Rumah Dayak: An Interview with New Theatre Collective Rupa co.lab
The Singapore theatre scene is buzzing, with new collectives emerging year after year without fail. This time around, three founding members of Malay playwright collective Main Tulis Group (Hazwan Norly, Nabilah Said and Nessa Anwar) have come together to form Rupa co.lab, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word प (rūpa), which means “form, shape”, and aims to reshape contemporary conversations through the lens of the Malay person.
This November, they’ll be making their debut with the premiere of Nessa Anwar’s Rumah Dayak at the Malay Heritage Centre, a new play set in a night-hour safehouse that takes unapologetic look into the dynamics of troubled Malay youths. We spoke to Nessa and the members of Rupa co.lab and found out a little more about the origins of the group and what kind of impact they hope to leave on the Singapore theatre scene. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: Rumah Dayak has been in the works for 5 years now. What took it so long to finally see completion and take to the stage?
Nessa: I didn’t have the proper resources, knowhow and nerve to stage Rumah Dayak 5 years ago. I was a very young writer and I didn’t have this artistic network back then. I just knew I had this idea and writing it in a thought experiment was the best way I knew how. I just got friends together to help me read. It was only after Checkpoint Theatre commissioned Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain for the Singapore Writers Festival in 2015 and Wild Rice subsequently re-staged it for the 2016 Singapore Theatre Festival that I found some confidence to even think of staging Rumah Dayak. Noor Effendy Ibrahim was the one who nudged Nabilah, Hazwan and myself to get together to stage our own full-length plays, and the process happened pretty organically. The script has gone through so many drafts that it’s really time for me to let go and hope for the best.
Bakchormeeboy: What was the research process like for writing Rumah Dayak?
Nessa: Getting involved with voluntary groups providing free services to low-income families made me realise there was a lot I had to learn. In no way do I deem myself an expert. I had conversations with friends who are social workers, CNB officers, policemen and civil servants to make sure the reality in the play made sense. I have a folder of newspaper articles, statistics and court case reports that provided the first leg of my research. I had 8 characters, that means 8 people with complicated backgrounds. You got to put in the grunt work if you want to write anything, even when writing about a community you are a part of. It shouldn’t happen in isolation from everything else. One of my punchlines in the first draft was a female Malay president, and in 2018, that become reality with President Halimah. But I reckon I’ve been researching for this play since I was 15 and started hanging out under the block, with friends, and friends of friends, and they share stories of their friends. I keep trying to tell my mother now that all those years lepak-ing is going to pay off one day.
Bakchormeeboy: Besides being scriptwriter, this time around, you’ll also be taking on the dual role of director. Has that been a challenge for you?
Nessa: This is the first professional full-length production I’m directing. I didn’t know what kind of director I would be or even wanted to be. I’ve just been borrowing the processes I’ve admired from directors I’ve had the privilege of working with, especially Claire Wong, Rafaat Hamzah, Daniel Jenkins and Alin Mosbit. I’m still trying to find the necessary balance between playwright and director, just like the challenges I grappled with as an actor-playwright for Riders. The biggest hurdles were scheduling and juggling a demanding full-time job. But I got past a lot of exhaustion by remembering what I myself as an actor needed from a director, and took it from there.
Bakchormeeboy: Over the last few years between Riders and Rumah Dayak, you’ve mostly been focusing on work with Main Tulis as a writer. How do you see yourself growing as a playwright/theatremaker in the years to come? Is there any particular goal following Rumah Dayak? How has the process been/the differences with Rupa co.lab?
Nessa: I think a writer needs to plug the gaps in documentation and this has been one subculture of living as a Malay youth in Singapore that has been scarce from the theatre scene. In no way do I feel like I represent them, or even can come close to it, but I don’t want to forget the language I grew up with. I started writing some of it in MTG pieces but I felt that I needed the space to explore a whole world.
Rupa co.lab is a completely new collective with different objectives from MTG. Essentially, we’re a producing company, so while the writing is clearly important, we have to focus on other aspects too, such as marketing, content creation and audience development. The work from each playwright comes first, but then there is a lot of other work that needs to come in to support the staging of the play.
Bakchormeeboy: Rumah Dayak has gone through a vigorous rehearsal process lasting almost 6 months, Can you share with us what happened over this period?
Nessa: When I called for auditions in November 2018, I didn’t know who was going to come. But a total of 43 amazing people came and I was floored. I casted all 8 roles, and from there it dawned on us that we can’t turn back. It could really happen.
After the first table read, Rupa co.lab met regularly to hash out the production details. I rented a room at Centre 42 for the table read and Yanling asked me what was it for. After I shared it was for my second full-length, we started discussing about Guest Room Presentation. It was a ray of sunshine to get that gig because we had a goal to work towards, which was the Dramatised Reading in July 2019. I received so much valuable feedback that I gave the actors a break to rejig the script.
I held a 2-day workshop before regular rehearsals to align our understanding and visualisation of the world of Rumah Dayak. We discussed whether we identified ourselves as mats or minahs, the inner worlds of the characters and the difference between the Despacito (current) vs Gasolina (1988 – 1995) generation of Malay youths. The tribe mentality, battlegrounds and even survival instincts have evolved. This set in motion the rigour for intensive rehearsals. The major reason why the rehearsal period was this long is because not all my actors are full-time actors. Thus, there’s the challenge of designing a schedule that took into consideration all their show, school, work, NS, and childbirth commitments. There’s been 2 Rumah Dayak babies since we started this, Saifuddin’s and Matin’s, and it’s just amazing that we could be a part of that.
