One Small Voice: Irfan Kasban

Published on 8 December 2015

Theatre-maker Irfan Kasban weighs in on the vibrant Malay theatre scene.


My grade for ‘O’ Level Malay was C6! But that did not stop me. I started out in theatre by writing lyrics for a dikir barat team and dabbled in drama while I was president of the Malay Arts Group in Temasek Polytechnic. In my final year there, Teater Ekamatra invited us to a theatre competition, Pesta Peti Putih 2006 (White Box Festival), in which I led a team to win Best Script, Best Use of Stimuli, Best Production Design and Overall Champion.

I would describe my early years in theatre as “simpler times”. Theatre was not yet pushed to be a business or referred to as an “industry”. People had time to share their opinions and expertise. It was a great time for experimenting without spending so much time on justification. However, one had to be very patient to put work out. I started out as a crew member and went on to stage management and lighting design. One of my favourite experiences was working with W!ld Rice as a crew member on the play, The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ. Observing how people worked and listening to the text every night for two weeks inspired me even more.

There are three philosophies I live and work by. Firstly, there’s balance — the balance between space and time, the paradox of drama and humour and, of course, having fun even when I’m stressed out. Secondly, do not underestimate the audience.Thirdly, if someone does not understand your piece, it was never meant for them anyway — to each his own. Move on.

I wrote works that, to me, were pushing boundaries and at the same time, documented the differences in Malay language, from formal to colloquial. I was subsequently noticed by theatre doyens outside of Malay theatre and went on to explore ensemble-based site- specific works and comedy. It is very hard to classify the work I do because I do not limit myself to a tried-and-tested formula.

Every single production I have worked on is significant to me — each production had a different purpose and fit-to-measure take on the issues addressed. If I had to choose, though, I’d pick the triple- bill Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa, about language and faith. There’s also Tahan, a play about a young national serviceman’s journey and site-specific work, This Placement.

Five years ago there was some debate on what constitutes Malay theatre. Is it the language, the issues or the people creating it? I think we have gone past that and are more focused on the creation itself and being more connected to the ground. We are a diverse group and it shows in our work.

The great thing about Malay theatre is that it has a lot of heart, a lot of gravitas, it is always intimate and intricate. However, it struggles with being seen as a lesser form of theatre, even within the scene itself, and a preoccupation with issues like, “Is it Malay enough?” Or “Is it too Malay?”

There should not be a need to justify or disprove the Malay-ness of a work. Theatre is theatre. Although it might not be for everyone, it should not discriminate. There should be more conversations and interactions within the Malay theatre scene and the general theatre landscape.

IRFAN KASBAN is a freelance theatre-maker who writes, directs, designs and, at times, performs. The former associate artistic director of Teater Ekamatra is responsible for mentoring the company’s Mereka incubation programme. Some of Irfan’s works include Classified: Projek Congkak (White Box Festival 2006), Keep Clear (Open Studio, Singapore Arts Festival 2010), Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa (M1 Fringe Festival 2012). This year, he directed several works including, Balance and Duets (The Studios: fifty) and Three Inches of Alive (TheatreWorks’ Writing & Community). He is currently working on a short-film version of his first play Genap 40, to be released in early 2016.

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