The KL Shakespeare Players (KLSP) are no strangers to bringing the wonderful literature of William Shakespeare to the public, specifically Malaysian children.
Prior to the pandemic, KLSP had been actively educating and entertaining the young and old through live performances. Even staging a dark play such as Macbeth for children.
However, when the pandemic struck, the group which began informally in 2011 began staging Malaysian folktales through online performances.
We speak to KLSP’s co-founder and chief producer, Lim Soon Heng, who touched on many things including planning and staging online performances to tips and advice for other organisations who’re looking to tell their stories virtually.
It was always part of our vision to include non-Shakespeare works in our lineup. It was a matter of time and opportunity. By the way, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bell Shakespeare also stage non-Shakespeare works. We don’t see what we’re doing–the Sang Kancil stories and now working on Kanang & the Serimpak–as a pivot in our focus.
In 2019, in collaboration with Alliance Francais Kuala Lumpur (AFKL) for Le French Festival, we staged the Story of Cyrano de Bergerac, based on that canonical work by Edmond Rostand. And we deliberately chose to do it in the format that our audience had become familiar with through our Shakespeare Demystified series. The production was very successful, leading to an anticipated production of another French work for the 2020 festival. But, of course, la pandémie put paid to that.
In the early days of the imposed pandemic-pause, we reveled in our holiday attire and lazy breakfasts on the balcony. But when we realized that COVID-19 was not going to blow over in a few weeks or even months, we huddled to plan the way forward. By the end of April, we pivoted online: we offered live, interactive, online storytelling shows to primary-school-age children. These productions had nothing to do with Shakespeare.
Then in 2021, after almost a year of exploring, experimenting, and evolving our online storytelling techniques, skills, and production values, we launched our Sang Kancil stories and scored more than 15,000 viewers over 28 performances. When Yayasan Hasanah had an open call for proposals, we felt another Malaysian folktale should be our focus. And we have a ready audience.
For Yayasan Hasanah’s ArtsFAS, we are presenting only one Bajau folktale. When we proposed, we didn’t know who else or what these other performing arts groups were pitching. For this project, KLSP is undertaking only one story which we have turned into a performance.
But in terms of this genre–live, interactive, online storytelling performed with live actors and an illustrated-and-animated presentation–we’ve created five Sang Kancil stories, nine international folktales, and one original to us.
We also have four Shakespeare works–Midsummer, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear–that we executed online. But in these the actors carried the day, performing on a virtual stage. No illustrations to accompany these performances.
Currently, we are collaborating with AIIA, an improv group, to co-create an online improv show which we performed at a corporate event on November 14, 2021.
After the successful outing this year of our online Sang Kancil stories, KLSP desired to do more local folktales. But we also wanted to stay away from the known ones like Puteri Gunung Ledang, Mahsuri, Hang Tuah/Hang Jebat. (It is important for us–performers, writers, and other creatives–to engage with something new, something that would lead us to learn more about our country and ourselves. Something exciting.)
I looked into some tales from Pahang and even Sarawak.
It was through a serendipitous introduction to Sirhajwan Idek, an English teacher and a Bajau, that I learned about this story Kanang & the Serimpak. Sirhajwan had written it for a competition and won an award. On his own, he had written down several oral stories told to him. As the producer in this project, I read through these works and chose Kanang.
There are elements in Kanang & the Serimpak that make it accessible and there are elements that shroud it with some mystery. The protagonist is a young girl adjusting to life after her mother’s passing on. There are supernatural forces at work and their appearances help her on her journey.
In creating this work, the artistic director of KLSP —Lim Kien Lee— and I turned to past collaborators for advice: a storyteller, Johnny Gillett; a visual artist, Tang Yeok Khang; and a musician, Tay Cher Siang of WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble. These artists are all involved in the Kanang & the Serimpak project.
Although not quite finished yet, the work-in-progress is already quite impressive and I am very proud of it. The story, artwork, music, and singing by Junji Delfino have prompted me to think about a short film. Any sponsors/investors out there?
These live, interactive, online shows that we have executed are NOT pre-recorded.
They are performed by actors–Hana Nadira, Zul Zamir, Teoh Jun Vinh, and I–accompanied by an illustrated-and-animated presentation. For these earlier works, Lim Kien Lee did most of the illustrations and animations with help from a few of the actors. We introduced songs which we taught the young audience.
Being a “live” show, over a video-meeting platform, the actors and the audience share the same session (same space as when the audience goes to the theatre) and can interact with each other as they are able to see, hear and speak to each other.
The audience may be asked an open-ended question which they respond by turning on their microphones to speak. We use some of the functionalities of these video-meeting platforms to “spotlight” and “pin” them for all to see and hear.
