Thursday June 26, 2008
Assembling Air Con
By RIZAL JOHAN
Writing workshop Firstworks has brought to life the playwriting talents of Shanon Shah.
AIR CON, the latest production directed by Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi under Instant Cafe Theatre’s Firstworks banner, begins its five-day run on July 2 at Pentas 2, at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).
Instant Cafe or ICT started the writing programme Firstworks back in 2003 to unearth new writers to the local theatre scene and has actively organised writing workshops, forums and readings ever since.
It was during a Firstworks forum in 2006 that Jo had invited singer/songwriter Shanon Shah, the writer of Air Con, to give a talk. Even though Shanon hadn’t done any playwriting, the persuasive Jo had managed to coax him into giving a talk anyway.
“I’ve known Shanon a long time and I know he has very strong political convictions. When I invited him to speak at the forum, he asked why as he hadn’t done any writing and the things that he’d like to write about are not the kind of things that are spoken about openly, so I told him to talk about that.
“He ended up giving a very interesting talk and at the end of the forum, Shanon decided he’d like to write a play,” said Jo in a recent interview.
Shanon enlisted in Firstworks and attended workshops, laboratories and readings which has resulted in this debut script, Air Con. What is important to note about Firstworks though, is that it is serious about developing participants as writers.
“I would call the programme rigourous,” said Jo. “We want to know what (the participants) are trying to say, why they want to be writers and whether they know how to tell their stories. As such we’ve organised forums, public workshops and meetings for them. We want to engage other people and share the creative process. We want to refocus on the art of playwriting because we don’t have new playwrights right now.”
Jo and Zalfian spent almost two years with Shanon developing Air Con. Shanon had to pitch an idea about what the play would be about and work from there. Even after he had finished his scripts, readings were held and Air Con continued to evolve even when the production went into rehearsals in April this year.
“In Shanon’s case, his original pitch concerned the murder of a transsexual and sex worker and how it affects everybody in a boys’ boarding school. Air Con has gone through three readings. And I would say that we’ve changed at least 50% of the play since we started rehearsals,” said Air Con co-director Zalfian.
At the time of the interview, both directors said that they were done with changing the script.
“Although there have been a lot of changes to the script, we still heeded Shanon’s original story of a murdered transsexual and the boys growing up in the asrama (boarding school),” said Jo.
She was quick to note that the play is not a whodunit even though it comes with the tag line, “Who Killed Aishwarya Roberts?”.
“It’s not a mystery murder. It’s a play about boys and sex, so it’s quite funny because there’s a lot of boy-talk,” explained Jo.
The play, with dialogue in English and Bahasa Malaysia with subtitles, is set in 1995 in an elite boarding school in Kedah.
Audiences will experience what boarding school life is like from the point of view of the two seniors – Burn, head prefect and hockey team captain and his best friend, Chep, a skilled hockey player who is admired and feared by the younger boys. Also in the mix are two juniors – William and Asif, who get caught up in the repercussions of the murdered sex worker.
“There’s a railway depot next to the school where the boys go and get sex and this is where the transsexual is found murdered,” said Jo.
Thus the play looks at issues such as sexual awakening and identity, bullying, social prejudice and the school system among other things.
“The play covers a lot of themes and has elements of what happens in an asrama (hostel) but we’re leaving it to the audience to make up their own minds about it,” said Zalfian.
The directors had cast newcomers to fill the majority of the roles and Zalfian admitted that casting proved to be tough because of the characters’ age and the ability to speak both Malay and English.
“It was very difficult to find boys aged 16 years old so we had to audition older actors and make them play younger characters,” said Zalfian.
The play stars Amerul Affendi, Dara Othman, Firdaus Che Yahaya, Hazarul Hasnain, Nick Davis, Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, Zahiril Adzim, Nam Ron, Chew Kin Wah and Ismadi Wakiri.
The Firstworks programme seems to have its desired effect on Shanon as he is already working on his second play.
“The purpose of Firstworks is for people to keep on writing,” said Jo. However, she explained that for the programme to continue its course, monetary support is needed.
“Support for the programme is key. There’s just not enough support. A lot of the time, the speakers at our workshops or forums are chipping in for free. I want to be able to pay people for sharing their knowledge. We need writers and we’re doing this to build our own theatre content and the people who help us out shouldn’t do it for nothing.”