- Theatre

Kelvin Wong on Directing Cartoon

On the morning of Saturday 13th August 2011, WAMM had the opportunity to speak to Kelvin Wong, a Director-in-Residence at klpac since 2009. We discussed his views on local theatre and his upcoming production, Steve Yockey’s Cartoon, which opens on August 18th at Pentas 2, klpac.

Joshua Chong: Hi Kelvin, thanks for doing this interview with WAMM.

Kelvin Wong: Thank you for interviewing me.
J: You’ve been involved in theatre since 2004, you founded the Oral Stage and now you’re a Director-in-Residence at klpac. Do you see more people coming to watch theatre now than when you started?
K: When I first got into theatre, I didn’t know what I was getting into and I wasn’t so much into looking at audience numbers, but having been at klpac, it’s nice to see new people coming. If you’re talking about a trend, I see a lot more young people coming for the first time; students from high school and college coming into klpac and other performing arts venues. I wouldn’t say the demographics (of the theatre-going audience) have changed but since I mostly work with young people, I see a constant interest there. I see them not just coming to watch, but wanting to do theatre, wanting to be more involved, and that’s very refreshing.

I don’t think I had the same kind of opportunities to be involved back when I first started. Accessibility itself has improved; venues are less obscure, whereas back then it would be one play here, one there and another one there. That would be the change that I can see since I’ve been directly involved.

J: Besides a change in numbers, have you noticed any changes in local audiences’ taste and appreciation of plays as well?

K: I think we Malaysians, and in fact anyone, it’s the same around the world really, we love our comedy, we love to laugh. Since the 80’s and 90’s and when The Actors Studio came about, comedy has always been looked forward to.

When I was in New York (looking for a graduate school), I noticed that comedy was very popular. In Broadway a lot of shows catered to the mass audience and theatre has to do that. That’s not to say we forgo artistic value, but we’re putting shows with more appeal to Malaysian audiences. I believe as long as there’s a comedic element, along with song, music and dance in it, people here will love it and constantly look forward to it.

Klpac itself has four Directors-in-Residence who each explore different genres, and it’s very interesting: we see four different styles and we get four different demographics who come.

J: I’m also asking in terms of what Malaysian audiences can accept nowadays, their level of sophistication in watching plays, and especially how they receive plays that deal with difficult or taboo subject matters: has that changed?

K: In terms of taboo subjects, there is a lot more room to play, the room to experiment may be a lot more than when I started.

Back then, there would only be couple of shows a year, and people would constantly look forward to them, compared to now where we have a lot more shows. It’s that saturation which allows us to explore. That sophistication (in the audience) comes from that amount of work being presented: because we have a larger number of shows, we also have more freedom and opportunities to experiment.

I believe we’re now at the creative pinnacle of finding new ways of doing things. That is what will constantly evolve: how we do things. I see a lot more experimental work and new theatre forms that I’ve not previously seen, for example meta theatre. Exploration of classics, that will always be there, but we’re constantly finding new ways of telling familiar stories.

In our age of pop culture, we have to constantly keep up to pace, it’s going very fast! As artists we need to tell stories that mean a lot to us, but also stories that mean something to the audience. Take for example Cartoon, it explores age-old issues, yet the subject matter is very contemporary. For example, it asks what happens when someone strives for change, what happens when someone becomes anarchistic, how does society react?

It’s not a new story, but we can really see these things currently happening in real life, like the recent Bersih rally and the London riots. Cartoon is presented as a metaphor for our society, that is how I come to it as a director.

We (in theatre) have to keep looking for that ‘edge’, we need to find a reason to compel people to come, by presenting what is edgy, new and fresh (in our approach), because really, how much can the stories change? I believe we still fall back on the same stories that we’re familiar with.

J: You’ve directed quite a number of plays: Oh Dad Poor Dad, IndicineLive, The Poet & The Rent, After Juliet, Mukabuku and Octopus, amongst others. Tell us a bit about selection process of these plays. Do you choose them yourself and what do you look for in a play when you choose?

K: As a Director-in-Residence at klpac, and even when I was with The Oral Stage, I’ve been very lucky to be given the liberty to choose what I direct.

Going back to that ‘edge’, I want to put up stories that are being told in a special and unconventional way, really in an epic sense, because that’s something that entices me.

In terms of subject matter, I steer towards social commentary. I love my satire and comedies, but more than that, I’ll ask: what am I digging into this particular play for? What do I hope to get from this? And what will the audience get from this? I’ve got to be drawn to it. If I’m finding myself not even drawn to the words, audience members won’t be drawn to the play either. It has to speak to us as an individual as much as to wider society. It’s gotta have an edge and be fun too.

