By Yasmin Zetti Martin
A school. A dead body. A scandal… “Biasalah asrama.”
Award-winning singer-songwriter Shanon Shah’s first full-length play, Air Con tells the story (in Bahasa Malaysia (Kedah dialect) and English with surtitles) of a group of boys at an elite school in Kedah. The boys confront sex, violence, bullying, and growing up after a prostitute is found dead on the railway tracks near their school. The play, co-directed by Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi, was developed under The Instant Café Theatre Company’s FIRSTWoRKS playwriting programme. We spoke to Zalfian Fuzi and Ryan Lee Baskaran about the play, and found out some things we never really wanted to know (but we’re sure you do!).
Why don’t you guys tell us about each other for us?
Zalfian Fuzi: I’ve known Ryan for years already. I first met him in 1999 when we worked on Flight Delay, and then he kind of vanished after that.
Ryan Lee Baskaran: Hey, he’s the one that disappeared! Zalfian used to drive a Volvo that Ida Nerina used to joke about.
Ooh, please tell us the joke.
ZF: You know, big boy, small Volvo.
RLB: That car was really comel.
ZF: Hey, that car is older than you.
Oooh-kay. Why don’t you describe Air Con for us in three sentences.
ZF: It’s about who we are, and where we’re headed. The play begs the question of what kind of school is this, and therefore what kind of society is this, and what kind of country, and religion, and education, and policy is this? There are so many themes like human rights, religion, home, love et cetera.
Tell us about the origins of the play.
ZF: The play stemmed from Instant Café Theatre’s FIRSTWoRKS playwriting lab. Jo Kukathas and I acted more or less as dramaturges for two years, working closely with Shanon Shah on his story, characters, plot, and themes, and doing a series of readings. Don’t get me wrong though, this is essentially Shanon’s play. It’s been inside Shanon for ages.
Ryan, tell us about your role in Air Con.
RLB: I play a 15 year old Mamak-Chinese mixed kid. He’s your typical nerd, and a real softy. He’s best friends with William, another student at the school, but they both have very different interests; which is an idea that Shanon uses — that opposites attract. My character, Asif, is not as open as William. In fact, he’s kind of a prude. His main interests are books and Nelson Mandela. Throughout the play all the boys are sort of tested, so see who’s still there for who after all the stress from the murder.
Zalfian, you and Jo Kukathas are co-directing this play. How does that work?
ZF: Well, we are always in agreement, otherwise this wouldn’t work. After the last reading we both knew the story inside out, so we were on the same page. Since then it’s been work 24 hours a day with no sleep. We’re always having meetings to discuss the set, the music, the script, the acting, everything. We’re always making notes and implementing them together, discussing details the actors bring up. We both bring things to the table, and pay attention to each other’s ideas. We don’t have disagreements about anything, instead to go and talk about it.
How have rehearsals been?
ZF: It’s an 11 week process, and it’s been intense. Well, it’s always intense when working on a new play. It’s not like Hamlet, where you’re ensured some kind of success because everybody knows it’s a great play. We’ve had to do a lot of script work, get on our feet, try out new things. I mean, we’re still making minor changes to the script, discovering that things work better when they’re swapped around, or if this line is said like that and so on.
RLB: Rehearsals have been really tiring for me. Because I’m attending college during the day, and studying drains a lot of energy. One of my day’s is from 9am to 9.30pm, and then straight on to rehearsals. So it’s been hard.
Ok, time for the fun stuff! What is Air Con‘s evil subliminal message?
RLB: That’s a tough one. For some reason I’m thinking the evil subliminal message has something to do with royalty.
ZF: Like a Machiavellianism, right Ryan? Like, always have a scapegoat. Or, always blame other people. Learn how to point the finger. That’s right. Air Con is all about pointing fingers.
If you had to change one thing about each other, what would it be?
RLB: I’d want Zalfian to speak louder, so I can hear the jokes he makes behind my back.
ZF: I don’t make jokes behind your back.
RLB: Yes you do! It’s just that I never find out about them because I can’t hear them.
ZF: They’re not bad jokes.
RLB: Yeah right.
ZF: I’d want Ryan to be called Asif for the rest of his life.
RLB: You already call me Asif all the time.
ZF: Fine, that’s option A. Option B is I want Asif to write a song about me. And make a video for me, about me, starring me.
Sorry, there are no options. Instead, you’re stuck in Hogwarts, and you look into the Mirror of Erised (which reflects your deepest desires). What do you see?
ZF: I see me holding Baskin Robbins.
ZF: What do you want me to say? World peace? [Thinking] Actually, that would make a great ice cream flavour. World Peach.
RLB: My mirror would just break. I’m too fickle. One minute it would have to show a 20 piece drum set, then car tyres, then something else. It would break from all the effort.
If neither of you had ever heard of ‘art’ before, what would you be doing?
ZF: I’d be an archaeologist. Archaeology is my first passion, but I was discouraged.
RLB: I’d be going to space.
ZF: You want to be an Angkasawan? You want to make Roti Canai in space, don’t you?
RLB: No! It’s not the rocket or being an astronaut that I like. I just want to be in space. I want to be a space fler.
What are your greatest hopes for Air Con?
ZF: The intention of FIRSTWoRKS has always been to stage works that will resonate. Works that will touch and move everyone.
RLB: I just hope everything goes well, man. What are your greatest fears for the play?
RLB: The opposite, lah!
ZF: Well, I’m always optimistic, so I’m not very worried about things going wrong in the show. I’m worried that people will miss it, because it would be such a shame. The play is serious, but it’s very funny, while being controversial and moving all at the same time. It asks the audience to take a stand, and I think it would be a real pity to be missed.
What are the most productive things each of you could do in 60 seconds?
RLB: I could start getting changed.
ZF: I wish I could’ve given this interview in 60 seconds.
Sorry about that!
ZF: Well, actually, 60 seconds is a very long time. You can destroy an entire play in that time. It only takes a minute for a play to die. Air Con has a few amazing short scenes, and in those few seconds the energy can go high or low and fail to convey the message, so we have to do our job well.
What’s next for you?
ZF: I’m directing another production, but the details are still to be confirmed.
RLB: I’ve got to finish my studies. After that I want to just perform music for a while. At the moment I perform with The Cintas and The Ferns, and I’d like to go places with them.
~ Yasmin Zetti Martin writes for Kakiseni.
First Published: 23.06.2008 on Kakiseni