Japanese author Haruki Murakami famously wrote in his book, Norwegian Wood, that “death exists, not as the opposite but as part of life”. This comes to mind during a rather unusual conversation with Esther Liew and Kelvin Wong about death and its aftermath. She is a 31-year-old theatre director who is premiering her first full-length devised work, titled dust, this week while he is the artistic director and founder of Theatresauce.
dust is the opening show of Theatresauce’s third annual season this year. In the last two years, the theatre company has established a strong foothold in the local performing arts scene largely due to Wong, who has steadily built a reputation for contemporary productions with an innovative edge in plays such as 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, The Bee by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan, Contractions by Mike Bartlett and the Greek classic, Antigone.
Wong also has a passion for education. He is a lecturer at Sunway University and, since 2017, has been running the year-long Emerging Directors Lab (EDL) programme under Theatresauce. Liew is among the first batch of graduates of EDL, and one of two whom Wong has invited to stage an original work under the company this year.
“dust comes from the passing of my grandparents last year — my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, both within the span of a week,” says Liew. Her grandmother was in her nineties and living in an old folks’ home in Melaka when she died. “I think she was relieved to go. I could see that she didn’t really want to live anymore,” adds the law graduate turned theatre practitioner.
“As for my grandpa, he was eighty plus and had been ill, and we got a call a few days after we returned from Melaka telling us the news. He wasn’t really eating anymore and would even hallucinate sometimes, but each time I visited him, I could see that he was fighting to live and it felt like he had a lot of unfinished business.”
Their passing was a great loss to Liew, and it made her ponder over mortality and the two starkly different responses to it. Ironically, death got her thinking about life and she realised how lucky she was to still be relatively youthful.
“It is not fear that I want to highlight in dust, but the question of what are you doing every day to appreciate every moment? We often hear people say ‘YOLO — You Only Live Once’. I strongly disagree with this because, for me, you only die once but you live every single day,” she emphasises.
After reflecting on mortality, Liew decided to reach out to others to find out their response to, and experience of loss. That is how she came up with the idea for her show — while auditioning actors, she invited them to write down their experiences in relation to death.
“What you will see are five stories largely inspired by the actors’ personal experiences, or what they have reflected on in terms of this topic,” she explains. The stories, told one at a time, will each have a lead actor while the others play supporting roles. “In that sense, it will feel very much like a five-person collaboration,” she says.
Intimately set within a black box with a seating capacity of 60, the performance will see actors Lim Sheng Hui, Andy Poon, Ranessa Theyakaraja, Thomas Alexander and Season Chee confront questions of fear, the uncertainty of life, the co-existence of happiness and sorrow, and the processing of grief as well as face the construct of death itself. Helping them tell their stories will be visual projections and evocative lighting design.
The challenge for Liew has been to try to keep her directorial voice and vision clear. She admits that working on a devised play with a large cast and creative team has been immensely difficult. “I’ve been focusing on tying it all together … mapping the emotional journey the audience will possibly go through to a certain extent.”
She says her training at EDL has come in handy as one of the best lessons she learnt there was how to be more decisive when put on the spot as a director.
Wong chimes in, “It’s been a very challenging process for Esther, I’m sure. It’s not just the curation of the work, but I feel like it also involves handling people, communicating with them, taking care of them … so you’re not just a director but also a teacher, mentor, medic and counsellor even, especially for a work such as this, which requires a lot of care in handling it. On top of that, she has to come in with her vision and her voice — she is not just facilitating. And people think a director’s job is easy.”
He says apart from being a mentor — a strict one, according to Liew — and a producer and set designer, his role is also to offer young directors such as Liew the trust and the platform to spread their wings, so to speak.
This is part of the “turning point” that, Wong says, Theatresauce is about — developing and empowering the next generation of directors. “I always believe that art cannot just die with you. There must be something left behind, and I’m not talking about just the shows but also passing the baton, new people coming in to take over.”
In observing the local theatre landscape, he has noticed a lack of succession planning. He recalls his own mistake back in 2012 when he joined The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. It came at the cost of having to shut down the theatre company he had back then.
“I want to move away from that this time around — of the company existing only to serve me. There are things I want to do outside of Theatresauce and I think it’s the responsibility of a company to be supplying good shows consistently. If I don’t learn to let go and step back, I may forever see things from a limited point of view.
“Also, I feel almost indebted to the theatre scene. Back when I wanted to learn, I didn’t know who to go to, which is why I left the country to go to the US to do my Master’s. The way I see it, I can contribute now by facilitating the spreading of the ‘virus’ in the theatre scene,” says Wong.
One of the ways he is doing so is by assigning the assistant director position of dust to a student from the current batch under the EDL programme, just as Liew was the assistant director of one of the productions last year. Liew, though, is now ready to come into her own with her multilingual show, saying, “dust is not just about making people cry or for catharsis, but to help us reflect. Everyone experiences grief at one point or another — how do we deal with it? How do we deal with life? Come and watch to find out more.”
'dust' is on until June 23 at Kotak, Five Arts Centre, 27 Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL. Tickets are priced at RM63. WhatsApp 019 807 4810 to purchase.
This article first appeared on June 10, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.