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SEEDS Brunei: A Home for the Arts

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Mohd Syafiq Haji Abu Bakar, popularly known to friends as Mr Syaf, is the co-founder of Seeds, a non-profit drama education organization for students. Seeds, (formerly SEEDS - Students’ Extracurricular and Educational Dramatic Society), which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, has become known in the Bruneian theatre community for its annual all-student (from cast to crew) musical productions – ranging from Oliver! The Musical, to Willy Wonka, to last year’s hugely popular The Wicked Witch.

Mr Syaf, 30, graduated from UBD with a BA in Education, and is currently the head of the English Language department at Sekolah Menengah Awang Semaun.

On the birth of Seeds.

My wife (Siti Zuliana Haji Masri, co-founder of Seeds) and I are members of the Brunei Amateur Dramatic Society. One night during a production, her friends asked her if there was anything like it for locals, especially students. That's when she talked to me about starting a group to help promote the arts. We realized that such opportunities for locals were very limited. So in 2008 we got a group of teachers together to help with the planning.

In the first school break of 2009, we held our first workshop for those in government schools. Our plan was to concentrate on government school students as they were the ones who lack the most opportunities. We wanted to give them a platform to allow them to showcase their creative talent. And so Seeds was born.

On the Bruneian creative industries, the SPN21 inclusion of drama into the curriculum, and the role of Seeds.

I think the creative industries isn’t pushed enough especially for the kind of talent we have here. A lot of Bruneians are struggling in the arts. Most have to commit to day jobs in order to survive.

The SPN21 introduction of Drama as an option for year 7s and year 8s can help push the arts forward provided that the push is not just through the curriculum but also through awareness-raising activities that involve the public.

This is where Seeds comes in. When we started five years ago, options were limited for locals to be involved in the arts, especially the performing arts. So what Seeds does is provide opportunities for students of government schools and institutions to showcase their talent without the constraints of curriculum or the financial commitment of being a working artist. We provide a platform or a home for these youths at no charge at all, and we assist and guide them to enhance their talent. The goal is to help them realize there is a place for the arts in Brunei and that they can use the arts no matter what their future has in store for them.

In doing so, Seeds' focus when it comes to the arts is not limited or heavily influenced by western culture. We put together an art culture mixed with the Bruneian way of life. That way, not only do we give these youths awareness of the arts but also proper life skills in the Bruneian context.

Seeds5 Reunite

Seeds5 Reunite

A scene from Seeds2 Into The Woods

A scene from Seeds2 Into The Woods

Seeds Your Yellow Brick Road Workshop in collaboration with FASS UBD

Seeds Your Yellow Brick Road Workshop in collaboration with FASS, UBD

Seeds2 Graduation Night at MPH UBD

Seeds2 Graduation Night at MPH, UBD

On the development of theatre in Brunei.

Theatre in Brunei still has a long way to go. The creative industries are a big area to focus on and the problems within it are not small. Theatre might just be the least of their worries, as evidenced by various recent stage performances which functioned more as "show events" rather than focusing on theatre as a craft. The use of big names, guests of honour, one-off performances and the lack of a proper venue show how far behind we are in understanding what goes into a theatrical production.

The focus of theatre should be on the talent and not on who the audience is, the number of audience members, what can be done to entertain the audience etc. Forget about lucky draws, guests of honour, hosts or hostesses. Yes, some people say these factors are very Bruneian but why can’t appreciation of talent be Bruneian? The focus should and must always be on the talent.

I think Bruneian theatre is a lost art, clouded by how we view official events today. It has been so long since theatre has been showcased to the public that people forget what matters. Theatre can still be Bruneian without the factors I have mentioned and this is what Seeds is really working hard on, to try and raise awareness to locals on how we can shape theatre and the arts into our own cultural entity.

For example, we instil MIB values into our rehearsals and performances and we edit our plays, while being careful about not losing quality. We organize our events to accommodate prayer times, the elderly and we still have VIPs (because it is apparently so Bruneian) but without putting the focus on them.

I think you just need to be selective in what you can and cannot bring to theatre here. As long as the talent is still the focus, there is no harm in bringing Bruneian culture in.

There is a need to change and update. In fact, there is also a need to dig up and study what theatre was like in Brunei historically. I'm sure they never had lucky draws or prizes to be won on show nights!

I know that you try to attend most of the theatrical performances in Brunei. What are your thoughts on Bruneian theatre currently?

