Two ‘superheroes’ turn on the chutzpah for Subhadra Devan
RESERVED. Poised. Serious. A description that is quite different from Jo Kukathas of Curry Spice, or the geriatric YBee fame.
Kukathas, co-founding director of The Instant Cafe Theatre Company and its artistic director since 1995, agrees: “I’m a very serious person off-stage.”
Soon to be the finale act in Joanne Kam Poh Poh’s comedy show, Kukathas, 50, is listed as “legendary” in the press release of Super Kam & The League Of Extraordinary Femmes.
“Legendary?” she says, with a smile at Kam, tucked in the corner of the beige sofa in a restaurant in The Gardens, Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur. “Well, it’s better than dinosaur, I suppose.”
“I am a demigoddess,” says Kam who adds that she’s “clad in the biggest PVC stretch leotard you’ve ever seen” for her Toniq-produced show.
Kam, Kukathas and Superkam co-producer Llewellyn Marsh, who is also a singer and composer, are putting their particular spin on the PJ Live Arts show which will pay tribute to women comediennes.
“I choose to do comedy because to me, it’s a way to tell the truth that will make people listen to it,” explains Kukathas, the daughter of the late and illustrious diplomat-writer-playwright K. Das.
An actor, writer and director, she doodles on the white-papered table as she talks about herself, her work and Super Kam & The League Of Extraordinary Femmes.
As brash, bold and brassy on stage as her personas (which include Puan Badariah Tudong Periuk, a frustrated uncivil servant, or Ambrosia Lala a.k.a Ribena Berry, an ex-beauty queen), Kukathas sees herself as “essentially an actor,” not a comedienne. “You go up and do stuff with funny faces, and people go, ‘oh she’s funny’. Even without doing comedy, people think you are funny,” she muses.
She has received acclaim for her three one-woman shows: Atomic Jaya and Election Day by Huzir Sulaiman, and From Table Mountain To Teluk Intan by Shahimah Idris, which garnered her excellent reviews at the New York Fringe Festival.
Other than the Super Kam show, Kukathas is up for a show in Singapore, called Occupation, and is working on another theatre show by year’s end.
“It’s about a young woman whose mother is a Muslim convert. It’s supposed to remind you about the Hertogh case of the 1950s,” she explains.
Last June, she successfully staged Parah at the Drama Centre in Singapore and in July at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. It deals with friendship and racial relations.
Kuala Lumpur-born Kukathas grew up in Canberra, Australia, and Hong Kong, and attended boarding school with her sister in Ootakamund, India. She returned to Malaysia in 1984 after completing her degree in Britain.
Was schooling in the hill retreat of Ooty a culture shock? “Yes,” she says. “It was an English boarding school, up in the hills, and freezing cold. The bathtub was a tin tub hung on the wall. I wrote a letter home once a week. This was before the days of email.”
Kukathas recalls having a theatre company when young, comprising cousins and sisters.
“First time we got together, we decided to do a show. We had a group called the Banana Bunch. It was a variety show and I don’t know how this happened but I had a section called Jokes By Jo. I think I was 8 or 9. I had no idea what jokes I told. I was always terrible at telling jokes,” she says.
“I also did comedy sketches, a whole dance. The company would subsequently do other shows, like Dracula. I often played male characters because we didn’t have enough male cousins. And often old male characters. My sister would be the heroine and another female cousin, the hero.”
“How many relatives?” asks Kam.
“About 40 people,” says Kukathas. “I always ended up playing multiple comic parts. But never the hero or heroine.”
Kam chips in: “Me too.”
Kukathas continues: “Even in school, I was cast as the aged crone, the handmaiden, the animals, old men... sometimes young men, even though I went to a co-ed school. I had a deeper voice than some of the boys.
In 1985, Kukathas took part in her first production, Caught In The Middle, at the old Kompleks Budaya Negara theatre in Jalan Tun Ismail (where Aswara is today).
“I went for the audition, but I didn’t get the part. I was told ‘I can’t offer you a role but would you come and help out’. So I would open the windows, clean the floor and kill the mosquitoes. Then somebody dropped out and I got the role.
And because it was a devised play, I ended up devising multiple roles as well.”
Kukathas co-founded ICT in 1989.
“I was 19,” says Kam, daughter of the late John Kam, a journalist with the New Straits Times.
“I was in Singapore then and I went for an interview to take up nursing. Later that day, I also went for an audition at Haw Par Villa as a park character. I ended up in Haw Par Villa (a historical theme park with statues and dioramas that dramatise Chinese legends and folklore.) I was the matchmaker. There I was, in Chinese costume, marrying off people waiting in the queue for tickets.”
In school plays, Kam, like Kukathas, was cast in everything but the lead character.
“In my first school play, I was a headmistress and I found this was something I was good at,” says the former pupil of Ipoh Methodist Girls School.
