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Jo Kukathas

A force to be reckoned with both on and off stage, actor/writer/director/producer Jo Kukathas is dedicated to the promotion and proliferation of the arts. The artistic director of Kuala Lumpur’s The Instant Café Theatre Company talks to Travel 3Sixty° about her latest role and her hopes for Malaysian theatre.

Compiled by Chitra S


Tell us about the role you play in dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 

I play Agnes the daughter of the god, Indra. Her father sends her down to earth to save mankind. Agnes is taken on a journey of enlightenment by a mysterious boy and together they learn about humanity and themselves. It’s a dream play, and Agnes and the boy travel through dreamtime on a picturesque journey that is funny and furious, absurd and tender, poignant and powerful.

What do you enjoy most about collaborating with Alfian Sa’at?

I love working with Singaporean playwright Alfian. I’ve directed a few of his plays but this is the .rst time working on one of his earlier plays. I love the fantastical, elliptical nature of this work, which is always evolving and moving in unexpected directions. He’s interested in form as well as story. He’ll often message me with three new ideas for plays and different ways of telling them. He’s inventive, searching and intuitive. I don’t use the word genius often but I will use it here; I think his work is inspired and I mean that literally.

How do you prepare for a role?

That’s a big question so maybe I’ll just talk about Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1. Because it’s a dream play, the logic is that of a dream. You have to trust the jumps from one state to the other, feel and taste the texture of the words and allow the words to affect you rather than the other way round. How do you prepare for a goddess? Her body must be grounded to the centre of the earth and at the same time she must be in the stars. I draw on chakra work for inspiration to hopefully open up all aspects of her being. At the same time, Agnes takes on human incarnations, and is vain, carnal, comic, villainous and naïve. I’m in. uenced by the idea of the plenary body of the actor; in preparing, I try to open up and connect to energies outside myself.


What can be done to improve accessibility to the arts?

The more visible it is, the more accessible it is. Art should be all around. I’d love a city that has more billboards about the performing arts than about designer handbags. Advertisements make us desire goods. How wonderful if they would make us yearn for something more mysterious, intangible and fragile.

What are the stumbling blocks to the development of theatre?

Funding and visibility! For some reason,the arts were discredited and demeaned for many years both in Singapore and Malaysia. The arts and artists have always had to justify their existence – often using the vocabulary of commerce. It’s not a useful language when thinking and talking about the arts. I think the discourse has changed of late in Singapore and is continuing to change. But I don’t know if it’s become less utilitarian.

How has Malaysian theatre changed since you first started out?

There are more theatre companies, a growing audience and in the last year or so, government agencies have begun to offer grants for projects. On the downside, it has become less experimental and there are fewer playwrights. There are more big musicals and fewer plays by Malaysian playwrights.

How have you evolved as an actor, director and producer?

My first job was as a member of the stage crew. Then, I got a role as an actor working on other people’s productions. Within a few years, I formed Instant Café Theatre with some friends with the aim of doing our own satire on Malaysian politics, and with the greater aim of writing our own work as a collective. The work was devised, written and performed in a very guerrilla style. We then decided to do the classics and I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We were young, brash and rash. I’ve lost my youth but I hope I haven’t completely lost my rashness. I try to be adventurous and to treat every new project like an adventure where I can learn. That’s not to say I’m not terried. I’m bad with heights but I try to go there.


Why do you love acting and the theatre in particular?

At the moment I’m fond of quoting Oscar Wilde to explain myself: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

How do the Malaysian and Singaporean theatre scenes compare?

It’s clear on the surface that Singaporean theatre is more developed and successful, although that is a strange word to use – as if the arts are so easily measured. There are more theatres, writers and directors, actors and designers. There is more diversity from commercial productions to experimental work. There are many interesting artists. In Malaysia, it’s messier; there is more turbulence, more chaos. The canvas in Malaysia is larger. It inspires us differently. That is not a bad thing either.


What is your hope for the future of Malaysian theatre? 

That it will be more visible. That we will have more playwrights and more of our own mad stories will be told. That we will link our contemporary theatre to our traditions. That we will not distinguish between dance, music and theatre, contemporary and traditional but create new hybrids. That we will have theatre in schools, streets and alleyways.

When you’re not on stage, you are… 

In bed working, writing or reading, spending too much time on Facebook and Twitter as myself or my alter-egos, playing with my cats, staring at the ceiling. Talking, eating and drinking with friends. Plotting. Dreaming of going on an island holiday.

Catch Jo Kukathas in Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1, part of Alfian Sa’at – In The Spotlight, a festival by W!ld Rice showcasing the works of the Singaporean playwright.The festival runs from July 3 to 20, 2013 at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. For ticketing details, go to www.sistic.com.sg