- Comedy, Theatre

WAMM Interviews Kelvin Wong & Freddy Tan on INDICINELIVE! IV

On May 10th 2012,WAMM writer Joshua Chong spoke to klpac Director in Residence Kelvin Wong and Indicinelive! production manager, writer and cast-member Freddy Tan on Indicinelive! IV, klpac’s comedy revue show now in it’s fourth instalment. The show will be Kelvin’s last production in KL before he leaves this September to obtain his Masters in the U.S. We sit to talk about the origins of Indicinelive!, comedy and Malaysian (and Singaporean) sensitivities, what to expect from this show, and the pair’s plans after this show.

 Joshua (J): Thank you Kelvin (K) and Freddy (F) for agreeing to do this interview.

 K&F: No problem.

J: Let’s start with how Indicinelive! started, can you tell us what led to it?

K: When I joined klpac, the thing about Joe (Hasham, Artistic Director of klpac) and Faridah (Merican, Executive Producer of klpac) which I really appreciate is that they allow their Directors in Residence to put up shows they feel are important to them and that they really want to do.

There were a number of plays by international playwrights that I wanted to explore but I also wanted to do something that was Malaysian. Prior to joining klpac, I was Artistic Director of the youth theatre company The Oral Stage up until 2009, and at The Oral Stage we started out with shorts written by young Malaysians and I still wanted to do that (at klpac).

There was already a youth theatre group called EMP which did the same thing back in 2009, so I figured why not we come up with an alternative to that and so came Indicinelive!

I’ve always enjoyed sketch comedy. I can watch it over and over again. I grew up watching Mad TV and Saturday Night Live so I wanted to do it just for fun, as a side project to my full-length productions, and I guess what we started off just for fun grew into this “thing” which is Indicinelive! and we are now in our fourth episode!

It’s been a long road but a fruitful one. We expected audiences to like us but not to pack our houses to the point where we actually had to turn people away for the past three episodes! The first episode was supposed to last only four shows but Joe (Hasham) said “Why don’t you extend it?” and we extended it to seven shows and all seven shows sold out!

We’ve gone to Malacca and Singapore and we just performed our third episode last year and we’re doing Indicinelive! 4 this year. It goes to show we Malaysians love to laugh, but I always believe that underneath comedy is stuff that is quite depressing, quite sad—

J: Or infuriating!

K: Yes, that would anger us, and an outlet like this is crucial. It’s an outlet for new Malaysian writing and it’s an outlet for our cast members to come together collectively have a voice, but more importantly it’s something that audience members enjoy and that they would want to spend their time all the way to klpac or The Actor’s Studio to catch.

J: Was it a conscious decision to use Indicine when you first started?

K: Yes, because it was an experimental thing—we didn’t know if it would work or not. With a full-length play you can measure out how big you want your space and audience to be but with Indicinelive!, I didn’t even know what to call it! But since we have an experimental space over here (at klpac) called Indicine, let’s call it Indicinelive!, with an exclamation mark.

So that’s how the name came about and it’s interesting because we’re moving out of Indicine for the first time (in KL). Firstly to accommodate audience numbers but also because I believe we can afford to go larger and reach out to more people in a larger setting.

J: Freddy, were you the stage manager for the first three episodes?

F: No, I was the stage manager for the first episode and I was the cast for second, third and now the fourth.

J: So who’s the stage manager for this episode?

K: The current stage manager is Zen Lin Tan, she was in Episode 2 and Lorna (Hoong) who was the stage manager for Episode 3 so in a way it’s a reunion of sorts. We’ve bringing back writers and cast from the past. Some of our writers have been with us since Episode 1 like Patrick (Lee) and Freddy was our writer for Episode 3 and he’s coming back again reprising his roles as Production Manager, Cast and Writer as well.

J: Did you find it difficult to use Indicine? It’s obviously a small space so there were constraints with lighting and staging there; did you find it difficult to put up the show?

