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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.

With all this travelling that you’ve done, is Hollywood, or maybe the West End, appealing to you, to try and take your skills there? 

I’d love to perform elsewhere. It’s wonderful playing “away”. You don’t know what to expect. No one knows you or comes into to the theatre thinking you’ll be any good. You feel very alive.

Let’s talk about this current production, in which you’re participating as an actress – The House of Bernarda Alba. What drew you to the play and the role of Poncia? HBA_A6

I was very happy when Glen (Goei) asked me to perform in Bernarda Alba. I’ve always loved [Federico Garcia] Lorca, and frankly I’ve been hankering to do a classical tragedy for a long time. Of course Lorca is a modern playwright but the play is a classical tragedy. The cruelty, the sense of inevitability, the idea of forces larger than the figures in the drama are all there. Of course there is no deus ex machina and this is what makes the play particularly cruel. We are the architects of our own destinies and yet we march on, towards our bitter conclusion.

Poncia is a complex and contradictory woman and every day I am discovering new things. She seems to hate Bernarda, but she looks after her house as if it were her own. She cries “I only want to live in a decent house, this house…” Like many of us she has nowhere else to go, nowhere else she can call home, only this country which we love but which maddens and infuriates us. Perhaps like Lorca, like myself, and like many of us, she feels alienated: “But now I am no longer I, Nor is my house any longer my house.”

How are rehearsals going?

Each week has had its own very distinctive phase. Glen likes to sketch the whole canvas first. Then we paint broad strokes. After that we begin to add in the details. Now it is layering contrasts, making the brightness and the darkness, adding richness to the colours and textures and creating depth and mystery.

Have you relocated to Singapore since early March, or are you regularly going back and forth across the causeway?

I had to go back to Kuala Lumpur for about a week as I had invited an Iranian playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour, to Malaysia. Instant Café presented his play White Rabbit Red Rabbit in KL and Penang, and I was there to co-produce and meet up with Nassim. We met in Brisbane when we took Parah there and was very glad we had the chance to invite him to KL and perform his wonderful existential play – in English …and Malay… and Chinese! He was fascinated by that.

This brings me to this sticky question: Do you prefer working in Singapore or in your home town of Kuala Lumpur?

This IS sticky! Both offer me different things. In Malaysia I do more developmental work – working with new writers or new actors and I like that. I work mostly with my own company Instant Café. In Singapore I get to leave production and funding worries behind and work as an actor with many different companies. I get to work with incredible actors. I also get the chance to work with some of Singapore’s best directors and playwrights. I even get to direct on occasion. It’s liberating. In Malaysia I have to be more grown up. As an antidote to that, I have my comedy characters some of who have their own life outside of me on the internet.

What can audiences expect from The House of Bernarda Alba

I don’t think many companies do this kind of work, by that I mean classical tragedy of this sort. I think every society needs the catharsis and the huge experience that tragedy has to offer. We need to experience grief without sentimentality, and love and joy that is uncontained and inexplicable. It’s catharsis that is needed.

Lorca wrote: “To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.”

This is not your first production with Wild Rice. What is it about this company that keeps drawing you to it?

Quoting Lorca again (why not!): “A theatre that is sensitive and well oriented in all its branches from tragedy to vaudeville can change the sensibility of a country in a few years.” I like that Wild Rice’s work ranges from panto to tragedy to comedy and that they want to make theatre for the masses – meaning they want to reach out to a large audience and seduce them with their theatre. As Lorca also said, “The theatre is a school of laughter and tears. It is a free and open arena where individuals can expose to the light old or faulty morals…” I think Wild Rice is deeply committed to this (same) idea.

What else is in store for you in 2014, as an actress, director and artistic director? We certainly wish you all the best for your future productions!

Thank you. In the immediate future, I am going to Brazil at the end of April for three weeks to run workshops and master classes as part of the Shakespeare Forum. I am very pleased about that. Shakespeare was my first love and remains my greatest love so to have to opportunity to meet directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company Brazil and elsewhere, and to participate in the Shakespeare Forum that celebrates Shakespeare as a global playwright is very special.

For the rest of the year I am trying to take it easy and give space for writing. I wrote a couple of new plays last year I hope I can restage. And I hope to hide away and write more this year. All I want is a room somewhere.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.