SELECTED PROGRAMME INTERPRETATION
TEATER KANAK-KANAK, KOMPLEX BUDAYA NEGARA PROGRAMME (TKK-KBN PROGRAMME)
CONTEXT AND BACKGROUND
The idea of a National Cultural Complex or Kompleks Budaya Negara (KBN) was conceived in 1971 as a vehicle to promote national cultural activities. It was established in 1972 under the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports at a bungalow located in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur and later moved to the premises of the former International School of Kuala Lumpur at Jalan Tun Ismail, which served as the office and also provided studios and rehearsal spaces for dance, music and theatre as well as lodgings for members of the National Cultural Troupe (Kumpulan Budaya Negara). The site currently (at the time of writing, 2017) houses the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA) or the National Arts Academy.
Besides office and studios, the National Cultural Complex housed 3 bungalows; one accommodating a collective of contemporary artists called Anak Alam, another housing dancers and musicians from the Kumpulan Budaya Negara, while the third served as a canteen and home to a well-known family of musicians. The rich atmosphere at KBN had a deep influence on the type of children’s theatre that was born at the complex. This included the constant sound of traditional instruments and sight of artists at practice, easy access to traditional instruction and instruments, exposure to the works of modern artists at Anak Alam, and the occasional mentoring and advice from ex-lecturers and seasoned directors who dropped in at the children’s classes. All these influences gave rise to a contemporary children’s theatre imbued with the traditional performing arts.
The pioneer instructors for the TKK-KBN programme graduated from the Performing Arts Department of Universiti Sains Malaysia. The department started off as a part of the School of Humanities in the early 1970’s where courses were taught by expatriate lecturers from America and Europe, such as Roger Long and Tone Brulin. However the situation took a turn in the mid-70s, as the staff were replaced by local scholars, such as Mustaffa Kamal Yasin and Zainal Latiff; who returned to Malaysia as graduates from Western institutions. The new staff members were eager to embrace the ideals of the national cultural policy. Thus the department, the first in the country to offer a degree in performing arts, offered a strange mix of Western and Asian, traditional and contemporary arts. KBN children’s theatre instructors between the years of 1977 to 1981, Pillai and Cardosa’s exposure to this cultural alchemy at USM filtered into the development of the contemporary children’s theatre at the Kompleks Budaya Negara.
Between the years of 1979 and 1985, a major Southeast Asian network of children’s theatre practitioners was created through the International Workshop on Living Children’s Theatre that met every 2 years in a different Asian country; Japan in 1979, The Phillipines in 1983, and Malaysia in 1985. The network brought together educators, theatre practitioners, and publishers who were interested in arts education. Sponsored by the Toyota Foundation, the workshop was conceived by theatre academic and director Krishen Jit (Univeristy Malaya, Malaysia), playwright and director Amelia Bonifacio (University of Phillipines), and Mitsue Ishitake, who headed the famous Ohanashi Caravan Center puppet troupe and library in Japan. The workshops, possible the biggest gathering of Children’s Theatre educator-practitioners in Asia, was accompanied by seminars and performances related to children’s drama, puppet shows, pantomime, storytelling, and literature.
PROGRAMME ORGANISATIONS AND KEY PERSONS
Programme Initiator(s): Ismail Zain & Krishen Jit
Producing Organisation(s): Kompleks Budaya Negara, Ministry of Youth Culture & Sports. Kuala Lumpur
Programme Instructor(s): Elizabeth Cardosa & Janet Pillai
Guest Instructor(s): N/A
The genesis for a Childrens’ Theatre Programme at the National Cultural Complex (KBN) was initiated by Ismail Zain, the then Director of Culture at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. An undated document, possibly released in 1976/1977 by the Ministry, entitled Bidang Kerja Seksi Pendidikan dan Perkembangan Kesenian (Job Specification of Arts Education and Development Sector) displays a flow chart which outlines the types of activities expected of the Arts Education and Development Section, which includes Arts Education and Training, Production and Publication, and Advocacy work. This is accompanied by a more detailed document entitled Cadangan Rangka Kerja Projek (Proposed Project Framework), which suggests more concrete activities, including year-long classes for school children in Theatre, Dance and Music. It also suggests advocacy and promotion of the traditional arts to schools using adult touring performances.
In 1977, Elizabeth Cardosa, a fresh graduate from the School of Performing Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia was approached to set up the Childrens’ Theatre Programme at KBN.
“I’d known Ismail since I was a little girl in Kota Bahru, as my father and him were teaching colleagues at the Teacher Training Institute in Kota Bahru. After I finished university in 1977, I went to see him at his house. We had a chat about what I wanted to do with my performing arts degree and i said i was interested in arts education and this happened to match his interest in wanting to start a children’s theatre programme. He asked me to come to his office at the Ministry of Culture Youth & Sports where he was the Under-Secretary of Culture. Essentially he asked that I should just find kids to run creative dramatics programmes with from wherever around KL and train them and see where we got to. It was as simple as that.”
