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Preview: Rumah Hantu by akulah BIMBO SAKTI + An Interview with Noor Effendy Ibrahim and Adib Kosnan

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Playing as part of the Malay Heritage Centre’s Malay Cultural Festival 2019, akulah BIMBO SAKTI is set to present the premiere of Adib Kosnan’s Rumah Hantu this November. Written by Adib in response to Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s first play Kerusi Buaian, Cermin, dan Jam (1991), Rumah Hantu (ghost house) takes place in an old and decrepit house, where two individuals find themselves trapped (Farez Najid and Suhaili Safari). Their lives are intertwined by a mysterious incident, it seems the only way out is to keep searching and to keep repeating narratives that serve as a way of escape.

Rumah Hantu is part of the Malay Heritage Centre’s Projek Bahasa Pengarah (The Director’s Language Project), designed for Malay theatre practitioners undergo a 9-12 month theatre-making laboratory by renowned local practitioner Noor Effendy Ibrahim. Now in its final stages, Rumah Hantu had previously undergone a rigorous process over the last year, including workshops, a dramatised reading, and various closed and open presentations. 

What are the memories we hold on to? What stories are places or possessions tied to? What do we dream about when we sleep to escape? What appears to release you may be the exact thing that keeps you trapped. How then do you learn to move on? Find out with akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s Rumah Hantu this November, in what may well be their final production. But before that, read our interview with Effendy and Adib to find out a little more about what to expect:

EFFENDY

Bakchormeeboy: How did you come to be a part of Projek Bahasa Pengarah?

Effendy: Projek Bahasa Pengarah (PBP) – or the Director’s Language Project – is my project actually. I designed it out of real frustrations at the lack of accessible, stubborn, safe, inclusive, diverse, and critical spaces for the arts practitioner to research and develop their practice that are as free as possible from the demands of KPIs and other destructive nonsense the arts community has been conditioned to embrace.

At the same time PBP is another face to my menu of interdisciplinary practice, where I research into the design of types of support for arts practitioners, and the how of making the support greatly accessible. This need to always support others, I credit it to Lut Ali – founder and first AD of Teater Ekamatra, and Kuo Pao Kun with the diminishing Home for the Arts that he built and where I grew up in, both of whom I learned alot from in the 90’s.

I tried my very best to pursue this when I was Artistic Director of Teater Ekamatra and The Substation, but somehow many folks then did not find this – especially issues on accessibility – sexy despite their admission and acknowledgement that many in the arts community still urgently need assistance mainly in resources. After stepping down from The Substation in 2015, and finally getting a grip with the reality and truth of things – especially sanity – I started akulah BIMBO SAKTI (aBS) in late 2016 with the support of Clarisse Ng, creating and developing what you have termed below as the “Effendy style”. aBS was the only safe and inclusive space in Singapore for what I want to do – the others being CAKE, Teater Ekamatra, and the former The Substation, all of whom I owe much to – but aBS being a loose independent collective greatly lacked the necessary resources for me to develop my practice in creating R&D spaces for other artists.

Opportunity came when Malay Heritage Centre approached me early in 2017-18 to invite me to be a Resident Artist for a 2-year term. Naturally I accepted and created PBP, and invited Adib Kosnan and Nabilah Said to be the first arts practitioners to be part of the R&D programme of aBS. And I am not a mentor. In fact I consciously design the programme such that there is no mentorship. A bit too arrogant, even for my standard, to want to mentor.

PBP was to be a space that Adib and Nabilah can claim as their own, and my primary role was to protect that space and ensure they are able to play and negotiate their creative processes as much as they can within the limitations and frameworks imposed on the borrowed 2-year space. What I also insisted on was there to have as many open conversations as possible during the creation process, especially between Adib and myself, but I confess I was not able to find that sufficient space to engage Adib in these past 2 years due to…things. And it was never about mentoring, or imparting of my “knowledge” or the “Effendy style” to younger artists. It is about them articulating and developing their own vocabulary, their own language.

