SO you’re certain that you want a career in theatre? The glamour of standing in front of a sea of people with the spotlight shining in your eyes as you spout lines that get the audience on their feet clapping. Tempting? Perhaps.
In my own little dream sequence, I’m that star onstage. But wait, you suffer from debilitating stage fright, spotlights give you a bad case of hives and you have practically no other discernible skills like styling, lighting (you can’t even change a light bulb) or even making a good cup of coffee.
Don’t despair just yet. There may be still room in theatre for you. How?
Easy-peasy. Just become the director. That way you’ll get to tell everyone what to do from the comforting embrace of the third row. We all know that’s what theatre directors do.
With their face cast in the shadows away from the spotlight (I’ve seen enough movies to find that true), these professional dilettantes show up, cast actors, tell them where to stand, get them to memorise lines, order everyone else around and then steal the hors d’oeuvres on opening night. Right? Well, wrong.
The truth is simply this. While we know a whole load about actors and what they do, there’s surprisingly little that we do know about directors and the role they play in getting the script to stage. “There’s a need to raise the profile of directors in Malaysia,” says Arief Hamizan vehemently, pointing out that the real creative spark in any production is the director. “The director takes the story, has a vision for that story and brings it to life.”
An aspiring director, Arief will be making his directorial debut along with three other emerging directors namely Toby Teh, Esther Liew and Alex Chua in Alone/Together, the first of three public showcases of the Emerging Directors Lab, a group of early-career directors sponsored by Theatresauce, an urban theatre collective that aims to exhilarate and engage Malaysians through edgy works of theatre.
This production, which comprises a quadruple bill of short plays, is the culmination of the Lab’s first term, where the directors honed and personalised their craft through rigorous study of stage realism, drama and dramaturgy.
UNVEILING THE HISTORY
There are strange sounds emanating from the rooms as I walk into the studio space of Theatresauce in Subang Jaya. Quiet conversations that suddenly break into a loud shout or wail; sounds not quite muffled by the closed doors.
I look quizzically at Toby Teh, who along with Arief is making his directorial debut as well. “Practice!” he responds with a half-apologetic smile.
We sit in the cramped hallway while people flurry about, racing from one closed door to another. The date for their upcoming maiden venture is looming, and it’s clear that there’s a mix of trepidation and excitement mingling in the air.
“It’s exciting as much as it’s nerve-wracking,” admits Teh, before explaining to me that this is the first showcase of the Emerging Directors Lab, a one-year intensive programme that’s aimed to give up and coming directors not just a platform to direct shows, but to train them on directorial theories and technics. “This is basically our first semester project. After the end of every semester, we do one showcase, focusing on specific dramatic theories that we learn over the semester,” he elaborates.
Theories. History. Art forms. The words are bandied about as he tries to explain the intensive learning process that takes place in the lab. I’m a little stumped.
“Don’t you just order people around and hope for the best?” I ask. He laughs and I get my answer.
“I appreciate the theoretical aspect of directing, perhaps because I’m a teacher myself,” he explains, smiling. As with most people involved in theatre, Teh has a day job — he’s a language education lecturer with Help University. In an industry as unstable and under-funded as theatre, there’s a need to juggle and multi-task (“to pay the bills!”) while immersing in this temperamental art form.
“Studying theatre history, dramatic theory and the movements gives us context in which to understand and learn from past mistakes,” says Teh, further explaining that these lessons provide an overview of the theatre field, thus allowing for more informed professional and artistic choices. “We learn about the collective experiences and creative journeys undertaken in the past, which help us navigate our own paths without falling into the same pitfalls as our predecessors.”
Still, the wealth of knowledge can be overwhelming and confusing, admits Arief. “Contrary to where I thought I’d be, I think it’s that point in the graph — you just got to imagine the graph — I’m just completely overwhelmed by all the information I’m getting. So this play (that I’m directing) for me at this point has tremendous potential but it’s all the sifting through of this wealth of information and learning to apply what’s relevant... this is what I’m experiencing right now,” he reveals candidly, before adding: “At the same time, I do think this whole programme provides a very safe space to make mistakes as this is our learning process.”
UNVEILING THE DIRECTOR
This time-honoured art form known as theatre goes back to prehistoric times where story-telling, acting and dance kept people entertained around campfires on long winter nights. Today, backdrops, lighting, costumes, scripts and actors help bring productions to life. However, no one has as much to say over the nature and merit of a production as the director.
But what does a director do, really? I wonder aloud.
“Simply put, a director tells stories,” replies Teh. A more detailed description describes the director as the individual who, after much research, reading and planning, conceives and develops the boundaries of a unique world within which a playwright’s story and ideas will come to life.
In the process, the director determines which character, plot or design elements need to be emphasised so that a production’s spine or central idea is communicated to an audience.
“That’s a huge responsibility,” I respond, a little crest-fallen. So much for the easy job that I anticipated. “From picking the right scripts to designing the set, the sounds, the lights, right down to where the actors are supposed to stand, move and speak their lines — he does it all!” adds Arief, grinning, before exclaiming: “It’s a complicated craft.”
And he’s not wrong. After all, they choose the plays, the actors and the designers. In a nutshell, they are central to the creative process of the theatre.
“One of the main freedoms given to directors for this semester project is the ability to choose the play that best resonates with us. We each have a specific message. At the same time, we’re still trying to discover our voice,” shares Teh, pointing out that it’s an incredibly collaborative art form in which diverse talents come together to create. It certainly takes a village to get a theatre production off the ground.
“The process of directing is really a labour of creativity that involves a wealth of talents which hopefully ends up just how you envisioned it in your mind,” he says, pointing out that the creative process gets a lot of contribution from the actors themselves as they go through the rehearsals and delve into the characterisation of the play.
UNVEILING THE PASSION
So why do you want to do this? I ask.
They look stumped at my question. “I don’t know how to answer that,” says Teh after a pause. “My answer would be why do you breathe? Why does your heart beat? Why do you fall in love? Theatre is very much part of who I am. I think I can speak for all of us that there’s really no specific reason why we’re in theatre. It is what it is. We simply love doing it,” he surmises thoughtfully.
The doors open and a crowd of people coming out from both ends of the hallway pass me in a flurry of footsteps and snatches of conversation while switching rooms. Or at least that’s how it looks to me from where I sit. There are still more people walking into the already crowded studio.
“We’re about to start now,” someone whispers aloud to Teh and Arief while looking uncertainly at me. Like a seasoned actor, I take it as my cue to leave the stage (or studio — if you need to quibble over semantics). The show has to go on and the aspiring directors head back into the rooms for yet another round of rehearsals.
Still want a career in theatre? Put in the time, effort, patience and creativity. And before you know it, while the spotlight shines onstage, you’ll be there in the shadows watching your vision come alive.
In the case of Arief, Teh, Chua and Liew, by shining a light on their work and supporting it, there’s an opportunity to invigorate our theatrical landscape and build a legacy of essential theatre-making. For when theatre is at its best, it’s the most extraordinary collaborative success. And you have the director to thank for it.