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Art that entertains and educates

Jenny de Reuck

Jenny de Reuck (Source: murdoch.edu.au)

SINCE 2003, I have been involved in the Children’s Theatre course at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Each year, Associate Professor Dr Jenny de Reuck coordinates a unit that trains students in the various aspects of putting on a theatre production, which she also writes and directs. The objective is to teach not just the students enrolled, but also the audiences that come to watch the show at the end of the semester. It’s known as Theatre in Education (TIE) — that is, theatre that entertains, and educates.

More than 2,000 primary schoolchildren from various schools in and around Perth attend the Children’s Theatre productions at Nexus Theatre at Murdoch University annually. Each show averages 75 minutes in duration and tells one complete story. Depending on the play’s context and setting, the children go away with exposure to different characters and cultures, historical knowledge, as well as valuable life lessons on friendship, cooperation, unity in the face of adversity, and so on.

The shows sometimes relate to events of the day, such as 2004’s Athena Emu at the Olympics, staged in the year of the Games in Greece. They touch on current issues, such as threats to the environment, as demonstrated in this year’s production The Phoenix and the Fighting Pandas of Yunnan Province. In the latter, a helpless and hapless Sea Turtle seeks the help of the Good Australian and Chinese Animals to protect her eggs from being taken by evil seafaring pirates (known as Pie-Rats) for turtle soup.


Scene from rehearsal of The Phoenix and the Fighting Pandas
of Yunnan Province

Definitions

TIE recognises that through the arts, valuable information can be disseminated, positive values inculcated, and knowledge shared. Nalita James of the University of Leicester, England, writes in her working paper Actup! Theatre as Education and its impact on Young People’s Learning:

Theatre as education has a number of important functions … positively contributing to the transmission of [young people's] skills development, influencing and supporting intellectual development, as well as empowering them to affect change in their own lives by opening up [further education] opportunities. It provides strong positive motives for young people to (re)engage in the learning process because theatre as an art form involves giving of themselves, contributing ideas and developing skills, as well as stimulating them to achieve and progress.

Thus TIE entails using the medium of theatre as a tool for teaching and learning, akin to an educational programme on television. Put the other way round: teachers and students can use TIE performances and related materials as resources to teach and learn about topics not necessarily limited to the arts.

The lessons don’t stop once the performers have done their curtain call. For instance, teachers who bring their pupils to the Children’s Theatre performances at Nexus Theatre are provided with education packs comprising facts, figures and pictures relevant to the content of the show. They are also provided worksheets to further engage the children in the classroom on their experience of having gone to the theatre.

In many instances, TIE groups engage young audiences by travelling to schools and performing on location. The Murdoch University group refers to this as an incursion, as opposed to an excursion, despite the word conjuring dramatic notions of enemy encroachment.

Tan Sooi Beng

Tan (Courtesy of Tan Sooi Beng)

Other groups perform in public spaces, such as Arts Ed in Penang, which educates young people by allowing them to put on shows that exemplify the historical and cultural perspectives of the state. These young people then perform these shows in and around Georgetown to share these perspectives with the public. Musical director Prof Dr Tan Sooi Beng is also able to document these productions and their processes to educate her students at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

One could argue that the work done by the likes of Five Arts Centre, with their productions that showcase Malaysia past, present, and future, are also educational in nature. Indeed, as long as one has a desire to learn, then any art form that informs and stimulates can be deemed educational. But if we go back to the definition of TIE being a resource for students and teachers, then not all theatre presentations necessarily fall into the category.

TIE in Malaysia

Unfortunately, TIE is not especially prevalent here in Malaysia as it is in Australia or the UK. It is a fact that there is not enough support — moral, financial, or in the provision of other resources — for the performing arts in Malaysia. Naturally there is even less support for, and awareness on, the importance of the performing arts as an educational tool.

It is my hope that our educational institutions, from primary to tertiary, will one day realise and take full advantage of the potential of theatre as a medium of teaching and learning. Perhaps in the future it might also become a mainstream curriculum subject for school-goers, who could then use their skills and knowledge gained through drama studies to entertain and educate other people.

The Murdoch University Children’s Performing Group, in collaboration with The Temple of Fine Arts Malaysia (TFA), brings their show to Malaysian shores for the first time.

The Phoenix and the Fighting Pandas of Yunnan Province will be staged at TFA Johor Baru, 19 Jalan Dapat, on Tuesday and Wednesday, 15 and 16 June 2010 at 7:30pm. This will be followed by performances in Kuala Lumpur at TFA on Jalan Berhala, Brickfields, on Sunday, 20 June 2010, at 11am and 5pm.

There will also be theatre workshops comprising physical and vocal activities, as well as improvisation exercises,  for primary and secondary schoolchildren as well as adults. These will be held at TFA Johor Baru on 15 and 16 June, and in Kuala Lumpur on 18 June. Two sessions daily, at 10am or 2pm. Participants will receive a certificate from Murdoch University.

For more information or for ticket bookings, please contact TFA Johor (phone 07-222 7400; e-mail [email protected]), or TFA Kuala Lumpur (phone 03-2274 3709; e-mail [email protected]).

Disclosure: Nick Choo is music composer and performer with the Murdoch University Children’s Performing Group.

Nick Choo had to wear make-up and a costume when he performed in this year’s production, and was supposed to look like a rabbit. But he was told he resembled a panda, a cat, a tiger, a possum, a wombat, and even a mouse. Rather than try to make it more apparent, he let the children exercise their imagination by trying to figure out what animal he was supposed to be.

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