By Benjamin McKay
In an attempt to uncover the mysteries of creative practice in Malaysia, and discern what makes Malaysian artists unique to their time and place, I plan to interview an array of local cultural practitioners over the next year. I begin this enquiry with a conversation with Mark Teh.
Mark, 25, has been involved in theatre here in Kuala Lumpur since he was 18 years old. While still a young practitioner, it is not without some basis to suggest that Mark is one of the busiest and most versatile talents in contemporary Malaysian theatre, given his record of achievements.
This year alone has seen him appear on stage in works as diverse as his own Baling (Membaling), the Chee Sek Thim-directed musical adaptation of Beth Yahp’s In 1969, the recent Choreography for Non-Choreographers performances (that took place on a rain enhanced stage at Central Market) – even on film, in Azharr Rudin’s The Amber Sexalogy.
The following questions and answers are edited excerpts from a considerably longer interview.
Getting Started: Reformasi Personal and National
Mark Teh: I was at Taylor’s College doing my A-Levels in English Lit. I had a very good lecturer, Mohan Ambikaipaker, who was also a theatre reviewer for The Edge. He forced us to go watch theatre and to review it. That was really my first exposure to theatre; and, you know, that was the time of the whole 1998 Anwar-Reformasi crisis – a period of political, social and economic upheaval. There were plays at Five Arts like Charlene Rajendran’s My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry and Jo Kukathas’ production of Dario Po’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist on at the time.
Benjamin McKay: That was a nice, timely piece for that period!
MT: It was, it really, really was. It was very useful to have lecturers like Mohan who encouraged us to go to demonstrations, to events – and make the connections, make the links. The plays weren’t really about the Reformasi, but a lot of these works were about issues relating to slippages in Malaysian identity: things to do with ethnicity, things to with privilege … Of course, I was attracted by the stories and issues – at that time, but also the form and the images. They struck me.
BM: Do you regret that the movement catalysed by the Reformasi didn’t really take off, politically as well as in terms of what could have come out of theatre and art?
MT: I think it left a lot of young people quite disillusioned. It felt like there was real space for change, then: a real space for re-imagining, for rethinking about what we could be and what young people could do. And this was, after all, with the Universities and University Colleges Act in place – so young people were already crossing the line, anyway. For example, a number of young people connected with Hishamuddin Rais were arrested under the ISA at the time.
And then momentum was lost, as these sort of things do. I felt that a lot of the coalitions in the arts also fizzled out at that time – things like Artisproactiv. I think, ultimately, it comes back to this very Malaysian thing of being extremely reactive.
On Akshen and Five Arts
MT: One of the things I like about Five Arts is this emphasis on original material, on original writing. Akshen responded to that. People like Fahmi (Fadzil) and Gabriel (Low) and Adrian (Kisai) – they all came out of this group of literature students at Taylor’s who had been exposed to theatre and demonstrations. Marion (D’Cruz) came and saw us and she told us that we must continue: “After you graduate come and we will be happy to support any thing you want to do.” So then there was this relationship with Five Arts.
BM: They allowed you a great deal of autonomy.
MT: We were allowed to do anything that we wanted. That is one of the things about Five Arts: there is quite a deep respect for young people. It was only towards this year, after Krishen (Jit) passed away, that we realised we had never really worked with Marion and the others who had all this wealth of experience. So after five years of having become members of Five Arts – where we had been left to do our own thing – our relationship on the floor in the rehearsal room is really getting worked out now.
BM: When you started out as a group, did you have any formulated ambitions?
MT: I think Akshen, as a group, is still trying to figure out what we are about. One of the things is whether there is really a separation: between what Akshen is about and what Five Arts is about – besides the fact that we are just younger. Of course we dealt with things from a young person’s perspective, but I run not sure we were youth theatre in the conventional sense.
There was a big transition period when the other members of Akshen left for university, after Taylor’s. I was the only one left in Malaysia. That pushed me, on reflection, towards a number of things. That was when I started working with filmmakers and visual artists – and that was when I started doing community arts work at Taman Medan.
In the Corridors
BM: How important for you was the Taman Medan project, the public service element aside? What did you get from it, personally?
MT: Again, I was acting on instinct. I mean that. A lot of people appreciated Akshen’s work but I was feeling a bit trapped by the theatre, by the box. I felt that it was time to take it out – and see what happens lah.
Taman Medan is like a mahjong table: communities of people who are constantly being moved around, every time there is a little spot of trouble or every time a new area development goes up – they just keep getting moved, and moved. So you learn about erasure. You learn about how a space can lose its identity.
