Nature vs Nurture

Half a year ago, I brunched with director Jo Kukathas and Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma at Top Hat. These two motor-mouthed wordsmiths discoursed in such an epic fashion that I had spent the last six months trying to edit down the interview. This is it, at last.

At that time, Jo, founder and artistic director of Instant Café Theater, was directing Ridzwan Othman’s Flies & Foreigners, which was being developed under ICT’s Firstworks programme. The programme aims to workshop first works by budding playwrights and then brings them to stage. Haresh, who is founder and resident playwright of The Necessary Stage, was up in KL for the staging of his play Otak Tak Centre (originally titled Off Centre), by Dramalab. We started out speaking about Jo and Haresh’s protégés, Ridzwan Othman and Alfian Sa’at respectively, and went on to discuss the relationship between the state and the artist and our mothers. – Pang Khee Teik

Festivals and Workshops: Gold for Drama

Pang: How did you come to mentor Alfian Sa’at?

Haresh: The thing about Singapore that is really very good is that there’s a lot of interest in the arts in schools. So as young as fourteen years old, you can already be someone who’s starting to write plays. And that’s how I met Alfian. He was 14, and I was doing some workshop, and he was in the workshop. They wanted us to choose writers to mentor. From the start his writing was so brilliant, so I chose him lah. And how old is he now ah?

Pang: Twenty seven…

Haresh: Wah, so old already ah.

It’s called the Creative Arts Programme. It happens every June holidays for four days. They have something like workshops and it’s organised by the Gifted Education Programme. It’s open to everyone, but surprise surprise – most of them are from Gifted Education Programme! But they do let some people in, and they are very strict.

But I feel sometimes the younger writers are different – they don’t want to work so hard. They feel they should be served on a platter. Like, I write one play, I’m famous, where’s my fame?

Jo: One of the reasons why I enjoyed working with Ridzwan [Othman, playwright of Flies & Foreigners] so much is because he had written a first draft of a play – he hadn’t written it to be staged, because he didn’t know if anybody would be interested in it. He wrote it because he needed to write it. For me that was the most important thing.

Pang: The system in Singapore seems rather supportive of young writers.

Haresh: To a certain extent, yes. We get a lot of calls from schools who want us to help them write plays, stage plays. And I think that is very positive.

They have this youth festival thing in Singapore – it’s a bit scary – where the principal tells the teacher in charge: I want you to win a gold medal. Then they call us: Can you stage a play for the youth art festival? But you must win a gold! We will turn down this kind of project because we believe theatre shouldn’t be competitive. We refer them to other companies. There are companies who are experienced in getting gold.

Jo: The thing is, in Singapore, at least they have put a value on it, even if it’s a commercial value gold. Here, we don’t put a value on it. Here, it means nothing for you to win a gold for drama.

Haresh: If you go to the states, for example, or to UK, there’re so many new writing programmes. They pay you money to go mountain and write, you know, for three months. And then you have the new dramatist programme, where they help you to create plays; they have this other programme where they help to sell the play; and this other programme will have a reading.

I’ve come across people who’ve had a million readings of their plays, and no staging, but they’re very happy. You can do a small reading in this country, and a small staging in that country, and then you can do a bigger staging in this city. Take something like Angels in America. It was done as a reading, as a work in progress, and then it became this, became that, and then finally: New York.

My first play that was staged was called Lanterns Never Go Out. Actually it wasn’t the first. I was working with The Necessary Stage, and had never written a play in my life. I was in such an environment – creating theatre with no fear – that I went back and I suddenly wrote three plays in one day or in two days. Sent in for the short play competition. One got a prize. Then Alvin [Tan, director the Necessary Stage] was like: Okay, now do you want to write a play? I’m like: Okay, let’s try.

So we devised – we interviewed a friend of ours who was just about to graduate, and then we decided to write a play based on her life. Basically it’s about being at the turning point of life and how you’re suppose to graduate and become a working person. It was a very special play for me, and the process – it’s my ideal process even till today.

Peer Mentorship: Ouch and Ouch

Pang: So who was your mentor?

Haresh: Maybe Alvin lah. I mean Alvin mentored in a kind of peer way. He wasn’t a playwright, he just directed. But he’d give me like, endless hours of feedback, then I’d take notes, then I’d create another draft. Even till today he’ll like: Yeah, but what’s so good about this and that? And I’m like ouch and ouch – all these years ouch and ouch – but I still listen lah.

