Friday, January 20, 2012


Technical Tips for Bi-Lingual Teenage Playwrights

Jay, 17, is writing a play. He's got a few technical questions for Uncle Ant.

1. Is it ok for me to incorporate other languages in the script? There are just some things which cannot be said in proper English, won’t have the “mood”. Some things in Mandarin, we just can't find an English substitute. (English is my second language, I'm Chinese-ed.)

There are no hard and fast rules about incorporating a mix of languages in your script, Jay. Certain things cannot be taught, only learnt, and one of these things is a sharp artistic instinct that tells you what works and what doesn't. Experiment all you want. Read what you've written aloud and see how it sounds. Rework till it sounds just right. Bear in mind that if you insert too many Mandarin expressions, the non-Mandarin speakers in your audience may feel left out. Insert in such a way that the meaning can be inferred from the action. If you're not 100% comfortable writing in English, why not write a Mandarin play instead? If it's any good, someone else can translate it into English later.

2. How do you know why a person is acting in a certain way? I don’t know why the parents in my play are behaving like this. I think the father doesn’t want a confrontation with the mother, but she’s nagging him ... pushing his patience. Don’t know why the mother’s a nag tho. Do playwrights talk to their parents before writing such plays or what?

"Family Dynamics" by Elizabeth Seaver
You're not being very clear here, Jay. Playwrights are free to talk to their parents to glean some insight - but I'd say the main thing is to keenly observe the psychodynamics of family interactions and then stylize them into recognizable form. Just as an artist will study a landscape or figure intently - and then compress the data by extracting the ESSENCE and translating it into a few masterful strokes on canvas or paper. All art is founded on acute observation of the life around you.

3. Must it have a “positive message”, “nilai-nilai murni” or whatever?

The last thing you want is to deliberately include any kind of "message" whether positive or negative. Rather, just tell the story and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions.

That's where the "art" comes in. The artist's job is to select details from "real life" to be expressed in an artistic medium, whether as prose or poetry, painting or sketch, musical composition, dance movement or dramatic scene. The skill of the artist consists of his or her ability to evoke a range of emotional and aesthetic responses from the audience - whether amusement or indignation or anxiety or vicarious pain or pleasure.

4. The main character comes across as rather reluctant to talk esp when he’s intimidated ... either he’s sullen and rebellious, or he’s too scared cos he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. So the people who’re talking to him at the time read like they’re doing a monologue. Is that ok, or should I write out that he’s refusing to respond, then let the person go on talking?

This is a basic technical problem which can be easily solved by inserting in brackets what the protagonist (main character) is thinking or feeling as the other characters are speaking. For example: [Protagonist shuffles around impatiently, not really listening, looking for a chance to escape the lecture.] These are playwright's notes addressed to the actor as a suggested response, e.g., [Protagonist maintains a false smile throughout, nodding every so often in feigned agreement.]

5. As I go on exploring the story, more characters appear. This started out as a simple 20 minute play for the inter-school English drama comp with only 4 characters, and it was mainly based in the main characters' home and there're a couple of scenes with extras acting as students going home from school. Now the school's involved too ... which means teachers, classmates ... and it's more complicated. One (or one and a half) hours sounds like a looooong time. Is is ok to have a few more characters? How many should a play have? Agak agak ...

A general rule of thumb: the more characters you introduce to a play, the more complicated the task of keeping them all credible and interacting smoothly. So if you're a novice playwright, best not to be overly ambitious and start writing a play with dozens of characters. Build up your confidence and skill by starting with just a few key characters. If it's your maiden play, it's okay to make it a short one - sort of a one-acter. There's no need to tackle a full-length production until you acquire some experience in the craft. Why put in a lot of useless padding just to fill out a 90-minute time slot when you're better off aiming for a really tight-paced 40-minute play?

6. When I wrote this play, it came out in patches ... How do I connect the dots?

You mean the patches? Use thread. Stories are like threads, and the playwright sews various lives together like a quiltwork using certain themes. If the scenes are isolated moments and don't require any form of linear flow to connect them, then a simple device to hold them - just as you use a basket to keep an assortment of beads or shells - will suffice. It could be a musical or lighting effect signalling the end of one scene and the start of another; or a multimedia interlude, or even the voice of an unseen narrator. Use your imagination!