As for sites for performance and learning through audiences – the families, people in the flats, people in the shop-houses all working as collaborators – it made my imagination explode; where theatre, where film, where visual arts could be done – and should be done, really: in the corridors of the flats.
Working with the young people of Taman Medan really made me want to have a stronger foundation, sociologically. The arts have been accessible – and exciting – for these young people, but after a certain point we are still artists. I’m planning to go off to university to study: perhaps performance studies, cultural studies, or social anthropology. This was lacking in the Taman Medan project: tools to measure how effective the work was, to question if the methodology used was suitable, to understand what is actually going on …
BM: So Malaysia is not getting another engineer?
Making Democratic Mess
MT: I like the term ‘documentary theatre’: this juxtaposition of historical text and contemporary writing. It is a very useful way of dealing with very current issues. We devised Baling (Membaling) by mainly using the Baling talks between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng; but the performers also researched their families about stories in regards to the Communist times. Imri (Nasution) was particularly interested in the arms trade at that time and how the communists acquired control of these arms. That became a part of the performance. It became not just an ensemble performance but also an ensemble of writers.
I have this style of writing: creating texts where I steal from different places. Some of it I write or re-write; I would sort of ‘farm out’ the rest: give sections to Fahmi to write or for Gabrielle to write. That was what we were about: creating original texts and working as an ensemble. On reflection, the results of this technique were marked by things like a very episodic, non-linear narrative – not really sketches, but a curator-ship and re-writing of texts.
I do not think that was our original philosophy or aim, but it became very much our way of working. It creates different types of ownership with the people that you are working with. Sometimes it can be a democratic mess: you make compromises and sometimes the piece, as text and drama, is uneven. But more often than not it works. It is a way in which I am particularly comfortable, working.
BM: The Baling (Membaling) piece is, in a textual sense, a continual rewriting of history at different temporal zones: you deal with the past but allow it to be infused by the present. Was this a response to a perceived need for historical reflection? What are your memories of learning Malaysian history at school?
MT: Absolutely absent. I was at a government school up until I was about ten years old: then I went to an international school where I learned a great deal about European history and American history. The whole Malaysian history thing bypassed me. For me, back during the Reformasi, there was all this news coming out and I didn’t know who these people were. Who the hell is Anwar Ibrahim? Oh, he is the DPM – Okay!
And after that there was this obsession: I have to find out, I have to find out. This process of recovery is a personal one. Lately, all of my work has been about this. But I know there are a lot of young people in this country who don’t know anything about Malaysian history.
BM: Some audiences are scared by the terms ‘experimental’ and ‘workshop’. What does ‘experimental’ mean to you? How would you define it?
MT: I think the idea in my head that relates most to this, for now, is the idea of failure: the possibility of failure. It is interesting that failure comes out of actually being idealistic. Idealism about the need to take risks.
I think that is not explored enough in a lot of our arts work, here. A lot of theatre here tries to project itself as being popular and populist, but theatre just isn’t popular and populist in this country.
There is this whole myth about the Five Arts style, right: inaccessible, critical, experimental; it fails or doesn’t fail, that sort of thing. I like that. I like the fact that there have been some brave failures at Five Arts and an admission of some of these failures.
I think Krishen’s work as a director was one long production. It was bigger than just one production and one obsession. If this particular form or this particular narrative did not work here it could work somewhere else: you continue to doubt yourself.
I think this idea from Krishen’s work is very useful for a young artist. We don’t doubt ourselves now, and that is a big problem …
BM: What can an artist or a group like Five Arts do to fight the narrowing of discourse and our perceived unwillingness to publicly engage with history and reality? Or is that question too idealistic anyway?
MT: On a personal level I, too, am trying to find that out. In a sense I think that the projects we are doing are speculations about the state of the country, as much as they are experiments. Personally, the way I make sense of all this in Malaysia right now is by continuing to do theatre in non-theatre spaces.
BM: Do you think there is such a thing as a Malaysian artist?
MT: I think that really influential artists have to live in and out of their time and in and out of their place. Yes, there are Malaysian artists and I am excited by their work. Inspired. But for me to qualify who they are in those terms is too big a responsibility.
This question of Malaysian identity is quite a dangerous one right now. It’s a question of labels and I always find that the label never fits.
If you look at the trajectory of certain theatre people – a case in point would be Krishen and maybe Janet (Pillai) – I think what might mark an artist as a Malaysian artist is the capacity to adapt.
And again that is not a particularly Malaysian thing at all – to adapt to your time and context. You become very sensitive to the changes and shifts that are happening and that reflects in your work. I also think something that these people have is stamina – the stamina to constantly re-look things and to doubt …
I think the challenge for any Malaysian artist is to have that stamina over the long period.
First Published: 14.09.2006 on Kakiseni