TKK-KBN Theatre Instructor Elizabeth Cardosa.
Email interview 16th March 2016
From July 1977-July 1978, Elizabeth was employed as a freelance instructor for the Children’s Theatre Programme and was paid by the hour, up to a maximum of RM600 per month. She started the programme by submitting a proposal entitled Workshop for Children’s Theatre which outlined the aims, recruitment process, content and deliverables of the program, as well as its needs such as facilities and instructors.
When Cardosa left to pursue her Master’s degree in 1978, the post was filled by another graduate from Universiti Sains Malaysia; Janet Pillai. Pillai, a Sociology graduate but very much involved in performing arts, held the post from 1978-1981. There is evidence of a proposal (probably an adaptation of Elizabeth’s earlier proposal) entitled Experimental Workshop on Children’s Drama submitted by Pillai to the Deputy Director of KBN; proposing creative drama and acting classes, which would ultimately culminate in a touring performance, and also providing specific details on how this could be done.
Supporting Archival Materials for Programme Description
The TKK-KBN programme involved 3 cohorts of children brought into the programme through 3 recruitment exercises (1977-1978, 1978-1981 and 1982-1984). Each batch of student participants received training classes which culminated in a public production. Some of the more interested children from the earlier cohort stayed on as participants through 2 to 3 phases of the program, and were involved therefore in several rounds of trainings and productions.
The instructors were expected to recruit children from primary and secondary schools in Kuala Lumpur (aged 10 to 15), and train them in theatre arts; ultimately leading them towards a stage production. Instructors approached school principals with an introductory letter from the Ministry of Culture. It was solely up to the principal to allow their students to participate in the programme. Once this permission was granted, then children could join voluntarily or upon recommendation from the teacher. No fee was charged and children needed to get the written consent of their parents.
While setting up the programme, Cardosa was able to rely on some familiar contacts; principles of schools, whom she knew through her father, who had lectured them at the Teacher Training Institute in Kota Bahru, and Garden International School staff, via her aunt, who was working as a teacher there. Cardosa comments on the recruitment process:
“I spent a lot of time in that year with the Standard 4-5 kids from the Malay school Sekolah Rendah Hishamuddin next to KBN. Ismail Zain wanted me to target schools peripheral to KBN. However, because of family circumstances these students would drop in and out of the programme when they had to do other things like help parents, but were otherwise completely unrestrained by convention.”
I [also] got older kids from Secondary 1 and 2 from Methodist Girl’s School, Convent Bukit Nanas, Bukit Bintang Girls School, and from St John’s Institution. Thinking about my “recruitment” process now … no one really questioned me. If the principal or students said, “Yes,” it was because they wanted this [programme]”.
Elizabeth Cardosa, Email interview – 16th March 2016
The second phase of the KBN Programme was led by instructor Janet Pillai, from September 1978. The initial proposal aimed to recruit 50 children from 5 schools in Kuala Lumpur, but in reality classes were held mainly in 2 schools (Bukit Bintang Girl’s Secondary School and La Salle Primary School in Brickfields) involving a total of about 30 children.
Closer towards the production period, students from the various schools would gather for training and rehearsals at the Kompleks Budaya Negara. A few children from the previous cohort and a few children from schools geographically close to KBN (SRK Hishammuddin) also joined the others for rehearsals at the Kompleks.
Training and Skill building
Training for the first cohort included creative dramatics with Elizabeth Cardosa, classes with traditional masters, and a field visit to the zoo. Elizabeth Cardosa, who led the first phase of the KBN Program, comments on the training received by the children in first cohort from 1977-1978.
“Classes were almost all run at the respective schools on weekdays, after school hours perhaps once a week for about 2 hours or so. The programme run in schools mostly focused on creative dramatics, voice lessons, games and improvisation. However the primary Malay school kids who attended the programme at KBN had the opportunity to train with the KBN artists; learning gamelan with Patricia Matusky (an American doctoral student studying traditional Malay music), studying Joget Gamelan from Ahmad Omar, and wayang kulit music (drums and gong) from Dalang Hamzah.”
“The dancers and musicians of KBN all were kind to the kids and very accommodating. Anak Alam was located in a bungalow within KBN… We would move between using the studio spaces at KBN, to the canteen and to visit the visual artists at Anak Alam. Thinking about it, it must have been a pretty strange but enriching set up”.
TKK-KBN Theatre Instructor Elizabeth Cardosa.
