By Lorien Holland
Diminutive Anne James is a heavyweight in the Kuala Lumpur arts scene. The 49-year-old has been acting and dancing – and occasionally directing – for as long as anyone can remember. Last month she won the Boh Cameronian Arts Award for Best Performer and later this week she will be playing an anchor role in a new multimedia performance, OPs OPHELIA: a FaShioN opeRa. This opens June 16 at the Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka and is the result of months of collaboration between director Rohaizad Suaidi and over 50 actors and crew. It will showcase Malaysia’s up and coming new talent in a confluence of Malay and English-language theatre. And it promises to be both edgy and intimate without the in-your-face approach of productions like Vagina Monologues.
James readily admits she is the oldest face in the cast. But does her long service to theatre in Malaysia mean she cuts a matronly figure, bestowing wise advice to Malaysia’s young hopefuls? Far from it. If anything, James personifies the young hopeful herself. That is because she is on the verge of a personal liberation – she is taking optional retirement from the teaching profession next month in order to concentrate on the performing arts. Sitting in the rehearsal studio for Ophelia, which is down in Kelana Jaya, she brims with anticipation and a childlike curiosity with the world.
“I am very excited about what I am going to do. I feel like the world is my oyster,” she says with a broad smile. “Of course I should have been feeling this at 25, but for me, its right now.”
One of James’s earliest memories is harbouring a strong version of the dream that grips five-year-old girls around the world – becoming a ballerina. That passion developed into a gritty enthusiasm for every school performance that came along, whatever the form or content.
But as her school days ended and she looked at what kind of place she wanted in the world, James jettisoned performing in favour of a history degree and pinned her hopes on becoming a diplomat for Malaysia.
Still, her estrangement from the world of acting and dancing did not last long. Two weeks into her history course, she discovered that the university also offered a performing arts degree. In an instant, she jettisoned her sensible, conservative future on the diplomatic cocktail circuit and switched courses. “I don’t think I would have made a good diplomat,” she says with a grimace.
In order to placate her parents, who were rather keener on a glittering diplomat than a penniless actress for a daughter, James also took a teaching diploma. That came with a government scholarship and a built-in eight years compulsory employment as a teacher. The eight grew into 25 years as a secondary school teacher of English, history and physical education. By all accounts, James was an exemplary teacher, pushing her pupils to think and discover. But it didn’t suit her. She hated not having space to think. She hated the administration and the policy swings and the longer she taught, the more she longed to devote all her time to the acting world.
“Why I perform, I have no idea. I am just drawn to it. I can’t imagine not doing it,” she says.
So, OPs OPHELIA will combine James’ enthusiasm, which is coloured by decades of accommodating dreams with reality, with the exhilarating, untested and sometimes crazy hopes of new theatre graduates.
The play, which involves singing, text, dance, and movement, is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Ophelia and will be performed in the intimate, some might even suggest tiny, STOR theatre. It started out as no more than a sketch in director Rohaizad’s mind back in 2003. Through a sometimes painful process of workshops – “It was all in Rohaizad’s head and sometimes it wasn’t at all clear to us what was in his head,” quips James – it has evolved into a whole performance, with contributions from the dozens of actors and crew who devoted their free time to the project over the past three months. They even documented their frustrations and exhilarations with the process on a weblog at http://www.artsee.net/ophelia.
And what is next for James, after OPs OPHELIA ends on June 27? Part of her attraction to Ops OPHELIA was the central role given to women. She herself is a keen advocate of women’s rights and her husband, Sivarasa Rasiah is both a human rights lawyer and a political activist. She sees theatre as an excellent conduit for issues that are not otherwise discussed in Malaysia, and is determined to use her new-found freedom to nurture the Malaysian voice on stage, both by acting and directing and by teaching acting and voice at various universities in the Klang valley. “When we see something on stage that is truly Malaysian its very engaging, and it resonates, in a way that western productions like Annie cannot,” she says. Given that western productions that play in Malaysia often draw far bigger crowds than domestic theatre, James has her work cut out for her. But then, the world IS her oyster right now. Happy hunting for those pearls.
First Published: 18.06.2004 on Kakiseni