I can’t begin to count how many places I lived in. I think I’ve lived in almost every section of PJ. I was born not far from here [Section 10].
I moved abroad when I was seven. At first it was because my father was in the foreign service, then I got sent to boarding school in India and went to university in the UK.
When I was 21, I came back to Malaysia. We had come back for holidays but I didn’t have any school friends, unlike other people. The only people I really knew were relatives.
My parents were separated. My mother came from Ipoh and when we first came back, I lived with an uncle in Cheras. It would take about three buses to get anywhere. I always tell people that I will vote for whichever government will revolutionise our public transport system.
I consider Malaysia home. I know I came back late but I always assumed I would come back here because my parents were here. That’s what made it home.
All my relatives said, “Oh you’re going to be a journalist”. My father was a journalist. I went for an interview at The Star and the first thing they gave me were court transcripts. They were all in BM. At that point, I only spoke three words of Malay: bola, kuching and jalan.
I’ve been directing a few plays in Malay, which surprises my friends. But I like working with languages other than English. I like working in translation. It gives you a bit more time to think beyond the words.
My extended family is larger than life. I didn’t know I was drawing on them for my acting, but subconsciously I think I was
I grew up on Shakespeare. My dad was big fan and he read it to us as children. I also loved Dickens, Victor Hugo; all those larger than life characters. My extended family is larger than life. I didn’t know I was drawing on them for my acting, but subconsciously I think I was. After I created YB I realised some of the characteristics come from my grandmother and my uncle.
I’ve often played men. Old men and young men. I didn’t play anyone of my own age and gender until my thirties when I did Atomic Jaya. There’s a picture of me, Zahim [Albakri] and Jit [Murad] from when we did Romeo and Juliet and I always tease them because I am the most manly looking.
I think men are more easily noticed. I’ve been interviewed by people who would say things like “Whose idea was that?” when I was directing a play. “No, it was my idea,” I’d say. It used to shock me, but as I’ve grown older, I have noticed that men get it easier. I hate to say it, never wanted to admit it. But people will say more readily “so and so is a director” if he is a man.
I acted in Romeo and Juliet with the now defunct Liberal Arts Society, which is where I met Andrew Leci. I went to audition with Jit and Zahim. The four of us ended up being good friends through that play. It was Andrew’s idea to start our own company.
After a few years, we started writing our own stuff. The tipping point for that was an interview we did with the late Krishen Jit. He asked us, “What do you want to do? Who are your heroes in Malaysia?” We were a bit surprised by the question but it made us think. That was around the time of Operation Lalang, so it made us want to do something about our political culture.
Operation Lalang made me very upset and angry. One of my friends, renting a room with us, got picked up by Special Branch and was detained under ISA for two years. So it was really on our doorstep.
Being part of that circle, I wasn’t scared. My father was a dissident writer. This was the life people around me were involved in. I didn’t think what I was doing was dangerous. It was nothing in comparison.
Back then everything was about rumour. We called our company Instant Café Theatre because the only places people would talk were coffee shops. You weren’t going to find out anything from newspapers. The information minister even wanted to ban fax machines.
Now the internet has opened things up; there’s so much political analysis, commentary, comedy too. We can be less fearful now because we are a bit more in control.
We had a house in Section 10 which my sisters and I bought together. It’s very unusual for an Indian family not to have a house, especially a Ceylonese family. So my sisters and I pooled together and my mother was so happy. Finally she could take her plants and put them in the ground.
My mother loved plants but she had to keep them in pots, and every time we moved house there would be one lorry load of things and two lorry loads of plants. At that house in Section 10, it grew into a really nice garden. After my mother passed away, I decided to move to my out to my own place. But I loved that house.
I hate supermarkets. I went to Carrefour once and I think I almost fainted
A lot of people have keys to my place [Instant Café House of Arts and Ideas]. At first it was a little bit intruisve but now I just call myself the janitor.
I like the little provision shops in PJ. I’m bad with shopping centres; I hate supermarkets. I went to Carrefour once and I think I almost fainted. It was just too much. I think the biggest size of shop I can handle is the Lotus on Jalan Gasing.
Theatre is a small room; how many people can really see you? But about ten years ago I went to Penang for a show and this maintenance guy came up to me and said, “Are you performing tonight?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good! I love the ICT!” I asked him where he had seen us and he said, “I’ve never seen you. Keep up the good work.” He had read about us. For him, it was enough to know people were doing this.
Every society needs its jesters, clowns. Otherwise we give too much power to those in power, and they forget they are supposed to be the servants of the people and they start acting like kings and lords. We’re necessary reminders.
I see our country going down such a slippery road to bigotry and religious intolerance. I want a reversal of religious politics and racial politics, the politicization of every part of our lives. I think people just want to get on with living their lives.
Now I want to do things which are a bit less reactive to politics. More slow, more thoughtful – more slowly thoughtful. There is much more to us than our political problems. And we don’t get the time to deal with the issues of who we are as people. We need to ask more fundamental questions. Artists have a responsibility to do that and I want that responsibility.
I never thought about ageing but this year it’s a bit different. I feel like on my grave it will say “She wanted to write, she wanted to dive.” So maybe this year, my fiftieth year, I will.
Jo Kukathas is a writer, director and actress. She co-founded the Instant Café Theatre in 1989 and is currently Artistic Director there. Known for her satirical work and her character acting, she has also directed several acclaimed productions; most recently Nadirah in November 2012. In 2009, she founded CHAI, Instant Cafe Theatré House of Arts and Ideas, a space for artists to meet and work together.
Interview by Ling Low; Photos by Evelyn Teh