Email interview – 16th March 2016
Training for the second cohort of children (September 1978 – April 1979) led by Janet Pillai, was based on a TKK-KBN 1978/79 curriculum which describes physical and voice training, mime, improvisation, martial arts training, acting, and character building. Midway through training, ‘workshops’ were held to showcase the work-in-progress achieved by the children. Some parents and a handful of theatre practitioners such as Krishen Jit and Tone Brulin (a Belgian director, who had previously taught at in the Performing Arts Department of Universiti Sains Malaysia) attended, giving critical feedback.
“Most of the one-hour workshop exhibited the training in theatre of the older students. Some dozen of them from the Bukit Bintang Girls’ School and the St. John Institution presented a variety of events – calisthenics, yoga, dance, mimed skits… What they lacked in precision and in detail of performance, they easily compensated with a stimulating imagination of effort.”
“… the Taman Budaya workshop does not pursue it [professionalism] as its principal or single-minded aim. Janet Pillai is more concerned with introducing the children to the variegated pleasures and purposes of theatre.”
Utih. New Sunday Times – 1st April 1979
After receiving basic training, students progressed towards working on a drama in the final months of the program. The young actors were expected to plunge into the complex process of ‘learning about theatre while making a piece of theatre.’ Their learning platform involved either working on a ready-scripted play, or devising a play from a folktale or legend.
During the play-building period, instructors recall receiving some form of mentoring from the more experienced directors who often ‘dropped by’ KBN. Elizabeth Cardosa recalls the playwright-director Nordin Hassan providing feedback and advice, as they worked on the production of Beg Sakti with the first cohort of children. Janet Pillai herself was closely mentored by director Krishen Jit, who gave comments and suggestions at workshops during the making of the play Si Geroda. For Pillai, these feedback and reviews to a large extent shaped the direction of this early experimentation in children’s theatre.
Between the years of 1977 to 1985, the Children’s Theatre Programme at KBN trained approximately 100 students in creative dramatics, produced about 4 major performances of contemporary children’s theatre which toured schools or community halls and also participated in minor pieces performed at regional cultural festivals in Kuala Lumpur.
The influential presence of the visual artists group Anak Alam and the National Dance Troupe had a big impact on the development of KBN’s children’s theatre programme. Anak Alam artists often watched the children at work, contributed to the design of sets or costumes (Si Geroda) or even participated in their productions (Sri Ayu). In 1980, three of the artists approached children’s theatre instructor Janet Pillai to direct them in a children’s production of Tiga Ekor Gajah (physical file available in the AEAM Archival Repository under ‘Misc Children’s Theatre Events’), adapted from the children’s book (of the same name) illustrated by one of the artists, Yusuf Gajah. The play was performed at the national publication house, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in November 1980
As the national troupe at KBN was often commissioned to perform at cultural festivals or public performances marking a celebration or event, the children who attended classes in KBN would often be roped in as supporting performers. Cardosa recalls the first such event:
“… the primary children from the Malay school participated in a festival together with the KBN dancers, performing the Kuda Kepang dance as part of a procession celebrating Hari Wilayah 1978, in front of Padang Merbok. They also performed again with the KBN dancers in another dance drama production entitled Inderaputra (performance for the Pesta Kebudayaan Sukan SEA ke-9 1977). Although the kids got a small fee for their performance they were more excited about wearing costumes and being part of a creative gang.”
Email interview – 16th March 2016
The first cohort of students of the 1977/78 TKK-KBN programme performed the scripted play entitled Beg Sakti in three locations in Kuala Lumpur. The original version of this play, in English and titled ‘Magic Bag Magic Bag,’ was scripted by Lois Long; a part-time lecturer at the time, in the Performing Arts Department of Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.
“After initial scrapes and bumps, the very first experimental production for Malaysian children’s theatre took off. Directed by Elizabeth Cardosa, it was called “Beg Sakti” and earned considerable attention from drama and culture circles.
Marionette. Fanfare, pg 48-49. June 1980.
More interestingly, Beg Sakti set the tone for performing at informal spaces such as Kompleks Serbaguna Jalan Pekeliling, Taman Ibu Kota, Gombak, and the BBGS school hall. Performing in alternative performance spaces was already part of the Malaysian theatre trend in the mid 70’s, and was also made popular by Tone Brulin’s ‘Naga Naga Siapa Kau, Naga Naga di Mana Kau’ which toured factories in Penang.
In the month of May 1978, before leaving for the United States, Elisabeth Cardosa submitted a review (with input from the music instructor) of the children’s theatre programme entitled Experimental Workshop on Children’s Music and Drama. The comments in the review included obstacles related to attendance, time factor, unavailability of instructors and proper facilities, coordination and communication with bureaucracy and schools, and problems with marketing. Suggestions for improvement included employment of instructors, better remuneration for staff, improved marketing and communications systems, and the establishment of a fund.
