I am a theatre artist and an education consultant providing professional growth training, facilitating community-based projects using theatre arts to create dialogue in diversity and complexity.

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Community-based Projects - Malaysia 2014-15

  Burning Bush, a Drug Addiction Recovery Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Downtown Kuala Lumpur
Train Station at the neighborhood
In Taman Medan, a neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there is a small squatter place near a huge housing development. In that area, right next to the Klang river amidst  large vegetation is a place called Burning Bush - a home of 40+ men who are recovering from drug addiction. Most are homeless and Burning Bush is their home and their family. Burning Bush also cares for men who lapsed and came back. At the time of this project, Burning Bush is expanding as they are not able to accommodate all who knock on their doors. Burning Bush doesn’t receive any external funding, they make money by offer work to the community (freight, transportation, labour). General approach to drug addiction in Malaysia is either denial or severe punishment. Therefore, the official organizations are reluctant to analyse, uncover the root causes of the social problem and help the individuals. 
Burning Bush turns to Christian faith and the bible as guidance through the trying times of sobering up. At the same time, they do not impose it on anyone and refuse funding from religious organizations. Augustine, the man with a huge heart who runs Burning Bush says: “Such help always comes with strings attached and we need to be independent”.

Augustine at the gate
Augustine encountered Theatre of the Oppressed project several years ago with Fallen Leaves organization that ran projects in Malaysia. https://fallenleavestheatrecompany.wordpress.com/ Since then, he has been trying to bring creativity and art forms for “his” men in Burning Bush.
Burning Bush and I

I work with Burning Bush men on creating a piece of theatre that would help them reflect on their lives and that would tell their story to others. They are particularly interested in sharing with individuals and families who might be fighting with addiction and who do not know that there are is help. Each week, I focus half of the session on collaborative exercises and games. The men do everything together here. For most of them , it is as much a source of comfort and security as it is a source of frustration about their life here. The second half of each session, we create images and examine the themes that emerged from a thematic investigation - family, prayer, good life.

Image titled "Good Life"
image titled "I was young"
Getting a ride back to Dato Harun KTM station

Creating a Story - Creating a Dialogue at Burning Bush, a Drug Addiction Recovery Centre in Kuala Lumpur

For several sessions now, the Burning Bush group and I have been devising a story. Below I share a few moments and observations from the creative story-telling process:
Getting ready for a "John's Big Decision" scene

We developed several characters by using a fun drawing exercise. Through further playing and exploring, we came to realize that we really care for two of them. Thus, the two characters (James and John) became an inspiration for our story:

James, an older man who runs a trucking business, was a drug addict in his youth, lost his wife, and had to take care of his two young sons. Now, in old age, he is sick and worried who to pass on his business as both of his sons are gone and do not want to take the responsibility and hard work of running his business.
John, a young man who also runs a business, is a drug dealer. He is a boss and has a network of dealers. He is not addicted to drugs. He is responsible and gives a lot of money back to charity.

After another session, which we spent interviewing the characters and observing them in various important moments of their lives, we decided to combine their stories and make John James's son. That way, we created one story on which we can concentrate.
Discussing the " Father-Son Meeting" scene
We also created a "meeting" scene - the estranged son John wants to meet his aging father James and thus he initiates a meeting.
Father James and son John meet

When the two men were improvizing the scene, it was a fine piece of theatre - strong, emotional, focused, and to the point. The rest of the group was watching very attentively; one could drop a pin in the hall.

Listening and watching carefully the scene
We had a big discussion guided by the questions, such as "What we would like our audience to see?" and "What is or could be our story about?". Here are some themes that the Burning Bush group wants to communicate through their story:
  • Father-son relationship
  • Family
  • Change
  • Good Life? (Here, the question mark is an important shift from the previously identified theme of a "good life", which the group insisted meant the same for each individual member of the group)
  • Drugs and their social impact

We now have a few more sessions before we will present the story to our audience. The group is now working with Augustine to decide who will be our audience. I see on the energy level of those discussion how hugely important it is for them.

This presentation at the end of my project with Burning Bush will be a humble, but crucial beginning of a creative process that will have an impact in the lives of this group as a whole and the lives of its individual members. I see the power of applied theatre represented in front of me every session - the group is their own audience and thus they witness the attention and dedication of the group in certain important moments when something happens during a scene or an image that touches their hearts or makes them see / hear something in a new way. We notice together the questions that the work generates and organically engage in dialogue answering, discussing, and generating new questions.
In characters of drug dealing gang - getting ready for the scene

I am still here in Kuala Lumpur, but see the end of the project coming and I already miss the men. I'm thinking about my exit strategy and have been working on passing on some of the principles of the pedagogy I use to Augustine. He will continue working with his group as he is encouraged by witnessing my work. Also, Soon, who introduced me to Augustine and Burning Bush, and who has been doing Forum Theatre for some time, will be of a resource and a coach. I am happy knowing that the men will continue to process their difficult life situations and dynamics with creative lens and experiential nature of theatre.
Caring hand created this "altar" at Burning Bush

It's My Life - devised original show at Burning Bush

It's My Life is the show's title that Burning Bush group selected by a voting process out of 45 titles initially brainstormed.

A sense of a special day was everywhere when I came to Burning Bush in the morning. I saw some ironed shirts and new pants, combed hair, costumes and props carefully prepared from card board, masking tape and other like resources. The chairs and sofa were re-arranged allowing larger audience to view the hall playing area.
Study Hall - place for our show
Pre-show discussion circle

The group decided to play their favourite game: The Ways to Cross a Room. They enjoyed it this time around as if played for the first time. During my work in Burning Bush, I observed that the men enjoyed the laughter and silliness of games with the same intensity they enjoyed honest and serious discussions about life and choices.


After the warm-up game that taps into improvisational skills, we ran a dress rehearsal before the audience arrived:
Chris in the role of James

Suresh in the role of John
Making a Decision scene

Father - Son Reunion scene

Our audience consisted of the other members of Burning Bush commune who didn't participate in the project.
Our camera man

Dead Brother scene - one of the strong moments

Watching the video recording of the show

After the show, a lively exchange of insights, questions, sharing, and laughing together concluded our time together. It is now the work of Burning Bush commune with Augustine and Soon as leaders to take the show and gained skills of the group further and out into the community as outreach. I wish them sincerely and wholeheartedly the good luck on their next journey.

Thank you, Augustine and Burning Bush for the joyous opportunity to share your journey!

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