Yes, I try my best to attend all performing arts performances in Brunei, not just the theatrical ones. Performer-wise, I believe there is plenty of talent and potential and it is amazing to see the amount going on these days. Unfortunately, most performances here seem to focus more on the event rather than the showcasing of the talent which in my opinion takes the fun away. Theatre especially is not done right in some cases. People need to understand the importance of time management for example when holding a theatrical performance. To say one thing on the posters or tickets and to completely go against that is a breach of trust with the audience. This has happened way too many times in events held by too many different organizers and in my opinion is the number 1 problem that really needs to be solved.

Then there is also the idea of a guest of honour. I am not entirely against this but I think a separate event should be held for such occasions especially when you have paying customers. Organizers need to look into the norms here and really be selective of what to include in their performance. Yes, some things are the Bruneian way and we shouldn't follow everything western but that is not the point here. When it comes to performing arts, it doesn't have to be western-influenced but the elements in these events do need to be logical.

Seeds1 Theatre Sports at Rimba 1 Primary School

Seeds1 Theatre Sports at Rimba 1 Primary School

Sound of Seeds

Sound of Seeds

Creating 3D models based on popular fiction

Creating 3D models based on popular fiction

Seeds5 Eye for Arts event where the focus was on visual and literary arts

Seeds5 Eye for Arts event where the focus was on visual and literary arts

There are obviously thoughts that MIB and drama don't go together. What are your thoughts on this, and what is Seeds' stance on this?

Seeds is doing our best to incorporate MIB into what we do. In fact our main focus is not drama or theatre. Our focus is always on education. Theatre is used as a tool to showcase the talent of our students so bringing in MIB into our education-centric programme is not such a tough job. It is however not easy when it comes to our end-of-year production. We must always work around promoting that we are not an entertainment-focused society, that we are not using the end-of-year production to make profits based on entertainment.

Our ticket sales, for example are always only used to cover teachers’ and coaches’ expenses. Normally, there is no profit to be made but when there is, it goes straight into preparing for the next year's programme.

This is why our tickets have always been cheap - because we are just trying to make enough to cover costs and at the same time open up more opportunities for those who otherwise aren't able to afford to experience theatre. We are trying to reach out to as many locals as we can.

As government teachers as well, MIB is always part of our daily teaching and since most of the coaches in Seeds are government teachers, we understand how to incorporate MIB into our education. We are always watchful of how we work, how we do things and how we organize events. For example, we try our best to find a venue where there is a mosque or surau within walking distance, no rehearsals on Thursday evenings, make sure the breaks during our events and productions are during prayers, edit scripts, costumes, scenes based on MIB criteria as much as possible. It is not an easy journey but a very interesting one. Plus, this way, this challenges our creativity, an excellent way I might add, of trying to incorporate MIB into everything that we do.

An edited photo of Seeds3 Traditional Malay Night

An edited photo of Seeds3 Traditional Malay NightAn edited photo of Seeds3 Traditional Malay Night

Seeds at Belia Brunei Prihatin Bazaar 2011 for the Japan Tsunami Australia Flood and New Zealand Victims Fund Raising

Seeds at Belia Brunei Prihatin Bazaar 2011 for the Japan Tsunami, Australia Flood and New Zealand Victims Fund Raising

Seeds Eye for Arts held at SM Menglait Gadong

Seeds Eye for Arts held at SM Menglait Gadong

How do you see your involvement in Bruneian theatre in the near and far future?

My involvement will always be from the education side and will always be focused on using theatre as a tool. With MIB in mind, I will not focus on the entertainment side of this industry but focus on helping to educate everyone on the arts and how the arts can help improve and enhance talents and skills. It is about time that locals had a different perspective of the arts here and not focus too much on how it is done elsewhere.

Seeds crew

Seeds crew

Seeds The Wicked Witch Group

Seeds The Wicked Witch Group

Thanks Mr Syaf for taking the time to answer my questions! More information about Seeds, and this year’s musical production, Pride (based on The Lion King) which will be held on December 1 and 2, can be found at www.seedsbrunei.com


ubudcomp KathrinaDaudAbout the Contributor: Kathrina is usually a lecturer of English Literature and Creative Writing at UBD, but is currently on a year-long sabbatical. She received an MA in Writing from the Uni of Warwick and completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the Uni of Manchester in 2011. At the moment, Kathrina lives in Oxford, where she spends her time researching the Venn diagram of Islam, Southeast Asian literature and popular fiction, watching plays and being rejected by publishers. She will move to Seattle in December, where she expects to do more of the same, plus snow.

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