What scares Ghafir Akbar? Apparently, it’s people finding him dull.
“For me, there’s nothing worse than if I’m doing a performance, whether as a director or actor, that people find me boring, or stale. That’s very scary to me. Whether it’s in an interview, or in conversations with friends, if I talk too long, I worry that I will bore people,” says Ghafir during a recent interview at the Enfiniti Academy in Petaling Jaya.
“For a while, I was obsessed with reading books on body language. I needed to know what people were telling me subsconsciously,” he adds.
In person, the tall and eloquent Ghafir, 34, is definitely far from boring, speaking with wit and candour as he shares the details about his colourful life – as director, actor and writer.
This Bangsar, KL-born stage performer is a fixture in the local arts scene, having been featured in shows such as 7 Ten (2003), Flies And Foreigners (2004), Raj And The End Of Tragedy (2014) and Another Country (2015), as well as the movie Cuak (2014), in which he was nominated as most promising actor at the 27th Malaysian Film Festival.
His latest project is directing The Language Archive, an award-winning play by American playwright Julia Cho. The production, presented by PH7 Production Management, takes place at the KuAsh Theatre in Kuala Lumpur from Oct 5-9, and features Gavin Yap, Farah Rani, Anitha Hamid, Sukania Venugopal and Datuk Zahim Albakri.
He describes The Language Archive as a “quirky, imaginative comedy”. The play tells the story of George, an expert at archiving dying languages of the world. He has problems, however, in finding the right words to say to keep his wife Mary from leaving him.
With Mary gone, George struggles to record the words of Alta and Resten, the last two speakers of a rare language. The problem, however, is that they both refuse to speak to each other. Also caught up in this linguistic tangle is George’s assistant Emma, who keeps silent about her love for him.
“I first saw the production in New York. It’s funny, it’s witty, and it made me look at language in a very interesting way,” says Ghafir.
“It’s a story about love, and everyone loves a good love story! But the thing about The Language Archive is that it’s not a conventional rom-com, or sappy love story. It’s a very human story, which means not everyone gets what they want, but everyone fights for the people they love.”
The play, he adds, carries themes on the complexities of communication with others.
“The way we perceive communication is masked by our own personal baggage, personal experiences, or our emotional agenda,” he explains.
“And this shifts the intention of the language. The play forces us to acknowledge that we cannot just take language and communication so straightforwardly. It’s more complicated than that.”
Outside the current business of hyping up The Language Archive, Ghafir also takes some time to talk about his childhood spent in an army base in Kuala Lumpur. His dad served in the military while his mother was a teacher turned housewife. He is the youngest of five children.
“We would bike around the camp, collecting bullets, and climbing up tanks. There were hundreds of other kids our age, from families all around Malaysia, who were stationed there. It was a lot of fun,” recalls Ghafir.
It was also through his family that the young man discovered the performing arts.
“We would go to watch concerts or shows. My dad used to have one of those big video cameras, and indoor studio lighting. In the evening, he’d set it up, and we’d have our own variety shows,” he shares.
This interest continued into his teens. At his school, Victoria Institution, Ghafir and his friends decided to come together to write some plays, which he submitted for an inter-school drama competition.
The group approached Datuk Faridah Merican, founder of the Actor’s Studio, who agreed to let them stage a production at the Actor’s Studio space back then.
“This other director, Pauline Furlong, came to see the show, and she was casting for another show at the Actor’s Studio. She called me, and said, ‘Hey why don’t you come audition?’ I said okay. And then it all snowballed from there!” says Ghafir.
Ghafir would later study engineering at a local university. However, he decided to stop midway throughout the programme after realising his true passion was in the performing arts. After saving up, he made his way to the United States, where he would stay for about eight years, picking up a Bachelors in Theatre Performance from Western Michigan University and Masters in Acting from Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
His return to the Malaysian theatre scene came almost by accident. After his American visa expired, Ghafir headed to Britain, where he stayed with his sister for a while. Later, he found a job in Italy. To get it, however, he needed to return to Kuala Lumpur to sort out his visa.
“I had issues with the Italian immigration here, so they didn’t issue my visa. So I just ended up staying in KL. It was quite weird in the beginning, because I wasn’t ready to come back yet,” says Ghafir.
“After a couple of months, though, I started meeting up with people here, and started working here. And I realised, well, I’m working more in KL now than I have in the past few years! So I guess it was a sign,” he happily concludes.
Ghafir’s next project is Disgraced, a play by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar, which will open in Singapore at the end of the year.
The Language Archive is on at the KuAsh Theatre, 48 Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad, Taman Tun Dr Ismail in KL, Oct 5-9. www.airasiaredtix.com.