If you mean the dots, use a pencil – and then ink over the lines when you’ve got a clear picture of what you want to convey. Good luck, Jay!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Dear Uncle Ant, I'm a lazy sod so I'm posting my questions about the Malaysian arts scene here [on the readers' feedback page].

1. What is Malaysian Culture?

2. What is Malaysian Arts?

3. What is Malaysian Heritage?

4. Are these compatible with tourism?

Dear Lazy Sod,

Talk about lazy questions, yours are in the same category as: Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? What Does It Mean To Be Human? If I Find The Answers Will People Pay Top Money To Hear Them?

But our excitable editor is correct when he declares that Uncle Ant can answer any and all questions (if he feels like it, that is). Be warned, folks, that you may find the answers to Lazy Sod's questions totally unfunny - because our lack of Culture is certainly no laughing matter. Okay, folks... fasten your seat belts... now for some straight answers to Lazy Sod's 100 million ringgit questions!

Many years ago (28, to be precise) I wrote an article for a newspaper in which I compared "culture" to weaving a fine carpet - that is to say, "culture" means diddly-squat to someone who's sleeping on cardboard cartons under a flyover, or who lives in a leaky zinc-roofed shanty in the slums. But along with material gains and creature comforts comes a nice big house in the suburbs - and a professionally laid parquet or marble floor just waiting for a tasteful carpet to make home look a little cosier. Now that's what "culture" represents to most folks who have evolved beyond basic survival: a few original paintings on the walls, a Rhythm-In-Bronze CD playing in the background, and a selection of director-playwrights, soon-to-be-published novelists, or (ahem) theatre reviewers on your birthday party guest list.

In other words, being “cultured” essentially implies that one has developed an aesthetic sensibility or “good taste” – a prerequisite to acquiring even the rudiments of an ethical sense, without which we cannot govern ourselves and therefore will be governed by others on pain of punishment or through brute force. Can you imagine what life in the social matrix might be like if everyone - including candidates for the police force and the civil service - was exposed from infancy to good (read, uncensored) literature, music, films, theatre, paintings and sculptures?

How about the traditional culture you might find in, say, a Kelantanese fishing village, or a rice-growing community in Kedah, or a remote longhouse in Sarawak? Doesn't that qualify as "culture"? Well, folks, that's where culture begins. Man does not live on rice and tapioca alone. After a hearty meal, we want to relax with a couple of drinks and maybe hear someone with a stirring voice and a string instrument sing about the good old days, or watch the belles of the village do a fertility dance.

So there's pop culture and haute culture to consider. For instance, would you consider it a cultural experience to hang out at a karaoke lounge with your contractor buddies, 4 bottles of Martell, and 5 GROs (that’s Guest Relations Officer, for the uninitiated)? Well, in Korea and Japan, that's part of the Business Culture - nobody does actual business in boardrooms. And among affluent youth everywhere, culture means Friday night at Zouk with the gang and a good supply of "headshaking" pills. A few years ago, youth culture would have meant a spot of spontaneous breakdancing – and today some fierce skateboarding or rollerblading - outside some mall. In short, let's not get too precious over our definition of Culture.

But what is MALAYSIAN culture, you ask?

Huh? Is there such an animal? I know we have Melayu culture - you know, all the fun stuff banned by PAS, inspired by the Ramayana and whatnot - kite-flying, top-spinning, gong-beating, ketupat-steaming. We also have Chinese culture, especially around the Lunar New Year, you know, tong-tong-chang and red stuff all over the streets. And we have Indian culture - especially in conjunction with Hindu festivals when painted cement gods adorned with multicolored lights are dragged through the streets in their chariots, and folks in trance pierce their cheeks with stainless steel skewers, and lots of coconuts get smashed. Funky, vel vel. But as playwright Huzir Sulaiman astutely remarked in Notes on Life & Love & Painting:

It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up.

