From the director who brought you the phenomenal Losertown, KLPAC’s The Actor’s Studio (TAS) Director-in-Residence Tung Jit Yang is back to debut his year-long project – The New Play Project: Book One. From the 1st to the 5th of August, patrons and long-time fans of the Malaysian theatre scene can attend staged readings with some of their favourite playwrights. It is a series of anthological plays that will feature a surreal and dystopic world from Ridhwan Saidi, Mautopia; a nostalgic and painful tale by Adiwijaya Iskandar, known as Mixtape for Maz; Juno Hoay-Fern Ooi’s dark physical theatre piece, Plays Without Words & Action; as well as Terence Toh’s comedic Restless.
This project is a brainchild of Jit Yang’s, and his move forward to bringing together Kuala Lumpur’s storytellers and playwrights, as they write and perform their personal and heartfelt stories. These four playwrights were chosen through a rigorous selection process of interviews and sample work submissions. Once chosen, the playwrights participated in weekly sessions over the course of six months, in a process that allowed them to truly hone their gifts and learn to create something even more special and poetic.
These sessions often involved collaborations with other nationally acclaimed writers like Jo Kukathas (internationally working actor, director, teacher and founder of Instant Café Theatre), Nam Ron (published playwright, actor, director of both theatre and screen) and Haresh Sharma (resident playwright of The Necessary Stage in Singapore).
If you’ve seen and loved these playwrights, we can assure you these plays are likely to be better than anything you’ve seen from them before. These sessions saw each writer discussing theories, critiquing plays, attending workshops by professional Southeast Asian thespians and learning to push the boundaries of what Malaysian theatre can be. Jit Yang and KLPAC want us to know how much refinement and precision goes into crafting a theatrical piece and hopefully, inspire the rest of us who want to do the same.
In anticipation of its premiere, The Daily Seni sneaks a few questions in with the director of each play as well as Jit Yang, to learn about the origins of this phenomenal project and just what makes writing a play so difficult.
Tung Jit Yang, The New Play Project: Book 1
- Tell us a little bit about your experience working with this group of playwrights? To what extent did you help develop their work?
A metaphor I keep coming back to is that of the Large Hadron Collider – the playwrights meeting every week, clashing against each other, critiquing each other’s work, challenging each other. I brought in theories from Aristotle to Brecht to Mamet, gave the playwrights prompts and writing challenges, and tried to create a space and environment to experiment. The works of the playwrights can perhaps be seen as a result of this arduous and exhilarating years’ worth of exploration and experimentation.
- “If we do not tell our Malaysian stories who will?”. As the facilitator for New Play Project, and after working with so many playwrights and your own pieces – what do you think is a ‘Malaysian story’, or does this term apply to just any Malaysian with a story to tell?
Yes, yes, yes! Every story we Malaysians tell, live by, have heard, are going through as we read this, are indeed Malaysian stories! And I feel we don’t hear enough of them.
That question, acted as a provocation for me. And because I’m a theatre-maker, with the New Play Project, I set out to bring to light, these stories for the stage that was probably always there, lying dormant in the shadows of Shakespeare and the greats that came before.
- What was the decision-making process behind choosing these four playwrights?
The New Play Project started with an open call. After receiving submissions from numerous playwrights with snippets or their work, the New Play Project team, sat together, read the plays out loud, often late into the night, discussing them. This was followed by in-person interviews with the playwrights, to get to know them, to hear where these plays stemmed from, to gauge how working together would be like.
I was really looking for playwrights that would oppose and challenge each other as they worked through their plays; for stories that seemed vital to the playwright, that they felt needed in some way to be told, and felt that the stage was the best way to do it; and now, I believe we have a great cross-section of genres, and themes in this anthology of The New Play Project: Book One featuring Ridhwan, Adiwijaya, Juno, and Terence.
- Were the thespians chosen to guide the playwrights chosen prior or after choosing the playwrights?
A big part of this Project, I knew from the beginning, was to invite Master Teachers to work with the playwrights. We were lucky enough to have Haresh Sharma, Nam Ron, and Jo Kukathas to agree to be the three Master Teachers for this Book One of the Project. These three have long been heroes of mine, Haresh being one of Singapore’s if not Southeast Asia’s most prolific writers; Namron, whose reputation as a playwright is coupled with an enviable career as a director and performer; and Jo Kukathas whose process is so integrated with text, and working collaboratively with the playwright.
I had them in mind from the very beginning, each of them being able to shed light on varying aspects, approaches, and sensibilities to playwriting.
