Who’s Afraid of Bad Wolves?

Run, piggies, run. The artists are coming for you. 

Miss M performing comedy at SILYMI Presents BOLD.

A community development platform seeks to draw out the artist in Penangites, and to function as a conduit for society’s “dan lain-lain” – those who revel or dabble in forms of expression that veer from the mainstream.

Meet Ksatriya, co-founder of Bad Wolves, a mentorship programme that conducts workshops, classrooms and masterclass workshops for aspiring artists.

Who are the Bad Wolves?
Ksatriya: There’s like 15 of us – everyone who contributes to our projects becomes a “bad wolf”.

Why "Bad Wolves"?
I believe that names tell a story, and that the stories we tell ourselves are important. We chose the wolf as our symbol because it tells our story and provides qualities and values to which we should aspire: wolves are intelligent, form strong communities and work together with a high degree of coordination. They are focused on the hunt, forming fluid but incredibly effective plans. A lone wolf may starve, but a pack often prospers.

We also liked playing with the idea of the “Big Bad Wolf” – the terror parents warn their children about: “Do not steer from the safe path of doctors, engineers and lawyers or you’ll be gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf.” We thought it would be fun to be the “bad wolves” of the story. Also, it sounds super cool.

Ksatriya reading a poem titled "Signal Fire" at a SILYMI show.

What is the Bad Wolves all about?
We had been organising Say It Like You Mean It (SILYMI) open mic sessions for a few years before the idea of Bad Wolves came about. The open mics ran once a month from January to August 2013; we noticed that 80% of the people who signed up were doing covers. What’s more, throughout the eight shows, we were hearing the same covers over and over from different people. That’s not really surprising for an open mic, but we wanted more original content as there were plenty of places to play covers already.

The following year, we created the Featured Acts section to become the focus of the show, with only five open mic slots. While it made programming a lot more challenging – we had ample cover bands and singers and really struggled to fill the music portion of the programme with original stuff every month – it did encourage more poets, writers, dancers and even painters to develop material for our shows. Our decision to focus on original work created a lot of challenges, but a lot of great new performers and work came out of it.

It was around this time that we started interviewing artistes and discovered that many of them wanted to produce original work but didn’t know where to start. Or they felt that they weren’t good enough – a sentiment that took me a while to wrap my head around. Some of them simply felt that there was no advantage in investing their time and energy when all Penang audiences wanted to hear was “Wonderwall” 24/7.

By mid-2015 it became clear to us that we needed another element to help people produce their first original work. And so, Bad Wolves was born. The mentorship programme began very informally: we started an open call for new poets and hosted a few poetry classes. We’d find people whom we thought had potential and work with them to develop their first original piece. Then, we’d get them onstage. We kept doing this throughout 2015.

In the last couple of years, we’ve formalised the mentorship programme into introductory workshops, classrooms and masterclass workshops. We added stand-up comedy and we helped discover several new comedians in Penang. We’re also now expanding our initial idea to encompass whole communities rather than a few individuals. We’ve started doing workshops at schools and we want to continue to develop programmes and approaches for different segments of local communities.

What about Buttercan?
Butterworth Also Can, or “Buttercan” for short, is an extension of this desire to connect communities and give them opportunities to express themselves. Murali Ram of Think City, a community-focused urban regeneration organisation, has been instrumental in exploring ways to connect people through creative expression.

Think City has given us the opportunity to explore what can be done there with the Buttercan project. We only started this year, and right now we’re researching the right toolsets and approaches that will work for the Butterworth community. It’s a very interesting challenge as it’s pushing us to develop new processes and strategies. I’m very excited to see the Buttercan project evolve and adapt, and the positive effect it will have on the Butterworth community.

Mark Walker performing a satirical improvised poem at SILYMI Presents ALIAS.

Kas performing comedy at SILYMI Presents PRECIOUS.

How have the programmes helped aspiring artists?
One of the most satisfying things for me is watching people come in without a clue about how to write a song or a poem, and then progressing to write their first original piece, then their second, then suddenly they are performing in different cities and embracing the fact that they are creative, exciting creatures. It’s really something.

We’ve had workshops with school students where the teachers told us they were amazed and surprised at what their own students were capable of, because they’re usually so reserved in class. I’m interested to see whether these students will come back to join our programme once they’ve finished school.

We really want to help connect local storytellers and audiences with their own history, oral narratives and culture. We want to help train more people in Penang to seek out and re-tell these stories, re-interpreting them so they survive another generation.

We had a woman in her 60s join us because she has always wanted to write a novel but was having trouble developing her ideas. We created a personalised series of classes for her. Within a few classes, she’d worked out an outline for a mystery novel.

We’re constantly improving the workshops every year and we’re seeing a lot of tangible results from that. This year, we’ve also started commissioning original works that specifically explore questions about cultural identity, history and personal narratives.

Garoo performing comedy at SILYMI Presents BOLD.

Tell us about Bad Wolves’ collaboration with George Town Festival 2017, 12 Stories – what can the audience expect?
It’s going to be a new and interesting experience. They’re going to be walking into a “bazaar” of local stories and oral narratives. You could think of it as a living exhibition, that we’re designing around the idea of the local community market or hawker stalls. But instead of vegetables or food, they’ll be interacting with storytellers and stories from their own communities.

Diyaa Mani posing during rehearsal for her upcoming performance of 12 Stories for the George Town Festival.

We’re working closely with the storytellers to find and develop oral narratives from their families or communities. Many of these stories are intensely personal. They’re interpreting the theme “Arrivals”, and we’re discovering so many emotional stories of immigration, escape, discovery, hope, loss and love. It’s really powerful, moving stuff. We’re taking a lot of time to hone the skills of these community storytellers because we believe in the stories they want to tell.

We also want to reflect the concept of time and how stories are passed down. So we chose the title “12 Stories” – one for each hour of the clock. The audience will interact with 12 different stories when they visit – six oral storytellers and six digital films.

We’re also including a video presentation of short films by local amateur filmmakers – we want to embrace technology as a way of continuing the stories of communities.

Bad Wolves will also be collaborating with a local college for 12 Stories. Can you elaborate?
This year we’re working with students from KDU Penang University College to produce four of the digital films. We’re coordinating with Robert Teh from the Mass Communications Department, who has really been quite a visionary in understanding the value of this project for the students.

We work closely with the students in all aspects, from discovering interesting stories and developing their productions to editing the final videos. We’re very hands-on in supporting them and encouraging them to interpret the stories and add their own voices to it.

We’re hoping to work with more local colleges in the future and reach more students. It’s very important to us that these future storytellers appreciate and understand how powerful our stories can be in creating and maintaining a community.

What do you hope to achieve from the festival?
We really want to help connect local storytellers and audiences with their own history, oral narratives and culture. We want to help train more people in Penang to seek out and re-tell these stories, re- interpreting them so they survive another generation. We want also to re-forge the cycle of storytelling that gives us a sense of place and identity. Our collaboration with George Town Festival is helping us achieve all of that.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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