Jo: It is about a lot of listening, and a lot of talking. A lot of it.

Within the structure of Instant Café is a mentoring programme, in a way-we mentor each other. You sit up all night and try to write something and come into rehearsal the next day and it’ll be: ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch.

Pang: Jo, your father, K Das, was one of the first Malaysian playwrights in English. Tell us about his plays.

Jo: He didn’t write very many. This was the fifties. Basically, at the time when we got independence in fifty­ seven, there was the Malaysian Performing Arts Theatre Group. It was a very colonial organisation – secretary, president: all mat salleh – which is fine. Then they’d do Shakespeare, Shaw – all that kind of stuff.

So my father, Syed Alwi, those guys – they were like: Enough Shakespeare, enough Shaw, we’ve got to take over MPATG. So they called all their friends to come to the AGM [Annual General Meeting] to vote them in. So they all got voted in: president, treasurer, secretary. Now Syed Alwi was president; my dad was treasurer. Then Syed said to dad, “So Das, now what? You want to do local plays right? We voted them out- no more Shakespeare and no more Shaw. You have to go home and write a play.” So he had to go home and write a play. He wrote the first play that they staged, All The Perfumes. That was their attempt to say: Now, how about the writing of the people here?

My dad wrote a couple of plays. Then he went and joined the Foreign Service and got posted elsewhere.

New Government, New Ministry: A Radical Change

Pang: What do you think about state support? How do you think it can improve?

Jo: We’re in a transition thing here. New government, new ministry. Finally we’ve got a Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, as opposed to Culture, Arts and Tourism. I think that’s a radical change – at least on paper or mindset.

One of the things that was said at the launch of the KL PAC [the yet to be completed new theatre of The Actors Studio, at Sentul West, funded by YTL] by the Prime Minister’s wife was: This is great, this is good, but of course you can only have a proper, vibrant theatre scene if there are people writing plays. And new plays being written. So that’s where things have to be supported.

When that’s going to be translated into something workable, I don’t know. But it may well be that we have to go and say: That’s very good that you said that; now, how can you make it work?

We want to go and approach them now. But you know Instant Café has never really been given any kind of funding from anybody in the state, because we are too critical. There is a distinction between just being critical of policy, and being a citizen of the country and therefore having a right to be critical of the country, and still be given funding for developing such works. As they have in Australia – they’ll give you money to write plays about the stolen generation – even though the prime minister himself won’t apologise for that.

That kind of paradox does not exist here, unfortunately. Not in theatre anyway. It exists in film. For example, Amir Muhammad can get an award from FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia], but he can’t get approval for his film to be shown in KL because it’s too critical.

Haresh: I think when you put artists and government together, there’s always negotiation. It’s never totally good or totally bad.

Jo: This thing about negotiation with the state is really acute – it’s a really horsey one. It’s a really important one.

You have a Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. And you have something like the KL PAC, which is being supported in some way by the Prime Minister’s wife, and therefore has a political connection. You then have to be very strong to make sure the relationship is equal.

Yes, these people are giving you money; yes, these people are giving you institutional support. But you are giving the artistic input and you are the artist. And I think that the artist can never be a beggar, the artist can never be a victim, and the artist can never be the person who says: Okay I will take that, and therefore do what you want.

With plays now becoming industry and big business, with government connections and all the rest of it, I think we can take very strong lessons from Singapore. And do not, either fall into the traps that they find themselves falling into, or to also use the negotiation that they’ve used in order not to fall into some of those traps.

Otherwise, I’m kind of worried about: “Oh look, you’ve given us all these, aren’t we grateful, we should be grateful.” No wonder people think artists are so flaky.

We should not be grateful. We are all equal in creating a space. One meets the other.

Haresh: Yeah, it takes to hands to clap and all that lah.

There’s a very simple “I give you this money you do the play the way I want you to do it, okay?” But that’s not really how the NAC [National Arts Council of Singapore] operates.

But sometimes, we kind of forget what we want. Because of what’s out there. Sometimes multicultural theatre is in, because the government wants to promote multi-culturalism. So there’s grant there. So everybody does multicultural theatre.