Sadly, I will kill PBP after Rumah Hantu. Let me just say the last two years was frustrating having to deal with inadequacies that severely put unnecessary strain on the management of the project. At the same time, I will be revamping aBS and am also contemplating trying out for the NAC Seed Grant. So who knows. If I do get the Seed Grant, PBP will still not be resurrected. It will be something else. And you will be notified. If not, then, it may very well be the end for akulah BIMBO SAKTI with “Rumah Hantu”. Quite apt actually.

Bakchormeeboy: With Adib’s play being a response to one of your own, was there ever the temptation to take a bigger hand in dictating the direction that Adib took on during the process of developing Rumah Hantu?

Effendy: Nope. Never intended to whether Adib was responding to my works or creating a new one. Adib – and so with Nabilah and others – is his own artist. I didn’t invite him to participate in PBP because I can manipulate him, but because I believe in his true potentials and want to help begin to develop what he instinctively wants and needs to do in his art.

What I wished I could have done was to formalize the conversations, and document them. The conversations will not just be with Adib, but also with the rest of the production team, and also between Clarisse and the younger production members, Emanorwatty Saleh (my in-house LD) and the design and tech team, and whoever else that needs to discuss and bounce off ideas. It’s porous and jumps across roles and the traditional hierarchy. Everyone needs to be able to claim ownership of the process, or key parts of it. It is a collaboration. I wished I had the time and resources to formalize such conversations. Something I will seriously look into if aBS does get the Seed Grant.

Bakchormeeboy: The ‘Effendy style’ of work is extremely unique compared to most other work we see in Singapore. As a mentor, what are the aspects of theatre you intend to impart to your mentees? 

Effendy: Nah, not mentor-mentee relationship. Fuck the formality. It has to be friends. It is only theatre. It is only art. Yet, what I really hope any arts practitioners working or collaborating with me will celebrate is balls. Balls to be stubborn. Balls to be conscious. Balls to be playful. Balls to be sophisticated. Balls to refuse to be literal. Balls to engage an intelligent audience. Balls to fail. Balls to ignore the industry. Balls to be humble. Balls to refuse to be submissive to numbers. Balls to not be hypocrites. Balls to be transparent. Balls to have conversations with censorship. Balls to decide to terminate. Balls to be vulnerable. But you need to grow balls first, you cannot just implant one. This means time. Time needed for the balls to grow in. Investing in the friendship. But often time is what we don’t have.

Bakchormeeboy: This isn’t the first time you’re working with Adib and Nabilah – what about their work most excites you that makes you think they bring something different and important to the local theatre scene? 

Effendy: They both can write. Very well. And words are still important, in whatever language they are written in. I hate words. I am anti-words. That is why I am attracted to both of them. I think. On what they can bring to the local theatre scene that is different and important, I leave it to them. Everyone of us make art for different reasons. I just hope they will be honest on those reasons.

But coming back to the PBP programme, like I stated earlier, I will kill it after “Rumah Hantu”. Adib will continue with his practice after this, I know that, and I hope the process over the last 2 years was crucial for him and to how he will move on from here with his practice. So now it all depends on the future of aBS.

If I am able to get the Seed Grant, or by some miracle some rich Singapore patrons or corporations have the balls to sponsor the “Effendy style”, yes I will research on a new and more formalized R&D space for arts practitioners. And the focus will be on interdisciplinary practice. And I must spit out that in the next three years, if it all falls nicely into place, I’d still like to invite Nabilah, and I want to continue working with Farah Ong and Shafie M Haja separately for the danger they bring in. But who can see into the future, unless they have sufficient arts funding. Yes?

Bakchormeeboy: What is the direction you’d like to see the Malay theatre scene take as it continues to grow in future?

