In Theatre

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04-09-2013

4 min read

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Photo : Bahman | Flickr

At 19, I was bored. I had grown incredibly weary of the dreary, straightforward life that I had led for as long as I can remember. I was tired of just about everything – of school and studying, of doing the same old things in the same old places, of people around me, and most of all, of routine. I despaired of my surroundings.

I decided that I needed a change. My life till then had been terribly controlled, so the natural counteraction was obvious – I had to be more impulsive and more random. Impulsive, mind you, not reckless. I would act on any whim of mine, as long as there was a reasonable chance that I would not regret those actions in twenty years. It so happened that this carefree phase coincided with my departure for a college in the United States, which was, depending on who you ask, incredibly fortunate or unfortunate.

Most people opine that college is the time for people to explore opportunities and “opportunities” that would not come by post-graduation. I embraced this school of thought devotedly. While I was course-hunting, I stumbled upon a particularly foreign course of study – theatre. Having made the vow to do just about anything that interested me in college, I decided that I would give theatre a try by signing up for an acting class.

I will be the first to admit that the thought of studying theatre overseas was a little intimidating. For one, I had never done theatre before – or any other form of performing arts, for that matter. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt during the first day in class, surrounded by other kids who looked as if they had been doing it their whole lives.

Over the next two years, theatre became one of the most amazing experiences of my college life. For a field that is probably considered frivolous by half the Malaysian population, theatre has proved to be remarkably useful.

For starters, studying acting has improved my poker game by helping me conceal my hands and improving my read on my opponents. I cannot even begin to remember the number of times that acting has helped me draw a bad call or lay down.

I jest, but only partly. Part of the study of acting involves deriving, understanding, and internalising character objectives and emotions, the vast majority of which are human*. Hence, from my point of view, acting provides two potential benefits beyond theatre.

(*Note: It can, however, be argued that non-human characters in theatre (such as cats or fairies or trees) are also scripted to display human-like emotions.)

Firstly, the deep study of character can at times stimulate an internal psychological investigation into human behavior, replete with human desires and fears. Secondly, and in a not completely- unrelated vein, acting can improve our understanding of human emotions and how we exhibit them – hence my earlier reference to poker – thus improving our understanding of the essence of communication.

In my sophomore year, as part of what had now become my major, I took some classes in theatre history. I was again amazed at the insight that theatre could provide in deciphering everything from the cultural to the political from ancient civilisations to our very own.

Elements such as the internal structure of theatres can reveal a wealth of information about the distribution of political power in a society. Analyses of contents of plays, on the other hand, not only give insight to the culture of the period, but also to changes in societal welfare. The development of the melodrama, for instance, coincided with a burgeoning middle class in Europe who demanded plays that featured their everyday lives instead of the seemingly alien lives of aristocrats.

Theatre has also introduced me to the most diverse group of people I have ever encountered, both in and out of class. Among these is a Persian-American, who has an amazing tenor voice and an intense interest in LGBT elements in and out of theatre, and whose dad is an Imam but whose mom is a devout Catholic. He is also the only Muslim I know who has ever played Jesus in an Easter play in church.

Many of my friends would be considered highly dysfunctional (from our local perspective, at least) – some drink too often to possibly be healthy, while some others are recreational pot users, but all of them are wonderful human beings who have incredible character, and sometimes intimidating talents.

Therein lies the uniqueness of theatre – to some extent, and somewhat ironically, it encourages its participants to be themselves. Actors need to have a good sense of who they are in order to dispose of their own natural tendencies, so that they can more accurately portray others. In this sense, people from theatre are some of the most honest and open people that I have ever met.

If I had to name my biggest regret from my past couple of years, it would be that I had not devoutly followed up on my pledge to be more impulsive. This newfound willingness to explore has produced some of the richest moments of my life to date, though it has also produced a comparable number of less desirable situations. But hey, what is life without some spice?

Emmet Lee, 24, thinks that the world would be a happier place, if only everyone did a little bit of theatre. He is also a big fan of impulse, intuition and randomness.

Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.

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