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Interview: Ivan Heng and Jo Kukathas share insights on directing ‘Another Country’

By: Amy Greenburg

In honour of Singapore’s 50th anniversary, theatre company Wild Rice is presenting five exciting new productions – collectively known as the imagiNATION series – inspired by democracy, peace, progress, equality and justice. Hot on the heels of their acclaimed production of Public Enemy comes Another Country, a Singapore-Malaysia co-production that brings together writers and ten performers from both sides of the Causeway to reflect on the history, culture and peace shared by two countries separated by birth. Directors Ivan Heng of Singapore and Jo Kukathas of Malaysia share what to expect from this production that plays at the Drama Theatre Centre until 11 July 2015.



Tell us about ‘Another Country’. What can we look forward to?
For this play, two writers have chosen words from the literature of our countries – fragments of plays, poems, pantuns (a Malaysian poetic form), letters, songs, interviews, exhortations and news reports; words that sing, words that incite, words that long for something lost, and words that conjure landscapes and minds. The past is another country – and literature gives us a different lens through which to see ourselves; it is kaleidoscopic, fragmented and beautiful.

The Singapore actors will perform texts curated by Leow Puay Tin, one of Malaysia’s most renowned playwrights. They’ll try to understand our untidy, chaotic country by performing texts tikam-tikam style – a Russian roulette of texts that celebrates disorder, the random and the beautiful. The Malaysian company will perform texts curated by Alfian Sa’at, poet, playwright and provocateur. The Malaysians will attempt to understand the rapidly shifting history of the nation state of Singapore by taking us on a journey into the past, through hidden doors, open windows and down the occasional rabbit hole.

How were the featured texts chosen?
Writers write. Writers record. Writers shine a light on our nation. Writers express the zeitgeist. I think that’s what has guided Puay Tin and Alfian in their selection of the insightful, thought-provoking texts in ‘Another Country’, which will inform us about ourselves as well as our Malaysian counterparts.


"Another Country" plays in Singapore until 11 January 2015 

This production uniquely celebrates both Singapore and Malaysia, as part of Singapore’s 50-year milestone. Why did you choose to focus on both sides of the Causeway rather than just Singapore?
As we celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, we thought it would be interesting to explore the concept of independence in a different way. Fifty years later, what does Singapore’s separation from Malaysia mean, especially when the two countries still share such a wealth of history, culture, language and stories? In order to be able to perform the texts selected for this production, everyone involved – from the directors to the cast members – must really work hard to understand and empathise with our neighbours. I think this act of stepping into one another’s shoes is very meaningful. It’s a celebration of the abiding peace between our two countries.

Jo: The production was always conceived as a kind of “bridge project” – a way for us to look and wave at each other; hence the title ‘Another Country’. This production is about bridge-building; we have straight bridges and crooked bridges, and bridges we are still trying to build. I think building bridges is an act of peace, though, sometimes, it’s an act of war – I think in this case it’s not.

Did you face any challenges while planning and directing this production?
One of the challenges is collaborating across long distances. Another is the act of performing across cultures: how do we remain true to ourselves, while also achieving a genuine understanding of another country and its people? The authorities in Singapore and Malaysia have also been a little nervous about this production. So we’ve spent some time engaging with them to address any concerns they might have.

Jo: Since the structure and style are unconventional, we wanted to start exploring the texts very early on, which is why we ran a workshop earlier in the year, long before starting to direct the Malaysian actors.

What are you hoping audiences come away with?
‘Another Country’ is a funny, poignant, exhilarating production comprised of texts that will thrill, surprise and entertain. I think audiences will gain a deeper appreciation of our nearest and dearest neighbour, but they will also learn more about themselves. After all, isn’t it often the case that you gain a better knowledge and understanding of who you are when you’re living, travelling or working in another country?

Jo: I think literature is a wonderful way to understand a land, a people and a culture. Words elevate – they give us wings. So I hope our audiences will fly.

This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June 2015 issue.