Fulbrighting in Foreign Land: Ripples in the Pond

by Eric Trules

in Global Citizenship

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I’ve had the good fortune and privilege of traveling abroad as a Fulbright Scholar – twice – once to Malaysia in 2002 and a second time to Romania in 2010. Both times as a theater “lecturer”, or more accurately, as a teacher of workshops in solo performance, improvisation, and clowning. They were both extraordinary experiences, definitely for me, personally, and I hope too, for my students and colleagues in each of these unique parts of the world. I like to think that I was able to spread the concepts and practices of freedom, initiative, self-expression, and creativity, things that America is known for throughout the world, and things for which I was funded to spread, and I’d like to share my experiences in this blog post, looking at each of the trips separately, and hopefully, comparing the two along the way.

First let me begin by saying that I was a happy, but ambivalent, recipient of my Fulbright grants. Happy, or should I say pleased, because it was a terrific opportunity for me to share my theater work in other parts of the world. The first time, in Islamic Malaysia, just months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the second time in former Communist Romania, just two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ambivalent, because as a liberal New Yorker growing up in the baby boom generation of the late 60s-early 70s, I was certainly not an advocate for many of the things my government had been doing around the world since my coming of age: things like creating wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, like economically exploiting many of the places I would soon be seeing in East Asia, like the oil seas of North Borneo and the rubber and palm tree plantations of my Indonesian wife’s third world Sumatra. Still, I was given time and money by this same government to be a representative of my country as a Fulbright Scholar, to do something positive, I believed, about cultural exchange, and about changing the world one student at a time. So I agreed.

But when I left for Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia on the north eastern coast of the island of Borneo in December, 2001, many of my friends and colleagues were worried for me. “What are you doing, Trules? You’re going to Islamic Malaysia 4 months after Bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked the United States!” “Yeah, but….” and I gave all my reasons why I wanted to go and not give in to all their fears. “It’s a university. They told me I’ll be safe. I don’t want to miss this opportunity. Los Angeles, where I live, has fire, flood, earthquakes, and riots. I can’t live in terror like I’m expecting them to happen every day. I’m going.” And so I went. Yet… there were some bumps and hurdles immediately upon my arrival.

Most surprisingly, it came as quite a shock to me to discover the image of Osama Bin Laden on the multiple screensavers of my university colleagues in Kota Kinabalu. And on the even more multitudinous t-shirts in the shopping malls all over town. How could this be? Wasn’t Bin Laden a terrorist beast? How could he be a hero in this part of the world? It took a while to process, but I came to see how Bin Laden was deified here for being the only David in this part of the world to stand up to the Goliath Bush and hegemonic America. I was surprised to feel the angst in my liberal gut over this. Sure, I came to understand it, but still, it was a major cultural shift that I had to accept if I was to function here and get along for the next eight months.

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But carry on I did. And not only did I have the amazing experiences of staying in native, hundred foot “long houses”, going to orangutan “rehabilitation” centers where hairy red primates who were kept as pets got re-trained to live in the wild, and seeing turtles hatch eggs at 3 a.m. on the white sandy beaches of the eco-touristy Turtle Islands, but I also got to teach students from the local “kampongs”, from all over the north east part of Borneo (province of Sabah), who came to UMS (Universti Malaysia Sabah) to learn new things, but who had never tried such strange techniques as theater improvisation, solo performance, or could something be more foreign… clowning?

I loved my East Malaysian students. They were so much more open and innocent than my American students at USC, the one-time University of Spoiled Children, now the 21st century’s University of Super Connections. The UMS students were all Muslim and they all came from small villages. About 90% of them didn’t speak English. At all. But this is where luck and synchronicity came into play, as they often do, once one is committed to a project, both in work and in life. It turned out that I had one Chinese-Malay student, a lovely 19 year old girl named Tang, who spoke English very well. She was new to UMS and somehow she ended up in my class the 1st evening, and although she wasn’t officially registered, I was able to secure her registration and thereafter, become completely dependent on her for the next four months. She literally translated every word of every monologue written in Bahasa, the national language of the entire Malay archipelago, into English, and then back into Bahasa, after my edits and changes. In this way, the entire class of about 13 students were able to write solo performance monologues out of the autobiographical fabric of their own lives, and to perform them at the end of the 4 month term in front of a packed house of high school and college theater schools from all over East Malaysia. It was thrilling for the students themselves, for myself, and for the audience too, who stood up and applauded the story tellers after the show. (Some things in the theater seem to be universal, eh?)

