Is society to blame for terrorists? How much does it actually take to turn a temperate person into a ‘monster’? We talked about all of that and more in our interview with Kelvin Wong, director of The Bee, and cast member Jonathan Chew, who plays one of the main characters, Ido. The Bee will be premiering tomorrow at Indicine, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, and will run for two weekends. More info here.
The Bee is a play set in Japan about a salaryman who comes home one day to find his family held hostage. (You can find out more about it by clicking here.) The play will be the final mainstage of Theatresauce‘s 2017/2018 season. The Bee was initially staged by Kelvin Wong when he was doing his Master of Fine Arts in DePaul University, Chicago, thus adding to the other plays he’s staged in the States and eventually brought to the local theatre scene (others including, 4.48 Psychosis and Contractions).
Kelvin was director-in-residence at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre from 2009 to 2012 where he designed, devised and directed productions across Malaysia and Singapore. A recurring nominee at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, Kelvin also taught theatre extensively to schools and corporate organizations. He currently lectures at Sunway University under the Department of Performance and Media
Jonathan Chew is a seasoned actor who has been in many productions, including leading roles in: Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches (theatrethreesixty), Broken Bridges the Musical (KLPAC), Philadelphia, Here I Come (Actor’s Studio), The Last Five Years (KLPAC), and many more. He also worked as a reporter in New York at Fortune.
You can buy tickets and find more info for The Bee by clicking here.
Strangling your colleagues and the study of terrorism
ZA: How would you describe The Bee?
KELVIN: To me, The Bee is a couple of things depending on how you look at it. If we were to look at it at the surface, The Bee is about how ordinary people have the propensity to turn into monsters as and when the environment calls for it in order to survive. If we were to look at the dramaturgical side of things it is written as a response to the 9/11 attacks in the sense of how terrorists come about. People aren’t born to this world aspiring to be terrorists. So how did they come about in the first place? If we were to backtrack and look for the seeds as to how the horrors of the world happen; it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s usually the environment, or external causes lah, which then poke, prod and create these monsters out of us, so that’s one part of it.
Another part of it is to see it as a play about resisting conformity. Here we have a salaryman who is expected to go to work and come back…
ZA: To be temperate all the time.
KELVIN: Exactly. And as of recent years – in fact not only recent years – there’s this whole Logan Paul thing where the Japanese suicide forest is brought to light. The fact that in Japan there’s actually a forest where people go to to commit suicide. In terms of developed countries, Japan has the highest rate of suicide. We [Malaysians] are not too far from it in the sense that there are expectations of us as people, as members of society, and sometimes being in that little box that we are put in or told to be in ever since we were young isn’t actually helpful. That repression eventually will manifest itself in a manner that is..
K: There are two [or several] ways about this. One would be these repressed individuals would eventually grow up becoming even more repressed individuals, and then there is the other route where there are individuals who eventually find out they are repressed and then they realize an outlet to get things across, one of them being art. Some people write music because they are depressed, people write plays because there is something deep down inside they really need to explore and say.
And the other method, of course, is through violence. Not just terrorism, of course – terrorism would be the manifestation of violence on a global scale. But if we were to look at households itself, such as abuse, bullying, people treating each other badly, even in the workplace such as harassment. People don’t consciously decide to grow up to become monsters, but then sometimes we are being pushed and prodded. It’s very similar to how the bees work. Bees when left to their own devices they won’t harm you, but the moment feel threatened they will come after you to sting you and in the process of stinging they die. It’s really two way lah, you either choose to observe and take on and be aware of this repression and what’s society is doing to you and handle it well, or you turn into a monster.
Theatre in many ways is a mirror to who we are, and also a mirror to what we could possibly be as well
JONATHAN: I think for me as someone who’s playing the main character, from an acting point of view, I guess I have been interested in kind of what would it take to push anyone to do something they would not normally do. Early on in the rehearsal I remember I had a dinner with friends, and someone was talking about his work and he had this colleague who was frustrating him a lot. So he said “I told that colleague, ‘Don’t ever do that again’, in my nicest, sternest voice”.
I asked him, “So what did you really want to do to that colleague?”. “I wanted to strangle her”, he said. So I figured, hey, that’s interesting, so my question for him then was “What would it take to strangle her?”. Of course, there would be cultural restraints, it’s not nice, and then you have to go to the police, and of course there’s the whole ‘Oh I couldn’t strangle her’, but actually what would it take for him to come to a point where he would act out on what he said. Maybe it’s just a thought or a metaphor. But what if we took it literally? So we look at that and we always think, “No one could that, strangle their colleague”
K: Yeah, we take it for granted.
J: Yeah, we always take it for granted. Well then, this play asks what would it take for someone to go there? What would be the circumstances that would push someone to do that? Theatre in many ways is a mirror to who we are, and also a mirror to what we could possibly be as well. I always have that story back in my mind that it’s way more common than I think. It’s not just some story where you think “Oh, no one could do that”. I think of it as in, all of us could do that, but what would it take. And it brings up interesting questions about the society we live in, our family background, our cultural background and our own personal hangups or obstacles.