The second cohort of students from the KBN programme staged 8 performances of Si Geroda in 1979. The play was restaged in 1981 and performed another 6 times, with a few cast changes. The final total of 14 performances included stagings in Kuala Lumpur, and tours to smaller towns along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia; reaching out eager audiences in government community halls.
In 1980, in-between the initial staging and the restaging of Si Geroda, the same students (from the second cohort) were directed in a musical production Sri Ayu, which was performed a total number of 5 times in Kuala Lumpur.
In early 1981, the second cohort embarked on a third round of training. The TKK-KBN 1981 curriculum indicates that this training period involved more elements of physical theatre, mime and sound where the children used their bodies and voices to conjure inanimate objects, environments and atmospheric effects. This training was manifested in a ‘poor theatre’ rendition of Cerita Dongeng Asia. This short medley of Asian Folktales was performed on the fringes of another regional cultural festival; Mustika Malaysia – Festival of Living Traditions in the Arts in Genting Highlands in 1981. The festival brought in dance-drama performances from ASEAN countries. More importantly, at this festival, the young team was exposed to the investigation of traditional dance and music forms through contemporary performing arts and workshop sessions by the best troupes from Asia.
All TKK-KBN children’s productions were produced and funded by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports sometimes in cooperation with other government agencies such as Pustaka Bimbingan and Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka. As Supiat bin Mukri (director of KBN at the time) pointed out-
“Presently, anybody and everybody has their finger in the pie. Neither the Ministry nor the KBN (Kompleks Budaya Negara) have experts in this field to carry out the work on a full-time basis. What we are doing is merely co-ordinate expertise from various places who are willing to volunteer their services, to carry out our projects.”
Marionette. Fanfare, pg 48-49. June 1980.
Besides funding these early in-house performances, the Ministry occasionally also funded training workshops and seminars in children’s theatre as well as visiting troupes. For instance, a performance of ‘Tak Kotak Kotak’ by well-known Belgian director Tone Brulin (who had previously taught theatre at USM), and a national workshop for children’s theatre instructers, ‘Bengkel Penggerak Teater Kanak-kanak (physical file available in the AEAM Archival Repository under ‘Misc Children’s Theatre Events’),’ held at Sunshine Camp in Port Dickson on the 19th to 28th of June 1981, led by Janet Pillai. While the performances by TKK-KBN were ground breaking, a clear methodology on how they got there, had yet to be identified by the instructors who merely passed on their experiences at this facilitator training workshop.
Supporting Archival Materials
PROJECTS WITHIN THE PROGRAMME
1. Beg Sakti (July 1978)
2. Si Geroda (Dec 1979, Dec 1981)
3. Sri Ayu (April 1980)
4. Pieces of Mime (May 1981)
5. Kasturi dan Kalung Mas (July 1985)
Click HERE for Project Summaries of all five projects
(SELECTED) PROJECT INTERPRETATIONS
Feedback from Participant
(on his experience as a child actor in Beg Sakti)
I saved all my scripts and programs and etc. from my Children’s Theatre days in my boxes back in KL (if my family has not thrown them out or they got eaten by termites) – it was a fun three years with the Kementrian, first with Elizabeth Cardosa (Badan Warisan) then with Janet Pillai, performing Beg Sakti (1978) and Si Geroda (1980) – went from playing the “Rat” (Tikus) to the Prince.
It was pure fun playing Tikus in Beg Sakti which I did my entrance screaming “Ekor! Ekor! Ekor!” across the stage looking for my lost tail. We performed all over the KL area – from Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to the many schools. Those little kids that lived around the Kompleks Budaya Negara area even recognised me without my full face makeup and yelling – “Tikus! Tikus!” across the field near where the Anak Alam artists stayed in those houses when I had to walk to those endless weeks of rehearsal in the hot afternoon sun. We were the first experiential kids theatre workshop for kids in the then “Taman Budaya” – somehow we got recruited from the few selected schools in KL & PJ.
Beg Sakti – we had to pretty much develop and write our own script. My Malay was never good – still remember the comment I had on the first reading – “Chee Wang, you sounded like a Mak Saleh trying to speak Malay with a strong Chinese accent.” – Did I improve?
Beg Sakti had a solid small cast, most of us were pretty much around the similar age and was told that Beg Sakti had been done before by Tak Kotak-Kotak in Penang. We regularly had different “professional” instructors coming by to watch and help us – from music and dance steps & etc. Marion D’Cruz and Krishen Jit were there often enough. We had different cultural element in the play from Chinese opera music to traditional Malay dance & etc. Fun designed and did our own makeup with simple grease colours with our fingers.
AEAM KL ROUNDTABLE – Teater Kanak-kanak – Kompleks Budaya Negara
Sunday, 19th November 2017
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