Old schools and old theatres are rumoured to be haunted. In Malaysia, lots of schools were supposedly pressed into service as Japanese concentration camps during the Occupation. If not, every school has its share of pregnant schoolgirls who hanged themselves in bathrooms, or phantom teachers whose screeching chalk may be heard in empty classrooms late at night. Why theatres should be haunted is less evident. Perhaps it’s all the ghosts of unfortunate actors whose prop guns were loaded with real bullets by jealous rivals, just before the onstage suicide scene.
Or perhaps all these ghosts are just fabrications of the hysterical, ghost-hungry crowds who populate both theatres and schools — actor-types, in the first instance, and teenagers, in the second. These places are haunted by necessity. But if ghosts, as some spiritualists might have us believe, are merely the echoes of human emotions intensely experienced, then schools and theatres are likely places to find them. According to this logic, school theatres should be doubly possessed.
There is one school theatre that haunts me. When I have those occasional nightmares of being forced onstage in a main role, knowing neither my lines nor my steps, it’s that theatre I dream of – but with the stage grown immense, the audience cavernous. I have seen hundreds of other theatres in my life, but to my mind that one is the default model, the Aristotelian ideal.
Next month, the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the midst of gala celebrations will be a formal announcement that the school will be moving from its campus in Ampang Jaya, where it has spent 39 years, to new premises in Ampang Hilir. The old campus, which was built higgledy-piggledy over the years and is far too small for the expanding student body, will be abandoned. To prevent the campus being acquired by the competition, ISKL doesn’t want to relinquish it to another school. Perhaps a tertiary institution may find a use for it, but more probably, given the value of the land, some intrepid developer will raze it to the ground and start again. Lost forever will be the classrooms, offices, canteen and sports fields, and also the Robert B. Gaw Theatre.
Despite its rather inelegant name (acknowledging a school headmaster in the 1970s whom nobody now remembers) ISKL’s theatre is charming, beloved and, I certainly hope, haunted. At the time I went to school there, from 1993 to 1997, it may have been the only such high school theatre in the whole city (Mont’Kiara, its closest competitor, opened only in 1995). Compared to its rivals in Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta, ISKL is a small school, and the theatre is proportionately small. It seats 540, with a balcony added while I was a student to accommodate more people. But it’s a friendly size with a friendly atmosphere: warm welcoming pink seats, five broad carpeted aisles, and a lovely sprung wooden floor, painted black, on the thrust stage.
It’s not a perfect theatre. Architecturally, it has no value, and is impossible to see as an individual entity, so embedded it is within the awkward pile of the school. The audience rake is too shallow for good sightlines, so it’s a good thing the basketball boys like to sit in the back row, under the shadow of the balcony. Its acoustics are only moderate – many a student actor has to strain to be heard. And the roof leaks something dreadful.
But I have a special attachment to the theatre because it was partly the reason I started attending ISKL. At my previous school, Sekolah Sri Inai Senior – a private school distinguishable from the usual Malaysian government schools only by its smaller classes and haughty English-speaking teachers who had been dragged out of retirement by debt – there was no theatre, only a multipurpose hall. There we assembled to be lectured by the Discipline Master in the mornings, to eat lunch at long tables at midday, and to play badminton in the afternoon. When the school roused itself enough to launch a dramatic production – invariably an innocuous Rodgers & Hammerstein musical – they had to rent an auditorium elsewhere.
The theatre at ISKL was the first school theatre I had ever seen, and it was the first I saw of the school at all. As a sop to parents paying private school fees, Sri Inai participated in the annual Forensics tournament hosted at ISKL. The Forensics, contrary to initial connotations, was not a test of how quickly you could determine time of death from a decomposing corpse, but a contest of speech events, including debate, solo and duet acting, and impromptu speaking. ISKL invited several Klang Valley schools to field teams, so once a year we local school kids would stagger goggle-eyed through the ISKL campus – not only did they have a theatre, they also had a swimming pool!
