SI GERODA, 1979 & 1981


Si Geroda was one of the early examples of a Malaysian contemporary children’s theatre devised and performed by young people, for young people. It was first performed by the 1978 cohort, and again by the 1981 cohort of children who participated in the KBN Teater Kanak Kanak Programme. The play had elements of drama, poetry, music, mime, and dance.

Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Interpretation is based on archival records and memory recollection of participants.

Download the Archive Record Inventory (PDF)


1.1 Programme Name

Teater Kanak-kanak, Komplex Budaya Negara Programme (TKK-KBN Programme), 1978-1985

1.2 Project Title

Si Geroda,1979 & 1981

1.3 Context and Objective

The performance of Si Geroda (July 1979) is the final output of the Teater Kanak-kanak Programme, Kompleks Budaya Negara and involved the second cohort of about 30 students who joined the Programme in September 1978.

Elizabeth Cardosa, the instructor who led the first cohort of students in the TKK-KBN Programme (1977/78) left to pursue her Master’s degree in 1978 and Janet Pillai, a graduate of the same university (Universiti Sains Malaysia), was approached by her theatre lecturer Krishen Jit as a replacement.

In her proposal, Pillai outlines her objective for the programme; to introduce the children to theatre arts and to develop their aesthetic appreciation. The secondary aim was to involve children in a theatre production as a logical follow-up to the training they would receive.

1.4 Project Description

This project basically exposed young participants to theatre techniques and encouraged them to participate directly in the ‘process’ of play building so that they would understand all aspects of making theatre.

Si Geroda was one of the early examples of a Malaysian contemporary children’s theatre devised and performed by young people, for young people. It was first performed by the 1978 cohort, and again by the 1981 cohort of children who participated in the KBN Teater Kanak Kanak Programme.

The play had elements of drama, poetry, music, mime, and dance. The performance was remembered for several firsts; the weaving of traditional and contemporary performance elements, non-conventional use of space, and high levels of audience interaction and bilingualism. Si Geroda was performed in unconventional public spaces such as libraries, school and community halls where the audiences were seated on the floor. There was no raised stage and actors performed in the midst of the audience who surrounded them in a rather intimate setting.

1.5 Source Material

The inspiration for the play originates from the legend of Garuda, which is recounted in the very beginning of the Kedah Annals. Two different narrative versions of the legend were used as reference: “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” by Siti Hawa Salleh, as well as a story entitled “Cerita Dongeng Burung Garuda,” written by James F Augustin.

Supporting Archival Materials

Salleh, S. H. (1971). Cover of Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. Petaling Jaya: University of Malaya Press

Salleh, S. H. (1971). First page of Burong Garuda dengan Nabi Allah Sulaiman. Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. Petaling Jaya: University of Malaya Press

Augustin, J.F. (n.d.). First page of The Legend of the Garuda by James F Augustin. The Legend of the Garuda

Augustin, J.F. (n.d.). Cerita Dongeng Burung Garuda written by James F Augustin – Malay language version of The Legend of the Garuda (External link)

1.6 Co-Producer/s/Sponsor/s

Mohd Izzah Hj Abdullah (Kompleks Budaya Negara)

Izzah Abdul Aziz (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka)

Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan

1.7 Project Lead

Janet Pillai

1.8 Creative Team

Choreographer: Marion D’Cruz

Visual Artists: Susan Lau and Ilse Noor
(Guest Instructors:)

Syair training: Sharifah Mahani Syed Kassim

Wayang Kulit training: Pak Nasir Yusoff

Dance and movement: Yahya, Marion D’Cruz and Aris Naslan

Facilitator: N/A

1.9 Participants

 Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, KL 13 – 18 Majority participants
St. John’s Institution, KL 13 – 18 A couple of participants only
La Salle Primary School, Brickfields, KL 10 – 12 Majority participants
 Hishammuddin Primary School, KL 10 – 12 Few participants
Pustaka Bimbingan, KL 10 – 12 Few participants
 TOTAL Number of Participants 22 (in 1979);19 (in 1981)