What struck me about teaching these Malay students, as opposed to my American students, who were always encouraged in our educational system to enthusiastically raise their hands, to aggressively volunteer, to vocally give their opinions, and to stand out from the crowd in a competitive way, was the diametric opposite conditioning of these young people in Islamic Borneo. These late adolescent boys and girls were raised first and fore mostly, to be members of the Islamic “community”, to blend in, to conform, to agree, and as such, to never give expression to any contrary, or even individual, opinions. They never raised their hands in class. They never disagreed with their professors, who were primarily authority figures to them. They tried to exactly reproduce what was taught and expected from them, and they never were encouraged to think that what they thought, individually, was of any value. For me to ask them to do exactly that, to value their own ideas, their own stories, to create art from their own lives, was an anathema to them. Yet slowly but surely, they caught on. They learned that their own personal and family struggles, about the loss of a parent, a betrayal by a friend, a secret they kept, had truth and power – as stories. Of course, once I encouraged one catastrophic death story, there became far too many of the same, but slowly, they learned… self expression and creativity, taking initiative and creating art from their own lives. And it was new. And empowering. And out of the box. And in a way, totally American.

You should have seen these same 13 students who were “drafted” into my clown class over these same four months. “Clowning? With wild costumes? And white face crazy makeups? In a public mall? Are you crazy, Trules?” “Yes, my students, I am. And that’s a good thing! I ran for Mayor of New York City as clown candidate, Gino Cumeezi, in 1977, and I finished 5th out of 4th candidates.” “Hah hah. Giggle giggle.” These young Malays had never met anyone like me. And then again, I had never met anyone like them. We went out shopping one evening in the night market in “downtown” Kota Kinabalu, and with a little coaching, we assembled a rag tag batch of hand me downs that became “Yoyo”, the clown. And “Peaches”. And “Sweet Pea”. And a few other Malay names that I didn’t understand at all.

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And out we went, mid day, into the largest shopping mall in KK, and we improvised with the public…. as clowns… just as the Cumeezi Bozo Ensemble did in New Yawk in the late 70s-early 80s, as we created “free public laughs” out of the mundanity of everyday life. There were TV cameras, and press photographers, and a “scene” that had never been “seen” before on the island of Borneo, home of “headhunters”, man-eating crocodiles, and all the other wild and speculative fantasies of frightened Americans. But now through me, and Senator Fulbright, and the theater, America had given these new-born student clowns nothing less than one wild and crazy run at…. “freedom”.
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I spent my 2nd four months in Malaysia far from the wilds of northeast Borneo, in the mainland capital of Kuala Lumpur (KL). At another Islamic “universiti”. The city and the students were much more sophisticated, much more “2nd world” than “3rd”, like the students from the “kampongs” of East Malaysia. As such, the KL students’ stories were much more diverse, but no less powerful or emotionally affecting. Also in KL, there was no prejudice against my unmarried “wife”, and few, if any, images of Bin Laden on screensavers or in malls. Still, my workshops were unique for the theater scene in KL, and after I left, there were several attempts to keep on with the work. Unfortunately, I’ve found, that solo performance without directorial and dramaturgical advice, is a hard thing to do on one’s own. Spalding Gray had his Liz LeCompte and Renee Shafransky, and Eric Bogosian and Danny Hoch both had their Jo Bonney. One needs coaching, editing, and perspective on one’s own work, and it is a rare solo performer who goes it alone. Certainly, my Malay students, both in KK and in KL, all new to the genre, were challenged by their desire to continue without professional instruction. Still, I believe they had a wonderful and positive experience over those months of my Fulbright, discovering how to create their own stories, and simultaneously discovering that their words and stories had the resonance to effect an audience so powerfully. Improv and clowning too, set them “free”, which was my main gift to them from America.