Should we bother mentioning the OFFICIAL CULTURE designed and promoted by our tireless bureaucrats - you know, the candle, umbrella, and banana leaf dancers and the stylized silat choreography performed mainly for 65-year-old tourists? Well, that's really just a bowl of wax fruit sitting on the table as some sort of kitsch decoration (hey, don't attempt to eat the stuff, you'll gag and puke!). I wouldn't call THAT culture - but a definitive symptom of the acute lack thereof.

And yet... I can point to a few cultural icons and hold their work up as exquisitely representative of MALAYSIAN culture: the ever popular “Latok” Lat, for a start. And there’s my old friend Salleh Ben Joned the bilingual poet and essayist whose work transcends sterile notions of ethnicity while drawing heavily on ethnic elements. These are forerunners of a younger generation exemplified by the likes of Jit Murad, Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas and the Instant CafĂ© Theatre. What do they have in common? A balanced cosmopolitan sensibility that aesthethically merges the “native” and the “foreign” within their own psyches, putting a spicy spin on the rich stew (or should I say curry?) of derivative cultural elements that define being Malaysian.

Your next question is grammatically unsound and I have every right not to answer it. Nonetheless I’d define “Malaysian arts” as any form of cultural expression practised by anyone born in or residing long-term in Malaysia. (Now some of you, like our nose... I mean nit-picking editor, may be wondering why I described your question - What is Malaysian Arts? - as “grammatically unsound.” Arts is plural and your question addresses a singular issue. How would you define ‘Malaysian Arts’? Now that’s grammatically sound!)

What is Malaysian Heritage? Another grammatically shaky poser, Lazy Sod! But let’s not be too pedantic. Here’s a partial list of what I consider to be our Malaysian Heritage: ancient rainforests, aboriginal peoples, Cristao-speaking Portuguese Eurasians, the Stadthuys (you know, those stodgy red buildings in Malacca), written English and spoken Manglish, Ionic columns, guided democracy, cinema subtitles in 3 languages, Chinese satay sellers and Malay chee cheong fun stalls, not to mention Hakka-speaking Tamils in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

As for your final question: YES, of course, EVERYTHING is compatible with tourism - we need the foreign currency. In any case, your question comes too late: Tourism is now a separate ministry from Culture, Arts and Heritage. During the Mahathir Era, Arts and Culture were subsumed by Tourism, and artists were seen as entertainers, Guest Relations Officers, and court jesters. Before that, the arts were perceived as a means of keeping hormonally-charged youngsters out of trouble and so we had the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

Let’s be grateful for small mercies. I feel the new Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage could be a healthy sign. At least it promises to revive the traditional arts suppressed by fundamentalists in Terengganu – and it may well lead to DBKL being relieved of its censorship duties on humanitarian grounds (poor, overworked City Hall already has enough on its hands, maintaining its fleet of lifeboats in anticipation of the next flash flood).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Arrogance and the Art of Political Shadow Boxing

This post was inspired by a journalist friend who left the following comment on my Facebook wall: "I've met [Anwar Ibrahim] in person and he looked right through me, although I had to personally escort him. He makes my skin crawl. A couple of reporters I know who have interviewed him also say that this kind of arrogance was pretty normal even when he was DPM."

At 19 I met a fortune teller who read my palms and told me I will never have a boss. And that has held true my entire life. I don't regard anybody or any spirit as my "superior."

All political leaders, including Anwar Ibrahim, must ultimately bow to the rakyat as their boss. Others may bow before some concept of God or Devil. I don't.

In effect, other people's arrogance is just a joke to me. Arrogance, I know, is only a front - a form of ego armoring required for warfare. Just as Muhammad Ali used arrogance and conceit as a psychological weapon to inject apprehension and anxiety into his opponents, every successful politician learns to talk big and scare his adversaries. In the animal kingdom, puffer fish and peacocks inflate various parts of their anatomy to scare off rivals and attract potential mates.

Anwar Ibrahim addresses a rapt audience at Kelana Jaya Stadium (photo: TV Smith)

Anwar is good at that - and he is used to being in the limelight. Every rockstar knows what it's like to have thousands clamoring for you to appear on stage - it's addictive and scary at the same time. It takes a special kind of temperament to thrive under those high-pressure circumstances. Anwar has got it in abundance - he has trained himself all his life to become a political icon.