There’s also the ‘doability’. I don’t think I’m ready for Shakespeare and Greek plays, which I want to do someday because I feel they are very relevant to us currently.

As a director, I’ve not been known to do ‘weighty’ plays. I tend to stick to the lighter, satirical side, which is an important weight in itself. Why bore audience members when they can have fun and still can go home thinking about it? Not to say I’m not for straight (serious) plays or classics, but I guess I’m a product of contemporary times? I’m the youngest Director-in-Residence and I think I’ll leave the more serious stuff to my colleagues and Joe (Hasham, Artistic Director at klpac).

J: Do you approach directing each play differently or are there common things you repeat in each play?

K: I feel that it’s very important for a director to improve his craft. The first play I directed was in 2005, and my approach has totally changed since then, not that it’s now the opposite, but it’s really evolved. There are core things and values that I hold on to very strongly, but the mode has evolved.

I have to be very fresh, I don’t find myself repeating (when I direct different plays), not just because it’s a different production each time, but they’re different plays, so different things need to be paid attention to. I feel a director has to bring the entire production team and cast to present the show as how the playwright wrote it, my role is to illuminate that path.

A lot of people tell me that I’m particularly physical in my approach. The aesthetics and physicality of the body, not so much (in terms of) dance, but in effectively using the body to tell the story in theatre, that passion in my approach has been there for the longest time.

My directing (approach) has grown from research, watching and observing other directors, as well being in a cast, and from living, really. They say that the older you get, the wiser you get, even in directing, and I find that’s very, very true. I see that very young directors lack wisdom because they’ve just not lived long enough. As I’m the youngest Director-in-Residence I still learn a lot from my colleagues, from Joe and from Faridah (Merican, Executive Producer at klpac).

I don’t ever want to stand for myself: I don’t want to have a stamp of ‘a Kelvin Wong production’ which everyone will recognise me for. I still want to explore and evolve further, which is why I’m going to the States to pursue a Masters in Theatre Directing (in the fall of 2012).

J: What attracted you to Steve Yockey’s Cartoon? Does it have anything to do with Octopus, the play which you directed a last year (also written by Yockey)?

K: No, the only similarity is that we can see repeating patterns. Since it’s same playwright there’s a way to how he approaches the start, middle and end of the play. I do like him in that he brings in very surrealistic elements into telling the same old story, and that makes it to be told in a new way.

In Cartoon, we have people playing cartoon characters, we open with a theme song, everything seems nice, bright and cheery on the surface, and that attracts me because it already screams the word ‘Fun’.

In the selection process for this play, I went through a list of plays, all straight, really strong plays, but I asked: Why do we want to present something people can see when they walk out the house? I want to present the physical, visually bold aesthetic approach which I’m a fan of and I want to put up a spectacle.

J: Yes, I noticed that a lot of your plays have very large or elaborate sets, which definitely adds to that, that ‘spectacular’ element.

K: Yes, but I think the actors physicality has to be the greatest spectacle, it’s the actors who have to tell the story.

J: How are rehearsals going? Are there any particular challenges you have had to overcome in staging this production?

K: Yes, having the actors and entire production team to be comfortable with what we’re doing, because we’re struggling to present a surreal but familiar world, and this is from the design of the production all the way to the actors themselves. How do we convince ourselves that we can relate this play to in real life, told through cartoon characters? If we can’t convince ourselves we won’t convince the audience. What we don’t want is to come across is just more fluff.

There’s something ironic about it (the play’s premise). There’s something not particular right when we see people as cartoon characters, when they chase one another and kill each other. Yet in tv cartoon convention, we see a lot of that. There’s violence and subtleties to be found there. We may dismiss cartoons as ‘just for kids’, but there’s a scary amount of truth in them: violence is something a lot closer to us than we think. We may feel we  are becoming more civilized as a society, more globalised as a country, but in fact we may not actually be.

As an example (in real life): bombings. It’s funny that we become surprised when that is what we grew up with in cartoons. What happens all the time in cartoons still surprises us in real life. I think there’s a subconscious education in cartoons, not that it’s a bad thing, but I think that cartoons are showing us what’s happening in real life, without us even realising it.

J: Without giving too much away, how do you think Malaysian audiences will relate to Cartoon?