1.10 Events and Activities

Feb – Jun 1979 In school and in KBN KL Devising and rehearsals
25 Mar 1979 In KBN KL Work-in-progress performed for parents
6, 8 & 9 Jul 1979 Balai Seminar Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Kuala Lumpur Performance to mark the International Year of the Child
8 Dec 1979 Tapian Gelanggang Ipoh Tour to Northern states of
9 Dec 1979 Tapian Gelanggang Pulau Pinang
10 Dec 1979 Sekolah Abdullah Munsyi Pulau Pinang
12 Dec 1979 Tapian Gelanggang Kangar
17 Dec 1979 Balai Seminar Dewan Bahasa
dan Pustaka
Kuala Lumpur
13 Dec 1981 Experimental Theatre,
University Malaya
Kuala Lumpur Special performance for ‘International Year of the Child’
17 Dec 1981 Sek Ren Jen Kebangsaan
(Cina) Cheng Siu 1
Batu Pahat Tour to Southern states of
Malaysia and to Singapore
18 Dec 1981 National Library Singapore Singapore
19 Dec 1981 Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar Johor Bahru
21 Dec 1981 Dewan Bandaran Melaka
22 Dec 1981 Tapian Gelanggang Paroi, Negeri Sembilan

1.11 Promotional Material/Catalogue/Programme

The promotional materials were designed by artists from the graphic department of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (the National Publishing House), as DBP was a co-sponsor and co-producer of the Si Geroda production. The staff and artists of DBP were very involved in the production aspect of Si Geroda. The graphic artist watched rehearsals often enough to produce accurate comic illustrations of scenes from the play on the reverse side of the programme. The illustration on the 1979 invitation card and programme brochure features an Art Nouveau (‘new art’) style, using curved lines inspired by natural forms; a style which at the time was popular in the graphic department at DBP.

Supporting Archival Materials

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (1979). Programme for July 1979 Performance – Front

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (1979). Promotional bookmark for December 1979 Performance

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (1979). Invitation card for July 1979 Performance

1.12 Final Script/Final Curriculum

The Si Geroda script was devised by the participants in the course of play-building, and edited by the director Janet Pillai along the way. A final copy of this devised script is available in the Malay language.

Supporting Archival Materials

Pillai, J. & Hassan, M [translations] (1979). Script sample, first page (BM)

(Hard copy of complete script available at Five Arts Centre AEAM Repository)

1.13 Multimedia Documentation


1.14 Previews and Reviews

“The result is one of the most engaging local childrens’ plays in recent years. Si Geroda is the kind of theatre which evokes the child-likeness of both children and adults.”

“Si Geroda is a good play to tour with. While the preparation for it is elaborate and its design complex, the performance itself is carried out without much fuss and bother. Above all, it is a play which will appeal to children and the child in the adult.”

A fitting climax.
Utih. New Sunday Times – 9 th December 1979

Supporting Archival Materials

Utih. (1979, December 9). A fitting climax. New Sunday Times.

Utih. (1979, April 1). Invention and wit galore in children’s theatre workshop. New Sunday Times.

Utih. (1979, July). Lively time at theatre for children. New Sunday Times.

Rahman, Haron A (1981, December 28). Fascinating bilingual play by children. The Straits Times

1.15 Publications


1.16 Photographs


1.17 Final Report/Project Evaluation:



Synopsis of Story: Si Geroda tells the story of the legendary bird Garuda, who tries to prevent the marriage between the prince of Rome and the princess of China as he fears their enjoining power. Garuda fights the protector Jentayu, kidnapping the princess and her lady-in-waiting. King Solomon and his court of birds intervene by sending a jin.

Supporting Archival Materials

Si Geroda – Images of Performance, 1979. (YouTube)


Having no specific training in children’s theatre, Pillai relied heavily on adapting drama theory and exercises she had learned at University Sains Malaysia to train the young participants and to direct their performance. Thus, many contemporary theatre exercises and games, and western style improvisation techniques were used in combination with dance, song and music vocabulary from traditional Asian forms, to which Pillai had also been exposed to at university. She also relied on advice from her former lecturers at the Drama and Theatre Department, Krishen Jit and Helen Van Der Poorten, to help her through this first time experiment.

The devising of Si Geroda could be described as an ongoing open experiment in exploring the making of contemporary children’s theatre i.e. a theatre that would bridge east and west and attempt to introduce children to aspects of Malaysian cultural heritage.

Training and devising was divided into 3 sections; introduction to the legend and related source materials, developing theatre vocabulary and lastly, devising full scenes and weaving together the episodes. The duration of training actors and devising the play took approximately 6-months from February 1979 to July 1979.

One of the first steps in the play building process was the selection of an accessible local legend; where the story, characters and setting would be familiar to all Malaysians and would reflect some sort of common inheritance. The instructor and students researched all the available versions of this legend and studied the characters involved. Using various published folk narratives of the story as references, the instructor then created a sequence of scenes/episodes using a scenario-based framework as a guide to devise the script.

During the process of play-building, students were involved not just in desk research but also in physical training, theatre games and improvisation. The young actors experimented with scenes and characters using improvisations; they explored character, conflict, dialogue, movement and blocking.