I wish I had stayed in better touch with these students from both KK and KL, but it’s been over 11 years now, and with the dual challenges of English and time, it has been hard to do. Yes, I am in contact with a few via Facebook (they are members of my Facebook group called “Trules’ Children”, made up primarily of almost 3 decades of my former students), and I recently heard that Tang has a teaching job at UMS, which made me very happy. I am also in touch with my local Fulbright colleagues in both KK and KL, my 2 faculty colleagues, Andika & Ray, who held my hand and assigned me classes and students while I was their “guest” for that brief moment in time. And my Fulbright coordinator, Kala, from MACEE (the Malaysian Fulbright organization in KL), has recently put her son in touch with me to develop real estate properties in Bali. So yes again, my Malay Fulbright experience continues to have surprising ripples in the pond.

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(Please see my original post about my “pedagogical” experience in Kota Kinabalu on my travel website: http://www.etravelswithetrules.com/pedagogy.html )

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In 2008, with the help of Roberta Levitow from Theatre Without Borders, I became a Fulbright Senior Specialist in American Studies for 5 years, with an emphasis in Theater. And in 2010, with the help of Ioana Moldavan, a young Romanian theater scholar, I was invited to UNATC, the national Romanian film and theater academy in Bucharest, to do the same things I had done in Malaysia, teach workshops in solo performance and improvisation. This time for only 3 weeks in May, 2010….

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On the first day, I talk. The students listen. I talk about the three greatest American playwrights, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Of “how they spun their autobiographical plays out of their own families’ tumultuous and painful histories”. About “how Williams wrote about his Southern-bred and overbearing mother and his crippled and too-delicate sister and turned them into Amanda and Laura Wingfield in his poetic and tragic ‘Glass Menagerie’”. Of “how O’Neill wrote arguably the greatest American play, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ about his drunk and miserly father, about his morphine-addicted mother, about his bitter and failed older brother, and about himself, a taciturn and tubercular teenager… and took them all into one of the darkest and longest nights of soul-wrenching theater an American audience had ever seen.” Yet “he was so mortified about the power and truth of his own play that he refused to have it produced until after 25 years after his death.” I tell these new Romanian students: “making art out of the fabric of your lives is what playwrights and artists do. Not that it’s easy, because the doors of avoidance, artifice and escape are always wide open… but for those who are chosen or driven to try, they must follow the path deep inside themselves, and like shamans of old, they must come out the other side… with their individual truths… with their own beauties… and offer them up… to the choir… to the audience… like the Greeks did… like Shakespeare did… like only they, themselves, must ultimately attempt to do.”

After 2 weeks, they’re learning. They’ve seen the power of their own stories, releasing them from years of shame and secrecy. They start to understand that we all have something in common as human beings. No matter which side of the border we live on. No matter what our religious or political persuasions are. We all have families: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. We have all tried to love, been loved or been rejected; we’ve been loyal, betrayed, succeeded against great odds, been abandoned, ashamed, overcome impossible obstacles. These powerful stories are what make us human, different from the other species. Not just the size of our brain and our intelligence, but our histories. Our memories. The way we interact with each other, make choices, carry around our histories and memories in our present. Eventually, I tell them, they will get to see their autobiographical, personal stories, so full of pain, beauty and truth, make audiences stand on their feet and applaud with recognition and appreciation.

Every day after class, I go out to lunch with my Romanian students… next door to the university, at the One Café. On the first day, there’s only Mihaela. On the second day, Bibi, mother and improv actress, joins us. We are three. We have delicious chorba (the local soup/stew), freshly baked bread, and strong Romanian coffee. The third day, Felix and Alice-Monica join us. We are five. The next day, Vlad, and Patricia are there. We’re growing. In my 24 years at USC in Los Angeles, I’ve never had lunch with a single student. It’s not my thing. I like to keep boundaries, like a good professional: doctor, therapist, sports coach, you know what I mean. If the student sees you as too human, with problems and weaknesses of your own, they believe you “less”. They believe in you less. Or that’s what I always thought. But now, out of need and convenience, I am breaking bread with my Romanian students. Sure, we talk a bit about class, but… we also talk about so many other things: about communism, Ceaucescu (the brutal Romanian dictator), vampires and family. About the 60s in America, about gypsies living on the sides of the road in Moldavia, about courage and cowardice, about … life. It is totally surprising… and enjoyable. Students are so much more than bodies, hearts, and minds sitting or moving around in front of you, wanting to learn. They are actually “people” too.

