For foreigners and locals alike, the mere mention of the word ‘Malaysia’ would immediately bring to mind images of great food, enigmatic rainforests and humid tropical weather. An intriguing aspect of the country that may not be well-known to many is undeniably the blossoming theatre scene which has continuously proven to be a gratifying experience for the ‘privileged’ lucky few. However, one extraordinary talent is on a mission to take the local theatre industry to a higher plane. In this issue, Top 10 of Malaysia finds out about the life and times of this homegrown multi-talented actor, director and teacher in a recent interview with the man himself, Ghafir Akbar.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Ghafir Akbar completed his higher secondary education in 1998 at Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur and soon after began making waves in the booming local theatre scene. He made his professional debut at the Actor’s Studio Theatre in Box of Delights – 5 Fantastical Tales which was based on fairy tales from around the world. Directed by Pauline Furlong and written by Tim Evans, the production was a critically-acclaimed commercial success, introducing Ghafir and his talent to other industry players and theatre-goers. Since then, he has been almost a staple addition to various productions by numerous theatre companies across Malaysia, such as Five Arts Centre and The Actors Studio.
Becoming as prolific as he is today was not easy for Ghafir, who of course needed a healthy dose of what every other successful artist has needed as well: inspiration. “I was inspired by the people with whom I had the opportunity to work with early on in my career,” he admits. “People in the arts tend to have a different way of looking at the world. They perceive society and the world from an unordinary perspective. I felt that the artists who had inspired me here in Malaysia had great dreams that are out of the ordinary and I wanted to be a part of that,” continues Ghafir who currently works as a lecturer in Universiti Malaya.
Seeing that one of many Ghafir’s real life roles is a lecturer, it does not take much to deduce that the playwright believes in formal education for actors as well. After spending many years being active in the local theatre arena right after secondary school, the Cuak (a romance comedy movie) hero saved up money and secured some scholarships to study in the United States (US) for his undergraduate degree, graduating with a BA in Theatre Performance. Then he pursued his Masters degree with an MFA in Acting at the Asolo Conservatory, also in the US. After that, he made the big move to New York where he lived for about two years before moving back to Malaysia.
The New York experience has also been one of the most satisfying events in his life. “Living in a vibrant and artistic city, to be alongside some of the best performing arts talent in the world, really made me aware of the standards I need to set for myself. I was able to work with companies that created world class work on and off Broadway. I got the opportunity to observe the way they work and evaluate the product they presented. In a way, I felt like I was restarting my career. I took in the experience like a sponge. And I strongly believe that I managed to make a mark, although small, to the theatre industry there,” says Ghafir who altogether spent six years in a university setting in the US.
Since coming back from the US, armed with a formal education to support his experience, the multitasker Ghafir is now focused on being versatile enough to change hats – as a director, writer, producer and designer as well. In turn, being a teacher allows him to pass on the knowledge he has accumulated over the years to future players in the industry. Having had great teachers to look up to when he was in his formative years, Ghafir wants to be that person to young and upcoming artists too.
However, Ghafir has also made other plans for himself in the proximate ten years. “I’d like to consistently work in an environment where I can collaborate with a group of artists (actors, singers, dancers, musicians, writers, designers) on a long-term basis. The opportunity to do workshops or test out new ideas and projects prior to production is rare and will help increase the quality of my work,” he says. Since practice-based research is still a new idea in Malaysia, Ghafir also hopes to establish a space or group to create, develop, and present new ideas in the performing arts.
Ghafir has his own unique take on what he considers his greatest achievement in life. “I hope my greatest achievement has not arrived yet. The saying ‘you are only as good as your last show’ holds true for me. So, every time I embark on a new project, I feel the need to better myself and move up a notch to a bigger or greater achievement. Should there come a time where I feel that I have achieved success in the theatre either as an actor, director, teacher, or writer, then I might consider switching career.”