Rising to the Occasion

Talk about rising to the occasion! After Lydia Look suffered an injury during rehearsals, Janice Koh bravely stepped into Another Country – less than two weeks before the show opened in KL. She chats with us about hitting the ground running, and the understanding that develops when you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

What was it like for you to join the production on such short notice?

Having to come in halfway and fill somebody’s shoes has its own challenges. It was a very intense way of working, but I enjoyed it very much. The beauty of this piece is that, not being a naturalistic play, it’s very sketch-based. And so, it was much easier to enter the various stories without too much baggage. I told Ivan that, in an odd way, it’s wonderful to come into a show ten days before opening – because someone has already worked out all the blocking for you! I didn’t have to do all of that, or spend hours discovering how we get to the final piece. I just had to hit the ground running. [laughs]

Was it challenging for you to dig into the texts in Another Country, many of which were not written to be performed in the theatre?

I had a taste of that from Cooling-Off Day – as such, this concept of performing scenes at a fairly fast pace, with an ensemble of actors taking on multiple characters, was quite familiar to me. But working with the Malaysian literary texts in this production was educational for me. It was very useful to speak with Leow Puay Tin, our curator, to understand why she chose some of these texts and where she was coming from. It provided us with entry points into each text. I also found that I, as a Singaporean, identified with a lot of themes and issues in the texts. They speak to something that’s more universal – a common humanity, I suppose, which shows us that we aren’t that different from the Malaysians, even though, politically, it seems as if we are.

Janice performing an excerpt from Leow Puay Tin’s Ang Tau Mui

Tell us about working with this cast.

Both casts worked separately on their texts and not everybody knew one another from the outset. And yet, when we first met, there was really an instant warmth – an instant connection and a real sense of community. I suspect that has to do with the fact that, when you work so long and hard on somebody else’s texts – their national treasures – you develop a certain empathy, love and respect for their culture and their work. Similarly, when I saw the work of my favourite Singapore authors in the hands of a Malaysian cast, I really felt like they had treated it with a lot of love and consideration. It’s like seeing a foreigner or a stranger attempting very hard to learn your language, to understand you, to walk a mile in your shoes. You can’t help but feel a lot of gratitude and a connection with anyone who tries to do that, because of the effort that’s required to see the world through another’s lens.

What was it like to work with Ivan on this show?

With Ivan, it’s always amazing to get a director who is so spot-on with his feedback – he’s a performer himself, and I really appreciate how sensitive he is to the Malaysian point of view. He has worked a lot with Malaysian directors, including the late Krishen Jit. I have to admit it was useful to me because I didn’t know very much about the Malaysia of today when I came into this production. In the first ten years of my life, I took all my holidays in Malaysia. After that, I kind of drifted away and I didn’t really have much of a connection with that country or that land anymore – especially with Singapore trying so hard to establish its own identity as a nation while I was growing up.

The show played to sold-out audiences in its KL run. Were you expecting that?

It was really special for the Singaporean cast to perform the Malaysian texts in KL – the response to that was quite overwhelming. The things the Malaysian audiences laughed at, the things they were moved by, the things that spoke to them, were not always the things we anticipated. There was also a kind of longing that I could sense from the audience – I wouldn’t say nostalgia, because that’s a little bit too sentimental. But a longing, as if you had found a long-lost sibling.We were really surprised and touched by that.

Another Country marks the first time your youngest son, Lucas, has seen you perform onstage. What was that like for you – and for him?

Lucas is nine years old. I thought he and his brother Max, 11, would be entertained by the various folktales, myths and stories in the show, even if they might not be able to appreciate all the political nuances. For instance, they loved the Orang Asli legend “Tikus Bulan”, the swordfish tale from the “Sejarah Melayu”, and the story about Raffles from the “Hikayat Abdullah”. Surprisingly, Max even liked “The Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia”! Now, they make me re-enact the more humorous scenes for them again at home! I don’t think we should underestimate our children when they step into the theatre. I had no idea the show has an Advisory 16 rating. For the life of me, I don’t understand why it needs one!

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