Young Directors Anonymous

After reading Antares’ gushy review of Chaotic Harmony’s production of Blithe Spirit late last year, I decided to go in April to watch their production of Shakespeare Schizophrenia, an attempted parody of the bard interspersed with plagiarised episodes of The Black Adder. The painful Mat Salleh accents, the clueless blocking and the profound lack of any point at all… I didn’t last through the intermission. The two founders, graduates from Help Institute, had successfully staged their productions at college but seem unaware that a paying public has very different expectations.

It is easy to see they have enthusiasm and ambition. On their “under-construction” website, they wrote, “Chaotic Harmony Theatre is … dedicated to participating and assisting in the continuing growth and spread of this culture (theatre) in Malaysia … “This week, the company makes good with their fourth production, Shorts. In their wisest move yet, the founders of Chaotic Harmony are letting other people direct. Shorts consists of four plays directed by Ho Sui-Jim, Sanjiv Gnaneswaran, David Lim and Abdul Qahar Aqilah, all of whom are still studying.

Incidentally, all four used to be a part of the Rep16:21 Ensemble, the youth wing of another young theatre company Rep21. Producer Llewellyn Marsh says, “I am glad the Rep16:21 programme have given them the tools to continue. It is good to see young people given all these opportunities, and good to see them pursue these opportunities as well.”

Rep16:21 mostly gave them opportunities for occasional glamour, in other words, meaty roles in productions such as the original devised play Lift: Out of Order and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Last year, I was invited by the company to facilitate a young writers workshop for the restless few who want to do more than act. Ho Sui­ Jim’s contribution to the production that resulted from that workshop, Reports of Our Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, cracked audiences up with his neurotic, quirky tales, mostly about his hilarious attempts at compensating for his sense of adolescent alienation.

Ho recently wrote, directed and acted in his school play, which was entered for an lnterschool Competition. His play, titled Ants, bagged the award for Best Script and was runner up for Best Play. In earlier drafts, the play was about an autistic boy and features lots of supporting roles to accommodate the egos of classmates who want to act. Cut down to an economical cast of three, the play now examines the strained relationship between a father and a son when the family moves to an alien country.

Among the four Rep16:21 alumni, Sanjiv is the most prolific actor. In between acting as a witch-hunting court clerk in The Crucible and the dim-witted sidekick of Black Adder in Shakespeare Schizophrenia, he has also appeared in Blithe Spirit, Butterflies Are Free (directed by David Lim last year under The Actors Studio’s Young Directors Showcase) and a short digital video movie, the title of which I had forgotten. In Shorts, he is directing Violet Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry Wrong Number, a psychological thriller about an invalid woman who overhears on the phone of a murder being planned and desperately tries to get someone in authority to take her seriously. Sanjiv says he is interested in the satire on bureaucracy as he believes that too many things in Malaysia are bundled up in red tape.

David Lim, who has left for University in Australia a month ago, strangely still takes the credit for being the director of The Blue Hour, a series of sketches about city life by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo). Lim had spent a month workshopping with the actors on the Practical Aesthetics school of dramatics that was founded by Mamet and actor William H Macy (Fargo, Happy Texas, Magnolia), which believes that acting has nothing to do with emotion but action. Going against method acting, Mamet says in an interview with Matthew C. Roudane, “The action is what is the character doing. That’s what the actor must do. Acting has absolutely nothing to do with emotion or feeling emotional. It has as little to do with emotion as playing a violin does. You have to study emotion. People don’t go to the theatre to hear the emotion; they go to hear the concerto. The emotions should take place in the audience. It just doesn’t have to be dealt with from the actor’s viewpoint.” With so many plays in KL being overacted these days, perhaps this technique will be a welcome relief.

The actors in The Blue Hour are gushing about Lim, who lets them bring to rehearsals whatever they are feeling at the moment. Bernadette Lawrence, credited as assistant director, has taken over for the last one month, and has been continuing the process of helping the actors discover themselves onstage.

In Rep21’s The Crucible, Abdul Qahar Aqilah was singled in a few reviews for his outstanding performance as Giles Corey, playing this comic role with an intelligent, touching humanity. His participation in a public writing workshop I had conducted last year also brought out a seething powerful short story from him. Qahar is the most reticent of the lot, but may also be the most sublime thinker. This round, he is trying out Mamet’s Practical Aesthetics on a play by David Lim himself. Titled A Beautiful Mine, it follows the slow devastation of a couple’s relationship in the midst of a blackout. Qahar says that one of the issues raised is about how independent our thoughts really are: “If I argue with you and you eventually change your mind and agree with me, have you agreed on your own free will or because of me? Is it really YOUR opinion?”

So, are these stories and these experiments really their stories and experiments? Maybe so, maybe not yet, but they seem on their way there. At the very least, the four directors have found something like a support group: they are able to share their enthusiasm for a particular dramatic philosophy as well as bitch about uncooperative actors. It is great that Chaotic Harmony has given the space to the people with ideas. Generation gap, bureaucracy, emotionless acting and independent thoughts… if nothing else, you could say these four boys are serious enough about their craft to deserve attention.

First Published: 20.08.2002 on Kakiseni

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