Who is this lady with the red bubble nose making sick children laugh?
Wait a minute. Now she has a green nose and calls herself Granny Green Nose. Isn’t that also her teaching English to rural-based children in Sabah and explaining “subtext” to the Youth Theatre workshop students in Muar, Johor?
Yup, she even cycles everywhere. And she did the lighting for a Lady Swettenham theatre production at the National Arts Festival fringe in Grahamstown, South Africa, earlier this year.
There is no one word to define veteran theatre practitioner Normah Nordin. Her energy is infectious. Maybe, you can try something like “artist extraordinaire” or “one-of-a-kind arts activist”.
Normah, a Bachelor in Arts and Design (fine arts, sculpture) from the Mara Institute of Technology (now UiTM), can look back at a long career – over 40 years – in the diverse fields of arts and photography.
Apart from visual art, she has been active in theatre, television and films. She is also (note the present tense): scriptwriter, acting coach, art director, producer, director, lighting specialist and clown.
“And I’m only 67, and there is still lots of things to discover and do. I still enjoying working,” says Nordin.
Born in Bentong, Pahang in 1950, Nordin was the second child in a family of four children.
Her dad did mechanical work with a company that eventually became Tenaga Nasional. Her mum was a housewife. Nordin’s early childhood was one filled with nature and adventures in the jungle nearby her house.
“At a young age, I used to accompany my dad when he went fishing in the river and I used to wander off in the jungle on my own. So I am very comfortable in the jungle. I enjoyed wandering around looking for banana leaves to wrap the nasi lemak which my mum made, for me to sell in the market,” she recalls in an interview in Petaling Jaya.
Nordin does not do things by halves. If she is going to learn a certain craft, then she goes all out to perfect it.
Many of those who know her are not aware of her early life achievement as a badminton champion who represented the country.
Even more surprising, and amusing, is how she became one in the first place!
“Do you know that it was (the hard work of) cutting firewood every night with an iron pipe (the axe broke) that gave me the weight training for my (then) future life as a badminton player? That’s how I became a badminton champ. When I hit no one could take my smash,” she says.
Nordin became the state badminton champion of Pahang at the age of 15. In 1972, she became part of the Selangor Junior Malaysian team.
She continued with championship badminton until she graduated from Mara Institute of Technology. It was then she reached a major crossroad.
She was offered a job in RTM. She had to choose between job security and the insecurity of aspiring to reach the All England Open Badminton Championships. With no funding or sports support, Nordin opted for life at RTM.
That early career move was to open up another new world for her.
Her RTM years gave her an insight into acting, TV production, stage design and more.
Nordin’s quest to learn everything, and not just in theatre, is unquenchable. She is highly respected among her peers and her students, past and present.
“She is a consummate artist, very strong technically, whether it is stage design or lighting design. She worked with the late Najib Nor on costume design. And she can direct. She directed that humongous first Visit Malaysia Year launch in 1990,” says Sabera Shaik, a close friend and artistic director of Masakini Theatre Company.
Nordin jokingly says that her first directing job was at the age of six, when she coached her mother to sing a particular song – Seri Mersing – as part of a singing contest her mum was participating in back in Bentong.
“I did not come from a literature background, I came from design. Then I asked myself: ‘what is this animal called acting?’”
She got her answer when Suhaimi Baba, then a producer in RTM, asked her to do theatre design.
“That’s when I met the late Mustafa Noor (Malay actor/theatre activist) and got involved in my first theatre production, a Maxim Gorky play entitled The Lower Depths staged at the Experimental Theatre in Universiti Malaya. I designed the set,” she recalls.
“My task was to convert the whole stage to a live-in cave. I was only given RM200 to create this gigantic set! I had to create an atmosphere where the moment the audience entered the theatre they had to feel they were already in a cave. Since this was my first theatre design and the budget was limited, I constructed the set all by myself without any help. I could not afford to pay anybody.”
Normah adds she took a big chunk of her annual leave to finish the set.
“With a limited budget and limited availability of special materials in the market, I was quite pleased with the result. The director was impressed. It was a well-earned personal experience.”
During her days at RTM, she realised how technical her world had become. Theatre gave her a soulful distraction, or new outlet to create.
“I loved everything about this brave new world I was entering into – the classics, literature and theatre, the disciplines in theatre, the people and ultimately to me, at a deeper level, this was surely a search for truth,” says Normah.
There had been many turning points in her professional life.
One in particular was to set the path for what she does today.
In 1984, she was invited by Mustafa and Rahman Adnan to form the Drama Centre (Markaz Drama) in KL.
Drama Centre, based in Pusat Seni in downtown Jalan Bandar, was a labour of love. The venue focused on training young talents in all aspects of professional theatre production. Drama Centre staged some memorable productions, including The Misunderstanding (Albert Camus), Musuh Rakyat (a translation of An Enemy Of The People by Henrik Ibsen) and the Jiwa Merdeka poetry series.
After the death of Mustafa (who had become her partner, mentor and friend) in 1990, Centre Stage Performing Arts (CSPA) was formed by Normah with the same theatre mission that year.
CSPA became a hub and training ground for many young talents involved in theatre, filmmaking and the visual arts.
During this time Nordin also began her teaching career. Throughout the years, she lectured in various public and private higher education institutions in Malaysia. Nordin was also involved in the setting up of the Faculty of Performing Arts at UiTM in 1999.
In 2000, Nordin was awarded the AMN (Ahli Mangku Negara) medal for her contribution to the arts. In 2007, she established Artnest Studio with outreach programmes in rural areas, and teaching children English through theatre.
Indeed there are many charming facets that make up this person called Normah.
One in particular is especially heartwarming: Nordin is Dr Donno of Red Bubbles, an NGO that aims to “bring joy to seriously ill children”.
She has been trained in theatre clowning and hospital clowning work since 2015. Recently she introduced a new character to her world of clowning – Granny Green Nose.
“Yes it is easy to feel sympathy for physically sick children because we can see their sickness. Many children look physically well but they need to be nursed too. These children are now the attention of Granny Green Nose (GGN). I believe through interactive storytelling, GGN can inspire and develop their self-esteem. These children are our future and we must nurture them from young,” she says.
This realisation came from Normah’s many years of working with children in villages nearby Muar.
“Many many years ago, I started by facilitating the ‘Speaking English Through Theatre’ series. What I learned on the side is that these children are not ‘healthy emotionally’. With their background of poverty and bad role models, they become directionless.
“They needed to be ‘nursed’. Hence, the interactive storytelling idea. As GGN, I hope to go to schools, libraries, community centres, retirement homes and special needs centres to tell inspirational, motivational interactive stories to promote positive thinking.”
As the cheeky GGN, Normah has found a new bounce in her career.
“I can still reach out and do much more. After 40 years in theatre, I strongly believe that new things can still unfold.”