Have you ever had to escort Mahathir or Najib anywhere? Would they have looked right through you too... or looked straight into your eyes and noticed what a beautiful human being you are and suggested you add them on Facebook? The point I'm making is simply this: in a primitive culture where politics holds sway and policemen obey only those they deem their superiors, we desperately require regime change.

Anas Zubedy,
corporate wunderkind
If you remove Anwar Ibrahim from the equation at this juncture, what you're asking for is that the status quo remain unchanged. Look at the ego conflicts amongst activists and opinion makers - people like Haris Ibrahim, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Lim Chee Wee, Azmi Sharom, Malik Imtiaz, Art Harun... and let's toss in a few from the murky side, like RPK, Anas Zubedy, Chandra Muzaffar, Ezam Mohd Nor. Do you honestly think the ship of state will sail smoothly on course if it was left to a committee of debaters, public masturbators and would-be emancipators?

Until there are enough enlightened souls in our midst - ones who have internalized God and no longer regard external authority as real or legitimate - we will need some sort of political structure. And the best one I have seen thus far is the Pakatan Rakyat coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim.

I'm seriously tired of apparently intelligent people putting the brakes on the change by misapplyng their skepticism at what is, to me, a critical juncture in our political evolution. So, who do you wish to see in Anwar's place? I'm really interested to know....


Girlfriend Dumps You For Actor?

Agony Ant! My girlfriend leave me for an actor! Summore he only new actor but act damm big shot!! We go for the cars party and sudenly he comes and talk to her… the hole time I stands there he smile at me ONE time and never looks at me after dat… he make the stupid jokes about this actors and that actors….. he is more bitch than the American Idol guy! One week after dat she break up with me! What so special about actors all the girls go GAGA?? How can I win her back? Do I must learn to be more bitch? – Dump in Damansara

Dear DID – I'm not surprised she dumped ya, bud. If you talk the way you write, she would have felt embarrassed to be seen and heard with you in classy circles. Enter an articulate “new actor” with a deep, plummy voice. Hmmm. I suggest you seriously upgrade your English, bud. Anyway, I detect a note of disappointment that the actor only smiled at you “ONE time.” Would you have dumped your girlfriend for him? Be honest now.

Hey, bud, look on the bright side (I'm fond of saying)… she's now hanging out with the actor… but how do you know it isn't just a platonic fling? After all, not all male actors are interested in girls that way. (Bud, I know how it feels to be dumped. My last girlfriend left me for a full-on psychotic. Mildly neurotic wasn't rough enough a ride for her.)

If she can dump you once, she’ll dump you a dozen times – so why bother?

Dear Agony Ant,

What a timely column! I have some questions for you. I know the DBKL’s list of guidelines for approval of scripts is quite demoralising and oppressive. But what's with the silence at the theatres this year? Are there not creative ways to get around these guidelines? Are our playwrights just not creative enough or are they on a strike? – John

Beats me, John. This lull you report – don’t forget 2004 has barely begun (in fact, Baha’is and Druids mark the start of the new Solar Year as March 21) – could be due to shockwaves from the recent smash hit, Election Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Voter. Patrick Teoh and Edwin R. Sumun were illuminating as Poda and Puke. Takes a while to recover from a plot as obvious as that.

But let’s look on the bright side. Fewer shows means theatergoers end up with more cash to spend on other things, like fashion accessories. Good time to invest in lifestyle products and services. Besides, playwrights are like durian trees. They don't fruit all year round. I bet they’re scratching their heads and crotches right now in front of their computers, looking for ‘creative ways to get around those guidelines.’ Give them a break, John. They deserve it.

Dear Agoniser: Your answer to Patrick Teoh's question on ‘Are theatre people elitists?’ was fascinating, but too long, dude, too long. Can you summarise? Personally, I think musicians are even more elitists. The classical guys won’t hang with the pop guys, the pop guys won’t hang with the underground rock guys, and the underground rock guys just hate the world. What gives? – Pop Goes The Weasel

First of all, Pop, I don't answer to the name, ‘Dude.’