My sister, older than me by two years, started competing in Forensics in Form 1 at Sri Inai. In her fourth form, then a seasoned veteran, she wrote a speech for Original Oratory – a category in which you were meant to be persuasive and impassioned – about the plight of the Penan in Sarawak. Then, as now, the Penan were being forced off their ancestral land by a rapacious regime. Then, as now, Malaysian schools were censoring Malaysian schoolchildren above and beyond the call of duty. Sri Inai, anxious not to offend some mysterious authority on the lookout for dangerous politicised schoolgirls, forbade my sister from competing with her speech.
This was the climax of a long-running feud between my clever impatient sister and Sri Inai Senior’s moribund teaching staff. My mother, detecting that my sister was becoming increasingly ‘Bolshie’ (in the sense that she was difficult to handle, not in the sense of becoming Socialist, although that may have also been the case), in the stultifying atmosphere at Sri Inai, finally agreed that we should switch schools. In my memory, what followed was tinged with fate: we moved to ISKL, my sister was permitted to compete in the next Forensics with her speech about the Penan, and then, inevitably, she won.
I was 13 when we switched schools, from Form 2 in the Malaysian syllabus into the American eighth grade. Many things were frightening and mysterious – from the packs of girls with tiny shorts and endless legs who hogged the hallways, to the school-chaperoned social dances, where you were actually supposed to allow the boys to touch you. But the theatre made sense straight away. In my first year, the Middle School put on a musical, not of the conservative 1950s variety, but a confection about Pandora’s box written by a schoolteacher in America. I was Hera, Queen of the Heavens, with a curly wig and a tunic. My best friend Amanda, who had long blonde hair and a crystalline singing voice, played the personification of Hope. Looking at the photos now, I see most of my friends were in that production, seated in the pantheon of the gods. So it was natural that I should become a theatre rat.
For the next four years, I danced, acted, competed in multiple events in the Forensics, and, very badly and only when absolutely pressed to it, sang. In drama, I was never lead-role material, but I could be trusted with a speaking role – although I remember being cast as the Abbess in A Comedy of Errors, and poor long-suffering Mr Rosevear sighing over my inability to learn Shakespearian lines. But in dance and in certain Forensics categories, I worked my way up to position of queen bee.
Coming from the artistic wilderness of Sri Inai, the ISKL theatre was not only the epitome of luxury, it was my private and magical world, as much back stage as on stage. The velvety darkness behind the black curtains was the setting for all the dramas of my callow youth. During rehearsals, I would sit there gossiping with my friends, missing our cues to come onstage. That’s where I went to cry when I didn’t make the finals for the Forensics, and also when my sister – in suitably dramatic fashion – ‘stole’ the lead role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker from me, when she hadn’t been auditioning for that part at all, but had just been reading Helen’s lines during someone else’s audition! And there I first tried on the long pink dress I would wear for my favourite role as Anya in The Cherry Orchard; as an awkward sixteen year-old, it was the first dress in which I had ever felt pretty, and aware of my effect on the opposite sex.
Even now, years after the faces of my schoolfriends have vanished from the displays of school record winners on the sports field, I am happy to still find my mark on ISKL’s theatre. When my sister was in her final year at school, she set about literally cementing her place there. As an officer of the Thespians, the school drama society, she somehow got approval for Thespian members to mount plaster casts of all our hand prints on one theatre wall, like a wall of fame for Hollywood hopefuls. She spent a whole weekend preparing wooden frames to fill with plaster, and painting our names on perspex labels. So she was justly irritated when two of my best friends – Akshay Sateesh and Jean-Marc Gallois – effected a name hack on the labels and were forever immortalised as Jean-Akshay Gallois and Marc Sateesh. When I visit the theatre in a nostalgic mood, I put my hand in their handprints, and then in my own, where it still fits perfectly. But I guess the plaster casts won’t survive the transition to the new campus.
I do return to the ISKL theatre quite a lot. Apart from my dance coach, Karen Palko, who came to Malaysia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1979 and has been teaching at ISKL every since, the theatre is my only continued connection to the school. During and after college, I would occasionally return to ISKL to coach the school dance teams. In recent years – whether testament to my growing seniority or to my growing inability to dance, I would rather not guess – I have been summoned in to select the varsity dance team from auditions, to give them workshops, and to dispense criticism.