K: Again it was supposed to be experimental. Originally I wanted to put audience and actors on different corners like default Indicine productions.

It’s a small space but we started out with only seven actors and we didn’t really need that big of a space because not all the actors will be on stage at the same time and that was how the idea of a two-side traverse staging (where audience members sit on both sides of the stage) came about.

J: If we look at the comedy theatre landscape, there seems in the past to have been a lot more political satire and social commentary from the likes of Five Arts and Instant Café Theatre—they’re very famous for that brand of comedy but when they slowed down it didn’t seem many who took the helm and continued the tradition until the past years when Indicinelive! and Playground Productions (the group behind PDB and AI:IA Jom Improv). Was that in your mind when you started Indicinelive! and even when you went into further episodes.

K: Again, Indicinelive! was meant to be experimental. When I came up with the idea I thought, “Let’s do something we’ve not done, at least in the span of two to three years here in KL.” This is back in 2010.

I heard about Instant Café Theatre doing such comedy back then and I was looking forward to more and also “Why not come up with something of our own” which is like what we see overseas, because to be honest I’ve not seen any of Instant Café Theatre’s shows back then. I’ve only heard of them because I was a lot younger.

J: I think we all were!

F: Yeah!

K: I’ve only heard of them and I think back then (in 2010) there were no really active groups doing comedy theatre. (But I think Instant Café still does once in a while). So I though why don’t we have a revue where Malaysians write and Malaysians act. It’ll be a full-blown Malaysian production and with a layer of sketch comedy.

I feel a lot of people love watching sketch comedy but it really is a craft because it’s not just about someone slipping on a banana peel and having people laugh. To do good sketch comedy, the team: the writers, the directors, the actors, everyone who’s involved have to be very aware of the world that they live in.

Even if we have fun where actors take a variety of different characters and the writers write an array of different scripts with different approaches, deep down we are speculating and making statements about things we feel strongly about or that make angered. We’re hoping, we want to see if there could be an alternative to the current world we live in.

J: After you had the concept, what was the process of finding writers?

K: I put up a notice for anyone who would be interested in writing for sketch comedy and then I screened them.

F: The whole process was quite open which not many groups of directors do. I remember initially I was auditioning as cast and writer but I got called back as a writer. I didn’t get it but was offered to be Stage Manager. Almost every role was open: stage manager, crew, writer, cast, everything except director of course.

K: I wanted to see how much interest could we generate from the creators first because if I didn’t get a group of writers and actors who want to be a part of this, I don’t think we would have Indicinelive! today.


J: Did you find the writers first, get the script and then the actors or was it all at the same time?

K: For Episode 1 we got the writers together with the actors. It was quite a collaborative process. During the callbacks the writers were tested on their ability to do sketches, where they were given topics, tasks and different styles to work with and then the actors during call backs would play the sketches or issues which the writers had written.

For the past episodes the rehearsal process and the writing process went on simultaneously but for Episode 4, the writers were selected first out of the pool that auditioned, then we picked our actors two to three weeks after.

From then we only focused on writing the content because having done this for three episodes I’ve realised that the content is so important. Yes, you can have great actors but the content has to be strong enough. In fact we only started rehearsals this week when we put the entire show together.

Before that it was a lot of writing, a lot of ideas from the actors, a lot of collaboration and it was a matter of choosing what to work with first. I believe everything else can come after that. If we rushed the writers, we could have a fun performance but would it be engaging enough? Especially this being the fourth episode already.

F: It has to be relatable as well to the audience.

J: Freddy, so as a writer you worked with the actors?

F: Yes, at points.  Every week or two, we have a collaboration session with the actors where we will throw some ideas, come up with improv (improvisation) and see what they can do and sometimes we have group exercises to generate content on issues we want to highlight. Other times we work using songs.