K: It’s very apt and a very important story. It’s an interpretation of what can happen in the future if we stay on this path. Looking at George Orwell’s 1984, he imagines a totalitarian world in the 80’s. Cartoon is similar to that in that imagines this could become our future: we may become cartoon characters ourselves one day.

Cartoon characters are often seen as only one or two dimensional, but I see that every character in Cartoon reflects different strata of society. We have the anarchists, the blind followers, those who are indifferent, and we have those who constantly complain. In (tv) cartoons, the bad guys and good guys and even the in-betweens are very clear from the start, but to scale our entire society into a play: that is very interesting. Malaysian audiences grew up watching cartoons, I think they can definitely see parallels to real life in this play.

Life is getting a lot less personal, we’re constantly watched by CCTV cameras, social relationships have greatly changed, and we’re controlled by the internet and technology. Language may have to gotten rid of. We’re using fewer words, and speaking less. Today, we don’t even talk, sometimes we just type. In Cartoon, we interestingly have characters that don’t talk, that are silent.

I see this as a natural evolution towards a more totalitarian government. The whole idea of totalitarianism is state efficiency. It may be the most practical thing to do. It’s interesting in that sense, we always think we’re progressing forward but actually, we’re digressing.

Malaysians, we love our visuals, and a bit of song and dance. I think watching Cartoon will be quite orgasmic in the sense of what the audience will experience, the sensations of what they will see and hear. I see every good reason for people to come: if they don’t take anything out of this, they’ll still have fun.

J: Coming back to Steve Yockey’s Octopus. Do you think that it was a watershed moment in Malaysian theatre, in how gay people were portrayed?

K: By ‘watershed moment’ you mean–

J: That it’s never been done before.

K: Oh no, actually we’ve had tonnes already. We’ve put a lot of naturalistic, realistic portrayals of gay people before. If there was anything new, it’s the way its told. The metaphor and imagery of the sea, of drowning when you find out about a disease.

Octopus’s audience was primarily the gay community in KL, it was great for them to come together, but also the story rings true for them. There’s a lot of stigma out there: if you happen to have a disease (and you’re gay), then people think it’s because of your homosexuality. We can see this even blood test forms. It’s not something I agree with it, but it’s there.

J: Perhaps I didn’t mean it so much that it was portraying gay people but the degree–

K: You mean the extent which it reached out to the gay community? Then yes.

J: Yes that as well, but more that, in Octopus, there were some (explicit) scenes, and the main characters were gay. We’ve definitely had gay characters in many plays before but the stories were not theirs, even if the portrayal was positive. They were just side or minor characters or worse, stock characters–

K: For comic effect, stereotypes.

J: Right. In Octopus, the portrayal was definitely not negative but I wouldn’t say it was positive either, I’d say it was neutral, and I think that’s never been done before here. I don’t know if there’s ever been a play (locally) where the story is simply about gay people and their life.

K: Yes, then there’s definitely something new there, and I’ve not even realized it until you just told me. But I don’t stereotype in my own life. When I see people, I see them as people, not as gay or straight.

The thing about great writing is that it can be changed and still work. If I swapped the characters (in Octopus) to heterosexual couples, it would still hold true. After Octopus, there were straight people who came to me and said they could relate, and some straight people said they knew others who faced the same thing, and so could relate.

J: Very briefly, where do you see Malaysian theatre heading to in the next few years?

K: I think it’s going to be very interesting and surprising, we’re going to be knocked off our chairs and even feet. It’s going to be imploding and exploding, in a good way!

Klpac Presents: Steve Yockey’s Cartoon, directed by Kelvin Wong, featuring Amanda Ang , Lorna Hoong, Jabar Laura, Grace Ng Fei Fen, Matthew Ong, Freddy Tan, UiHua & Alexis Wong.

Dates/Times:  August 18 (Thu) – 20 (Sat); 23 (Tue) – 27 (Sat) @ 8.30pm | Matinee on August 20 (Sun) @ 3.30pm |   No performance on August 21 (Mon)
Venue:  Pentas 2, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac)

Tickets: RM38 (Adults) | RM25 (Students, the Disabled and TAS Card members)
Buy 4 tickets of any price in one receipt and get 1 free
MID-WEEK SPECIAL! RM25 flat for August 23 & 24 @ 8.30 pm
COSPLAY SUNDAY! Come dressed-up as your favourite cartoon character on August 21 @ 3.30 pm and get your ticket at only RM25!

Call or Walk in: klpac @ Sentul Park (+603-4047 9000) | Call or Walk in: The Actors Studio @ Lot 10 (+603-2142 2009/2143 2009)

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