University of South Carolina

Theatre professors spend a year in Malaysia


How do you convey the magic of a midsummer's night to students who live three degrees from the equator?

It takes seasoned professors like Jim O'Connor and Erica Tobolski, who spent a year teaching theatre at the Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in Shah Alam, Malaysia. They also oversaw a performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at UiTM.

Jim O'Connor
Jim O'Connor

The tropical Malaysian weather is hot and humid and varies little throughout the year.

"Working with these students on this play, we had to really keep reformulating what we thought we knew about theatre," said O'Connor, who directed the play. He was formerly the chair and artistic director as well as head of the master of fine arts directing program in the USC Department of Theatre and Dance.

"Take the title," he said. "How do you explain summer to someone who lives so close to the equator? Summer is not a word they use. It's summer all the time."

Erica Tobolski
Erica Tobolski

"The students know the word, but they really don't understand the concept," said Tobolski, who was the acting and vocal coach for the performance and is an assistant professor in the department.

The students performed Mimpi (A Midsummer Night's Dream) in Malay, the official language of Malaysia, with an original gamelan orchestra, at the National Theater in Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital.


O'Connor and Tobolski had to adjust to both climate differences and cultural differences.

In the classroom and on stage, they, as Western professors, encountered cultural differences in the training of the performing arts. For Malaysian students, acting is all about copying instead of developing a character from within.

"We had to explain Western theatre as well as directing and the acting process," said O'Connor, who taught directing classes.

"Their style of acting comes from their culture," said Tobolski, who taught acting. "They're supposed to give an outward manifestation of behavior, and then they copy it. Our Western, psychological-based characters are developed internally rather than through imitation."

In the classroom, Tobolski and O'Connor got different reactions from their Malaysian students than they do from American students.

"Here, it's very much the Socratic method of questions and answers," Tobolski said. "In Malaysia, I would ask my students what they discovered from an acting exercise, they wouldn't answer. They weren't used to offering up their own opinions and were very frightened of getting it wrong and displeasing the teacher, a position of great status in Malaysia."

O'Connor found the same to be true of directing.


"The actors were always asking me if that's the way I wanted the scene to be played. They would want to know if that's the way I wanted them to do it every time," he said. "I would tell them that that was very interesting but let's keep looking for other answers. In the end, though, they were very open."

O'Connor and Tobolski also were mindful of other Malaysian customs, especially religion. Malaysia is a multicultural country, but Islam is the official religion.

"Religion affects everything from dress to schedules. Sometimes, it was hard to schedule rehearsals around the five daily prayer times," O'Connor said. "The rules of dress are very clear. They weren't applied to us in the theatre, but we were very careful."

"We were very respectful," Tobolski said.

O'Connor and Tobolski spent the year at UiTM at the invitation of Hatta Azad Khan, one of O'Connor's former graduate students at Purdue University, who has served as the artistic director of the National Theatre and now is dean of Faculty of Artistic and Creative Technologies. In addition to being an academic, Khan also is a significant playwright and filmmaker who was declared the Outstanding Writer in Southeast Asia in 2009.

"While we were there, we had the treat of going to their film awards, which is like our Academy Awards, where Khan received the award," O'Connor said.

Beyond offering up their expertise in western theatre, Tobolski and O'Connor studied and worked with many forms of eastern theatre. They attended classes in Wayang (shadow puppet theatre) and co-taught classes in Mak Yong (traditional dance theatre) in mainland Malaysia.

They also experienced many other forms of eastern theatre during their travels in Southeast Asia, including Jegog and Legong (Bali), Khon performance (Thailand), and Water Puppet Theatre, a form unique to Ha Noi, Vietnam.

O'Connor and Tobolski's visit was the beginning of a theatre cultural exchange. They plan a visit to Borneo, Malaysia, where the theatre tradition is that of personal and historic story telling.

Posted: 04/21/10 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 05/19/10 @ 2:46 PM | Permalink