Jo Kukathas: A Goddess in Singapore

With barely a fortnight to the opening of Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. I, veteran Malaysian actor Jo Kukathas is finding out what it takes to be a goddess.

No stranger to the local theatre scene, Jo acted in and co-directed W!LD RICE’s Cooling-Off Day in 2011, and was recently nominated as Best Actress in the 13th Life! Theatre Awards for her performance in Checkpoint Theatre’s Occupation.

We asked Jo about her role in Dreamplay, her thoughts on Alfian’s work, and why she loves traversing the Causeway to work in Singapore.

Tell us about Agnes, the goddess character you’re playing in Dreamplay.

It sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it! Alfian was inspired by Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1901) – the opening scene of Dreamplay mirrors Strindberg’s play. That’s how you first meet Agnes. She’s the daughter of the god Indra and goes down to Earth to save mankind. Specifically, she needs to save Singaporean mankind… from being gay. That’s what her father, from his view on the lofty heights, perceives as being the problem with mankind. So she lands with a bump in Singapore in the second scene.

What kind of journey does Agnes undergo once she arrives in Singapore?

When Agnes comes to Earth, she meets Boy – who is like every boy, and yet, like no boy. He’s trying to find out who he is and what he’s about. He is a gay boy. He is trying to understand what that means. He doesn’t know if it is what he wants to be. He dreams a goddess comes to him and together they go on a journey. One part of him wants Agnes to change queer history. Their journey is full of false starts and unexpected encounters. But along the way, he grows up, he learns compassion, empathy; he encounters love, loneliness, confusion. The dream is his. It is his play, his story, she is his goddess, the goddess of his subconscious, his hopes, his desires, his prejudices, his fears. Traditionally, in literature and in theatre, when the gods come down to Earth, they learn something and come to sympathise with humanity. Her journey in Singapore – which takes her through time, space and history – is a lesson for Agnes.

It sounds like Dreamplay has great potential to be surreal but also funny and camp… even as it makes you think about serious issues.

I think you’ve put it in a nutshell! It’s all the things you describe. It’s camp but, at the same time, deals with difficult topics. I think it’s a good strategy to deal with such things using a layer of camp, because you don’t want to be doleful or gloomy about it.

But it’s also about what it is to be human – to be confronted by growing older, the choices you might have to make in your life and so on. The issues raised are difficult ones now, and I think they’ll remain so even when the lives of gay people are normalised. It will be hard as long as human beings have to struggle to be human. Everyone falls in love, people make mistakes, people judge, people lose love. That’s human. Through the prism of the gay world, it takes on a more bittersweet quality.

How do you approach playing a larger-than-life character like Agnes?

Agnes is very Voluble, with a capital V. But she learns to listen. How is it like playing her? The useful thing to remember is that it’s a dreamplay: it’s set in a dream landscape and goes in and out of many different realities. So you must just shift from being comedic to being dramatic, however absurd that shift might strike you. You have to follow that dream logic and play that moment. At first, it was tricky. I wondered how I could plot this. Then I realised you can’t plot it as you would a more realistic play. You have to play it moment by moment and discover the larger, more intuitive arc. And I believe there is one.

Jo Kukathas

You’ve also directed some of Alfian’s work. What is it about his writing and the way he observes life that interests you as an artist?

All his plays are so very different. His work has a real range. It’s incredible considering how young he is. His imagination is quite special. He’s an intuitive, empathetic writer. He has an ear and an eye for creating real people facing real problems. At the same time, he has a keen sense of the absurdity of the human condition and his plays are funny as well as sad, sharp as well as tender. They are never sentimental.

This play is interesting because it doesn’t have a conventional structure, but you still know that within it resides something very truthful about personal relationships between people. At the end of it, it comes down to that. Dreamplay is episodic, it’s absurd, it’s a bit mad, but underneath all that chaos, it’s about something deeply felt and emotionally true.

There must be a fine line to walk between bringing out the absurdity and the truth of the play.

Absolutely. Absurd theatre tries to make us see through that veil of normality. When you see that bizarre scene in an absurdist piece, you often discover a truth more clearly. That’s one of the things about theatre – it has its own reality. You can show reality, but you might not be moved by it. But if you find its theatrical reality – or its theatricality – then it can be very powerful. Asian Boys is a very theatrical play. And of course, Ivan’s very theatrical too, and has found ways to make it even more theatrical! Under his direction, you find certain moments come alive and you’re laughing, but at the same time it’s poignant, it’s sad. There was a moment in rehearsals one day when Ivan asked Peter Sau to make a moment he was playing bigger. “Sing it!” he said. “Sing it with everything you’ve got.” Because when you play that moment that big and that funny and that vulnerable, it becomes tragic and beautiful and funny. It becomes human.

Last year, I did an acting workshop with the French director, Philippe Gaulier. He teaches ‘le jeu’ or ‘play’. He also teaches clown as well as melodrama. But central to everything is ‘le jeu’. ‘Don’t speak, sing. Don’t move, dance.’ He believes in the actor enjoying what he is doing. Enjoying everything on every level. Being even more alive to everything outside yourself. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that playing in this way makes it less truthful, but he believes that in this way you can communicate to the audience the larger truth of theatre.

What do you like about working with W!LD RICE?

This is the second time I’m working with W!LD RICE – we did Cooling-Off Day twice. But I’ve worked with Ivan before. We did a three-year intercultural project with the Setagaya Public Theatre in Japan – with workshops in Bali and Manila. I love working with Ivan. He believes in people having fun in the process. That’s always good. I like what W!LD RICE is trying to do as a theatre company; I believe in their work. I enjoy their company. In this production, it’s again a wonderful cast. The Asian boys are so good! I feel lucky I can get to work with them.

What appeals to you about working in Singapore?

I get to act! In KL, I have my own theatre company, The Instant Café Theatre Company, and have a lot of other responsibilities as a director and artistic director. And theatre ‘activist’ I suppose. So I don’t have as many opportunities to perform. I very rarely act in my own company’s plays as I am more often directing or playing a dramaturgical role in developing new work. So I don’t have the same mental space. It’s not to say I don’t perform. I do. It’s hard to explain… but I have five alter-egos that have been developed over the last 23 years. They perform! These characters have been with me for many, many years and they write and kind of direct themselves in various shows. Often with the help of others in the company. But I don’t have much opportunity to do theatre using other people’s texts and other people’s characters.

In Singapore, I do. And that is hugely enjoyable. When I cross the Causeway, I get to take off my Artistic Director hat and play. My company Instant Café is very supportive of me doing just that and I’m grateful to them for that support. The nice thing about Dreamplay? It’s the first time in I don’t know how long that I’m doing a play with other people in it. Occupation by Huzir Sulaiman was a one-woman play. There were other people in Cooling-Off Day but it was essentially a series of monologues. It’s nice to act with other people again. It’s wonderful to work with such a range of people here in Singapore. I’ve got to work with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma from The Necessary Stage. I’ve got to work with Natalie Hennedige from CAKE Theatre, and Brian Gothong Tan from CAKE, and Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman from Checkpoint and of course Ivan and Alfian. I’ve got to work with so many wonderful Singaporean actors. I’m lucky.

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