Character development sometimes involved painstaking fieldwork which required students to observe and impersonate birds at the zoo, and humans at coffee shops and on the streets in order to create characters true to life.

Films on traditional forms were screened for the students; e.g. Chinese opera and classical Malay dances, with the intention to introduce them to Asian-based theatre vocabulary.  As the rehearsals for this production were located within the National Cultural Complex, young actors could approach the resident artists at KBN to receive more training in stylized traditional movement or music  e.g. wayang kulit drumming, bird dances and syair (poetry) declamation. Contemporary dancer Marion D’ Cruz helped choreograph the combat scenes which had elements of silat, gymnastics and contemporary dance.

Dialogue was ad-libbed by participants as they improvised each scene. As each scene was fleshed out the episodes were woven together to reveal a full dramatic plot.  The ad-libbed dialogue was then documented in the form of a draft script (1978) and edited by the director.

The final script (1979) of Si Geroda was therefore said to be ‘devised’ by the child actors in the course of building the play.

Midway through devising the scenes, a work-in-progress workshop was held for interested parents and theatre practitioners. Krishen Jit as well as Helen Van Der Poorten, lecturers of the young instructor Janet Pillai, provided much needed comments and feedback at the workshop.

In his theatre column Utih in the New Straits Times, Krishen writes about this workshop:

“By osmosis and, in part, by design, the sights and sounds of the Taman Budaya dance company have affected the Garuda story. Most of the music punctuating the drama, for example, is sounded by the enthusiastic hands of the children playing a hybrid ensemble of gamelan, wayang kulit and angklung instruments.” 

“Some of the movements of the birds and other personages and events also reveal the influence of the National Dance Company in Taman Budaya. Here and there in the play, the manner of the Joget Gamelan dance, if not its substance, is discernible.” 

Lively time at theatre for children.
Utih. New Sunday Times – July 1979

Student participants were also involved in design aspects of the programme. Some of the more visually oriented students researched historical fashion from the Chinese and Malay courts and produced sketches for costumes. They also studied face painting in Chinese Opera and tried to import the ideas for the non-human characters in the play. For example, Garuda’s mask was adapted from Hindu mythology; of Lord Vishnu’s mount Garuda, a legendary humanoid bird. Garuda’s mask was adapted from Hindu mythology; of Lord Vishnu’s mount Garuda, a legendary humanoid bird. 

The participants’ sketches were then turned over to the adult creative team who further honed and developed the children’s contributions into tangible outputs.

Visual artist Susan Lau designed and constructed papier-mâché face masks and headgear, which transformed actors into a bird colony consisting of cockatoos, eagles, storks, etc.

Fig. 9: Papier-mâché face mask by Susan Lau. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Fig. 9: Papier-mâché face mask by Susan Lau. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

In the 1981 production, the bird-masks were further embellished by artist Ilsa Noor who handstitched colourful feathers onto the masks, transforming the bird headdresses into a riot of colour on stage.

Costumes sketches by the participants were worked upon further by all members of the adult creative team who also shopped for suitable materials and turned everything over to the tailor. All in all one could say there was quite a lot of collaboration between the young participants and the adult team.

Supporting Archival Materials

Janet Pillai (1979). Scenario-based Framework 

Pillai, J. & Hassan, M [translations] (1979). Draft devised script of Si Geroda, first page 



Charlene Rajendran
Supporting child actor playing character of Mak Inang (Lady-in-Waiting)
Project: Si Geroda, 1979

• Pre-project Training
A small group of us were recruited in 1977; when Elizabeth Cardosa was doing Children’s Theatre at KBN, and approached my school (BBGS), to suggest some names for the project. The teacher in charge, Mrs Laura George, chose a few of us whom she thought would be interested. Fortunately, I was on the list! Then we used to have sessions with Beth in the afternoon, where she did a range of improvisations and character-building type sessions. Then in 1978, Janet took over, and we started having sessions in KBN as well.

We did lots of physical warm-up using yoga-type exercises, we warmed up our voices, and we did a lot of improvisation using stories and characters from local folktales. A lot of this involved learning elements of drama and becoming sensitive to time and space, rhythm and movement, tension and conflict, etc. It was done through a range of methods, which involved working in Malay, and using local source materials. This was a big difference from school, which was in English, and had very neo-colonial aesthetics and politics. Also, this as ‘poor theatre,’ based on the idea that the actor was the most important resource and thus the physical and vocal skills had to be acute. Based on traditional theatre approaches, it was also a form of total theatre using a mix of vocabularies. At the time, we were not aware of how significant this was, but was building literacy in aspects of culture that we had little exposure to, being English-speaking middle-class kids.

