Thursday, August 19, 2010
Today I will be feature an interview I did with the first lady of theatre. The interview appeared in the sun newspaper April 28 2005
Headline : First Lady of Malaysian theatre
Faridah Merican has dabbled in Malaysian theatre for nearly 50 years, first as an actress; later venturing into producing and directing. It is not surprising that she is often referred to as the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre.
In 1989, she set up The Actors Studio with her theatre actor-cum-director husband Joe Hasham. Besides producing and directing plays, The Actors Studio provides stage space for other theatre companies to put up their plays and studios for rehearsals.
It has also created an institute to train theatre talents. It is undeniable that Faridah, 66, has contributed immensely to the advancement of the Malaysian performing arts.
It came as no surprise then that at the recent theatre award, the 3rd Boh Cameronian, she received a lifetime achievement award.
Faridah is on the board of one of Malaysia's largest advertising agencies, Ogilvy and Mather. In a chat with Bissme S, she talks of her dreams, wishes and disappointments.
Congratulations on your winning the 3rd Boh Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award for your contribution to theatre. How do you feel?
I feel a sheer joy and happiness and a kind of emptiness in my stomach.
Why is that so?
I just don't know why. On the night itself when it was announced, it didn't have enough time to sink it. It was a kind of surprise and shock to my system.
I had always wished and hoped that I would be recognised (for what I do). When the announcement was made and there were wonderful pictures of me (flashing on the screen) for the friends of theatre to see, it was so touching.
I know that it was Joe who dug into my albums and got all the photos out. It was so overwhelming. But I didn't cry. One newspaper indicated a teary Faridah. I could have been on the verge but I didn't cry. I was proud of the fact I didn't cry.
When you cry on stage, some newspaper reporters would not think too kindly, especially when you are old and you cry. I held back and it was better that way. I was rather at a calm stage and some were surprised I was so calm.
Some felt you got the award a little late.
It is not an issue whether you are the first, the second, the third or the fourth down the line. The important thing is in your lifetime, you are recognised for the work you have done. It is just one award a year, you have to line up. It is alright.
What sparked your interest in theatre?
Like many other people, I got involved in theatre in school (St George's Girls School in Penang). A great school with great teachers. We were taught literature, poetry, doing plays and debate. It was happening from my primary school days.
Did your parents play a role in instilling the love for theatre?
My father was an English teacher and he helped me enjoy and understand poetry and Shakespeare because he was teaching them in school. He had allowed me to follow my path and I couldn't have asked for a better father.
My mom was a housewife and she never spoke any English. She will be upset whenever we spoke in English. She would always tell us to speak in Malay. We would speak a few sentences in Malay and we would switch back to English.
Tell us a little about your childhood days?
When I was a young girl, things were different. The opportunities were fewer. Things were easy going and we had more time for each other. We had more time to sit at home and talk. Our parents had more time for us.
Now everybody is put in a rat race. Parents these days don't have enough time for the children. The lifestyle nowadays is far more challenging and difficult. Unless you are able to accept the changes and the demands of the lifestyle, you will feel horrendous.
What is the big difference in the theatre world between your early years and now?
Theatre is much more professional now. People are studying the arts and people want to make art their life, their career, their job and their business.
It was not so before. You do theatre because you enjoy it and you want to learn. You don't really get paid. You may get a small allowance and that is all. I remembered that the first play (for which) I got paid RM1,000 was for the role of Uda's mother in Usman Awang's Uda and Dara in 1984.
Being a theatre artiste can be a huge struggle. What has kept your interest in theatre alive all these years?
My love for it. That's all.
Have you had at any time thought of giving it up?
You always have such thoughts. When I came face to face with certain problems, it did cross my mind
Can you give an example when you felt like this?
They are not really learning, and it is constant teaching and teaching and teaching. The way I teach is different. I'm not the kind who'd hold your hands and tell you to do it this way or that way. I have less and less patience as I grow older. I just wonder why people don't use their logic and their thinking capacity.
Who are 'they'?
Some people who work with me and some young people who come into The Actors Studio as interns. I must admit I have little patience and Joe has immense patience and that is the reason we make a good team.
Aren't you afraid that you will be tagged a tyrant?
People can call me garang (strict) and jahat (bad ). They should know my heart is in the right place and I am doing it for the arts. I am a stickler for doing things properly.
So you are disappointed with these young people?
I get disappointed when I come face to face with people, no matter young or old, who don't use their brains and who don't think. If you are given an opportunity to do something, use it well and learn, and don't waste it. It is not easy to learn.
There are moments I wish our education system planted the seeds that I had in my school days. I wish our education system prepared them for the arts.
Do you think something is wrong with our education system?
Absolutely. It doesn't focus on the arts. It doesn't give the opportunity to the students to be well-rounded and learn everything. Then you will have a choice ... you want to be doctor, lawyer, artist and writer ... You have a choice because your education is all-rounded.
I want the arts to be taught in school. Put the arts back in the school curriculum --have literature, poetry, debate, painting and creative writing.
From what I hear, the focus on the arts is missing. Parents may worry that children may not spend enough time to learn the subjects you need to pass exams.
It doesn't mean bringing back the arts into the school curriculum will stop your children from getting 13A1s. Your children will still be very intelligent and, in fact, they will be all-rounded.
