Actor, director and writer Jo Kukathas is no stranger to the Malaysian theatre scene. In 2016, the Instant Café Theatre Company – co-founded by Kukathas and theatre veterans Andrew Leci, Jit Murad and Zahim Albakri – staged Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s infamous play White Rabbit Red Rabbit at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC).
Written while Soleimanpour was being under house arrest in Iran, White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a personal story inspired by an absurdist nightmare. Because he couldn’t leave Iran, Soleimanpour decided to write a play that could. The spontaneous play required no director, set or rehearsals, with the script only handed to the performer moments before they go on stage.
When the introspective play blew up, the playwright received thousands of emails from people around the world, sharing their own personal stories and expressing the effects the play had on them. Inspired, Soleimanpour wrote Blank, a play that tells the stories of others.
Blank retains the concept of its forerunner, but now includes collaboration with the audience. In a joint effort between the audience and the performer, both parties are required to fill in the gaps left in the script. As formally inventive as it is engaging, Blank levels the playing field as neither party knows what to expect, but are in charge of how the story unfolds.
For Kukathas, the experimental piece intrigued her. Soleimanpour, an engineer by training, thrived on structure and was interested in creating a theatrical machine for telling stories. “It blows up the idea of what is theatre, who is the actor, writer and audience, but at the same time, there is still a lot of his own writing,” Kukathas says. “He gave us a powerful script to work with.
“I wanted to do this play because we have so many stories in Malaysia but we don’t tell them, we don’t see them onstage,” Kukathas explains. “So here’s a way for us to get a sense of somebody else’s story. And maybe the person next to you is the person who will volunteer and go onstage, and you’ll hear something about that person you never would have imagined.”
In collaboration with Beyond Borders and refugee theatre company Parastoo, Kukathas had a particular quality in mind when she cast the actors. “I wanted actors who knew how to be on stage, but also knew how to be open, honest, and vulnerable – performers who will not try to act too much and just take what comes.
“I knew I wanted to have a couple of actors who had performed Nassim’s work before, that’s why I thought of Ghafir Akbar and Sharifah Amani,” she admits. Akbar and Amani were one of the seven rabbits in the 2016 White Rabbit Red Rabbit staging. Joining them is up-and-coming theatre director and actor Arief Hamizan.
Kukathas also wanted to make sure she got a chance to work with people in the refugee community. “It would be nice to hear stories from other countries,” she says. Under invitation from Parastoo and Beyond Borders, Syrian poet-actor Mwaffaq Al-Hajjar and 17-year-old Afghan Farzana Hussaini are also set to perform.
As part of DPAC's Damansara International Arts Festival 2019, Blank, albeit simple in concept, is a powerful play that celebrates the communal nature of theatre. As the audience collaborate to write the evening’s tale, they will be piecing a new story that is irrevocably theirs.