Effendy: Damn, I have been grappling with this the last 10 years now and it still frustrates me. Is it Malay theatre or Theatre in Malay, and I find myself gradually leaning towards the latter? Oh this applies to Tamil, Mandarin, and English theatre in Singapore as well. Anyway…what direction I’d like to see the Malay theatre scene take? The below for the next 5 years – in no particular order:

i. Teater Ekamatra developing its branding as an interdisciplinary/experimental Malay theatre company AND setting itself to be the political leader for Malay Theatre/Theatre in Malay in Singapore by being one of the key voices to negotiate sufficient and critical spaces and resources for ethnic/minority theatre in Singapore with the various government agencies, cultural organizations, invested funders/sponsors and commercial entities, academic agencies/institutions, etc.

ii. Teater Kami positioning itself to be the site for developing and evolving Bahasa through both contemporary and traditional Malay theatre by producing high quality mainstream productions and musicals

iii. Continued development and support for new collectives like Main Tulis Group, Hatch Theatrics, individual creative leaders (playwrights, directors, managers, producers, designers, actors), etc.

iv. Active dialogues/conversations with critics, reviewers, academics, historians, educators, especially in area of archiving, documentation, and critical writing.

v. Recognition of key roles of Malay theatre companies independent of national/cultural narratives/demands by government and cultural agencies/organizations which fuels into increased stake and support.

ADIB

Bakchormeeboy: Rumah Hantu was written in response to Effendy’s very first play. Tell us what made you choose that play in particular to respond to, and what elements in it are you responding to?

Adib: I chose Kerusi Buaian, Cermin dan Jam because it intrigued me, that as someone whose pieces were so viscerally physical, effendy’s first piece was so poignant with his use of words. The longing that existed in the voices of both characters in his play spoke to me and that is the main element I wanted to respond to. The longing and hope/loss of hope.

Bakchormeeboy:You’re a theatremaker who wears many hats – besides playwriting, you also direct and act. Of the many roles (in terms of directing, acting, design etc) you take on in the theatre scene, which would you say you personally want to be best known for, and why? 

Adib: Personally, I would like to be known as a sharer of stories, and the way I share each story may mean I take on different roles that suit the dynamic of each different tale. The essence of each role is at the core of it, a responsibility to ensure the story is shared the best way possible. I know how idealistic this sounds, but I enjoy each role for different reasons and until I am unable to do the best I can I’m any one of them, I don’t want to choose. Haha.

Bakchormeeboy: Over the course of the last 1 year, under Projek Bahasa Pengarah, how would you say you’ve been challenged as a theatremaker and what is your greatest takeaway? 

Adib: The designs for the performance on a macro level is something that has been challenging for me. I’m the kind of person who needs to see things before me before I know what I think works. So to come out with an aesthetic that can inform the designers, I had a lot of trouble translating that from what I had in my mind. Fendy is probably the opposite on the way that he knows exactly what he wants visually so to have insight with how he does that, that has been one of my main takeaways from this. Also, understanding how to create a collaborative and nurturing environment, something I have always felt the importance of, has been really enhance through learning from Effendy.

Bakchormeeboy: What kind of support do you feel the local arts scene is most in need of at the moment to flourish in future?

Adib: Again, being idealistic, a space that recognises failure to be an integral part of the artistic process while allowing the practitioners resources to survive.

Pragmatically, I feel that practitioners need an avenue to equip themselves with knowledge that would allow them to produce their work quickly and safely (economically and psychologically). Then their work can be out there for people to judge and critique and hopefully they can grow from it. These avenues are emerging and maybe we need to be more aware and take ownership of our artistic development in a more holistic manner.

Bakchormeeboy: What do you hope audiences walk away from Rumah Hantu thinking or feeling after the performance?

Adib: I would like them to think about hope and hopelessness and how we can be beholden to both. How does this affect our day to day lives even when on paper it might not seem to even come close to affecting us. We are all holding on to something beyond hope… And maybe we have given up on something that we never should have given up.

Especially for members of any minority. Sometimes the truths we hold on to and the lies we tell ourselves can be the same thing. And maybe there are good reasons why.

Rumah Hantu plays on 1st and 2nd November 2019 at the Malay Heritage Centre. Auditorium as part of Malay Cultural Festival 2019. Tickets available from Docket

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