The State, The School, and Your Mother: No Room For Imagination

Pang: Eddin Khoo, at the Raise The Roof forum organized by ICT pointed out the fact that a system cannot produce an artist. Here we’re saying that the government should promote critical thinking so that more people can be interested in the arts, and all that. But, Eddin says that the system cannot produce an artist. An artist will rise up, nevertheless.

Jo: On a mental level, yes, I agree. You could have every system you could want in place – what I said earlier about that relationship with the state – you can do all those things, but the state must never think therefore it produces the artist. The artist comes out anyway. Of course, one feeds off the other… One can sustain the other, but cannot ask the other.

Haresh: Yeah. You produce a Van Gogh, it’s fine, great. Though he suffered most of his life.

For me it’s not so much about producing the artist but producing the culture of appreciation. People talking about art, people reading poetry, and children interested in writing.

When my father was in hospital, my nephew was like: What can I do? I tell him, you write him a get well card. Then he was like: Why is my uncle saying weird things? Then I said: You go and get a piece of paper, you get a pen, you just draw pictures, write anything you want to write. Then he said: Can I write, ‘dear grandpa’? I said: You write anything you want to write and draw anything you want to draw. And it’s so alien to him.

They don’t know how to use their imagination. They don’t know.

Jo: When my brother was in primary school here – it was a long time ago, in the 60s, I guess – he tells me this story about his English composition exam in grade 4. They were given this composition called ‘My Mother’.

There was this long thing about how my mother is this this this I love my mother la da da da da. And the last sentence is: “… and even though my mother has a gap between her two front teeth, I love her very much.”

So they told him, this is your composition, go memorise. So all the students went back and they memorised it. But my brother went back and said, this is not my mother.

So he got into the exam. And the title is: Write a composition on ‘My Mother’. All the other kids got marked on how well they remembered that composition. So all these compositions ended with: “… and even though my mother has a gap between her two front teeth, I love her very much.”

My brother wrote his own essay. So he got a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A’ lah. The teacher said: Why didn’t you write the essay? My brother said: That’s not my mother.

But this is what we’ve been teaching our children. There is no room for your imagination, or your mother.

Only one mother – The Mummy. This is what kids here are being subjected to. So it’s not surprising when you ask your nephew to draw – he’ll say: I cannot.

You can’t create an artist but you can certainly dampen down some that may have been.

Take someone like Zedeck for instance. I mean, there he is, this young man – he’s about 18 now – I met him when he was about 15. Where did he spring up from? Grew up in Port Dickson, small town – watching boats go by. He’s the youngest child of pastors, his siblings are all over the place, and he’s much much younger. Grew up reading Calvino and Borges – don’t know where he got those books though – his family is not a reading family [for the record, they read books on Biblical scholarship and self-help]. Where did he get all of these things? What made him read? What made him excited by them? What made him then submit a short story for the first Silverfish New Writing anthology, and getting an entry in?

He doesn’t really connect to the other kids in his class, because he’s ten times taller then all the rest of them, and, because he’s an artist. He found some connection elsewhere. He says to me: Sometimes I feel I’m sitting here listening to all these conversations and talking about things I don’t know, and at the same time, I have, back at home, a family, and church who say: Your friends are very strange. This is what creates the artist, this tension.

When I read the stuff he was writing in the writing workshop we organised, I thought: This boy’s sixteen! Where’s he getting these words from? And these thoughts? Like Alfian, you know. They’re just there. And if you meet them, you put them on a path.

That’s what I think the mentoring process is – when they come out like poor kittens blinking in the light, you just kind of say, okay, have a have a saucer of milk, and here, you can walk down this way. That’s what you do.

In the case of Zedeck, and Alfian, if let’s say they weren’t in this workshop, or that workshop, then it would be that much harder to help them along the way.

Haresh: No, Alfian would have become, anyway. Because he’s such a good writer. He was frustrated because he was writing such good things and not getting as much acknowledgement. The moment he reached eighteen or something like that, he got published and he got his play staged by a professional company. I mean we were staging his plays even before he was eighteen but it was still under the youth banner. He wanted to go into the adult banner. And very soon after that he did. Once you’re good, you’re good.

I think there are people out there who are not instinctively good. And they need to be honed.

But the good ones will come to you, regardless. They will, because you are good, they’re very good.

First Published: 30.12.2004 on Kakiseni

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