Arts & Culture

George Town Festival 2019: Shedding Light on Collective Histories

Discussing controversy through theatre

Words by
Dawn
Location
Malaysia

B-Side went down for the final weekend of George Town Festival 2019. This week, we’re dropping a special five-part series, featuring performances and interviews with their South East Asian lineup. This is Part 4 of 5 keep a look out!

Read BIRD – Part 1 here.

Read Armour and Skin – Part 2 here.

Read THISNORTHAT – Part 3 here.

Five performers sat at a long table, looking at their scripts, occasionally meeting the eyes of the audience. The atmosphere was tense — nobody knew what to expect. What characters would we meet at the read and how was it going to be presented?

Light — A Staged Reading addresses the history of Penang, Adelaide and colonisation during the time of the British Empire. Going all the way back to 1786, when Francis Light claimed the island of Penang as British property, the audience journeys to 50 years later where his son William laid out the foundation of Adelaide in Australia. Beyond history and free market capitalism, family, loss and confusion formed the core of the script.

After a couple of minutes of silence, stage directions were read and sound effects soon followed. Props started appearing in the hands of the actors to aid with the storytelling, and the audience members tried their best to follow.

Working with history can be tricky, especially if prior historical knowledge would facilitate the audience’s understanding. And what one perceives as history might be different from another person’s facts.

After all, history is an ever-changing narrative of the victor and the vocal; it isn’t really all about facts.

But there was clarity. We could see the Light, so to speak, and many parallels were drawn from one character to another. This made for a layered script and a full stimulation of one’s imagination, since no stage directions were physically executed during the read itself. Even for the team, the read brought about some insight on how the show could be staged in future.

Govin of TerryandTheCuz shared, “I read all the narration in this reading and it is just one of those things where I don’t know how it is going to sound like for someone experiencing the script for the first time. For me, I have been with this script for months and just the other day, I said to Thomas: ‘Thomas, the entire first 20 minutes of the show is in complete darkness.’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you couldn’t see that?’ Then I realised that it’s written in the script. I know that, but I just couldn’t feel it happening until I read it and it clicked in my mind.”

B-Side received a crash course in local narratives, history and how a book was birthed from wanting to put up this production. People came into the production, pulled out and new faces joined the team during the three years of trying to put the production together. And now in 2019, the work will finally be shared with global audiences in Malaysia and Australia. It’s been a long journey, but having spoken to the personable team, it seems like the timing is ripe.

We met up with both creatives to find out more about Light — A Staged Reading and to learn about the process of growing an idea into a theatre production.

How did this collaboration come about?

Govin: Thomas and I met in 2005 or 2006, and he was in Melbourne as a formal artist. I run a company with a guy called Terry, who’s based in Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne, called TerryandtheCuz.

Over the years, we conceived concepts and collaborated with other strands mainly from Melbourne. A few years ago, we stumbled upon this topic called Light. We contacted Thomas and were like, “Hey shall we collaborate and make this work?” Then Thomas got stuck in the whole historical element of it. I think we spent about two years researching.

Thomas: It just kept on going, discovering more things –

Govin: Somehow this thing that started as an idea grew in size and stature, and the process took some time. It was meant to be completed in 2016/17. But we didn’t have enough money in 2018, and in 2019, it’s finally happening. Being here at the George Town Festival was the logical way to start because we all started in Penang. We managed to talk to them and scheduled a reading of the work. Then we’ll do a screening in Kuala Lumpur at the end of August, and premiere at the OzAsia Festival and in Adelaide end October.

That’s our next question actually. We wanted to ask why the choice of a staged reading instead of a full-fledged production, so now it all makes sense.

Govin: We’ve never done anything like a staged reading before. We did regular script reads but never had a show where people come, sit and listen. But when we got the permission from OzAsia Festival, we knew we had to deliver a world premiere of the work. One of the best things is, we always get to test out the ideas in Malaysia first.

Because it’s a much cheaper place to build stuff, and being under the banner of George Town is great to do a developmental showing. But the festival did ask if we could have the production ready by July and we couldn’t make it in time. We asked if they would consider a reading, which is something people in the industry do a lot, but the general public rarely get to see. We did our first reading yesterday and got interesting, positive responses.

With the topic of choice being colonisation, it’s a very broad topic and there are a lot of things that you can talk about within that realm. How did you choose what to explore and hold on to while telling an effective story?

Thomas:

I wanted to look more at the interpretation of history and how that continues to put a set of values that extends from colonialism.

Raffles is a very good version of it, for example, because his image front is so overt. But what lurks behind is so Jekyll and Hyde, it’s really wonderful. He is a big brand; he’s colonialist theory embodied. Raffles goes back to Britain and he’s lauded for being an intellectual figure who knows all this stuff about the Indies, and he writes about the huge history of Java, and everyone studies it.

It’s all about the relationship between the son and his parents, but all those sub-texts of civilisation, colonisation can actually be told by the fact that you got this lie: an English and his Malaysian/South East Asian wife, and then a son who will never be accepted into society, no matter how he tries to wash away his Asian-ness.

By exploring that relationship, you explore the greater context. What you hear today is kind of that 100 pages out of 400, and a concept that hooks people and is not just a history buff’s wet dream.

The next challenge is how do you stage it, get the words out, and get the stage directions in. That’s a very exciting process for us.

It is interesting that you took years to develop this work. In Singapore, it’s very common to see works that may not be fully formed getting staged. There’s maybe a month of rehearsing, followed immediately by the show. Sometimes it can feel constrained and the process so packed, there’s not enough time for character research and development. How do you guys negotiate that?

Govin: Terry and I devise content that puts the audience in the centre of the experience. Depending on the genres, we collaborate with different artists. For example, we just finished presenting a show called Made in America, where you come in, sit and before you know it, you’d realise — Fuck, you’re inside the show itself and the conversations all around you are part of it.

It was originally staged in 2012 in Kuala Lumpur as part of The Bee Project. Malaysia is a great place to try out these ideas. We developed it over a couple of months and because the concept is so different from a traditional black box show, people got excited.

We took it to New York, adapted it for an American audience, and thereafter, redeveloped it with a bunch of writers in Melbourne, staged it in a bar there, developed it again in 2017 for The Bee Project, then did four shows in New York.

We always develop, knowing you can only go as far as the money and resources allow. But to think that is the end, is where most people shoot themselves in the foot.

If this was just a one-month production in 2017, it would be a product of one month’s work. But that was not what happened. We just kept developing it, while doing other work. If you look at it, we didn’t have a, say, four-year development plan. We just had a script for four years and kept developing it. It’s a very different thing.

Nobody paid us to do it. We just wanted to not let this project die.

Every now and then, Thomas would take a look at it and we’d talk. In four years you become better theatre makers. You look at the work you did four years ago, and it’s like, hey, this is how we’re gonna develop this differently now.

For us, it’s not like we have a repertoire or anything. But we’ve developed concepts that are great, and Malaysia is an amazing place to test them. We’ve been very fortunate to walk into something like George Town Festival and get a reading. Not many others get to do it. But it’s because we’ve spent a lot of time on it.

If someone like Ivan Heng walks in and asks for it, he’ll get it because he’s Ivan Heng. He spent all the time in the ’80s and ’90s becoming everything. That’s where we want to be.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Photography courtesy of Light A Staged Reading and George Town Festival 2019

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