ZA: I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the intention but based upon what you [Jonathan] and Kelvin said, it’s almost as if there’s a scientific and sadistic interest to the play..
J: Yeah! I think that’s why it’s nice to know people. Like let’s say when you go to prison, and you talk to someone who is in prison, it’s always nice to know what was your background because that person was never born – unless on a very rare case – thinking “Okay, I’m going to do something bad and go to prison”. It’s always something that leads to another thing. It’s interesting to know what did prod that person towards the path, where it could’ve gone a hundred different paths, but that person went on that particular path..
K: If I could add to that, I think it’s a commentary on our society. In the sense, when it comes to people who are repressed, do we have outlets or support systems that would allow us to manifest
our inner intentions, desires. While we think there are tons of outlets out there, it’d be unfair to say everyone has access to them. Then it goes back to how society consciously or subconsciously helping or destroying an individual. I can be on the phone talking to someone without having the worst of intentions and I could lash out at someone.
But then imagine this person being lashed out at by a hundred people – just imagine how a single sentence of lashing out can contribute to the overall madness of the person. If you have that one person and his little psychosis and his madness times that with as many people who live in society… and that’s why I also hope audience members would come out of this play asking, the next time you do something or say something you might think its inconsequential – but then if you add everything up it actually adds to the psyche of that particular person.
J: It’s also particularly interesting that the story is set in a Japanese society, that you would think based upon what you read, it is a hyper example of a society where it’s quite c;ear what is right and wrong; where there’s deference to hierarchy, where you understand that you need to do something for a larger cause. It is a very good context of society for us to ask these questions we’ve mentioned: “In that particular environment what does it mean for someone like a salaryman to suddenly become violent”. It’s very jarring and of course, since it’s situated in Asia so it’s kinda already familiar to us.
From the UK, to Chicago, to Kuala Lumpur
ZA: The Bee was actually already staged by you when you were in Chicago, Kelvin, so why did you finally decide to stage it in Malaysia? Was it because you really love the play, or because it was timely?
K: I always feel like my choices of plays are not set in a specific location. I mean, like sure, The Bee is set in Japan, but there’s a mythical quality to it, where in terms of rehearsals we don’t exactly imagine where in Japan are we, and then we try to carve out very specifically how our life would be in this place. It’s a mishmash of what we think Japan is and at the same time bringing together this universality of urban life; I’m always drawn to that.
We talk about this over mamak sometimes, where there’s this pattern of me choosing plays having to do with individuals being trapped and having to find a way out. That drew me to choosing this play when I was in Chicago. I actually found this play in the library. A couple of years ago, Hideki Noda himself came to Malaysia and he was invited by the National Arts Academy (ASWARA) to do a series of workshops that were here in which I was a part of. He put up clips of The Bee and I was like “Huh, this looks like an oddly weird but fascinating play”. He showed us only 10 minutes of it.
J: Did you tell him we’re doing it? Eh, should email wei, ask him to come.
ZA: That would be so cool
K: Do you think he’s very free, is it? *laughs*
J: Alah, play getting staged here, not so far away.
K: And then I found the text, back then I thought it was interesting to introduce the contemporary East Asian canon to a more Western audience. When I came back here and established Theatresauce, I thought about what plays do I wanna do that I feel would be nice to open this season that is close to the way I think Theatresauce should do theatre. The Bee happens to be one of them.
We watch Hollywood movies, and we immediately go “Hey I relate to that character!” and you know, we don’t watch a Malaysian film and then go “Oh, I relate to that character more”
Funnily enough, we actually planned this season a year plus ago, but then recently what we’ve seen online with the staging of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, this whole thing about mental illness and depression somehow cropped out a lot on social media. Also, there’s the harassment scandal and bullying have been cropping out and that somehow reflects..
ZA: What the play conveys? And that’s all coincidence?
K: Yeah! Somehow there’s a kind of ‘in-sync’-ness with what we are being exposed to in terms of memes and thoughts, so yeah.
ZA: Some would ask why not set it in Kuala Lumpur? What exactly do you lose if the location becomes Malaysia? If it’s so relevant to us, why stick to Japan?
K: If we set it in Kuala Lumpur, we lose the playwright’s intention in terms of setting it in Japan in the first place. I always feel that urban audiences are global enough to catch and latch on to
something they’re familiar with. They don’t necessarily have to see something that is 100% localized. I would say having Malaysian actors be part of this production already localizes it as opposed to setting it in KL. Because if we set in KL, it’s not just a matter of changing the location because that is not the seed in which this work came from.
If we do it in KL we need to get another playwright, dramaturgs would have to work really hard in terms of transferring that story across. But then again, as Jon mentions, if we set in KL, we lose the hyper-realism that comes with Japan. The way that the language sticks out, the way that the characters talk to each other, the way that they address one another – given the circumstances itself lah, it would be quite jarring if it was in KL. To me, essentially, it wouldn’t make any difference.
