Satire to Shakespeare to anarchy
A year later, Kukathas directed her first production, an open-air Midsummer Night’s Dream on the grounds of luxe hotel Carcosa Seri Negara.
She says: “Once I started with my first audition in KL, I wanted to be better at this. I went for every workshop that came along. I would save money to go and watch stuff, to read. When I was told, ‘Jo, you’re going to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, I went to the British Council library and borrowed every book on Shakespeare and read them all.”
Instant Cafe became a bit of a “revolving door”, as Kukathas puts it. Practitioners and artists would come in and work with them. Sometimes, they would stay for long periods. Others would leave after a short stint. They welcomed all sorts of collaborators, including writer-director Huzir Sulaiman, who went on to set up Checkpoint Theatre in Singapore.
The group tackled everything from classics such as Dario Fo’s powerful Accidental Death Of An Anarchist in 1999 to signature spoofs such as The 2nd First Annual Bolehwood Awards in 2003, which had them slapped with a ban after a complaint that the show was “rude and demeaning”. However, the group bounced back.
A year later, Kukathas created Firstworks, a platform for developing new plays.
She got to know several Singaporean practitioners over the years, including Wild Rice’s resident playwright Alfian Sa’at, whom she works with frequently. She co-directed his immensely popular political docudrama Cooling Off Day (2011); his heartrending family drama about faith, Nadirah (2009); and the well-received Parah (2011), about race relations in Malaysia told through the eyes of four students. Her Singaporean counterparts have nothing but lavish praise for Kukathas.
She has won herself many Singaporean fans with her warm, encouraging personality and her gift for slipping into an enormous array of roles almost effortlessly – from a shrewd and vulgar maid in The House Of Bernarda Alba (2014) to a glittery goddess in pink play Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 (2013). Kukathas also performed in a revival of Huzir’s one-woman show Occupation in 2012. The play, based on the life of his grandmother Mohamed Siraj, who survived the Japanese Occupation, received reviews calling her “phenomenal”.
Kukathas, who is not married, is spending about four months in Singapore this year, in-between work for Another Country and Wild Rice’s upcoming Hotel in August. However, she still marvels at how “fast” Singaporeans are when getting down to business and found herself “trying to get used to the hectic pace”. Her eyes widen: “It was mind-numbing and mind-blowing. How do you learn things so quickly? We don’t.”
The Malaysian process is a lot leaner, she feels.
She says: “Even while I was rehearsing for Another Country in KL, I was working with five actors and one stage manager and that was it. The stage manager was doing sound, props, costumes and stage managing. The actors also had to contribute: bring and suggest things and get stuff. You can’t ask one stage manager to do all that.”
The lack of funding is also an issue. While many theatre companies in Singapore receive significant grants from the National Arts Council, this is hardly the case in Malaysia. At the moment, Instant Cafe does about one show a year. This is what she has the resources for.
She is also interested in pursuing other genres. “A lot of people are doing political comedy in KL, so I feel that need is being met,” she says. “Before, we did it because no one else was doing it. There are so many great satirical websites in KL now. I don’t feel the compulsion I once felt to do it.”
She takes a sip of her green tea. “I know I will always come back to it because it’s so present,” she says of the issues of politics, race and identity.
“However, I feel there are so many other things about being human that I want to look into and do.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
Directed by Singapore’s Ivan Heng and Malaysia’s Jo Kukathas, Another Country is now playing at Drama Centre Theatre in Singapore until July 11. More details: www.sistic.com.sg and www.wildrice.com.sg