 1960s/70s america. the baby boomers. the "me" generation. a culture and generation that stood for questioning authority, mis-trusting political leaders, criticizing national policy, breaking with parental desire, tradition, and expectation. a culture and generation that stood for self expression, following instinct, experimenting with drugs, developing community, protecting the environment, standing up for the rights of the oppressed, the individual, the self. a culture and generation to which i belong.
and for some crazy-ass reason, that's what i feel i'm doing here. well, let me explain. not that i'm rabble rousing a 1960s personal and political revolution. nor trying to get me or my students executed for illegal trafficking or usage of drugs! but rather, i'm promoting the most contagious and enduring of american ideals and institutions one even more contagious and enduring than capitalism itself or success, materialism, or corporate and personal profit. the idea and the ideal of freedom. freedom of expression. freedom to be different. be true to oneself. freedom to have the opportunity and permission to discover and investigate that self. freedom to even have the instruction to develop and express that self. to improve. to look within. to have the courage and support to be different, to follow one's own voice, one's own drummer, one's own bliss, however the sages have always said it the freedom to realize, fulfill, and to become oneself.
that this is heresy here in islamic malaysia does bother me. does, in my opinion, work in a counter-productive direction, to what the prime minister himself wants for his country: new ideas. a flourishing economy and culture. a competitive edge. citizens who are proud of their own culture, but who can compete in the modern world.
well, how can this contemporary wish become a reality when aberration, difference is not tolerated? when freedom of expression is not encouraged? when it is even discouraged and punished? (the prime minister currently has his former right hand man and vice chancellor serving a multi-year jail term on a trumped up sodomy charge for speaking critically of the PM). when new ideas, different ideas, are stifled? when there is pressure to conform? when one religion and culture is favored and preferred to another? when islamic law is perhaps the harshest on the planet, and muslim women are treated as even more inferior to men than in most other places on the world?. when muslim girls have to cover their heads in the presence of men, when muslim women are prosecuted and jailed for any public display of intimate physicality (kissing, holding hands), and muslim female students can't hold the hands of, or even touch, male students in any way, shape, or form - muslim or otherwise?
which brings me back to the teaching. because as i also mentioned before, my biggest hurdle in teaching self expression and creativity was the students' pernicious and omnipresent self consciousness and embarrassment. this quality of being "malu" -- which as i'm trying to figure out and explain, seems to come from this long history and strong tradition of malaysia itself. from islam? from the entirety of asia, islamic or otherwise? where, i also understand, it's important to be part of a community, to respect one's parents and elders, to follow rules, and to not be too selfish or self-centered. after all, look where it can end up!!
so out of perhaps fifty theater students, where the girls were both more populous and more "malu", the malu apparently growing stronger beneath the "tudong" (head covering), i had ten volunteers to work with in the smaller monologue and clown classes. volunteers? well, sometimes i'm not even sure of that. sometimes i think they were conscripted by their full time theater teacher. my colleague. he said, "take these students." the students really didn't have much of a choice. and i'm afraid if they did, i would neither have had much to do these last three months, nor would i be talking about it now. anyway, these ten lucky or unlucky draftees got to work with me twice a week for about two months, then for fourteen days in a row before last sunday, their performance date.
at first, most of the students were very shy and inhibited. they were not used to moving their bodies in such big, and for them, embarrassing ways - nor in writing personal stories that came out of their own experience. they would bring in stories based on folk tales, or completely fabricated tales where there were ghosts and bloody murders. not that ghosts and bloody murders don't make for good stories (witness wee willie shakespeare), these stories that they brought in rang false and simplistic and artificial. how, you may ask, did i even understand the stories since 90% of my students could not speak english? 50% could not understand my english, but 90% couldn't speak! beeg problema, no?
so what did i do, being the resourceful, inflexible, cyber-kinda-guy i am? i had them translate their stories into english and e-mail them to me. cool idea, eh? well, at first the translations were not understandable. i recognized words, but not sentences, content, certainly not stories. but i did have one chinese-malay student who spoke pretty good english, and soon it became his full time job to translate both - my words in class, and then the e-mailed monologues - to the other language. english to malay. malay to english. he did it, but sometimes, he didn't show up, or he was a bit "malas" himself. lazy.