J: Can you give me an example of how you worked with an actor to come up with a sketch

F: One of the exercises Kelvin gave us was to pair a writer with two or three actors, then he gave us a newspaper and asked us to choose a story from the first six pages and come up with a news broadcast on the item, where the actor would be the news anchor.

J: So you guys used a lot of improv?

K: Yeah, improv was heavy but we also did work on voices and character work.

A great thing about satire is the impersonations! When I cast, I wanted to see how much of a demographic we could represent with these nine actors. Can we play as many people as possible? From politicians to social activists to ordinary people to characters who have certain particular quirks. Actors have to have a wide repertoire of what they can bring to the stage.

For this episode, the actors have to play at least fourteen characters—

J: Wow!

K: —within the span of the entire show. In Episode 3 the actors had to go off and in ten seconds come on as another character. It’s not a full-length play where we can build up, we have to get in straight away, use the stereotype as something audiences can immediately relate to and just get to it (the comedy).

J: Freddy, as a writer, how and where do you find material to write on? What inspires you? 

F: About a month and a half ago when we had our writers’ meeting, we would start with generating a lot of ideas—Kelvin would toss us a black piece of paper and write 5 popular songs now and 5 popular songs back then, popular locations now and then, political issues now and then, so we had many lists. We compared among the writers and discussed on what we really want to write about, but we also asked, “Would that be appealing to the general audience?”

We were also asked to write on items from other writers’ lists—to challenge ourselves and to find things that the audience would find relevant.

J: So it’s very audience-centric, it’s very targeted to what’s relevant to the audience?

F: I would think so.

K: But at the same time, the writers aren’t just emulating what the audience would find funny. They come in as people with certain issues that they want to put on or certain things they want to try.

For instance, Freddy and Nina (Shah) are very good with character sketches. Patrick (Lee) is more political and Arif (Kamil) is a little bit more extreme with his ideas so they fill in for one another.

Also, writers vote also vote for what they want to keep. When we need our first draft of scripts, we would score each piece and burn those we collectively feel do not have potential, then work on those that do. We don’t come with everything in a day—we fine tune it.

J: Freddy, as a writer for Indicinelive!, you know that the show sometimes touches on very sensitive topics, did you feel the need to self-censor at any time?

F: As a writer, yes in a way, because I believe there are many ways to portray sensitive issues—not just blatantly or in your face.

If you want to touch on sensitive issues like sexuality, I believe there are classier ways of doing it than just tossing it out. Sometimes if you find a more creative ways of portraying the issue it might actually be funnier.

That’s the challenge of sketch comedy, you have to capture the audience’s attention right away but we really don’t have a lot of time for that—the important thing is to find the balance.

J: So it was really finding the way to do convey it?

F: We still had to control ourselves—we couldn’t just go all out.

J: And as a director Kelvin, did you ever feel that you had to rein some of the writers in their material?

K: I guess we have to ask, “What and who specifically are we poking fun at?” We set a couple of boundaries—for example I think it would be rather tasteless to poke fun at people with disabilities. These are people whom we just do not make fun of.

If we choose something sensitive to touch on, say religion, a piece may come across as poking fun at religion, but actually we’re poking fun at the bigots who use religion to get what they want.

We always poke fun at our politicians? Why? Because they are expected to hold up certain standards by the pubic but those standards get turned around and that allows them to be easily be poked fun at. We’re not laughing at the entire Malaysian political landscape but just certain things or individuals. For example a certain minister says one thing then says another—that discrepancy becomes the material for our comedy.

J: You’ve had three episodes, have you had audience members who were simply NOT amused?

F: Yeah, but they wouldn’t be unhappy at the entire show, usually one or two sketches which they feel offended them. That’s the wonder and danger of sketch comedy—you cover so many issues that you’ll always brush up on some people’s sensitive sides.

We’ve never had someone walk off yet or protested but after the show they come to talk to us about why they were unhappy.

J: Are you surprised that no one’s walked off yet?

