At a little corner of the second floor of the charming Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts (KLPaC) building is a room that’s very different from the other two spaces most patrons are used to. Unlike Pentas 1 and Pentas 2 theatres which have 504 and 190 seats respectively, the space called Indicine can hold about 100 flexible seats if needed.
But as you walk into Indicine this week, you probably won’t notice how many chairs are around. It’s the small yet stunning set at the heart of the room which will steal your attention. Eight lights forming an octagonal fluorescent frame above the stage shine over two chairs and a single table. The minimalist set is an indication of the number of thespians who will grace the stage for the 70 minute production, Contractions.
The show, written by Olivier award-winning Mike Bartlett is the first mainstage play by the newly-minted Theatresauce, a local theatre company spearheaded by Kelvin Wong, one of the industry’s favourite sons. “As a first, I thought it would be apt to start off small which I’m not known for doing because I tend to do ensembles, large casts sort of work,” begins Wong, who’s also Theatresauce’s founder and artistic director. “I’d like to start small and gradually grow Theatresauce’s plays in terms of cast size, production value and scale.”
Independent actress and co-founder of Shakespeare Demystified, Sandee Chew is cast alongside Five Arts Centre veteran Anne James in the show which will run till today. Both award-winning actresses are the stars of the show which in essence represents many of the things that Theatresauce is trying to do with their new platform: to break boundaries, to spark conversations, to question, to challenge, to introduce diversity and to entertain.
“I was drawn to Contractions because it presented just how dystopian our world could become and how that’s already exemplified in the time we live in,” confides Wong, who first came across the play while studying for his Masters in Directing at The Theatre School at DePaul University, Chicago.
The stage production, which first made its debut in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008, tells the story of highly-successful Emma (Chew) who pursues a romantic relationship with her colleague Darren. Unfortunately, she falls flat from her loved-up state when her manager (Anne) informs her that office romance is a breach of contract. To add to her despair, Emma discovers that she’s pregnant. “Contractions takes it to a more extreme level, of course. But I believe if we can see how dangerous individualism is challenged in a workplace, what more in a state or government because they believe what is right as opposed to the majority… that’s fascinating and frightening at the same time.”
But those emotions are just some of the things that Wong wants to introduce to the vibrant Malaysian theatre landscape through Theatresauce. For Wong, who has been in the scene for more than 15 years, Malaysia needs a space that, as he puts it “… digs deep into our darkest fears, most insane ideas and wildest aspirations.”
For the 2017/2018 season alone, all three plays the company is producing revolve around the subject of being trapped. “I don’t think it was a conscious choice,” says Wong, with a snigger, as he reflects on Bartlett’s Contractions (trapped in corporate culture), Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (trapped in the mind) and Hideki Noda’s The Bee (trapped by expectations of society). “I think I’m just naturally drawn to plays where individuals have to navigate themselves within circumstances and worlds that don’t favour them.”
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“I think questioning and challenging are at the heart of art itself,” says Wong who believes that the best art is derived from the melancholic, bleak times. Art, he divulges, is also reflection of life. “I think seeing something live like theatre and using that as a medium to bring forward questions about our lives is very potent. Plays which were written ages ago and plays which are written in this era all started by asking questions.”
Part of Theateresauce’s foundation lies in creating quality shows by crafting edgy content which prompts questions and sparks discussions, elements which Wong feels rest with directors. Directors, says Wong, are integral players in the creative process. He believes that there’s an excess of actors, and not enough directors. “It’s not a bad thing,” he reassures with a wide smile before adding: “But directing is more than just telling people where to go. There’s so much going on like analysis, taking care of people — you’re a counsellor, a nurse, a mother sometimes and you’re the captain of the ship.”
The lack of solid directors in Malaysian theatre has led Theatresauce to kick-start their Emerging Director’s Lab programme, a year-long vigorous initiative which sees Wong himself train and nurture a set of visionary directors. “I was exposed to diversity not in terms of race and culture but in viewpoints — the way people think. I feel I’ve grown more eyes, more ears,” recalls Wong of his exposure to directing while studying in the US. “And when I train directors, I try to get them to see it from that perspective as well.”
Education, adds Wong, is such a critical part towards improving the country’s theatre scene. “Way back when I was younger and wanted to try theatre, I didn’t know where to go,” he reveals, referring to the early 2000’s. Wong spent time calling up theatre companies he knew of, but like many of his curious counterparts, his calls went unanswered.
Auditions were mostly closed auditions for more established performers. “I got so impatient I started my own theatre company,” he says of Oral Stage, his first foray into managing any aspect of theatre before joining KLPaC three years later.
That route into theatre is a journey Wong hopes no young person has to go through. And that’s why he opened The School, a space where anyone can study about all the different aspects of theatre. As Amanda Ang, head of The School observes, Theatresauce wants to provide the stepping stone her generation didn’t have much of. “When I was younger, I remember thinking twice about signing up for acting class because it was just too expensive. Acting has so many different dimensions. Can you imagine forking out RM 300-500 for a class you know nothing about?” she says before pointing out that the Tapas classes at The School ranges from RM50-RM80.
“We call it Tapas because it’s got a bit of everything. It’s an introductory class from acting to physical movement classes to history of Malaysian theatre etc. If you find an area of interest, you can pursue it from there,” explains Ang.
Looking earnest, Wong, who also chairs the performance arts programme at Sunway University’s Department of Performance and Media, chips in: “That training is so important. It makes you realise that acting isn’t an easy feat and doing theatre isn’t about getting famous. We want the company to be synonymous with not just with providing good quality plays but also as a place where we can provide learning opportunities.”
Throughout the 70 minutes, the set of Contractions is kept to the minimal as scenes of desires, moods and political agenda are manipulated by the use of clever lighting and an equally smart script. “I hope the audience is left with an invigorated sense of what theatre can do and at the same time, they end up questioning their own lives,” concludes Wong.
If anyone leaves Indicine after Contractions reflecting on their own woes and wanting to come back for more plays after this, then Wong has definitely done something right. firstname.lastname@example.org