Shanthini engages children through stories


SHE is no stranger to Malaysian audiences. This thespian has graced the local stage, silver screen and the small screen. Shanthini Venugopal has her own theatre company called The Jumping Jellybeans (JJB) which specialises in productions for children.

She tells us more about herself here:

Tell us about your academic background.

I did a Diploma in Airline Preparatory and Public Relations at Merton College, Toronto, right after my ‘O’ Levels. I then went on to do a Bachelor of Business Administration, majoring in Marketing and minoring in Computer Science at Concordia University in Montreal.

I’ve also done certified theatre courses with Odin Teatret in Denmark on two separate occasions; once with actor/teacher Roberta Carreri and another time, it was a directors workshop by Eugenio Baba.

What is your professional background?

I started off as a marketing executive in Berita Kompass in 1981, a subsidiary of The New Straits Times, and worked for 10 years in a multitude of companies ranging from outdoor advertising to a production house shooting commercials. It came full circle when I “retired” from that world as General Manager of Kompass in 1991.

Since then, I’ve been in theatre and acting. I’ve also been involved in the production side of theatre, handling front of house, props, sets and being the stage manager.

What are some of the big plays, theatre productions, TV series, and movies that you were in?

Some theatre productions: My 3 Angels directed by the late Bosco D’Cruz, Five Arts Production’s Yap Ah Loy the Musical, Antigone, Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road the Musical, and Nunsense.

I’ve done several The Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT) revue productions from 1989, including Bullish on Bouncing Back, Bolehwood and Mass Hysteria.

TV series: Guest roles in Kopitiam, City of the Rich and Number Squad; I also took on the role of Aunty English for mini clips produced by Astro Malaysia.

Movies: The Big Durian, Baik Punya Cilok and the Hollywood movie Anna and the King (as Beebe, acting alongside Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-fat and Tom Felton).

Who inspired you to go into it?

My mother was my inspiration. Seeing her perform in shows since young, I wanted to emulate her.

Both Mum and Dad brought me up encouraging me to live my life to the fullest and were supportive of the multiple career “jumps” I did in the first 12 years of my working life.

Who else in your family is in theatre?

My mum, Nalini Venugopal, was already an established artist when I was born. She was classically trained in bharatanatyam and carnatic music. My sister, Sukania Venugopal, is a well-known actor in the Malaysian and Singaporean theatre scene.

When did you start working with children and how?

In 2000, I met an Italian lady named Cinzia Ciaramicoli who got me involved in children’s theatre. Prior to this, I was doing shows with ICT targeted at adult audiences.

2001 was my first experience working with Cinzia in children’s theatre. We did two productions; the first being Lyrical Ruins, a show Cinzia created with children from MAGIC (Malaysian Association of Guardians for the Intellectually Challenged) and the second was A Play for a Smile where we devised, created and performed with a story, based loosely on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. We performed it for children in homes and hospitals. It was used as a tool to raise funds for children undergoing treatment in the oncology ward in University Hospital.

Tell us about The Jumping JellyBeans.

The Jumping JellyBeans (JJB) came into being in 2001 when Datuk Faridah Merican asked us to come up with a show to showcase alongside the Lyrical Ruins production. Our performance of The Jumping JellyBeans Cleaning Company got us invitations to stage our show in schools. We decided to formalise the company when we found that there weren’t many people doing children’s programmes at that time, and we decided to fill that void. Till today, JJB continues conducting workshops and performances not just in Malaysia but also in Singapore, the Philippines, India, Iran, Australia, Germany, the UK, Denmark and France.

How did you get into storytelling?

As a child, I was always creating and telling stories to my friends and family. Since becoming an actor, I continued my love for storytelling.

When Cinzia migrated in 2007, finding new actors to come on board full time for JJB productions proved very challenging. In order to continue working in this industry, I felt I had to reinvent myself, and deciding to be a storyteller was a natural transition.

What else do you do which is related to children?

I wrote an original story Why JellyBeans are Colourful and published it in 2012. This storybook is unique because I engaged 22 children aged seven and older to illustrate it. JJB currently does storytelling workshops cum performances using this book to inspire creativity in children. So far 3,500 copies have been distributed in rural and urban government schools throughout Malaysia.

What are some perks of your job?

Working with children inspires me in my everyday life! They have taught me how to inject fun in all that I do.

My work gives me the freedom to do what I love. It allows me to prioritise time needed to raise a child. It has given me the opportunity to let my son experience firsthand what it’s like to be in the performing arts by immersing him in the industry at a young age. Another perk has been to travel the world with my son in tow.

Do you think more children should go into drama and theatre? Why?

Children who are exposed to the arts and who are given an outlet for creating it, possess some qualities more than other children who are not. We do not limit the term “arts” to only performing arts; it includes cooking, baking, painting, drawing and making music. We believe it helps them handle many other aspects of their learning.

Children attending theatre classes pick up a varied number of skills faster because it is approached differently. They are unaware of the learning process since it is taught in a fun and playful manner. Practitioners use theatre games to help them learn about teamwork, expressing their thoughts, problem-solving, dealing with their fears, and through this play process it builds confidence in them.

While working with children, I have witnessed their personal growth over a period of time. We receive positive feedback from parents, thanking us for getting their children out of their shell.

You have one son? How old is he now?

My son, CJ Hariharan, turns 20 in October. He has constantly been there encouraging and supporting me in the work that I take on.

Has being a parent helped you in your job? How?

Being a parent has definitely helped me in my job. My son and his friends, since young, have been my “ever ready captive audience”, listening to my stories. Watching their reactions has helped me build and hone my acting and storytelling skills.