By Zedeck Siew
Recently we called on Thailand to ask about the coup. From a condo on the Gulf, by the beach, Rey Buono told us that he himself had phoned Bangkok the night General Boonyaratglin seized power. “My friend said: ‘What coup?'” Rey says. “I’m calling it the Jim Thompson coup — smooth as silk.”
With a resume of teaching, acting and directing credentials beginning in the 1970s, Rey arrived in Southeast Asia to become Singapore’s Victoria Junior College’s first Head of Drama. Theatre Studies was a Cambridge A Level elective, and in 1988 the island state’s first performing arts course in the educational system at any level. Rey, working with the Ministry of Education, was seminal in the formalisation of performance education in Singapore.
In 1997, after managing to offend the government, Rey moved to Kuala Lumpur. “I had plans for a serious school of performance,” Rey says. Unfortunately, he arrived just in time for the financial crisis. He found a place at University Putra Malaysia, under Vice-Chancellor Syed Jalaluddin Syed Salim; when the VC left university politics kicked in, knives came out, and the music and performing arts faculties were decimated.
Rey then approached Sunway College with the outlines for his school. It was to combine instruction in both performance and media, a novel hybrid designed to provide all the things a young practitioner would need in the film and theatre industry. In the first six months of 2003, Rey spent a majority of his time developing the curriculum. “I’m very proud of that,” Rey says. “It probably the first of its kind, here: one that provides a grounding in both theory and practice, in both Eastern and Western disciplines. Akademi Seni Kebangsaan had something like it, but without the media component.”
The school had an initial intake of four students. “I’m grateful they took the risk — but the school wasn’t marketed very well. There were maybe two print ads in all the time I was there. Getting students were a real problem. That was a battle I fought and lost.”
Today, Sunway’s Department of Performance + Media is doing well. It has 39 students and an experienced teaching body — most of whom are distinguished practitioners in their own right: actor Jo Kukathas, filmmaker Bernard and writer Bernice Chauly, performance artist Ray Lagenbach, playwright Leow Puay Tin. Ray and Puay Tin are now joint Heads of Department.
Rey is no longer there. “It was extremely difficult to leave,” he says, “But I was totally burnt out.” After wrestling with a largely unconvinced college administration for three years, Rey took a holiday up north. “I had worked very hard in Singapore for nine years. Then there was UPM, which was difficult for different reasons, and then the stress of building the school at Sunway. So I came out here, watched the beautiful ocean waves crashing, and decided I would rather not continue.”
Rey now teaches a studio course, one that combines the disciplines of various media including the visual and performing arts, at a small private college in Chonburi. “It’s a lot less pressure,” Rey tells us. “What can I say?”
Rey Buono the theatre director — in this regard he is arguably most known to us as the director of the Instant Café Theatre productions of Merchant of Venice (with Jo Kukathas as co-director), Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, and Paula Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz — misses Kuala Lumpur. “I hope I’ll still be able to direct for the stage, both in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s the first in 30 years that I’m not doing anything theatrical.”
Of course, Rey’s departure has caused no small amount of wistfulness among many of his former students. Below, we present five personal accounts from the Department of Performance + Media’s first graduates.
Nurul Ain Mohammed Jamlus
I was enrolling in Sunway College’s School of Performance and Media when I first met Rey Buono. He welcomed me warmly, and we began talking about why I had decided to join the school. He asked me whether I went to see plays at the Actors Studio. “Yes,” I said.
“Do you know anything about Khakis-sen-nei?” he asked again. Because of Rey’s American accent I could not understand what he had said. I thought he was talking about a pair of Dockers khakis!
Then he showed me a printout of an article and I said: “Oh, Kakiseni!”
Rey went: “Yeah, Khakissennei!”
Rey is passionate about theatre, bad at mathematics, and has an incredible sense of humour. He was not only a teacher but also a father: he brought hope to me and helped me believe in myself.
Once, thinking about what university course or career to choose, I asked myself: “Is this what I really wanted to do? Could I do this?” I was battling not only myself, but also those close to me; my sisters always assumed studying the performing arts was not as brilliant a decision as studying law.
Rey told me otherwise: he told me that learning the arts was just as important as learning law — and the special thing about the arts was that you dealt with your intuition and discovered new things about yourself. He told me that being a performing arts student was brave enough, and that I should never let go of my passion of the theatre. “Many law undergraduates decide to venture into the arts themselves, anyway,” Rey added.
He taught me how to be in control of myself, and to never let my desires fly by me when I walk the journey of my own dreams.
“Make her look so different I won’t be able to recognise her,” Rey Buono said. A friend of mine was going to make me up for our second semester year’s Mask and Characterisation class. I detested this idea, especially since we were supposed to look entirely different from ourselves. After I had put on my ‘mask’, Rey came in, looked at me, and burst out laughing.
