Although I am not a theatre major and only like to watch plays, I am tasked every year to stage a production for Global Prestasi School (GPS). There is this (mis)perception that, as a literature major, I can automatically turn my students into Broadway thespians in a few months. Fortunately, my school experiences included stage productions in elementary and high school from which I draw from extensively and dovetail it with new knowledge. By new knowledge, I mean the films I have seen and how certain actors create a character such as how Tom Hiddleston created Loki that wasn’t kitsch or two-dimensional; the news I have watched; and the books and stories I have read. Adding to that melange are the GPS students from the Cambridge Preparatory Classes who take to the stage like fish to water. It is a talented pool of students: natural actors who can go from submissive to feisty, from cruel to forgiving; musicians who play the guitar or violin with jaw-dropping dexterity; amateur singers who serenade like pros; artists who make imaginative backdrops and props; and writers with their evocative prose and wit.
The 2018 production year witnessed the grades seven to nine students lock horns with the world. Through fractured mythologies, fairy tales, and legends, they tackled issues such as gender roles, corruption, racism, and bullying, which they either faced or facing, heard about, or read. Under the title “Vox Nostra”, Voice of the Youth, the Indonesian youth of GPS questioned the atavistic gender roles upheld as unbreakable in “Cinderella” by decimating the stereotyped roles of men and women, and re-establishing the might of women warriors in “Mulan”. They rallied against racism in “Pocahontas” debunking the Eurocentric precept of the white men offering salvation to the “other”, the dark-skinned savages of the wild while squashing another age-old prejudice against people with disabilities and different culture in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. They also vehemently protested against corruption and irreverence in “Malin Kundang” and made a stand against bullies in “Acceptance”.
Without a doubt, the production would have been better left to the pros. However, there never any pretence on my part or the students that we were aiming for a Broadway debut. What the students and I create is a verisimilitude of life – what it is like to work with people they like or dislike, thinking on their feet, taking responsibility, how it is to be held accountable for something, solving problems, honouring commitments, being a professional, and having fun at the same time. Through the months spent on putting together the play, I have had a front row seat to clearly see the students becoming better versions of themselves. For example, two brothers have learned to put aside petty differences and work together. Another, both girls and boys have learned to view each other sans the gender glasses, and learn that gender is not – has never been – a hindrance to anything. Lastly, they have learned to express themselves (in English) in agreement or in disagreement, and offer an advice or solution.
Staging a play is taxing, to say the least, but the lessons learned at the end are invaluable. Amidst the constant bellyaching (parents and students), histrionic outbursts (mine), and occasional spanners (the universe), everyone walks away a little more compassionate, knowledgeable, open-minded, and filled with a feeling of accomplishment, including the non-theatre major teacher.