Irfan Kasban interview on Teater Ekamatra's Potong: "I am asking to bare their souls and open their hearts"
Irfan Kasban — director of Teater Ekamatra's upcoming production of Johnny Jon Jon's Potong — talks to us about investing in the right actors in this dark play
Irfan Kasban wears one big a** hat. While the Singaporean started dabbling in the arts as a dancer in primary school, he moved on to dikir barat and then eventually, theatre, after a school competition with the now 30-year-old theatre company Teater Ekamatra ignited a flame. Now, the interdisciplinary artist is a director, playwright and actor who has cut his teeth in productions that have been part of White Box Festival, Singapore Arts Festival and M1 Fringe Festival.
This month, we'll see Irfan's direction in Teater Ekamatra's production of Potong, a play written by Johnny Jon Jon. One that explores themes of identity and memory, it follows the story of half Aussie, half Singaporean Malay teen Adam who goes back to Singapore for National Service. Played by Salif Hardie (who's also of Australian and Malay descent), he deals with the prospect of circumcision — hence the title. 'Potong' translates to 'cut' in the Malay language.
Such touchy subjects aren't foreign to Irfan's resume. His interest in themes of faith, marginalisation, displacement and sovereignty are present in the productions he's part of. In Toy Factory's production of Sejarah-Ku ('my history') in 2017, he directed a story involving a half-Caucasian, half-Asian woman who existed in an undefined space between two cultures. That same year, he also directed Teater Ekamatra's production of Angkat, which dealt with an adopted child seeking the truth of her origins. Incidentally, Irfan is also of mixed heritage, with Chinese, Arab and Javanese roots.
When we met at Teater Ekamatra's rehearsal space and office at Aliwal Arts Centre last week, Irfan and his team were in the midst of preparing props. Kasban shared that he specifically chose wooden furniture to work with the parquet floors of the Malay Heritage Centre, where Potong will be staged. Jars and glasses lay haphazardly bare amid roses on a coffee table, while a bed lies in the corner next to a mannequin's head wearing a black wig. We continued our chat as the faint smell of paint thinner wafted through the air.
How did you first meet Johnny Jon Jon, the playwright? Jon Jon and I entered a theatre competition back in 2006, so we've known each other for a long time. The funny part was we were nemeses then. We had a very healthy rivalry, which is really good. It's interesting to see how much we progressed after 12 years.
As a playwright yourself, what's your writing process and how much has it changed from when you first started? Back then, writing would be purely from the conception of the character. These days, I'm very interested in how the actor inspires the character as well. Especially with Potong, it's been quite an interesting experience because I don't really like directing other people's works, but this by far was one of the most beautiful experiences. When we met last year, Jon Jon and I talked about it and I instantly knew which actor I wanted because of what they would give for the play on a personal level. It translates really well on stage when there's that honesty. I switch off whenever I see 'acting'. I don't like it when people are presenting themselves in a way that's not very grounded.
How does your background in dance feed into your direction of Potong? We tried incorporating elements of Malay traditional dance and I wanted to explore the idea of masculinity and femininity within that language of dance. It won't necessarily come on stage but it informs a tone. I gravitate more towards story than form, so when we did our first few rehearsals, I taught them the basics of Malay dance and we had a chat about what it made their bodies feel or what emotions came out.
Are there any specific challenges when it comes to directing someone else's work? Because I'm also a playwright, that makes it tricky. I do have my dealings — what I would want the characters to say or if the language is jarring. But after 12 years, I realised that it's the actors who inspire the characters.
How have the rehearsals been? What's the general mood like? Jon Jon wrote a really dark play. We would do the rehearsal and would just be drained out of our soul and crying. I have personal investments with every one of the characters and I specifically chose them because they could add something to the play. I am asking them to bare their souls and open their hearts to something, so a lot of the rehearsal process isn't just reading or rehearsing the script, but talking about the issues that they have faced at home or in their lives that might add colour to the play. So Potong's much deeper than a fish-out-of-water kind of situation? The fish out of water is very dramatic.
Have you brought any of your experiences into this? Definitely. I'm re-considering my relationships with my mother and father — what works and what doesn't work, and it becomes this whole introspective thing. That's why rehearsals are very drainy, because it's not just about the play. It's about addressing and re-looking at the relationships we have in our lives.
Speaking of which, when was the last time you felt moved by something you saw on stage? There's one piece called Threesome that was brought to Singapore by M1 Fringe Festival in 2009. It was about two dancers talking about the Israeli-Palestinian and German conflicts. That one really changed my outlook on life.
Potong will be performed in the Malay language in addition to English. What sort of stories do you think needs to be written more of in Malay theatre? What do you think the Malay community needs to see more of? Works that are honest. A lot of work these days start off catering to an audience, which becomes a very big problem. When you talk about Malay theatre, you immediately think about someone or something a bit more traditional. We have shows where people come to us after the show and they ask, 'Why did you say this word? You can't say that on stage!' The word is 'tetek', which means breast. In what world? Normal people talk like that!
But we don't want that to stop. We want people to come in and we will continue the conversation with them.
You're an actor, director, playwright... which hat do you like to wear the most? It's nice being a spectator sometimes. In rehearsals I do wear that hat a lot, and I try to guide my actors rather than push them. Recently I’ve been a creative consultant, an advisor of life... (laughs)
Potong runs from 21 to 25 March at the Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium. Book tickets.