Terence Toh, Restless
- What made you decide to be a part of New Play Project? What about the theater medium do you find most appealing, in comparison to other outlets of your creativity such as fiction novels?
I decided to join the New Play Project as I wanted to write a full-length play of my own. I had written many short plays before, mainly for the Short and Sweet festival, but I lacked motivation to write a long version and wasn’t sure the right way of doing so. So, when I heard about the New Play Project, and how it gave me a chance to work under some of the most respected people in the theatre industry, I jumped at the chance.
But what I like about theatre? Well, mainly the collaboration process and the joy of seeing your ideas come to life. When you are writing a novel, for example, it is mostly between you and your editor, and perhaps a few beta readers if you have any. Writing a play, however, usually involves a director, several actors, costume designers, set designers, music directors, who all add their ideas to your story, and can make it magical beyond your wildest dreams. And when you write a novel, again, your vision of the story remains in your head for only you to see. With theatre, the vision has to be able to come to life on stage, in real time. One of my favorite experiences is to write a murder or a miracle and wonder, ‘how are they going to do this on stage?’ And usually the result impresses me.
- Which medium do you love more – fiction-writing, writing plays or composing songs?
Well, technically I don’t compose songs. I don’t know much about music, so I write lyrics, and a friend usually helps me with the music. I only do the words and story of all my musicals, my composer does the rest.
And wow. They are all great, and wonderful in their own right. But if I HAD to choose one, it would probably be fiction writing, as in novels and short stories. Because I started with it, I have been doing it the longest, and it was through that medium that I was brought to all the others.
- What was the inspiration behind Restless? And why did you decide to gravitate towards the horror genre this time?
Well, Restless has ghosts in it, but I don’t see it as a pure horror play. I feel there are a lot of elements of comedy and drama, I didn’t write it with the intention to scare people like ‘The Woman in Black’.
And what can I say, I’m a HUGE fan of horror themes and the supernatural. I love that there are things in life we cannot explain, that even with all our knowledge and our science and technology, there are still things that humans cannot do anything about. And ghosts and haunted houses have always struck me. I had to do a story as a freelance journalist once where I had to visit a so-called haunted house, and while I never saw any ghosts (pity!) I think the experience stayed in my mind. Ghosts, as folklore usually states, are the souls of dead people who cannot move on after death, And that fascinated me. What desires could a person have that are so strong that they defy even death? And how do you overcome that?
On a more comedic note, I always thought horror movies were always very unfair to the ghost. They already had to suffer a traumatic death, then they have their space invaded by new people, and have to put up with all their bad habits. The people can always move, after all. It’s the ghosts that can’t go anywhere else. So, I guess all these themes, put together, brought Restless to life.
- You were guided by people like Jo Kukathas, Nam Ron, Haresh Sharma and Jit Yang, what were some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in the process of writing this play?
The New Play Project was an amazing time, and the lessons I gained are invaluable. Overall, I learned the power of collaboration, and how having people actually act out your drafts really makes a difference. I learnt a few useful techniques for plot development and character ideas that I will definitely use in the future.
More specifically: Haresh Sharma’s sessions told me the importance of knowing where to start your story, and the importance of specificity. The clearer a character is formed in the writer’s mind, the more life an actor can infuse into it. Nam Ron taught me to look for the essence of the story you are trying to tell and realize why you are telling it. Jo Kukathas taught me the importance of voice: how every character should sound distinct, and not just be the author’s voice speaking through them. And she also taught me something I will never forget, that no audience member enjoys having huge chunks of text thrown at them for no good reason. And Jit Yang taught me to keep on writing and never giving up, and exploring the less conventional ways your plot can go.
Adiwijaya Iskandar, Mixtape for Maz
- What made you decide to be a part of New Play Project? What about the theater medium do you find most appealing?
Mixtape for Maz is a piece that needed to be tackled differently than my other pieces because I wanted to understand how people grew up navigating different cultures. I needed guidance to distill all the gathered interviews and anecdotes into a compelling story. The New Play Project gave me the confidence to venture out of my comfort zone, knowing that the mentors and my fellow colleagues could reel me back in if it had gone too far or become too personal.
The ritualistic nature of theatre is hard to replicate through any other medium. In the theatre, audiences look away from screens and become more attentive. This allows them to delve deeper into the world of the story. It creates a safe distance for us to witness conflict and trauma, with the end goal of reaping catharsis.
- Where did the story for Mixtape for Maz come from? A personal experience? An observation?
