Who are the Krishen Jits, the Huzir Sulaimans, the Usman Awangs and the Jit Murads of today? That is the question Tung Jit Yang asked himself when he first returned home from New York.
During his four years training as an actor and director at the famed Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, the 28-year-old — who is currently a director-in-residence with The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat — had grown accustomed to working on original pieces by coursemates or young playwrights. However, upon coming home and jumping into the local theatre scene, he found it more difficult to find fresh new works.
“In New York, I was looking sideways for new content — among my peers. Everyone wanted to do new plays and there were so many of them. So, when I came back, I wondered who are our voices of this generation? Is there a contemporary play I can pick up and direct? But a lot of people pointed me to the same places. I found that in terms of playwrights here, I ended up always looking upwards or behind,” says Tung.
And even though many of the existing works by Malaysian playwrights had timeless, universal themes, Tung says they are, nevertheless, resonant to a certain time and season or react to a particular socio-political event that has passed.
It spurred him to spearhead an ambitious initiative. Under The New Play Project, playwrights were chosen last year via submission calls and over more than six months, developed their initial works into full-length plays.
“There is this hunger here in Malaysian theatre, every time we meet, everyone says over and over again, ‘we need to write our own works’. In the same spirit of The Instant Café Theatre Company’s writing programme FIRSTWoRKS, I thought instead of just looking for and staging plays, I could add to the conversation,” says Tung.
“Thanks to the legacy of Short and Sweet (the annual 10-minute play festival), there are a lot of short works, but it takes commitment — and perhaps having an end goal in mind — to complete a lengthier work. By doing this, we are helping to incubate that.”
And the five selected playwrights have certainly been put through their paces in the past year, meeting weekly to study theory and discuss, critique and dissect each other’s work. They also worked with the best veteran teachers from Malaysia and Singapore — including prolific Singapore playwright Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage; actor and director Nam Ron, who is known for his monologues, and Jo Kukathas of ICT and FIRSTWoRKS, who conducted masterclasses.
“Writing can be very isolating. You go off into your cave and only come out when it’s done. But from my experience, a collaborative process is beneficial, though there were still times they needed to go off by themselves to work it out, because it is personal and subjective to them in many ways. This process takes a lot of courage. I think, in some way, on some level, it is almost as if these playwrights needed to get their stories out, that is why they took part,” says Tung.
The process now culminates in staged readings of the final four selected works, comprising Ridhwan Saidi’s surrealistic and dystopian epic, Mautopia; Adiwijaya Iskandar’s nostalgic Mixtape for Maz; Juno Hoay-Fern Ooi’s experimental and visceral Plays Without Words & Action; and Terence Toh’s witty and contemporary Restless.
The project director describes each work: “Mautopia is set in a dystopian Bukit Formosa, a satirical work done with Orwellian elements. Ridhwan is a big figure on the Malay theatre scene and this is his first full-length play. His notes estimate that if staged in full, the play would run for three to five hours.
“Then we have Adiwijaya, or Skin as we call him. The story is written in English here, but with a Northern Malay slang. It is set in an asrama school in mainland Penang during the 1990s, when we talk about Napster coming up. There is an almost Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie vibe — also a brother-sister relationship story. The relevance here, bittersweet as it may be, is that it explores how the siblings are outsiders who speak English, and language becomes a huge problem for them,” says Tung.
A decidedly more urban, funny and very current piece is Toh’s Restless. Three young friends, fresh out of college, move into an apartment and find themselves living with two ghosts. It is sort of like the sitcom, Friends, the humour is familiar, American and comic book-inspired.
Last but not least is the most intriguing of the four. Tung calls Ooi a “renegade experimentalist”. Pursuing her PhD in literature at the University of Malaya, the publicity-shy first-time playwright (she preferred not to have her picture shown) is fascinated by avant-garde writers like Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, as well as art forms like Butoh.
“These are form-challenging works,” says Tung. “And she is very interested in form — what forms can theatre take? Her work is essentially five separate pieces — three are for the eye to see and witness and the other two are for the audience to hear as well. Silence, darkness, anguish and anxiety are the overall themes, with scathing sarcasm and mocking self-reflection.
When I came back, I wondered who are our voices of this generation? Is there a contemporary play I can pick up and direct? But a lot of people pointed me to the same places. I found that in terms of playwrights here, I ended up always looking upwards or behind
She was very specific about the look of the lines on the script itself for a particular piece, as if inviting the director and actors to draw from it and decide for themselves why the lines are spaced the way they are or appear in a certain way. It is very post-modern, with a philosophical link between all five, rather than a narrative connection.”
Lasting up to 1½ hours each, the readings of the new plays will be done in rotation, with each being read twice over five days, except for Toh’s work, which holds a Friday prime slot. The audience can expect actors, some in partial costume, lighting, blocking and even props.
The idea, says Tung, is to present a show that allows the audience to imagine what it would be like to stage the works, which is the ultimate goal. Correlating with that, a book featuring all four plays, The New Play Project: Book One, will be on sale throughout the showcase. Later, it is expected to be put on sale in book stores and to be presented to libraries.
“The whole idea is to entice people to produce them, to take them on. And being a fan of trilogies, I am hoping we will do Book II by 2020, and then Book III. But we want to let the first one circulate for a while, to allow time for the plays to be staged in full production. Hopefully, they can become a part of the programme of different theatre companies or collectives,” Tung says, adding that the hunger for new Malaysian stories is a good thing.
Staged readings for ‘The New Play Project’ are on from Aug 1 to 5 at Pentas 2, klpac, KL. Entry is by a minimum donation of RM15 at the door. To book, call (03) 4047 9000. This article first appeared on July 30, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.