I wish for a school that will be specially dedicated to the performing arts. It should start from the first day a kid steps into a school. Perhaps even from the kindergarten. It will teach other subjects but the focus will be on the performing arts.
Do you think the government is doing enough to help the performing arts in the country?
The current minister of art, culture and heritage is certainly focusing his attention on the arts. Our prime minister and his wife are great supporters of the arts.
Previously, arts were a part of the Tourism Ministry and now we have separate ministries altogether. They are meeting us and constantly having dialogues with us.
They have announced funding schemes not just for production but also for training.
Some have the impression that the government is only helping Malay theatre.
Sorry to say, we have moved with the times. This was what it was previously. But now, no! I have received help from the ministry and I am doing English theatre.
If there is somebody out there who has undergone some kind of discrimination, he should write to the minister and say this. Just don't bitch about it behind the back of the ministry which may not even know the problem exists.
During dialogues with the ministry, every theatre company is represented. They should speak up.
Tell us more about Kuala Lumpur Performance Arts Centre in Sentul?
KLPAC is a foundation made of three parties -- YTL, Penyayang and The Actors Studio which will be running the operations.
The main stage called Pentas 1 will have 508 seats and the second stage called Pentas 2 is more of an experimental stage. It has a resource library where you can browse books on arts and it will have a workshop where one builds one's own set and props.
It also has a bistro where people can have their food and drinks. We have 10 studios where we will be teaching arts courses as well as for rehearsals.
When will KLPAC be officially open and what will be the first play to be staged there?
The official date has not been decided. We plan to have a soft launch on May 13. We are doing a show called Pre Buka where various theatre friends of ours will be doing a variety show -- poetry reading, a little comedy, a little dance performances, etc
What do corporate sponsors expect from such ventures?
They want mileage.They want to be associated with groups of people who give them a good name as a supporter of the arts.
One particular company I am impressed with for its contribution to the arts is HSBC. They have supported several theatre companies and theatre personalities such as Ramli Ibrahim and Marion D'cruz. They are certainly a company that others should emulate.
Basically it all depends on the top management of organisations. If he (the top man) believes in the arts, and thinks it needs support, he will pass this thought down to his people.
You never got involved in the silver screen which has more glitter and fame. Why?
That is not where my interest lies. I was not chasing that dream. So far I have only acted in one television drama, Alang Rentak Seribu, under the direction of Syed Alwi. It was a stage play that was translated onto the screen. I am very focused on stage and theatre.
You and your husband Joe are in theatre together. Is there creative rivalry between husband and wife?
We have no rivalry. We have togetherness. We have the spirit of working together and learning from each other.
What is the one aspect of theatre that you like so much?
It doesn't make any differentiation. We work with everyone ... regardless whether they are Malaysian or not ... regardless of their race. We don't question their ethnicity.
Some say we keep seeing the same faces in theatre. Is this true?
That is not true. There are new faces in theatre. Whenever The Actors Studio does a play, we always bring in new faces.
There is the perception that theatre seems to draw only the elite and the arty farty. Can something be done to attract the masses?
Can we please change our mode of thinking? This is old hat. This is something that was talked about years and years ago. Let us find new angles about the arts to talk about.
This elitist business in the arts is simply rubbish. I don't think theatre has been elitist. The Actors Studio has given tickets as cheap as RM17 for students, senior citizen and the disabled. Have they come to the theatre? I don't believe this is true and I don't think anyone involved in the arts believes this is true.
What is your ultimate dream?
I would like to see theatre performances taking place at every street corner of this country.
Do you think this dream will come true?
Not in my lifetime
I would love to see the media play a more important role in exposing the arts. Dedicate a page a day to tell what is happening in theatre.
There is not enough writing and there is not enough publicity. There are a lot of entertainment stories which focus on entirely different genres but not theatre. I know when I make statements like this, I am told it is because they sell and theatre doesn't.
It is a Catch-22 situation. If the media don't help us to sell, how are we going to sell? I feel a bit sad that a lot of help is required to put arts into our lives. We can never get commercial enough like the West End.
If you could live your life all over again, what will you change?
Nothing at all. Well, maybe I would have studied arts instead of going to teachers training college.
What is your opinion of the national theatre Istana Budaya?
Pass. Next question please.
What is the greatest misconception people have about Faridah Merican?
The Malays think I am bit non-Malay because I don't do enough Malay theatre.
Sometimes, I criticised Malay actors and they get a little upset. I am not worried about people's perception of me.
In your early days, you did a few Malay plays. What stopped you from continuing doing Malay theatre?
There is a great number of good people in Malay theatre companies. That is not my forte. In my school days, I was taught in English and I was speaking in English and I was more inclined towards English. That is my background. That is my education. I don't have any regrets about that. I don't think I should be ashamed of it. It doesn't matter what language I use to do performing arts.
Some have the impression that you look down on Malay theatre. What is your comment?
I don't look down on Malay theatre. I only look down on the people who don't have the discipline required of them when they are doing the arts. It is part of my training.
You have been in the theatre industry for 50 years. What is your worst memory?
The flood that destroyed our theatre company in Dataran Merdeka on June 10, 2003. It was a terrible time for us. We were lucky to have another stage in Bangsar. We had to pick up the pieces and do it all over again. KLPAC is a blessing in disguise.
How do you like to be remembered?
After I am dead and gone, it is not important whether people still remember me.