A Passionate Advocate of The Arts

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The theatre is a universal form of fine art that utilises live performers most often with the intention of presenting the experiences of various events that relay, inspire and provoke an audience. In the current expeditious world of digital video recorders and fast-forwarding however, the younger generation have lost patience for this olden form of expressive art, favouring instantly-gratifying concerts and cinema flicks instead. Thankfully,the theatre craft in Malaysia is still going strong since its inception, bringing numerous brilliant playwrights and talented actors to the forefront. Top 10 of Malaysia gets to have a chat with an industry veteran who has completely dedicated herself to the craft – Jo Kukathas.

A multi-talented actress, Jo Kukathas is a wearer of many hats – she is also a director, a writer and the co-founder of the Instant Café Theatre Company, where she also serves as the Artistic Director. Well-known for her satirical plays and character acting, she is also the founder of CHAI, the Instant Café Theatre House of Arts and Ideas, an avenue for artists to get together and put their ideas to work.

It is daunting for a single person to hold these many roles and seeing them through, undeniably requiring a lot of passion and inspiration, which is something that the actress most certainly does not lack. The journey she is still embarking on today, however, began early in the comfort of her own home.

“When we were young, my father inspired us with a love of literature, especially Shakespeare. While we were still kids, he read his plays to us and made us learn and recite poems out loud to him: John Donne, Andrew Marvell, T.S. Eliot. His shelves were full of plays. I once pulled books written by Harold Pinter off the shelf because they seemed easy to read – they were so thin! – and the stark black and white photos on the front were so thrilling. I didn’t know what I was reading at the time but it made me feel grown up,” confesses Kukathas.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, raised in both Australia and Hong Kong, schooled in India and having had her higher education in the UK, it is safe to say Kukathas has seen the world, one which she tries to present to the everyday man albeit limited onto the confines of a stage. Her beginnings and subsequently reaching this phase of life interestingly brings to mind a well-known literary character – the early childhood era of Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in his masterpiece, Atonement.

“My sisters and cousins and I threw ourselves into making shows during school holidays and invited the extended family to watch. They came and were loudly appreciative. We grew more and more ambitious and finally we were doing shows with sound effects and scripts and props and set design all in a living room. This was an early inspiration. That, and my father coming back home with his theatre friends such as Syed Alwi and Leslie Dawson after rehearsals. Again at the time I didn’t know what it all meant but in some way it must have affected me because theatre always seemed like the most natural and necessary thing to do,” recalls Kukathas.

Following her instinct has proved to be incredibly fruitful for Kukathas, who is currently synonymous with the Malaysian theatre scene and the main driving force behind many successful plays. But as they say, the sun always shines brighter after a rainy day and it holds true for the dramaturge as well, who has been drenched in many a rainy day before being able to bask in the rays of sunshine today.

“The challenge is to keep challenging yourself. Theatre anywhere in the world faces the same challenges – a lack of funding, a lack of faith, fear, censorship, a lack of infrastructure. But the more I travel and see theatre the more I realise the challenges is what creates the theatre. It is no different for us at Instant Cafe Theatre. Theatre reminds us by telling us stories of what it means to be human that we all face choices in our lives – and that we all choose what to do – or not do. Choice is what makes us citizens,” asserts Kukathas passionately.

As a seasoned performer, the dramatist is a staunch believer in collaboration as the theatre is about the ensemble and the most collaborative of all the existing art forms. A quote reflecting this that she holds dear is by Oscar Wilde, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being,” recites Kukathas who looks forward to discovering the sublime and the ridiculous in the next ten years.

Issue 21/2015