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Interview: Jo Kukathas, of Wild Rice’s ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’

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Cast - Jo Kukathas[1]

Winner of last year’s Best Actress Award at the Life! Theatre Awards in Singapore for her virtuoso performance in OccupationJo Kukathas returns to Singapore this month in Wild Rice’s The House of Bernarda Alba.

For our interview, the witty and humourous thespian tackled questions about the play, her craft, and if she prefers working in Singapore or Malaysia (yes, we went there!). This is what Kukathas had to say:

Hi Jo, first off let me congratulate you on your win at last year’s Life! Theatre Awards for Best Actress. How has life changed for you since winning it? 

Thank you! It was nice but no … life hasn’t changed! It’s lovely when people come up and say nice things and it looks good on my shelf but life’s the same. My cats remain unimpressed.

You certainly gave us a tour-de-force performance in Occupation that won you that award. Did you feel at any point while preparing for or performing in Occupation that you could win the Best Actress award? 

Thank you again. I didn’t think about it during rehearsals. I don’t think anyone does, do they? There’s no time and space really for such thoughts. When you are in the thick of things and feeling the character is eluding you all you feel is fragile and vulnerable; you are grateful on opening night when things land. It’s magic. It’s a relief. You say a big thank-you to the theatre gods. You never feel you are doing a ‘tour-de-force’ and it’s a rather out-of-body experience to have it so described!

You’re not just an actress, you also direct and you’re the artistic director of your own company, The Instant Cafe Theatre Company in Kuala Lumpur. Which of these hats is the easiest to wear? Which one gives you the most joy/satisfaction? 

I used to think I had to decide which was my favourite hat. But now I realize I like to wear different hats at different times. Today I open the cupboard, and I feel this hat will give me joy today so I put it on. Tomorrow, it will be another. I have no idea why. Sometimes there’s a hat I’m dying to wear but the weather is wrong so I have to wait impatiently for the right time. But sometimes I do wear inappropriate hats. Okay, that’s enough about hats. For now.

Recently, in September 2013, you directed Parah (by Alfian Sa’at) in Adelaide, and prior to that in July, you were in Singapore performing in Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol 1. Have you observed any differences in audiences or receptiveness across the various countries to which you’ve taken your craft?

Audiences are different everywhere you go. I remember the first time I went to the Avignon Festival. My partner was producing a play there so I tagged along. When people didn’t like a show, they stamped on the bleachers till the place shook, calling out boo and merde and generally expressing extreme French displeasure. But if they liked something they gave it an ovation for sometimes 30 minutes.

I’ve taken theatre to much politer environments: Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Tokyo, New York. I don’t think one response is better. I love watching traditional performances in Malaysia [such as] mak yong, wayang, menorah, or in traditional performances in Japan, kabuki especially, where people feel quite comfortable talking or eating or sleeping through sections. It’s a different experience. I’d like to see different kinds of audience behaviour. I wish we could find a way to allow that again.

I remember when they opened the Globe in London; I bought a ticket to be a groundling and there was an understanding that you didn’t need to be as well-behaved as the audience in the seats. The actors on stage enjoyed a more teasing, mischievous, and ultimately more emotional relationship with us.

Aside from Singapore and Australia, could you tell us where else you’ve performed as an actress or director?

I directed a play I co-wrote called The Island in Between in Tokyo at the Setagaya Public Theatre. It was a multi-lingual collaboration between Malaysia and Japan, and it was my first experience directing using a translator. I enjoyed that experience and it got me hooked on directing plays in a language not familiar to me. You have to listen to the music of the words, find the symphony. I think theatre is essentially music and movement. Don’t act, sing; don’t move, dance. I believe in that. Not in an absolutely literal way but deeply.

But I digress. I performed a one-person play called From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan at the New York Fringe Festival. We got some great reviews so that was a good experience. I also was part of a six-nation three-year collaboration of Asian artists. The final piece, Hotel Grand Asia, was performed in Tokyo. Parah has travelled to Australia twice, Singapore once, and has been invited to the USA. But we are stalled by funding. Often a problem really with things Malaysian Made. But we soldier on.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, curent freelance writer and filmmaker.