In any case, better too long than too short, I always say.

You want a summary? Absolutely. Yup, that’s it.

As far as I’m concerned, musicians are people too – and people can ‘hang’ with whoever they want, it’s really none of our business who they consort with and who they don’t.

Now I can see why your last name is Dweezil!

5 April 2004

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Silly Jokes Sunday

When An Insect Falls Into A Mug Of Beer...

Englishman - Throws his mug away and walks out.

Scotsman - Takes the insect out and drinks the beer.

American - Threatens to sue the pub. Gets an extra beer on the house. Then he takes the insect out and drinks both beers. Later he writes a bestselling book: "Who Says There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Beer?")

Singaporean - Observes the American and apes him.

Italian - Calls the waiter over and knees him in the groin. The worried manager agrees to serve him 5 free beers a day if he will just drink them peacefully and stop molesting the barmaid.

Chinese - Eats the insect and throws the beer away.

Indian - Sells beer to the American and insect to the Chinese and gets a new mug of beer.

Pakistani - Accuses the Indian of throwing an insect into his beer. Relates the issue to Kashmir. Asks the Chinese for military aid. Takes a loan from the American to buy one more mug of beer.

Malay - Considers himself under arrest and meekly follows the insect back to the Religious Affairs Department where he pays a hefty fine for consuming the forbidden Al-Kohol.

I'm Lost!

An American and his wife were driving in Canada and got lost. Finally they came into some city. They saw a gentleman on the sidewalk, so the gentleman pulled up to the curb, and the lady let down her window and asked: "Excuse me, sir. Where are we?"

The gentleman on the street replied, "Saskatoon, Saskatchewan."

The lady rolled up the window, turned to her husband and said, "We really are lost. They don't even speak English here!"


An autopsy professor was giving an introductory lecture to a class of students. Standing over a corpse, he addressed the class. "There are two things you need to make a career in medical forensics. First, you must have no fear." Having said that, he shoved his finger up the corpse's anus and licked it. "Now you must do the same," he told the class.

After a couple of minutes of uneasy silence, the class did as instructed.

"Second," the professor continued, "you must have an acute sense of observation. For instance, how many of you noticed that I put my middle finger up this man's anus, but licked my index finger?"

Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down in their tent for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend awake. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?" Holmes questioned.

Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe Saturn is in Leo. Logically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow."

"Is that all?" Holmes asked.

"Yes," Watson replied, "Why, am I missing something?"

Holmes was quiet for a moment, then spoke:

"Watson, you dickhead. Someone has stolen the fucking tent."


An Asian man walked into the currency exchange in New York with 2000 yen and walked out with $72.

The following week he walked in with 2000 yen and was handed $66. He asked the teller why he got less money than he received the previous week.

The lady answers, "Fluctuations."

The Asian man stormed out and, just before slamming the door, he turned around and said, "Fluc you Amelicans too!"


A frog goes into a bank and approaches the teller. He can see from her nameplate that her name is Patricia Whack. So he says,"Ms Whack, I'd like to get a loan to buy a boat and go on a long vacation."

Patti looks at the frog in disbelief and asks how much he wants to borrow. The frog says $30,000. The teller asks his name and the frog says that his name is Kermit Jagger and that it's OK, he knows the bank manager.

Patti explains that $30,000 is a substantial amount of money and that he will need to secure some collateral against the loan. She asks if he has anything he can use as collateral.

The frog says, "Sure. I have this," and produces a tiny pink porcelain elephant, about half an inch tall. Bright pink and perfectly formed.

Very confused, Patti explains that she'll have to consult with the manager and disappears into a back office. She finds the manager and says: "There's a frog called Kermit Jagger out there who claims to know you and wants to borrow $30,000. And he wants to use this as collateral."

She holds up the tiny pink elephant. "I mean, what the heck is this?"

The bank manager looks back at her and says:

"It's a knick knack, Patti Whack. Give the frog a loan. His old man's a Rolling Stone."

We urgently need a Malaysian version of this powerful video...

It's never too late to derobotize yourselves and rejoin humankind!