but then, fortunately one evening, or perhaps more accurately, providentially, a young girl showed up before class and started speaking to me. she was a curious, articulate, english-speaking first year student, tang being her name, and she was applying to the arts school and taking dance classes next door to the acting studio. also fortunately for all of us, since most malays are congenitally late, or more kindly said, operate on "rubber time," her teacher had not yet arrived. so after about half an hour into my monologue class, tang, shyly snuck into the acting studio and asked if she could watch class. i said yes, and after about another fifteen minutes, mostly out of necessity, or perhaps, enthusiasm, tang had grabbed and won the translation job. by the end of class, she had also written the best in-class monologue, and i invited her to join us on a permanent basis.
so with that good fortune, monologues, along with translations, improved. and by the end of two months, each and every student had been encouraged to write, and had written, a personal monologue from something in their lives. as is the case in most of my USC classes, the first monologue that i am enthusiastic about becomes the role model for all the others. here at UMS that first one turned out to be about death, about one of the students losing her favorite cousin in an unexpected train accident. and - not to lose the ghosts altogether - the young girl also had a strange premonition about it; she imagined her death before the accident. so we did end up have having an inordinate amount of monologues about strange deaths, disappearances, accidents, and funerals, but when the students did them last sunday, their performance was a true ceremony and celebration of self acknowledgement. some of the audience laughed in the wrong places, because they were not used to such serious subjects, and of course they were still quite "malu" themselves, but all in all, it was a very positive and validating event, for the students, for the audience, and even for old wizened professor tru-les.
the clowning was even more incredible. because seeing these same students overcome their inhibitions and self consciousness over the three months to the point where they could go out to the local megamall and improvise as clowns in full costume and makeup was a feat that allah himself must have aided and abetted. how did this happen? well, it was something like boot camp, military training, even though i never had the privilege of either. but seeing enough hardened, lou gossett junior sergeants in boot camp movies, i would just drill the students over and over again. "no malu", i would scream whenever i got an embarrassed apology or self conscious laugh. "bigger", i would rail at them whenever they were timid or small. and somehow, over time and repetition, just like the happy pavlovian trainees they were, they simply got it. they were able to physically understand and incorporate my technique of getting the face to animate the gesture, the movement coming from the middle of the body. so by the end of the training, each of them was animating their movement almost 100% of the time. each step, wave of the hand, bend, turn, quirk, almost every thought and impulse became physically animate. and once we went shopping at the well-stocked kota kinabalu night market, buying 10 costumes second hand hats, pink-striped shirts, baggy pants, polka-dotted dresses, mis-matched socks -- the whole wacky enchilada for 280 ringit 70 US dollars, and practiced the white faced with color cumeezi-style makeup style, we were ready to take on centrepoint. the sabah minimall where never before had a clown ever ever been seen, nor even dreamed of. you can only the imagine the good-hearted chaos we created. four levels of delighted, amazed, and shocked mall-shopping sabahans watching the gift of american freedom being released from senator william j. fulbright's magic lantern. "free public laughs" lived again
if you asked me four months ago whether i thought it was possible to teach non-english speaking students what i knew and believed in, what i had been doing and taking for granted for 16 years at USC, i would probably have said "no way". i didn't really know what i was in for here. i just knew i wanted to get out of LA, and have the experience of living in, and working in, another culture. but now, thanks to my hard head, some willing and obedient students, that elusive but powerful thing called american freedom, and a little (or great) good fortune known by the name of "tang", i am almost half way through my journey.
i have no idea what i'm supposed to be doing for the next month here they want my advice on an international puppetry festival in bangkok and on what they should be doing with their overall school of arts curriculum program and of course if it's one thing i do have, it's ideas. but the students are gone now back to their individual kampongs with their polite and expectant families. they did leave me with a big plaque however something my USC students have never done over all the years - and as a teacher/gardener, i know that all you do is plant the seeds, hoping they'll grow into healthy plants and beautiful flowers. i'll be moving on to KL (kuala lumpur) on april 30, to a new home, a new school, new students, and hopefully to new adventures (oy, more e-mail!). but if i just keep listening to that still-hungry and uncompromising inner voice -- and stop worrying so much i think i should be okay
and so here ends my pedagogical discourse ---- hoping i engaged you along the way & not bored you beyond belief--
appreciating what i have, and not worrying (too much) about what i don't ,
cheers from your genie in the bottle
formerly the great cumeezi
my clown name