It’s also… reciprocal. They’ve never had lunch with a teacher before. They’ve never had a teacher be so open and honest with them before. Be so vulnerable, so… him…self. In fact, they say most of their Romanian teachers are disappointing… only going through the motions, with all the power… with all the PhDs…with all the so-called “knowledge and expertise”, treating them like impotent, sponge-like children. “How dare you think of telling your own story? Who do you think you are? Learn the classics. Learn how to act!” I tell them, “Look within. Find out who you are. Where do you want to go? What do you have to say? Have the courage to say it, to do it. Your stories can be as powerful as anyone’s. Who wants to see Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ for the hundredth time? We want to be surprised, delighted, moved, provoked in the theater, in ways that TV and movies can’t do to us. We want discover ourselves in new, meaningful, and alive ways… right there in our seats… right there on the stage in front of us. In a community called ‘an audience’.” I talk. They listen. They write. We listen. We laugh. And occasionally, we cry. Together. And almost every day, I realize that I do, indeed, have a mighty magnificent job.

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In the afternoon improv classes, it’s different, but parallel. The class grows every day the word spreads. “Trules knows what he’s doing. Check it out!” I teach them about “not thinking”, about “living in the moment”, about “saying yes, making it their own, adding something new and passing it on”. The 3 steps of improv a la Trules. I teach them about “gesture”, about “discovering the content of their movement”, so that it’s real and spontaneous. About “the importance of listening and making their partners, their teammates, look good.” I tell them about “how little I like ‘comedy sports’, and improv teams and improv actors trying to be clever and funny.” I tell them that “comedy in our class will come from the surprise of genuine, instinctive re-action. From doing the work and seeing what’s found in the moment. Not from planning things out and trying to get laughs.” “Life”, I say, “is like one long improv. About having the courage and confidence to make choices and decisions… sometimes under a great deal of pressure. Life never turns out the way you expect or want it to. As the Liverpool Lennon said, ‘life is what happens while you’re waiting for your plans to work out.’” I ask them, “when the train of opportunity comes along, can you trust yourself to jump up…improvise and see where it takes you?” Day after day, on and on, along the road of life.

At the end of the third week, I screen my autobiographical documentary film, “The Poet and the Con”, the 1999 film about my identification and relationship with my criminal uncle that took me 7 long years to make and which I haven’t seen in maybe another 10 years. The film in which I show my parents and I struggling in a sunny California back yard over my arrest for commercial burglary, over my own virulent anti-Semitism, over my own discomfort and hatred of myself. It’s not an easy film to share with an audience, especially one composed of students who have come to admire and respect me as a teacher and as an artist. But as the saying goes, I have to practice what I teach.

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After I introduce the film, I come back into the screening room when it’s over to answer questions. I’m met by a sea of silence. No applause. Silence. But I know from previous screenings at festivals around the world, that my film disturbs people. It’s not an easy one to come out of, or to start yammering away about. But then I see, the audience is moved. And after a moment, they do start asking me personal questions. “You look and sound so different now than when you made the film. Do you feel different?”, “What were you so angry about?”, “How did your relationship with your parents survive that awful day of filming?”. I try to give honest responses and do my best to answer their questions.

On my last night in Romania, the students present original monologues in an “underground” Bucharest club, and they receive a standing ovation for their brave and revealing work. Afterwards, we all pile out of the club, tumbling down the cobblestone streets together, letting off steam and laughing together… until we end up in front of the famous Bucharest architecture school and the equally infamous student protest fountain… where we park ourselves around the dancing water works and sing communal Romanian folk songs for the next four hours. Actually, they sing and I listen…. Felix leading us all on guitar.