“I wasn’t the pretty one and too big to play the lady. So I got male roles. One year, I was Sir Galahad. I was so good that the next year, they wrote The Owl for me! So I played an animal too!” says the 40-year-old mother of one, who raised the roof off the Boom Boom Room with bawdy, ribald jokes when she was just 21.
Kukathas says: “I didn’t mind it at all. People quickly put you into boxes and you either not like it or go with it. It’s a natural human thing to respond to beauty. And we respond to funny faces but differently. Everyone has a role to play in the village.”
METHOD TO COMEDIC MADNESS
Kukathas reveals that she tends to write notes about happenings. “Just as reminders. I have an open page on my laptop, which I stick things into. And when I have a show coming up, I go back to it and sort of channel it. I don’t think, ‘oh
I need to put this in’ or that. I read through and then I start to write from what’s coming out of that. I also read a lot of stuff.
“It’s not necessarily from the notes too. If it was a big thing, say last year, I will remember it, without the notes. It’s what current. I use myself as a barometer or I call up my friends.”
Does Kam take notes on, err, sex?
“Can you write it?” she ripostes. “Anyway, sex is like natural latex.” After the laughter, she adds: “A week before the show, I may go on the Internet and read what’s going on. There’ll always be new material. With improvisations, you can stay away from repeating yourself.”
Maya Tan has written the Super Kam script, which rides on the current tide of superheroes like The Avengers. Kam says she has worked with the women involved — Daphne Iking, Joanne Bessey, Shamaine Othman and Tan — and “they each have comic abilities”.
“I wanted Jo in Super Kam as she’s been doing comedy for so long,” she says.
The show will also see audience participation with games, a staple of a Kam production. “You can expect improvisations, stand-ups and skits.”
Curry Spice closes the show. “You know, she’s only appeared twice in public so far. But I’m hoping it’ll be a new audience for Super Kam,” says Kukathas of her persona.
The first time was for 10 minutes and the other was at K.R. Soma, (Auditorium Tan Sri K.R.Soma in KL) 18 months ago, where this persona rocked with a Cockney accent.
This was how Curry Spice was born: “Ribena Berry (another Kukathas persona) had lost her way and she went to a shop in Ampang with her make-up artist. I saw this huge wig, and it spoke to me. I put it on in the shop and I started to speak like this (Cockney),” she explains.
“I bought it, not intending to use in a show. I wore it to the office, spoke like this and asked ‘I look scary, don’t I?’. I had a photoshoot that day. So I just put it on and started talking to the photographer (Faisal Mustaffa) in the Cockney way.
He asked who this was. ‘Must be a Spice girl,’ I replied and he added, ‘Must be Curry Spice’.”
Curry Spice is from Sentul “cos of curry”. And her accent? “Because she had been in England for three months.”
POLITICS OF COMEDY
Kam says she is told “no politics” when people ask her to perform at their events.
“I tell them ‘don’t worry, I do sex’. But seriously,” she adds with this eyebrow-raiser: “I need to pay the bills and because I don’t look like Daphne Iking, I need to pay people to entice me.”
Kukathas is quick to add that, unlike Kam, she doesn’t do stand-up comedy. “I’m always doing characters. I’m not comfortable being myself. So I never play myself. I really admire those who can do stand-up comedy, like Joanne (Kam).”
Kukathas says “girls who look different end up going into comedy”.
“If you grew thinking you have a funny face, then it’s very likely comedy will be an outlet. Look at Barbra Streisand,” she says.
Comedy — stand-up, slapstick and otherwise — is necessary because, she says, “as human beings, we need comedy and we need tragedy”.
She adds: “Life is essentially that. There’s comedy happening all around us. Like catching fish in a barrel, that’s what doing comedy here is.
“(But) comedy outside is chaotic. So what the arts does is take what’s outside and put it up, and people can safely laugh at it. It is something shared. Laughter is quite cathartic, like tragedy.
“What’s important is that it’s something we enjoy doing collectively. Nowadays, we do a lot of stuff by ourselves — watch a sitcom on the telly at home, go to the cinema and watch a movie by ourselves in a darkened room. But you go to the theatre and you feel ‘I am not alone’.”
Kam says: “Lots of young people are in comedy compared to a decade ago. That’s when they wanted to do serious theatre.”
Kukathas adds: “But serious theatre still has more people. You know what they say: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. And I agree. I think comedy is really hard to do.”
Kam nods at this.
The two women are so ready to save the world, one joke at a time.
Super Kam & The League Of Extraordinary Femmes
When June 28-July 1, 2012, 8.30pm
Where Black Box @ MAPS KL, Publika, Solaris Dutamas
Tickets RM58 and RM68
Call 017-330 5776 or visit www.ticketpro.com.my