Heiyhok! As this writer walked into the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), I was half expecting to be greeted by that all too familiar cry. But it was missing.
Ho Lee Ching, my interviewee, clad in a knee-length, light grey dress, seemed calm as she stood at the cavernous lobby of KLPac.
After all, for someone with Tourette Syndrome (a neurological disorder characterised by involuntary movements and sounds), anything could trigger those signature tics.
But on that Friday afternoon, she appeared unfazed. The 27-year-old Subang Jaya-born greeted me with her warm smile.
We proceeded with a photo shoot, and Ching, as she is fondly called, did have a sudden tic.
As we sat down for the interview at the cafe inside KLPac, less than a stone’s throw away hung a poster of OCD, an upcoming show directed by Ching on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The play, which opens on Jan 25, marks the KLPac actor-in-residence’s directorial debut.
Ching, of course, did not begin her foray into the theatre world as a director. In fact, growing up as a timid child with Tourette’s, Ching never knew her dreams of becoming an actor would one day come true.
“When I was 10, I was watching a movie and I thought, ‘maybe I want to be an actor’ but I never told anyone,” she reminisced.
Years later, after her SPM examinations, Ching chanced upon the Kakiseni website in which the local performing arts platform promoted Joe Hasham’s Acting For Beginners course. She signed up for it and the rest, they say, is history.
Ching was also part of KLPac’s fifth instalment of Theatre For Young People (T4YP) in 2012 and since then has acted in several notable plays, including Thunderstorm (2017), Dato’ Seri (2016), Sisa-Sisa (2015) and The Taste Of Water (2015) in which she played the leading role.
But it was after her stint in Datuk Faridah Merican’s 11th edition of Life Sdn Bhd that she was offered the position as an actor-in-residence.
On top of her duties as an actor-in-residence, Ching also teaches at KLPac’s The Academy and is one of the coordinators and faciliators of T4YP programme.
With no formal education in the performing arts, Ching took it upon herself to pore over as many books on theatre as she possibly could. What she realised was that she had a knack for body movements.
Perhaps it has got to do with the fact that she is trained in taekwondo. She holds a black belt.
And her affinity for the physical seeped into the staging of OCD.
As the stageside story goes, OCD is about four individuals, played by newcomers Emma Megan Khoo, Amanda Xavier, Riena Aisya and Jun Vinh Teoh and their relationship with the disorder. Presented as vignettes, the play offers a window into the lives of these individuals and how they cope and try their very best to get through the simplest tasks in life.
The subject matter, of course, is something Ching knows about intimately. As someone who has OCD herself (a comorbidity of Tourette’s), she’s all too familiar of how physically tiring it can get. There are a lot of repetitions involved – for Ching, they come in fours – and might seem almost ritualistic.
And it is this very phenomenon that the communications degree graduate wanted to explore and showcase to audiences via the device of physical theatre.
“I want people to understand what OCD is really about and how is it to live with it. I hope people who don’t have it would be able to empathise with people who do after watching the play,” she said.
There will also be a question and answer session at the end of every show, facilitated by a psychiatrist from the Malaysian Mental Health Association.
Of course, growing up with both Tourette’s and OCD was not easy for Ching, who was diagnosed when she was 14.
“It was pretty hard. I felt like I didn’t have a childhood. My parents didn’t understand my condition back then. But now, thankfully, they do,” she stopped, before saying, “You’re going to make me cry.”
Ching took a moment to compose herself. And within seconds, with her trademark verve, she continued, “After they found out that it was Tourette’s, they really supported me.”
Going to school wasn’t a walk in the park either. Children can be mean, especially towards those who are different.
“They would imitate my sounds. Some even called me a goat because that’s the sound I made back then.
“But for some reason, I managed it well. I didn’t go home and cry about it. I would actually fight back. Well, maybe because I had taekwondo training. So I know whatever happens, I can defend myself,” added Ching.
The discrimination of course did not stop just at school. In 2015, a local radio personality took it to social media to out her.
That radio personality felt that her experience of watching a particular play was ruined by Ching’s tics and suggested that Ching should not watch any public shows but should instead opt to watch dress rehearsals.
Unfortunately, several other Malaysian personalities took a similar stand.
“I was disappointed and surprised. I looked up to these people,” said Ching, feeling let down.
Of course, many came to her aid on social media, chiding those spouting acidic remarks.
“They said theatre is a community and a community should include everyone.”
As the interview drew to a close, it was clear that for Ching, theatre is her passion.
In fact, she plans to study at L’Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq, a school of physical theatre in Paris, France after OCD ends its run.
For someone who has been living with Tourette’s since she was eight, theatre comes as a much-needed liberation. Her tics disappear when she’s on stage.
“This is why I want to continue doing theatre. It gives me control and freedom. I feel normal.”
OCD is on at Pentas 2, KLPac, Sentul Park in Kuala Lumpur from Jan 25-28. Showtimes are at 8.30pm pm (Jan 25-27) and 3pm (Jan 28). The show is presented by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat. Tickets are priced at RM55 and RM45 (concession). Contains mature content. For more information, call 03-4047 9000 or visit klpac.org.