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Teater KAMi’s Kemas: An Interview with writer/director Moli Mohter

Writer/Director Moli Mohter

Life can often get a little messy – that’s why every once in a while, we might need to perform an act of ‘kemas’, or ‘tidy’ in Malay. That’s what theatremaker Moli Mohter did in 2018, as a sudden thought gripped her – “what if I died, and somebody came by to clean my house, what would they find?”

“I was staying by myself at that time, and I was suddenly wondering, what if people found all my diaries and my dirty laundry, and the thought of that scared me a little,” says Moli. “And that got me thinking about how it could be made into a play, about what I really want to leave behind when I finally leave the world.”

That is the thought process and flash of inspiration that led to new play Kemas, which makes its premiere at the Esplanade this weekend. Produced by Teater KaMi, Kemas takes place in a housing estate, where we witness three neighbours’ lives play out in a tight-knit housing estate where the walls between the flats are too thin and everyone is always listening to one another.

“In coming up with the characters, I thought a lot about the people in my own estate and my interactions with them. For example, there’s a lot of senior citizens who live in my estate staying by themselves, and usually I’d encounter them in the lift, at the corridors, or under the void deck. And they’re the kind of people who would actually come up to you and start talking!” says Moli. “I became particularly close to one of the aunties – we always bump into each other while crossing the road, but never talk, only exchange smiles. One thing I did do was notice how during her morning routine to the playground, she would play Cantonese music, and having grown up watching Hong Kong movies, I would also recognise them and stop and listen for a while. One day, she actually came up to me and asked if I could accompany her to the hospital that afternoon. It turns out she had never talked to any other neighbour except for me.”

“These neighbours are so interesting – they love to give advice whenever you bump into them, like ‘don’t shower immediately when you get home’ or ‘don’t eat too much meat if you’re cooking’ or ‘you carry a sling bag, make sure you carry it in front or people will steal from you’. If you don’t know these people in real life, you probably won’t believe these characters exist in real life,” she continues. “I think my exposure to the older generation also increased with my work in Drama Box’s Both Sides, Now community project, where in the pre-COVID days, every month we would cook at a neighbour’s house, go down to the void deck, and eat together, which promoted more interaction.”

Not just in her current life, but Moli also remembers her own interactions with neighbours in her childhood, and how much has changed from then to now. “When I was much younger, I used to stay in this estate at Taman Jurong, and I remember how people would just leave their doors unlocked and people would walk into each other’s houses just like that,” she says. “It was never for anything untoward, people really just went into each other’s kitchen to share a meal. I even remember sometimes, I would find someone in my home just saying ‘oh, so you do your kitchen like that!’ But now that doesn’t happen anymore where I live, and each estate is really different based on the people who live there and bring their own brand of the ‘kampung spirit’ to it.”

That, in essence, is the story of how Kemas got written. As for how it came to be staged, Moli elaborates. “I had three friends who wanted me to write something new for them, and I wrote Kemas, we did the first reading at my dinner table in 2019,” she says. “COVID happened, and I thought I would shelve it because it probably would never get staged. That was until Atin Amat, Teater KaMi’s artistic director, came to me one day and asked whether I’d been writing for the stage. I passed her the script, and she leapt at the chance to stage it. So they contacted Esplanade, and everything fell into place after that.”

“We had a proper script read at Cipta Cita 2022, and I gathered my team. I’ve worked with Dalifah Shahril on Both Sides, Now and wanted her onboard, while we needed another younger and an older actress, which came in the form of Rusydina Afiqah and Mahyonis Mahfudz. Finally, I had this other character who would initially be just be invisible, but after some consideration, decided I needed someone to play her, and that’s how Suhaila M Sanif joined the cast,” she continues. “Mahyonis in particular is someone I’ve never worked with directly before, or even spoken to before. She’s interesting because she’s best known for her bangsawan work, and was surprised when I told her to put all that away and try something new instead. Working with my actors, I do think that I’m not too pushy, and in fact, one of them told me ‘Moli, I don’t need validation all the time!’ and I started to wonder how exactly I come across in rehearsals.”

Since the initial script-read at Cipta Cita, the script has gone through several changes, including a much more hopeful ending than was initially planned. “I do think of myself as a very positive person, and people who came for the read are familiar with what I write for Both Sides, Now, and it really reminded them of some of the stories in there,” she says. “It was during rehearsals that I realised I need to bring some hope into this piece rather than the initial dark ending, with a brand new scene. Yes, I tend to write dark endings in general, but I would like to start giving hope through my work.”

Having been in the Malay theatre scene for so long, and finally making a proper return with Kemas, Moli shares her thoughts on the current state of affairs and where she hopes it continues to progress from here. “I started in theatre with Teater KaMi in 1998 as a full time actor. Since then, I’ve shifted to production work with companies like The Necessary Stage and Drama Box. One thing I realise is so different between the English and Malay theatre scenes is that the former usually has people specialising in specific job scopes, while in the latter, we tend to be a jack of all trades and do many things at once,” she says. “That’s not a bad thing, in that I really learnt to do everything from acting to producing to costume designing, but as time goes by, I do hope to see more professional development made possible for practitioners in Malay theatre. Partially it’s due to funding, and also due to a lack of platforms, and if that changes, people can really be seen as professionals and really turn it into their rice bowl. I’m lucky that in the last few years I’ve managed to do more of that for myself, and I want to keep developing myself and learning.”

Ultimately, what does Moli want audience members to walk away with after watching Kemas? “I hope that people will go back and be reminded of these characters I’ve presented onstage in future, whether they’ve experienced them before or encounter them in future. From there, it’s important that they don’t be too awkward if they do end up interacting with such characters,” she concludes. “And while this play started out with me wanting to ‘kemas’ everything, I’m starting to think, maybe it’s alright to have some things stay messy. If everything is too neat and tidy or too clean, then it’s too perfect, and a little bit of mess makes life that much more interesting.”

Photo Credit: Studio ZNKE

Kemas plays from 17th to 19th February 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

1 comment on “Teater KAMi’s Kemas: An Interview with writer/director Moli Mohter

  1. You may wish to rename yr play as sg
    Or you can call it Hopeless for it has no redeeming social value. If Malsy Poverty n Alienation is as bad as it is your play should at least point to certain solutions instead of just presenting 4 brain damage Malsy old women


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