I once returned as an eager young adult to judge the Forensics competition, now in its 37th year. As student competitors, we had been vaguely aware that the judges were drawn from the greater ISKL community, and included school parents as well as teachers, but at the time we supposed they had all been rigorously drilled in the finer points of the competition and could be relied upon to make selections with full understanding of their responsibilities. We could not have been more wrong. Now, after years of having sat on similar selection panels for other events, and being more aware of the sometimes arbitrary criteria used to make selections, I have more sympathy for the enterprise. But when I was first judging the Forensics, it horrified me to see other judges (mostly stay-at-home mothers fitting it in as a bit of entertainment before their afternoon appointment at the hair salon) who were unfamiliar with the time limits we had considered sacrosanct, and who regularly flouted the rule that competitors should not be penalised for having an ‘accent’! My fellow judges did not know, as I did, the heights of glory and the depths of despair which we dealt out cavalierly to the student competitors. One experience at that judging table was enough; I never went back.
So I have evolved through all the roles available to me in that theatre, from starstruck audience member to student to teacher, judge, critic and voice of authority. And yet, when I go to watch performances there now, the theatre still retains the power to charm. How much would I give to be able to get back on that stage, as a teenage performer with more enthusiasm than skill! And how much would I give to slip into the darkness backstage, perhaps to a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, and hear again my friend Sophie Edmundson’s throaty laugh, or see Paolo Fabregas bounce in late to rehearsal on the balls of his feet, his enormous head of hair bouncing in sympathy (now he has lost all the hair, though probably he still has the bounce), or Akshay brushing his fringe back off his face before delivering his line (he still has both the hair and the habit). Like generations of students before and after me, that theatre was where, for a few years, I lived most intensely, and where, in both senses of the word, I learned how to act.
The ISKL theatre was not just a proving ground for the international school kids passing through Malaysia; it also left its mark on generations of Malaysian theatre aspirants. Among only those whom I know, there are several professional theatre practitioners – the playwrite Huzir Sulaiman now based in Singapore, Diong Chae Lian, who is half of the PJ Live Arts Theatre’s resident company Gardner & Wife, and Govin Ruben, half of the interdisciplinary production company Terry&TheCuz – who also cut their teeth competing at the Robert B. Gaw. I guess that was where we all realised, not only that theatre was something that we liked enough to pursue for the rest of our lives, but also that arts and theatre are an integral part of any school syllabus.
These days, the ISKL theatre is just one of many professional workplaces within KL’s contemporary theatre industry. Pat Omar is currently one of the full-time production managers in the theatre. He was trained at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, before moving on to freelance sound engineering for local theatre productions. But the unpredictable fortunes of freelancing aren’t suitable for a family man who now has his second child on the way, whereas ISKL can provide a regular paycheck for a trained theatre worker. Since the liberalisation of laws allowing Malaysian students to attend private international schools, and the mushrooming of these schools across the nation, more and more professional theatre and dance practitioners have found similar safe havens in the employ of such schools. ISKL and the Robert B. Gaw Theatre led the way.
But we have all gone away and left them behind now. In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a family of down-on-their-luck Russian aristocrats in the provinces is forced to sell their beloved cherry orchard, in the full beauty of its blossom, to be cut down for firewood by a local merchant. Over four acts, the family weeps, wails, and indulges in fantasies of sudden wealth and revolution. But in the end, given the opportunity to start life afresh elsewhere, they board the train with nary a look behind them. The curtains close to the sound of axes hewing into wood.
Someday soon the sound of the wrecking ball may come for the Robert B. Gaw. But if any place deserves to have ghosts –because it is where things have been felt more intensely than anywhere else, and memories of not just myself but hundreds of others are laid down like spiritual sediment – it is at that theatre. Perhaps when ISKL has abandoned its old campus, and the developers have done their worst, we may hope that the ghost of the theatre will linger on. At eight o’clock in the evening, say, when the curtains should be rising on a new play, the Robert B. Gaw Theatre may once again raise its leaky roof in a ghostly haze, and across the neighbourhood will gently drift the sound of phantom applause.
Many thanks to Gareth Hewitt for the use of his photos, and for all the memories.