It is sobering to recall the confinement that we all experienced during the lockdowns a mere two years ago. Simple pleasures in life became a luxury; industries fell while a lucky few blossomed. What perhaps was one of the most detrimental repercussions of the pandemic was having to deal with separation, loneliness and isolation. And as a community so disposed to living in companionship with others, being able to partake in social interactions again comes as a huge sigh of relief.
Theatregoers and lovers of the performing arts would be familiar with the way the industry had to pivot to survive during those trying times. Past productions were brought online and performances were acted out in front of a webcam. Finding ways to produce new content and keep audiences engaged through a screen was what Fa Abdul, the former general manager of Penang Performing Arts Centre (now defunct) was tasked with doing, but the response was not quite what she had expected.
The columnist and scriptwriter received requests to host writing workshops. Pleasantly surprised, Fa thought it would be a good idea as it could be a way to generate new material for when theatres opened up again. Initially, those who showed interest in the workshops were mostly women. That paved the way to the idea of a collection of introspective tales that eventually made up Her Story.
“You must understand it was [during] lockdown and people just wanted someone to talk to or meet someone new,” Fa explains. “The group came together and we just started introducing ourselves.”
They got more comfortable with each session. “When one or two of the participants were brave enough to share something personal, it opened the door for the others to do the same. It created a momentum whereby everyone was willing to share something precious.”
Under her guidance, the writers were able to put their experiences and life stories on paper. The completed monologues had a common theme, Fa realised.
“Women, we talk about empowerment and equality. We want to be accepted as we are, we don’t want to fit into anyone’s mould, we yearn to have power to make decisions instead of just following the rules that have been laid out for us.”
That eventually sparked another curiosity. “I thought it would be very interesting to listen to what type of stories guys would write.”
Fa held another workshop for men, and what she discovered was reasonably different. “It spoke more about their role as a son, a husband, an individual who is expected to be a leader and how difficult it is to step up to that.”
Last month, the monologues from Her Story were performed at klpac by a bevy of actresses. The second instalment, His Story, will be presented from Feb 24 to 26 and brought to life by Ash Sahimun, Sidhart Joe Dev, Karam Tabba, Lok Shi Hoong, Xavier Chen Wen Xuen, Adrian Choong, Nandagopall and Daniel Hussin.
“When it comes to monologues, I feel the strength should be in the story itself and the art of telling it. So, instead of creating a lot of movement on stage, there’s just going to be one chair, a spotlight and the actor performing. Now the challenge is, how interesting would that be?”
Even though Her Story stretched for more than 2½ hours, the audience were left wanting more. Fa credits the talented cast for successfully captivating the viewers and holding their interest and attention. “It’s an art,” she says.
Fa was also aware that an inundating flow of deep emotions could be draining. “Because we had a variety of monologues, we could layer it well. It could start with something touching, but the next one would be very light and entertaining and the one after would be something thought-provoking.” The order was done in such a way that the audience would feel refreshed after each performance.
“Her Story had quite a few enlightening and funny comedic monologues because we had 12 of them. His Story only has eight. There are a few light ones but I feel this collection is very strong.” The show will touch on the pressures and expectations from society and parents, the journey of self-discovery, putting others before oneself and love in its many forms.
The writers were understandably nervous to have their personal experiences — many of which involve vulnerable, sensitive and intimate details — presented to spectators, which is why some have chosen to use a pseudonym or not have their faces revealed. In the upcoming show, Karam Tabba is the only writer who decided to audition to be a performer, though he will be acting out someone else’s tale.
“The most special thing about this project is that it bonded me with the writers,” Fa says thoughtfully. “We shared something very precious and sacred. And by doing the same thing with the performers, that bonded us as well.”
She hopes this extends to the audience. “I find that when you tell human stories, people can always find something to resonate with.”
Fa would like to see “the audience having discussions and dialogues among their own friends and family on the topics that have been raised”, questioning what they thought about the monologues and how they would have reacted if they were in the writer’s place.
“Seeing someone from our own perspective does not allow more compassion and empathy. We cannot create an idea of who they are without knowing their stories first. There’s always more to a person than meets the eye.”
Fa notes we live in a society where our differences are highlighted, but it is through interaction and understanding that we are able to see past this. If humanity is our strongest connector, then storytelling is perhaps one of the best ways for us to communicate that.
This article first appeared on Feb 20, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.