Then the lights in the theatre were on and I was staring at a colourful face in the mirror. “Who do you see in the mirror?” Rey whispered in my ear. “Do you love her or hate her? Who does she remind you of?” Five minutes later, I began to feel the emotions that Rey was trying to bring out in me: then he let me go and called his next victim to the mirror.
Rey was always there whenever things got too much for me to handle. If anyone broke out in tears or lost their temper in class, he was there to put his arms around us, to tell us that everything would be all right. I always felt safe in his arms.
I went to him whenever I needed his advice and we would end up talking about something entirely different. He cracked some of the funniest jokes I’ve heard; his sense of humour and joyous presence always gave life to every room her entered.
We were in a classroom, our sweaters on, hands tucked under our armpits and between our thighs, the air-conditioning freezing. Rey Buono sat in a blue plastic chair, a friendly clown-like smile on his face, reciting by memory Jaque’s speech from As You Like It:
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
There were tears rolling down Rey’s cheeks. Everyone sat speechless and I had goose bumps. It didn’t look like he was acting; the words were alive because Rey was describing himself and making himself vulnerable to us. This was Performing Arts 100, our Introduction to Theatre. It became easy for us to be similarly transparent.
Rey loves Mozart. He drinks lots of coffee, functions almost exclusively through his second and sixth charkas, and is aware he is getting old. “It’s okay,” I said to him once, “As long as you are growing old gracefully.”
He laughed and replied: “Honey, I am not at all close to becoming graceful. I am a grumpy, dirty old man.”
Rey loved popping in during classes other than his own to say hello, or to sing a song, or to tell a joke. One of them was:
Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None of your goddamn business!
I miss these interruptions.
Every new batch of students in the Performance and Media school has to stage Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words II. It was the first piece of theatre I performed in my life. It was so much fun! I respect Rey Buono because of his vast knowledge of theatre, but I treasure my experiences with him most because it was in this time that I had discovered my passion, love and talent for acting.
“I feel pretty, oh so pretty / I feel pretty, and witty, and gay!” are the lines from West Side Story I remember Rey singing the most; his love for musicals was written on his face. I provide a list of facts about Rey Buono you might not have been aware of:
His full name is Reynold John Buono.
He is 60 and a Leo.
He cracks really funny dirty jokes.
His mum was a singer in a pub.
His grandma was the one he loved most, the one who supported him in love for theatre.
He loves, protects, and respects the masks he owns very much.
He loves coffee — his room smells like 100-year-old coffee
He takes the lift when going up but always take the stairs when coming down.
He has a Buck Fush sticker on his car.
Thailand is the place nearest to his heart.
In his absence new students no longer perform Beckett.
Once upon a time I was a student of business: I wanted to do something that could get me into the corporate world. All I ever had in my mind was money. But behind this urge was a craving for attention: I wanted to express my brilliant theories of oppressed times, when my parents were always too busy and I was left at home with the maid.
Then Rey Buono came along. I met him for the first time in 2003. “This guy is probably either CIA,” I said to a friend, “Or a bum.” For several years I was convinced and paranoid about it, because I used to go to class high — and not on life, I can tell you that. Then I realised that the CIA would not spend their time looking for potheads. I don’t regret taking that chance.
What I miss most about Rey Buono is his sarcastic, eclectic, eccentric, sadistic sense of life. Only God knows what’s in his mind — though he would disagree, of course, because he doesn’t believe in one.
Or perhaps he thinks he’s God. He doesn’t show it, of course, but I know he finds pleasure in creating sets, directing actors and anything else that makes him feel All-mighty. That’s why he’s in theatre. This is what I find most remarkable about the guy: his passion for what he does. When he was starting up Sunway’s Performance and Media school, he was splitting his schedule down to the hairs: going back and fourth between the education board, and the management board, and classes in between. He walked head first, diminishing any problem that came his way, not giving up, even for a moment. It was this surety that made the school what it is today: the most Avant-garde school of art Malaysia has ever seen.
Rey described Malaysia’s sociological problem simply: “This country is stuck in a traffic jam.” He said this jokingly but meant it in earnest.
“Think about it,” he would say. “When we are in a jam we are constantly waiting to get where we’re going, and it is this waiting that has lulled many into a state of idleness: ‘What can we do? We’re in a jam.'” I thought over this statement, and I think it has made me what I am today. It thought me to respect time, other people, and the importance of leaving early. Thank you, Rey. It should be our school motto: Leave Early.
Rey Buono is my role model. Wherever he goes, he takes a theatre with him. Shakespeare would have loved him; Godot waits for him. We miss you, Rey. Hope you’re having a good one in Thailand. If you ask me, though, I’d say Chonburi’s getting the better end of the deal.
Helena, Nurul Ain, Joylynn and Cindy appear in an adaptation of Ovidia Yu’s 3 Fat Virgins Unassembled, directed by Zahim Albakri, at The Rooftop Theatre, Sunway University College, between Thu 12 – Sun 15, Oct 2006. Razif most recently appeared as a King Scout in Bernard Chauly’s Goodbye Boys.
First Published: 04.10.2006 on Kakiseni