In some of our storytelling performances, we put virtual masks on our young participants who volunteer to respond to questions or requests, like being one of the forest animals giving a witness account of an event that transpired.
The technical wizard is KLSP’s artistic director Lim Kien Lee, who spent a lot of time in 2020 and this year learning processes and discovering, free or inexpensive, online apps and software. He studied how to use PowerPoint to animate, OBS (Open Broadcasting Software) to create a virtual stage where the actors can all appear together and simulate their interactions as if they were standing next to each other, when, in fact, each is in their own home standing before a green screen.
It might be interesting to note that for our online productions, we have all managed to stay in our own homes, only meet online to do everything–our table work, rehearsals, and performances.
We have run sharing sessions with artists who want to know about our going online. In fact, we even presented to organizations based overseas, like IDEA (International Drama/Theatre & Education Association) and a philanthropic foundation based in Australia.
Certainly, there is a need for someone in the team who loves to tinker with technology, and a team of actors who need to learn new skills to be their own sound technician, light technician, camera person, prop-maker, stage manager, etc. Much more is required of everyone involved. And most of all, a ton of patience.
It took KLSP a year of continuous exploration, experimentation, and examination to reach where we are today in our online offerings.
For certain, other than the hurdle of time zones, an online performance from Malaysia can be experienced anywhere the internet reaches. We have had, at the same performance, an audience made up of viewers from the UK, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. We’ve presented to educators in Europe, Africa, and Australasia. It was thrilling.
When we are in a lockdown, this kind of online production can move forward without having to meet in person. In 2020-2021, KLSP created more than 20 online productions, including ones for corporate training, without meeting in person at all.
Online also offers the possibility of cross-border collaborations minimizing travel and its consequent carbon footprint. KLSP has collaborated with two artists in the UK, and in our demonstration had these participants interact with our actors in Malaysia. Distance is no longer an issue.
It takes a lot more time to rehearse and prepare for an online show than a live in-person one. The learning curve is steep and demanding and begs patience from all.
The challenges of performing in your living room or bedroom. The actor is not in a real set but standing in front of a green screen alone and simulating a performance as if the other actors are nearby. Because of the setup, actors have to work harder on their imagination and on the exactness of their movements (small camera and frame of action), and most difficult: on their eye lines.
(**By the way, to look to the right on the virtual stage, you have to look to the left in reality!)
For some types (genres) of performances, the sound quality is still something that needs improving. And the cost of improving the necessary technical aspects can be an inhibitor. But I am sure these needed technologies will improve and their costs drop.
Many actors still prefer to act on a real (as opposed to virtual) stage and to have their fellow actors react to, a physical set to move through, etc. Reacting in person is more “satisfying and true” as opposed to relying, almost exclusively, on aural and sonic cues. Got to listen harder.
(**Tongue in cheek: Just think why “gossip” appeals and we need to be warned from participating in this activity. If nothing else, we all love a good story.)
Based on our own experiences performing for children (this started with our storytelling Macbeth in 2017), we know children enjoy and find great delight and pleasure in well-told, well-performed stories. The successes of Disney and Pixar underscore, if nothing else, the pleasure principle. Add to that teachers and parents, and the young people themselves tell us so. Even when articulated thus: “Best-la, Teacher. Bila buat lagi?” After each performance, the young audience waving and saying good-bye wear the reluctant faces of departing guests not ready for the party to end.
Stories help us in our understanding of the world, ourselves, and others. It is no accident that the books on which the world’s dominant religions are all made up of stories–not throwing aspersions on religions. Those religions without a literary tradition pass down their teachings, customs, way of life, orally through their origin and other stories. Stories help make sense of the world for us and help clarify our place in it.
Stories also offer windows into other lives and so present opportunities to wear, at least for the duration of the storytelling, someone else’s skin. Good stories get us to empathize.
Children, for the most part, have an intuitive sense of what’s fair and what’s unfair and to some extent, extrapolating from that, what’s right and what’s not. So, we can tell them stories and leave them to work through age-appropriate complexities without being didactic, without having to spell out, “The moral of the story is…” Children often can work these things out themselves, and when they are uncertain, will ask questions.
KLSP has also used storytelling opportunities to create an environment for learning English in a fun way, without the weight of a formal English class. In response to our storytelling, teachers have informed us that they were surprised that their students were “less afraid” to speak up to respond to the questions we asked during our interactive performances. I suspect, the impulse to speak up, to respond was stronger than the fear of saying things wrong, ungrammatically, or inarticulately.
Cover image supplied by KL Shakespeare Players (KLSP).