I always wanted to address an incident in my past involving my sister being bullied in school. That became the inspiration for this piece. Yet I also wanted to include elements of the lived experiences of others who grew up differently from the culture around them. As a result, Mixtape for Maz is inspired by different accounts but stands alone as one singular story.
The final version is a coming of age story, minus the Hollywood-ness we are used to seeing on screen. I wanted it to be more local to where I come from- more Monsun Tropika, more sawah padi, more Utara-ness- with a dash of nineties alt-rock nostalgia. It’s a mixtape in more ways than one.
- You mentioned that you’re interested in revealing people’s neuroses, which is very present in scripts like ‘Allah!’. Does this play exhibit the same type of anxiety or are you trying something a bit different?
My interests have evolved since ‘Allah!’ in 2009. This story is an exploration of the discomfort that exists when cultures and beliefs collide. In part, it is an invitation to all of us to break out of our echo chambers and listen to the views and opinions of those different than us, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
- You were guided by people like Jo Kukathas, Nam Ron, Haresh Sharma, Mark Beau de Silva and Jit Yang, what were some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in the process of writing this play?
The New Play Project gave us the chance to really learn from their insights. That on its own is already such a privilege. But beyond that, I benefitted a lot from their constructive feedback during one-on-one sessions. In the case of Mixtape for Maz for example, I was having difficulty crafting sensitive scenes. They encouraged us to improvise with actors to bring new perspective and life to our piece. They also touched on aspects that really elevate your work such as the concept of brevity and being aware of the musicality of your dialogue. They revealed to me skills that, on my own, would have taken much longer to discover.
- In a play about identity, does your play seek to celebrate being yourself in a society of cultural conformity, or the preservation of traditions? Why?
With Mixtape for Maz I wanted to suggest that the choice between these two paradigms is not binary. To different degrees, everyone is influenced and shaped by the culture in which they are immersed, and yet no one person can be the epitome of their culture. As individuals living with others, we all exist along a spectrum. It is about finding the sweet spot for self-acceptance.
Ridhwan Saidi, Mautopia
- Bagaimanakah proses peralihan daripada buku Ridhwan kepada teater? Dalam penulisan Mautopia, adakah Ridhwan telah menggambarkan cerita tersebut dalam bentuk teater semasa menulis buku Mautopia?
Ia diadaptasi dengan kesedaran medium, tapi cuba setia dengan dunia yang sama. Pemilihan ini spontan sebab untuk menyertai The New Play Project, kami patut ada draf penuh skrip teater. Oleh kerana saya tiada skrip penuh, strategi saya adalah untuk pilih salah satu novel saya untuk diadaptasi ke teater. Saya cuma buat sinopsis. Novel yang saya pilih ialah Mautopia.
Novel Mautopia ditulis sebagai novel. Saya tak membayangkan ia sebagai teater. Walau bagaimanapun, dalam novel Mautopia sudah ada elemen teater di mana penduduk Bukit Famosa itu melakukan pementasan teater Romeo & Juliet setiap tahun demi Guru Besar.
- Inspirasi di sebalik karya Mautopia? Bagaimana boleh tertimbul buah fikiran untuk menulis tentang cerita distopik yang berlatarkan Bukit A’Famosa (Buku dan teater)?
Inspirasinya banyak (ia datang sepanjang dan selepas proses penulisan!) tapi yang saya ingat Mautopia versi buku diinspirasi babak seksaan dalam novel 1984 (1949) oleh George Orwell, manakala Mautopia versi teater diinspirasi pepatah dari filem Alphaville (1965) oleh Jean-Luc Godard antaranya. Filem Dark City (1998) oleh Alex Proyas sudah saya tonton sebelum tulis novel Mautopia. Hanya selepas tulis novel Mautopia saya tonton filem Brazil (1985) oleh Terry Gilliam sebab ada orang kata ia mengingatkannya kepada filem Brazil selepas membaca Mautopia. Ia juga lama kemudian saya terbaca tentang asal nama Sumatera iaitu ‘Semut Raya’ yang dinamakan oleh Merah Silu apabila terlihat ‘semut sebesar kucing’ ketika berburu. Sedikit sebanyak ia beri nuansa khatulistiwa dan nusantara ke dalam Mautopia, sebab saya tak membayangkan ia—meski pun fiksyen—berlaku di cuaca yang lebih asing dari panas hujan yang kita alami.