• Training related to the production
We learnt wayang kulit instruments from the musicians in KBN. I played gong and canang. I also learnt how to melatah from one of them for the role of Mak Inang. We learnt silat movements and contemporary movement from Marion D’Cruz, and we spent a lot of time devising the script and working on some of the songs that had to be sung. I remember writing a song for one of the Burung Gagaks to sing – his name was Jeffrey – but I am not sure if this was for Geroda or for something else we performed. We also did a lot of mime, and the performance workshops leading up to the performance had little showings of mime scenes that we created. We had to have a lot of homework, like preparing and rehearsing. And, we spent many hours in KBN. Sometimes, Janet would also come to the school, and we rehearsed in the field, under a tree, or wherever there was a bit of space. But, the main thing was feeling highly invested in the project. I think because it was so unusual to anything else we were doing, and there was no ‘syllabus’ in a textbook which was taught in the usual boring manner. This was evolving based on who we were, and what we thought or brought to the sessions.

• Primary/Secondary Research (field trips, interviews, apprenticeship)
A lot of the work was influenced by being in KBN, going to Anak Alam and watching people in Benteng. There was a sense that this was serious work, and so we had the responsibility to make it happen. It felt more serious than stuff we did at school, because it was coming from us – as in devised by us, and we were being trained by professionals.

• Rehearsals
These were only at the end, when the script was ready. Until then it was a lot of improvisation and play-building that did not feel like rehearsal. It was highly process-oriented so it felt very fresh. Even after roles were assigned, there was still a lot of research and character development, so it did not feel like rehearsal but more like constructing something that had no clear specified goal. But, once there was a script, then the refining and sharpening happened, and it was hard work. And it felt like rehearsals happened when there were costumes and musicians as well. We used to rehearse in KBN, but when we finally moved to DBP it felt very special. Because we had professionals doing make-up for us, and we were picked up in a special bus, etc. So it felt as if we were doing something important. Then, Krishen wrote a review in his column Utih, and that made it even more significant. Also, adults seem to think we were doing something that was unusual. In hindsight, it was!

• Performance
But when it came to performing, it was quite special because the audience children were seated on the floor, and we performed on the same level as them. There was no raised platform. So, this meant we were among them, and they were very close to us. The feeling of the performers having to tell a story so directly to the audience was quite a challenge. And there were segments that Mak Inang had to improvise with the children and get their cooperation. That was sometimes havoc. Especially in the basketball court or outdoor spaces, when we were on tour in 1981.


Foo May Lyn
Lead child actor playing the character of Geroda
Email Interview – 13 April 2016

• On Devising
As a 13-year old, I did not know the meaning of ‘to devise’. I only knew ‘improvise’ because Janet Pillai explained that to us. Improvisation sessions were held where we were given a ‘framework’. Prior to that, we had lots of voice and body exercises. I remember being ’emptied out in the mind’, and with the framework given, I basically, ‘spilled it all out’ …either reacting-to or provoking that situation within the given framework.

I remember a session where we had extremely long hair, which kept growing throughout the session; from knee length to 200 yards…we improvised that. Then, with 200 yards of hair, we would find (for example) a magic stone (actually it was a fan) … and we had to improvise reacting to its magic with all that hair on us. The magic might have been something which made us change or react to something else. That was when Ms. Pillai explained ‘metamorphosis”… so we would metamorphose into whatever took our fancy given the framework (the framework would start off loosely and Ms. Pillai would keep tightening it (unbeknownst to us, it was SHE who was devising). We were merely improvising non-stop.

As an adult remembering back, we definitely had no notion of planning or creating a system/story. We gave what we were told to give… so imagine little squares of images and words which we kept ‘spilling out’ into squares, with that adult (Janet Pillai) collecting it all in a box (her head and notebook) and only she could see the bigger picture and she selected what she felt fit and was useful for that picture she had… she would then sew all those little boxes up into one frame; not unlike a patchwork quilt. This is also the way I would describe how Krishen Jit worked when we devised “Chance Encounter” (a devised play featuring Foo May Lin and Faridah Merican, directed by Krishen Jit).

PS: the above was pre-Si Geroda sessions. By the time we got the script for Si Geroda the play, Janet Pillai dismantled that quilt and appropriated particular box-squares for particular scenes. I (then a 13-year old) had no idea that all of the previous sessions were being pieced together with a script, for a final production. We were not told for at least a year that there was an ‘end’ to this means.


Carolyn Lau:
Child actor playing the role of Narrator