We watch Hollywood movies, and we immediately go “Hey I relate to that character!” and you know, we don’t watch a Malaysian film and then go “Oh, I relate to that character more”. This is not to say that I always advocate doing plays from other cultures. I still feel as a theatremaker that we lack a lot of local narratives, which is then what Theatresauce plans to do in the 2018/2019 season. Instead of looking out, it’s about us looking back in.
But then, when it comes to choices of plays, I always go for a sense of universality. Let’s say, if we were to put something by Tony Kushner, [he wrote Angels In America, a play about the AIDS epidemic set in 1980s, New York], he writes something that is very specific to time and space. Or even casting characters who are not of the character’s ethnicity, it’s very jarring.
ZA: Yeah, you can never take Angels In America out of New York, or the ’80s
K: Correct, correct. If we were to look at people like Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead) or Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), they write in response to a very specific time, space and a historical era. Again it’s based upon how characters look at each other, how gender was like, what politics was like within that world – it would feel like a museum piece, even if it was localized and set in today.
With The Bee, it doesn’t feel like that. The playwright isn’t too specific, unlike Kusher or Stoppard, in terms of how this play should be presented. It’s interesting because Hideki Noda wrote this play first in English in collaboration with a playwright (Colin Teevan) for a UK audience. It was only translated into Japanese the year after. And because it’s gone through that journey, it would have its appeal here in Kuala Lumpur.
Salaryman, or Superhero?
ZA: For Jon, what’s the kind of unique challenges you face when it comes to embracing your character, Ido?
J: Obviously, firstly it’s to understand the time and place he’s in, how relevant is it that he’s a Japanese salaryman. Once we’ve established that it’s not exactly set out of Japan so the culture is relevant. Everything needed for research, so I watched a lot of weird Japanese films about domestic life. There’s this one called The Crazy Family (1984) which is about this family who has termites. The father found the termites, couldn’t extinguish it and drove the whole family mad [Jon is possibly referring to The Family Game (1983)]. There’s also one anime called Salaryman Kintaro, it’s about a superhero salaryman.
ZA: It’s very absurd!
J: Very absurd! But the salaryman is portrayed as a bit of hero, which at the time there’s a push-pull relationship with that. Some people don’t like the salaryman because of their conformity, but some like it because they’re really important because they’re the cog of the economic machine. When I was in London, I also went to a Japanese interior exhibit to show the interior of a Japanese house. So research is a part of it.
More of it is understanding his journey from where he starts as someone who just wants to take care of the family, and then what would it take for him to suddenly degrade, I guess. So you can
explore in terms of body, voice and his kinda main goals in life also changes. I was also quite fortunate that I just graduated from drama school, so I just threw in everything I had against the wall and see if it stuck. *laughs* Ultimately these are the kind of seeds you plant into the ground, but in the rehearsal process you kinda see where it grows and becomes, something of which I’m not even aware it’s going towards. But the rest of the cast and crew have been really playful, really good and creative, and that’s all I could ever ask for.
You can find realism on DVD and Netflix, that’s a lot more interesting than say, watching two people have a conversation on stage. That would be the other extreme of things.
ZA: Why is it important for a play like The Bee to be hyper-realistic?
K: Because it’s theatre! If you talk about realism, I believe that realism belongs to film. Realism belongs to TV, because the camera captures in a manner where the stage cannot. However, when you’re on stage, when you see live performers that’s when you now have the elements and the tools of realism and at the same time an expressionistic way of the entire theatrical experience that you can only get in the theatre. I feel it makes the entire theatrical experience more vibrant, more fun, and at the same it allows us to tap in to our psyche, in a manner where it would not just work if we were just presenting things as it is.
ZA: But what about the directing choices and acting choices, have you ever felt that “this part of the play is too abstract, we need to make it more accessible?”
K: I think the accessibility comes from the fact that it is expressionistic. The language itself is not realistic. People don’t speak in verses, or in a manner that is poetic. People don’t get into
storytelling mode all of a sudden. People don’t intentionally rhyme by the end of every line. This is how the play is already written. The clue is in the text itself. This is a production where text becomes the first point of creative work. That then encourages and pushes the team to come in imaginatively.
How can we tell this story in a manner that is fantastical, that is spectacle-based, while at the same time keeping to the truth and the heart of this ordinary man who just wants to save his family.
There are sequences in which this man upon little victories that he goes through throughout the play he breaks into dance and then he comes back reality. A lot of times, time slows down itself.
All of these things would look a little odd if it’s taken with a camera, and I think there’s a playfulness that audience members crave for things that are happening in front of them. I feel like we are beyond the days of Tennessee Wiliams where it’s realism, realism, realism. You can find realism on DVD and Netflix, that’s a lot more interesting than say, watching two people have a conversation on stage. That would be the other extreme of things.
J: From a different point of view, it’s also to find the truth in it. I guess, you could say, that’s our job. And also our challenge and joy. Hopefully that’s what we’d bring.
Buy tickets for The Bee by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan staged by Theatresauce now by clicking here and follow their Facebook for updates. There’s also a promo ongoing if you check out their Facebook event page. The featured image is of Veshalini, Jonathan Chew and Bella Rahim rehearsing.