K: No. People have to understand that they’re watching satire. If you know the water’s deep and you can’t swim, don’t go there. As an audience member you need to have that active, open mind to look at the point of view of another person.

As to people who are offended—we have to ask, “Why were you offended?” Because the issue was brought up? Or because certain bigots were highlighted? Do these bigots remind you of certain people in your life or yourself? Is there a clash between your principles and what you see on stage?

As sketch comedy creators, we’re not here to say what’s right or wrong.

J: You’re not making moral judgements.

K: Right, exactly. We’re not here to tell you have to follow what we say is right. We’re as open as possible, we offer a different point of view  and from a comedic sense. Now if audience members get offended, we want to know why.

F: In our past episodes, we will pace the audiences—from the first few sketches they can gauge what kind of show is this, how far we push things. I guess that helps in leading them into the show.

K: We’re not here to say we’re greater or clever than you: please watch us because we’re all high and mighty. In fact we assume ourselves lower than audience members and we want to welcome them into our world of how we see them.

The great thing about sketch comedy is unlike a full-length play, if you don’t like the first five or ten minutes, you don’t have to go through another hour or two.

J: You know there when you talk about pushing the audience or pushing comedy—there’s a very fine line between high-energy comedy and off-putting slapstick and there’s a very fine line between satire that’s intelligent and makes us think about ourselves and satire that has gone too far.

K: As in tasteless?

J: Right, that’s tasteless. So how do you draw the line, how do find the balance?

K: There is not black and white formula. As I mentioned there are certain boundaries—we don’t make fun of the disabled, people who are in their conditions naturally and not by choice. It’s going with your gut-feel but I must emphasize it’s not just my show—it’s a show that the writers and actors come up with.

A few weeks back we asked, “How do we know if the audience will find this relevant?” The best thing to do is to ask the whole production team as a group, do they find it relevant or entertaining? If a script has a majority consensus then it’s more likely that the public will too.

Of course I have to call the final shot but I always have to make myself as open as possible to see what everyone else says. What I find funny may not be what another person would find funny. It’s very subjective; we have to trust that what we put up as a group is something audience members would enjoy while not losing ourselves in the process.

J: Is this going to be your last Indicinelive!?

K: It’s also going to be my last production here in KL!

J: So where are you going to?

K: I am going to do my Masters in Fine Arts in Theatre Directing in DePaul University in Chicago. It’s one of the top 10 training conservatories in the United States so I’m very excited, but at the same time (even though I don’t tell my team often) I actually feel kinda heavy and sad that this is the last show.

J: Is someone going to take over for Indicinelive!?

K: We’ll leave that to our Artistic Director and Executive Producer to decide next; I trust them completely. Of course I would want to see Indicinelive! continue, definitely!

We’ll see how well Indicinelive! 4 does first! Fingers crossed! Just because we did well before doesn’t mean we will again

F: Yeah, we can’t take things for granted.

K: Exactly, and this time we’ll bring it to Penang, we don’t know how they’ll react. I hear their style of humour is very different to here in KL.

J: How was the Singaporean reaction?

F: It was good. We even got a review.

K: Yeah, it was a fair review, with the good stuff they also talked on where we could improve on.

I remember hearing from one of the cast members, some of the Singaporeans came up to us and said, “Wah, you all Malaysians really really open ah? You all really got guts ah? You all talk about these things aren’t you all afraid of getting into trouble?

If we can still have a fourth episode, that says something about our society. A lot of people say Malaysians are really closed up. I really beg to differ, not just our team but audiences who come and have a good time.

J: I think the success of the past three episodes show that it really has a wide appeal, as opposed to plays which may have a smaller appeal either due to the story line or due to the nature of the play.

F: Yeah, a lot of the stuff is what we experience every day.

K: It’s education for both the writers and the audience on the issues behind the comedy.

F: Some issues may be foreign but not unheard of.  We do cover some international stuff.

