Arts & Culture

Theatremaker Jun Vinh Teoh on Staying Hot Enough to Make the Jump

Artists should all be on the same side.

Words by
b-side staff

You might have caught Jun Vinh Teoh on the Singaporean sleeper-hit mockumentary web series Average Guys, but the man’s anything but. Graduating from LASALLE School of the Arts’ Acting programme in 2017, he’s gone on to work with David Glass — one of the world’s pioneers in the field of physical and devised theatre — on a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. This, among a smattering of other projects on TV, film and stage (and being a singer, educator).

Born and raised in Malaysia, he joins a growing community of artists resisting silos and spreading their creative roots on both sides of the causeway.  B-Side chats with the young multi-hyphenate about spending his time between two homes, hustling and fending off aliens by invoking the life-changing power of the stage.

You have 30 seconds in an elevator to introduce yourself without mentioning your profession. Go.

Weirdo. Humanist. Student of life. Introverted ambivert. Manga and video game geek.

“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always hungry.”

My favourite part of the stage is:

On stage.

My least favourite part of the stage is:

Does the green room count? That’s the toughest bit, right there. It’s the limbo between the real world and the fiction, and you have to stay hot enough to make the jump.

Aliens have taken over the world and are threatening to destroy the human race unless you can change their mind with a performance. If you could put up a work with no restrictions whatsoever, what play would you stage, who would you cast and why?

Wow, that’s a monumental responsibility. Something that represents the merit of mankind? I’d conjure up some euphoric dreamlike mish-mash rollercoaster of Shakespeare, Beckett, Murakami, ancient epics and ghost stories. It’ll be a whole festival with food and wine. That’s important.

Who would I cast? You need versatility, depth and presence. Helen Mirren seems up for the task. I trust her acting to save lives. I’m sure my good buddy Thomas Pang would love to impress some aliens. He’d sweat out 20 kilos from pure commitment.

I’ll throw myself in there, Taika Waititi-style if I haven’t already aged centuries from the pressure.

Oh, and if we can bring back people from the dead, Robin Williams has to be there. I don’t think he requires explanation.

You’ve had the opportunity to work on productions both in Singapore and in Malaysia. How does each country’s infrastructure and culture inform the way theatre is made?

Let me preface this by saying I’m certainly not close to being an authority on this topic, so take the following with a grain of salt.

The biggest thing in Singapore is, there’s more money going around in education and production, so there’s a level of efficiency you can expect. Of course, there’s a lot less space (and potential audience members), which makes it harder for smaller companies, in particular, to get off the ground.

In Malaysia, we have more space but much less money. The upside is, most of the people doing it have… more of a hunger? An eagerness? This is a gross generalisation, of course. That being said, there has been a flourishing of small indie companies staging things in unconventional spaces, within their own communities. They’re not making much profit, but there’s space for theatre to grow and try things. We’ve each got our own challenges and I think there’s plenty to learn from each other.

Some lessons you’ve learnt from working on both sides of the causeway, professionally and personally.

I cultivated a love for theatre, I think, back home. If you’re barely paid for your work, you’re there because you love it. Otherwise, choose an easier profession! I think I’ve found in myself the capacity to always find something to love about a project, and that’s one of the keystones for me, for a performance of quality. It’s also a little easier here — because Malaysia is bigger and you’re paid less — to be down-to-earth.

Actors aren’t more special than the engineers and the salarymen.

A lot of people don’t even know what KLPAC is. You can’t get caught up in keeping up appearances if there isn’t pressure to have one. Or maybe I’m just that guy who sneaks off after the show.

In Singapore? I mean, I studied at LASALLE College of the Arts. I learnt so much of what I know doing my degree there (shoutout to my teachers, some of the best human beings I’ve met). Overall I’d say I’ve developed a great respect for the craft and everyone involved.

More money means more stakes performing in Singapore; people don’t have time for your bullshit. So show up on time, bring your best, stay humble and always be ready to learn. Other than that, hire good producers. Or learn to do it well.

As a young creative, what would you like to see more of from your generation of artists?

Humility, sensitivity, goodwill, self-reflection, self-love and making work you care about. Those are my compasses, I think. They’ve served me well. Also, seek not to burn bridges but to make allies. Artists should all be on the same side, and we’ll achieve more together.

What kind of an audience member are you?

I love to get lost in the world, to be tickled and brought on a journey. If there’s good food, heck yeah — the more senses the better. That’s not always possible, of course. When that happens, I like to think constructively about the performance. Why didn’t I like that? How could it have been better, realistically and ideally? I also like to look at the lights in the rigging before the show starts, but I don’t know enough, so I just end up being satisfied knowing what lights they are.

Who needs to go to the theatre the most, in today’s world?

For me, what’s beautiful about the theatre is that it serves everyone (or at least it should). For a society getting lost in numbers and productivity, everyone could use a healthy dose of humanity. Theatre has that potential, but we have to create the shows first and bring them to the audience. That’s what’s special about the theatre. People get to see stories intimately about them, by people just like them, in potentially any space. Theatre can have the vitality of a live concert, and when the song is about you, that melody resonates right to your soul.

But who needs to go the most? Politicians, probably.

There’s an understandable fear about free speech for politicians, and some people will leap at the chance to criticise, right? But you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground, being anywhere high up. Humility serves us all well. I think it’s healthy.

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