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Islamic theatre: A new addition to the social theatre family

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Theatre for Development (TfD) as defined in the book Theatre for Development: An Introduction to Context, Applications and Training, Volume 1” by C. P. Epskamp,  is a learning strategy in which theatre is used to encourage communities to express their own concerns and think about the causes of their problems and possible solutions. Better known as social theatre by most Malaysians, it is used to talk about issues or to deliver a social message to the audience. This year we have seen a few of such theatre productions, such as Allnighters Productions’ feminist take on The Betrayal, Alif Imran’s dakwah spread through UniSZA’s Selebu, and Asterik Anak Seni’s realist portrayal in Pedofilia.

We interviewed Umar Azizi, Vice President of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) Theatre Club;  a university where social theatre is commonly practiced. However, operating in an Islamic university means there are many restrictions on their performances. How do they deal with such restrictions and still produce shows that benefit their community?

Umar Azizi, poet, theatre activist, and Vice President of IIUM’s Theatre Club.


What restrictions do you face from the university?

The line between what can and cannot be performed in IIUM boils down to two things:

  1. What (the performance) is saying
  2. How it is said

Every play in IIUM is scrutinized by our Culture and Arts Division, CITRA. It only gets approved once everything is cleared, from the planning of the event to the script. Scripts with a unique and important message get approved most often, as Dr. Mahadi (Director of CITRA) believes that theatre should always ‘do’ something. Send people a message, make the audience experience something, be absolutely new and fail so that you can learn from it — because as a student you should fail, before entering the workforce where failing costs you dearly.

How something is performed is also of importance. IIUM wants students to do things in an Islamic way, and theatre is no exception. Actors of opposite genders don’t touch, aurat covers are always observed, and character roles are looked at. Women characters serving only as props (the hot girl) is strongly advised against, and sexual or ‘strong’ themes can be alluded to at best, and must be done so creatively.

Donat Terbang Ke Bumi by Creept Productions

Can you give an example of ‘strong’ or ‘sexual’ themes that had to be dealt with with caution?                    

There was a show done by Creept called Boneka Wanita. They performed it in UIA a few years ago. One of its themes is the enslavement of women and their rights over their own body. Instead of having these shown in a literal way, they put on a puppet show where the puppets represented humans and showed how physically chained up female puppets were. The play’s dialogue paint a very morbid picture, and with the imagery of a tied-up woman physically fighting her oppressors it comes together wonderfully.

If it’s still hard to grasp, basically, touching and sex simply cannot be shown on stage in UIA and as such must be alluded to, by positioning and gestures.

Simpang by Silver Spades.

What are the common “don’ts”  for theatre in IIUM?

Women have recently been allowed to sing, but only short instances and even then it is not for the beauty of her voice, but rather to create a mood entering, carrying or exiting a scene, i.e a mother singing a short lullaby. As mentioned, men and women can’t touch so a lot of movements have to be creatively overcome, but it’s still not the same as catching someone in your arms, compared to catching them with a cloth or doing it off stage. A good rule of thumb is to keep it at a PG rating (suitable for everyone except very young children), as it is an Islamic University and we’d like to keep that environment.

More risque shows are still possible but these undergo intense scrutiny to make sure everything is absolutely necessary, and we use the smaller black box theatres so that nothing gets lost in translation. It does sound intuitive that every action is important in theatre, but you’d be surprised as to how many shows have needless movements just because it is deemed cool, in trend, or a crowd pleaser. As theatre that is performed in a university, we’d like to avoid that.                    

Penumbral Lament by Silver Spades.

Do you think these restrictions stop IIUM theatre clubs from producing many plays?

Nope, it’s been a healthy tug-of-war between authorities and the production houses. In 2013 it would have been impossible to see a female lead singing and dancing.  However, today it’s a bit more lenient, and we see shows like Allnighter’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Juragan’s Raksaka and Rumah Cantik’s Lelaki Dari series, each with strong female leads and the gradual introduction of female casts singing – beginning with having a female actor lip sync to a recording, to a live singer behind the scenes, we still keep the image of an Islamic university however and we (IIUM theatre club and the theatre active students of IIUM) respect that.

As mentioned with gore, sex and violence, the students of IIUM work creatively with the restrictions given and in certain cases, have pushed them in the right direction, with scenes that are both fresh, yet eye-opening.

Penumbral Lament by Silver Spades.


Is social theatre being practiced in IIUM?

Social theatre is very prevalent in IIUM. We’ve had theatre shows covering polygamy (Madu Dua by The Classroom Project, Polyamory by Juragan Pentas), we’ve had early marriage (Allnighters Productions) and racial divide and stereotypes (Lelaki dari Dhaka by Produksi Rumah Cantik) and even statement pieces of our current national landscape (Amigos). Production houses are students’ efforts and what they learn in their research and studies, they practice in their shows. From political science, literature and Islamic knowledge, students do their best to slip in little bits of wisdom they wish to share, and better the community.

How do your audiences react?

The audience in IIUM is still young, and so jokes and humour usually pull in the crowds. But a large portion of them are maturing, as deeper, more complex themes and questions are included in the plays. We still get a few good mystical, fantasy plays simply for the fun of it, but even then, there is always a lesson hidden somewhere. Recently for an event called English Theatre Show by the IIUM Theatre Club, we had Jamal Raslan, a poet, Raouf an actor, and Ms. Shan a lecturer, to help analyze and explain to the crowd what was shown to them during the play, in hopes to help the audience better understand the breakdown of a theatrical production.

Madu Dua by The Classroom Project


Why do people do theatre in IIUM?

For fame, money, and new friends (laughs). Kidding, those are not the only reasons. Mainly it is because of the love to perform. Our actors are stage-addicted, our writers want their stories told, directors have their own beliefs of what theatre is and take every opportunity to show the crowd the proof of their beliefs.

Quite a few production houses have registered officially as a business and are out there right now doing shows. We are quite proud of Creept productions and their work.


Why do people watch theatre in UIA?  

Again, friends, fun and fame. Most of the audience come to support their friends, some do out of sheer fun (it’s cheap to watch a show on campus and you don’t have to go out and pay for transportation. IIUM also has really good international food for a very affordable price.) We also have quite a few students who go to the shows to do reviews and generally be seen at these events. The social culture grew together with the rise of the theatre events and even though the audience maturity is still in it’s infancy, it’s moving in the right direction.                


It seems to me, in my few visits to IIUM, that theatre has been quite a norm there. How did that happen? Does IIUM have a theatre school/faculty?

No, we don’t have a faculty. A few years ago we didn’t even have a theatre scene in UIA. A lot of students will join a pre-existing production house, and after a few runs go off to to do their own productions. IIUM theatre club doesn’t regulate them much, just acknowledging them and providing events and platforms for growth and development.

IIUM also has a Human Sciences department that has a class on Intro to Drama and Creative Writing, and the students take every chance they get to expand on their creativity, theatre being one of them.

The shows we have in IIUM do a great job in spreading the love for the arts, the main auditorium being able to comfortably hold up to 800 people a night, it’s no wonder the theatre scene flourishes so.


Malam Laila Majnun by Notorious Playhouse.

On-campus theatre scenes are blossoming in Islamic universities all over Malaysia. Read our interview with  Alif Imran from UNISZA, whose play about stateless children  sold out on all performances.


Main image from “Malam Laila Majnun” by Notorious Playhouse.


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Mia Sabrina Mahadir
Mia Sabrina Mahadir

A jack of many trades, Mia is a familiar face on TV, in the news, at last night’s company dinner or at the place she calls home: the theatre.