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And then at 4 in the morning… we all reluctantly stand up to do our final group hug, shed our tears and say our goodbyes… until it’s almost time for me to head to the airport and meet my wife in Istanbul.
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It was hard to leave Bucharest and Romania after such a short, intense three weeks with these enthusiastic students who were so open and hungry to learn. I felt like I was back in 1960s America, during the alternative youth movement, when we were all so idealistic and thought we could change the world. These young Romanians, who grew up under the oppressive yoke of communism, were now, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989, suddenly set “free”. Free to learn about the rest of the world beyond the Iron Curtain. Free to purchase new TVs and computers, even with their very limited resources. Free to acquire knowledge from the world wide web. And free and hungry, most of all, to learn about themselves. Just like we were in the 60s.

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Were they wrong to be so free and hungry? Were we wrong in the 60s? Or was I, indeed, changing the world one student at a time, by teaching self-expression, creativity, and good ol’ American freedom and initiative. I like to think that I was, that I am… when…. just the other day, I received some surprising confirmation.

It’s August, 2013, more than three years after my Fulbright in Romania, when I get this e-mail, out of the blue, about the time of my 66th birthday: ” “Hello, dear Trules! I’m Felix, your former student from Romania. I’m writing you to tell you that 2 years ago I started my own acting school. (“If you build it they will come”. That’s what you quoted us from “Field of Dreams”), and I’ve had thousands of students already. I’m living the dream. Patricia (Pati, maybe you remember her, she was also your student) is my assistant in this school, and on Friday we will be leaving for Transylvania with 15 of our students where we will be doing the “Trules” workshop, with the monologue building. I would like to thank you for the experience; it was one of the most profitable acting experiences in our lives. I’ll send pictures and feedback of how one of your students becomes a little Trules… Thank you again.”

“Thousands of students”? Incroyable! Really hard to believe. And more than a little gratifying. But… also… yet again… just another demonstration of my favorite pedagogical metaphor, “ripples in the pond”. You plant a seed, you never know what will grow. You skip a stone into the pond, and you never know how many ripples it will create, whether it will spread the word from the pond to the lake to the ocean to “thousands of students”. You teach and you sow. And hopefully, you reap what you sow. Perhaps, it’s as simple as… pedagogical karma.

I have stayed more in touch with my Romanian students than my students from Malaysia. Probably because it’s only been three years, but also because I helped bring two of them here as student Fulbright Scholars themselves. I wrote letters for Ioana, who came to USC in 2011 as a researcher in theater, and another for Ana, who is now in her third year as an actor in USC’s MFA program. They’ve both been to my home in Echo Park, met my wife, and we’ve shared more than a few meals and shows together. What more could an educator ask?
(Please see my original Romanian Fulbright post on my blog: http://www.erictrules.com/blog/%E2%80%9Ctrules-speaks%E2%80%9D-changing-the-world-1-student-at-a-time/ )

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They say that traveling is just about the best way to get a broader prospective on life. Get away from your routine, from your myopia, open your eyes, your ears, your heart and your mind, and see what else exists. Get away from America and see that it may not actually be the center of entire world. There are different foods, different languages, different religions and cultures, different ideas… around the planet. It turns out that just about every culture, every nation, and religion believes that “God is on their side.”

Personally, I have found my annual travel from 1995 -2013, to so many different places on the planet, especially edifying and expansive. It has taught me more about my own country than almost anything else other than standing on immigration lines with my wife at 5:30 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles, going through the 7 year citizenship ordeal, and seeing how she and her immigrant friends still see and experience America as the “land of opportunity”, a place to get educated, make money, and support their families back home. And my Fulbright experience, in particular, has brought me to cultures and eco-religious systems that I probably would have never lived in without my grants, specifically post 9/11 Islamic East Asia and post Cold War communist Eastern Europe. Through my students and their generosity, I learned how to share my gifts of story, creativity, self-expression and freedom, and to see that students around the globe are alike, and different, at the same time. I saw vampire castles in Transylvania and long houses on the island of Borneo, and best of all, I skipped some stones that I hope keep causing….

….ripples in the pond.

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Eric_TrulesEric Trules is an Associate Professor of Theatre Practice at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles where he has been a faculty member since 1986. He has made two trips abroad as a Fulbright Scholar, first to Malaysia in 2002 and then to Romania in 2010. In previous career incarnations he has been a professional modern dancer, solo performance artist, documentary film maker (“The Poet and the Con”), poet, blogger, world festival producer, screenwriter, and clown. http://www.erictrules.com