Into the light
This experimental show defies theatre conventions with its role reversal concept.
IF a story is a precious light in a world so dark – to borrow from children’s writer Kate DiCamillo – can the light be a story?
Acclaimed lighting designer Mac Chan definitely thinks so, and this is the notion he explores in his latest project Terbalik ... Mesti Kena Mata ... with Five Arts Centre.
Unlike Chan’s past theatre works where he “services” the creation of the director or choreographer with his lighting design, in this experimental workshop performance, it is the directors – in this case Marion D’Cruz and Ivy Josiah – who have to commit to his lighting creation and realise his vision.
The lighting design here is like the script that the co-directors have to interpret with the performers, Chan explains the concept of the show that attempts to deconstruct the normal hierarchy found in performance making.
“If playwrights use words, as a lighting designer, lighting is my tool. I use lights to say what I want to say,” he says.
So instead of dialogue and stage directions, he expresses his meaning in a symphony of light pulses and flickers coloured by varying intensity of glow.
For Terbalik, which will be staged at Kotak @ Five Arts Centre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in KL from Aug 10-13, Chan is inspired by death for his “script”, which is divided into three acts named Song I, Song II and Song III.
“I was drawn to the darkness of light – with its bright, lively energy, light also has a dark side, its shadows. And if you talk about light bulbs, each one has a life span ... after a certain point a light bulb will blow out. I find it ironic that something that is supposed to provide you hope and direction also can die, is not permanent,” he says.
This transience of life as depicted by Chan is interpreted by the performers, who in their own right are not your conventional theatre makers either – visual artist chi too, dance movement psychotherapist Janet Moo, videographer/lighting designer Syamsul Azhar, and art director/production designer Wong Tay Sy – with their own stories of disappearance and loss.
Immersed in the lightscape, they weave their memories of a destroyed childhood home, lost beloved pet and fear of losing a friend. Moo recounts her loss of a childhood mentor, Pastor Raymond Koh, whose mysterious abduction has gripped the nation these past few months.
The doom and gloom notwithstanding, Terbalik stirringly sparkles with hope, humour and even joy through the cracks of the dark shadows.
That is the power of the light, says Syamsul.
While the creation process is the same, having to draw inspiration from the lighting is fresh and exciting, he adds.
“It is my first time to do something coming out from lights, and as a lighting designer it is interesting to see the lights from ‘the other side’.”
Watching the completed work was also an illuminating experience for Chan.
“I didn’t know what my lighting design would evoke in the performers, and watching the performance they have created has given me a complete picture of what I envisioned in my design,” shares the four-time winner of the Boh Cameronian Best Lighting Design award.
“This approach has opened up a different dimension of how collaboration can be done in theatre in terms of sequence and relationship.”
The unusual concept is what attracted Josiah to take on Terbalik as her directorial debut.
“All my life, my work has been to upset hierarchy and challenge the establishment, so this project is a good fit,” says Josiah, the women’s rights activist who is also making her full-time return to the arts after some 18 years.
She says she could not have found a better partner than her long-time friend and collaborator D’Cruz. Josiah began dancing with Marion D’Cruz and Dancers in 1983 and has performed in several Five Arts Centre productions, including Sintesis 84, Let Me Speak and The Cord.
Breaking the rules is arguably the norm for D’Cruz whose work has gone through many phases since she broke onto the Malaysian arts scene, from the search for a Malaysian identity in contemporary dance to working with “non-performers”.
This current phase for D’Cruz, who is one of the pioneers of contemporary dance in Malaysia, has revolved around the democratisation of the artistic space.
“If you look at my whole trajectory of making performance, you can see that I’ve always been finding alternative ways of creating,” says D’Cruz.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve been consciously looking at democracy and the shrinking of democratic space in the public sphere by exploring how we can make art-making a more democratic process,” she adds, highlighting Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya (2007) in which the performers were given the space to explore their chosen themes, and 2 Minute Solos (2013), which puts the audience in the act.
Why she wanted to shift the power balance in Terbalik, she says, is in response to the “grouses” of the lighting designers themselves.
“Over the years, I have heard many lighting designers grumbling, ‘yeah, we are here just to serve the director’ and ‘why is lighting always the last thing to come in?’ So...”
Still, letting go of the director’s “absolute power” has not been easy, jokes D’Cruz, whose mantra in the process has been “Will the lighting designer ask the director to get the actor to say a line three times to fit the lighting?” every time she is tempted to ask Chan to change his lighting queues and arrangement.
Josiah agrees, “The process has been a revelation – we just had to ride the wave and get intimate with the lights ...”
What is clear, Terbalik promises a shining spectacle like no other – all you need to do is to just sit back and surrender to the light. But, maybe, it’s best not to forget your shades.
Terbalik ... Mesti Kena Mata ... is on at Kotak @ Five Arts Centre, 27, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur from Aug 10-12 at 8.30pm with matinee at 3pm on Aug 12-13. Entry is by minimum donation of RM30 (adults), RM20 (students). For enquiries/bookings, email: email@example.com or call 03-7725 4858. FB: Five Arts Centre. Viewers are advised to wear dark glasses if sensitive to bright lights.
Actor chi too in Terbalik ... Mesti Kena Mata ..., an experimental workshop performance that challenges the typical hierarchy between the director and lighting designer in performance making.
In the show, an intense Moo recounts her loss of a childhood mentor.
In Terbalik, directors D’Cruz (left) and Josiah are looking to introduce an unusual collaborative work that will be led by lighting designer Chan.
‘If playwrights use words, as a lighting designer, lighting is my tool. I use lights to say what I want to say,’ says Chan.