Bakchormeeboy: No one really knows how much work it takes for a work to finally see the light. Why do you think so? Are we becoming too ignorant?
Nessa: No one sees the grunt work because it’s boring. Ultimately, if you’re part of an independent group doing theatre, and you’re trying to tell a story without the backing of a full-fledged marketing team or huge names, you’re going to be overlooked a bit. And that’s OK to me because I cannot expect a discerning audience to put their trust and spend their money on something that is not mainstream. I don’t think the problem is ignorance. We just have to think of other multimedia ways to shout the message out. For us, it’s a combination of raw content videos provided for free in the hopes of catching some attention. We did a couple of hilarious videos where the cast explained the meaning of mat and minah terminology. We did a kick-ass trailer. And after that, there’s just so much we can do until we just have to trust that people might take a leap of faith and experience the kind of work that independent artists do.
Bakchormeeboy: Ultimately, what do you hope audience members take away after watching Rumah Dayak?
Nessa: To me, the Malay language in this play is its own character. II don’t know if this show will change anything. That’s always a hope that we cannot control as art makers. I just wanted to make a show with the dialogue I – and many others – grew up with. There’s always this unspoken rule that if you use the Malay language a certain way, you are viewed with derision, suspicion or patronisation, even by your own community. But I see it as being conversational chameleons. There’s rhythm and song in us that are dying to be let out. In the twangs of the mat rock’s guitar. The roaring pipes of the mat rempit’s bike. The fights amongst the mat-mat bola. The swishing eyebrow pencil of the minah havoc. The intimidating thuds of the minah punk. We’re not side characters, or token roles in someone else’s story. And I hope we can understand each other a little bit better.
Bakchormeeboy: There is no shortage of Malay theatre collectives in Singapore – what gap does Rupa co.lab aim to fill that hasn’t already been done by another company?
Rupa: We don’t think there is such a thing as too many theatre collectives, whether Malay or not, in Singapore. There is this independent spirit of theatremaking that is really keeping the scene exciting, and it comes with more risk-taking and new audience-building. This is the energy that Rupa co.lab is plugging into. We just want to create compelling work about specific communities that we’re immersed and interested in. They may be Malay, they may not be, but what we cannot deny is that we are Malay theatremakers. At the same time, we also occupy and own different identities. We are playwrights, directors, actors, movers, journalists and marketeers. Like many in our generation, we are multi-hyphenates and we want to be able to use all of our skills, in some way, in our new projects.
Bakchormeeboy: On that same note, knowing how small the arts scene is in Singapore, does the presence of Rupa co.lab necessarily compete then with other companies for that space? Or does the theatre community as a whole instead stand to benefit from more new collectives?
Rupa: The more the merrier. In 2019, there were so many shows that I’m pretty sure everyone felt spoiled for choices. And that’s good. Everyone’s finding new ways to get the funding, everyone’s finding new ways of marketing, and we’re all telling different stories. Sooner or later, we’ll find ourselves in a place where those resources, tactics and methods will be shared, and then everyone will benefit, and we new ways of collaborating can happen. Even now we’re collaborating with the likes of Fared Jainal, whom we’ve all had the pleasure of working with at Teater Ekamatra at some point of our theatremaking careers. We’ll share any success stories we have, and are happy to advise on things that we don’t do as well. We’re competing for the same audience, yes, but that only means more facets of the Singaporean community will be showcased and documented.
Bakchormeeboy: All three founding members of Rupa co.lab also members of the Main Tulis Group. Why did you three decide to band together to form Rupa co.lab?
Rupa: It was an offer that was put to all members of MTG. To be able to join forces to produce and stage our own full-length plays. MTG is first and foremost a playwright collective. And Rupa co.lab is not. The three of us decided to band together because we had stories we wanted to share on a bigger scale, in fully formed pieces. There was a bit of apprehension that the three of us would get sick of each other, but I think that we put a lot of effort in learning each other’s love languages so that we’re constantly pushing ourselves to produce meaningful work. So after Nessa’s Rumah Dayak this year, in the following years we will produce a play by Hazwan, and then Nabilah – basically creating a pipeline of new works.
Bakchormeeboy: One of Rupa co.lab’s goals is to ‘reshape contemporary conversations through the lens of the Malay person’ – what are some other issues the collective has considered looking at for future productions?
Rupa: Without giving the game away (because that’s not fun), we are going to be looking at other marginalised voices within the Malay community.
Bakchormeeboy: The name ‘co.lab’ in the collective’s name suggests the intent to be a space of collaboration rather than existing as a fully independent entity. How does Rupa aim to do this with forthcoming projects?
Rupa: It would depend on what the project needs. With Rumah Dayak, we collaborated with Al-Hafiz Jamat, Fared Jainal, Ema Saleh for the theme song, set design and lighting design, respectively. We deliberately used the word “co.lab” in our name to insert a sense of playfulness and experimentation, which will manifest itself differently with each project.
Rumah Dayak runs from 21st to 24th November 2019 at the Malay Heritage Centre. Tickets available from Docket