K: We do not expect audience members to be dumb, otherwise we spell everything out for them but we cannot expect them to be so well read that we they know everything otherwise that would make what we do highly obscure, so it’s a finding a middle line.

End of the day, it’s art and it’s theatre: we can’t make everyone happy but we try!

J: So what are your plans after your Masters? Take over klpac and oust Joe Hasham?

F: Hahahaha.

K: No-no-no, of course not. Time will tell. My goal as a writer, actor and director is to go out there and further hone my craft. Nothing beats putting yourself in a conservatory and do nothing to breathe, eat and talk theatre for three years.

J: So by the time you come back?

K: I’ll look forward to Indicinelive!

J: Indicinelive! 16 or something?!

K: Yeah! Haha!

J: What about you Freddy, what are you plans after Indicinelive!? I mean you’ve done everything! 

F: No!

J: I can’t imagine something you haven’t done! Except costume design? Set design?

F: No, there’s something I want to try actually. Remember EMP had ‘Scarred Scriptless’ which was an improv workshop, a community where anyone can join? I really want to bring that back.

J: Under the auspices of klpac or on your own?

F: Probably independently. Not to say I don’t trust klpac, it’s just that it can be moved around instead of being locked under one venue.

J: So how long is the run for Indicinelive! 4? 

K: In KL, we’ll have ten shows and in Penang, 4 shows, so altogether 14 shows. It’s the longest we’ve done collectively.

J: Do you think in the future it could go even longer?

F: It depends on the venue. If it’s Indicine, you only need to fill in a hundred, but at Pentas 2 klpac or The Actor’s Studio, we have to fill in 200 people per show and to run more than ten shows? Hmmm…

K: But as Joe Hasham said back in Episode 1, “A revue like this, a premise like this can go on forever.”

J: You just need to keep generating new material.

K: Yeah, based on how on world is at that particular point. If we revive Indicinelive! Episode 1 now it would not be relevant, similar to if we play Episode 4 in ten years, people will go “What’s this?”

J: As a last question, what can audiences expect from this Episode?

F: I think this time, we have a more character-based sketches. We used to have a lot of situational comedy.

K: Or based on issues.

F: Yeah, this time we have focus more on people. Some people have a weird quirk—it may not be a global issue—but everyone knows someone like that so we thought it was fun to cover.

J: Will you touch on Bersih?

K: There is a character sketch involving Bersih.

F: Oh, and there’s a sketch fully in Chinese, which we’ve not done before.

K: Don’t worry there’ll be surtitles! It’s also a slightly longer show at 80 minutes so we’ll have an intermission for the first time.

F: So we can actors rest!

K: Another thing is that there will be a different news items every single show. In Episodes 1 and 2 there was a daily news segment but for Episode 4 there will be a news item which changes every single time that the writers generate based on current headlines.

F: It’s just Kelvin’s excuse for the writers not to rest!

K: Hahaha. Yes.

In 2012, we live in really interesting times. It seems like a good time to bring back Indicinelive! because there’s so much happening in this country and the world.

J: It’s a wealth of material!

K: Exactly. Whatever audiences watch I hope they can relate and find the comedy and fun behind it. With so much going on, we can box ourselves us and be bigots or  open ourselves up and look at the fun side of things rather than dwell on the negative and I feel that Indicinelive! is one of the many ways we could evolve as a better country.

If we are able to laugh at ourselves, we can evolve into individuals with greater self-actualisation. A lot of us cannot laugh at ourselves, we get very defensive when something happens. We have to be able to joke about it—

J: It’s a sign of maturity as well. Because in countries like the States and the UK, political and social satire is part of everyday life, it’s all over tv and newspapers—they don’t take it so seriously that they can’t laugh about it. Whereas over here, you get afraid and defensive.

K: More so in Singpore and hence their reaction towards us. If we want to laugh about others, we have to laugh at ourselves.

J: Alright, thank you Kelvin and Freddy for your time.

K&F: Thank you!

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