Nama Bukit Famosa diambil dari A’Famosa tapi tanpa A’ dan ia tiada kaitan dengan A’Famosa. Bukit Famosa nama fiksyen yang direka. Idea datang tanpa diundang. Saya tulis bila rasa tergerak. Bila bersembang saya sentiasa kongsi idea-idea yang melintas di dalam kepala saya, tapi tak bermakna saya akan usahakan setiap idea tersebut. Kadang-kala saya rasa idea itu yang pilih saya, dan bukan saya pilih idea. Apakah pengajaran yang paling penting bagi Ridhwan dalam proses mencipta teater Mautopia, terutamanya dengan bantuan daripada Jit Yang, Nam Ron, Haresh Sharma atau Jo Kukathas?
Tindakbalas berlaku bila ada pertemuan. Dalam konteks Mautopia, The New Play Project telah menemukan saya dengan mereka yang berpengalaman dan amat mendalami teater, maka suatu tindakbalas tertentu berlaku. Jika saya bertemu dengan orang lain (atau tidak bertemu dengan sesiapa—menulis seorang diri) misalnya, skrip Mautopia ini akan terbentuk menjadi sesuatu yang lain. Sukar untuk jelaskan pengajaran apa yang saya dapat sebab saya tak anggap pertemuan ini seperti hubungan di sekolah, di mana murid cuma mendengar dan diajar. Hubungan ini lebih seperti di universiti (dalam erti kata sebenar) di mana dialog berlaku.
- Adakah cita-cita Ridhwan untuk menjadi seorang manusia ‘Renaissance’ dan menjadi seniman dalam semua bidang? Filem, sastera, teater dan mungkin, muzik?
Saya lihat bidang ini secara umumnya ada dua iaitu sains dan seni. Oleh sebab saya spiritual being, saya boleh embrace seni. Hal-hal duniawi pula melibatkan sains. Arsitektur tempat dua bidang ini bertemu—antara sains dan seni—ia praktikal dan ada keindahan.
Minat saya bermula dengan filem, tapi kalau kita lihat balik medium filem ini (seni yang ambil bentuk di abad ke-20), ia campuran imej (fotografi), cerita/naratif/unsur puitis (sastera), mise- en-scene/babak/lakonan (teater), rekaan bunyi (muzik) dan suntingan (editorial) maka ia bukan sesuatu yang asing, untuk saya dalami setiap dari elemen-elemen seni ini, terutama bila saya memposisikan diri sebagai pencipta. Dari sisi sains pula ia memerlukan skil pengurusan, yang mana sebagai produser saya perlu ambil tahu juga.
Sebagai penulis pula ia membolehkan saya untuk pergi ke mana-mana cabang mahupun bidang. Misalnya saya boleh tulis esei (akademik dan free-form), puisi, cerpen, novel, skrip (teater dan filem), diari, surat, reviu, luahan perasaan, wacana, polemik, interviu, blog atau apa-apa saja. Dengan menulis, ia membolehkan saya untuk menyibuk dalam banyak hal. Tapi dalam masa yang sama oleh kerana sifat saya yang sentiasa curiga, saya akan ambil tahu dan mendalami cabang/ disiplin/medium/ilmu tersebut (paling kurang dalam tempoh 10 tahun?)
Seniman zaman Renaissance (Botticelli, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci), mereka ini ada bengkel dengan ramai pembantu dari lima puluh ke seratus orang yang berterusan buat lukisan, arca dan fresko. Mereka cuma beri garis panduan, dan tandatangan karya yang dah siap, dan lebih dari itu banyak buat kerja public relation dengan patron pada ketika itu iaitu golongan putera raja dan paus gereja. Ia sebuah produksi industrial dan komersial. Kenyataan ini saya petik dari novel The Map and the Territory oleh Michel Houellebecq, dan ia buat saya fikir balik erti ‘Renaissance man’ ini, walaupun saya tahu ia memaksudkan polymath.
Bila saya mengusahakan satu-satu kerja atau karya, itu cita-cita saya buat masa itu. Buat masa ini, cita-cita saya adalah untuk terus menulis skrip teater sebabak dalam program yang saya beri nama Teater Normcore. Saya cadang untuk jadikan ia sebagai amalan, setahun sekali… jika boleh.
Watching theatre can be powerful and deeply intimate. It is a time when the stories performed onstage resonate with us, and we watch our innermost emotions be reflected right back at us. The evolution of Malaysian theatre to capture these stories can be seen in KLPAC’s most recent plays and now, with The New Play Project: Book 1, we can learn to be involved too. It is time all other passionate, emotional people know that their stories can be heard and are needed, now more than ever.
To learn more about The New Play Project: Book One, click here!
To book your seats for the show, click here!
Featured image source: allevents.in