In Malaysia, the stage belongs to these women

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It may seem hard to believe, but at one point in time, women were forbidden from appearing on the theatre stage. During the Renaissance, acting was considered inappropriate for women, and actresses were only allowed to appear on stage in 1629.

Thank goodness times have changed. Not only because it’s ridiculous to have female characters played by men in wigs, but because the world of theatre is far richer when women can participate in it. And not just as actresses, but as directors, playwrights, stage managers, and more!

Women such as Eve Ensler, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Julie Taymor, Idina Menzel, Anne Bogart, Lea Salonga and Sarah Brightman have made amazing contributions to the world of the performing arts. And on the local front, Malaysia too has its share of female theatre icons.

Here are three of the country’s most influential performing arts doyennes.

Jo Kukathas

Actor, director and writer

When most people first encounter Jo Kukathas, it is usually through one of her hilarious alter egos at a comedy production. Her characters such as Ribena Berry, YBeee and Puan Badariah have tickled countless Malaysians.

Jo’s impressive body of work, however, covers far more than comedy. She’s worked on foreign and local shows alike, on large Shakespeare productions held outdoors in KL’s Carcosa Sri Negara and intimate performance spaces. An actor, director and writer, there seems to be little she hasn’t done.

Jo, 54, was born in Kuala Lumpur, but grew up and was educated in Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong, India and Britain. In 1989, she co-founded the Instant Cafe Theatre, where she is now artistic director.

A year later, she created FirstWorks, a platform for new Malaysian plays. Some of its acclaimed works, include the award-winning Flies And Foreigners by Ridzwan Othman, Air Con by Shanon Shah, Hero by Arun Subramaniam, and Parah by Alfian Sa’at. In 2009, she founded CHAI, Instant Cafe Theatre House of Arts and Ideas, a space for artists to meet and work together.

Jo has worked on shows such as The Merchant Of Venice (2000), The Island In Between (2001), M! The Opera (2006), Cuckoo Birds (2010), and more.

Some recent local works, include directing Nadirah (2009), Parah (2011) acting in Raj And The End Of Tragedy (2014) and D’State Of D’Nation (2015), which was held to commemorate Instant Cafe Theatre’s 26th anniversary.

The Boh Cameronian Award-winning actress has also been involved in a number of works in Singapore, which include 2014’s The House Of Bernarda Alba (which won her the Best Supporting Actress award at the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards), co-directing the cross-culture show Another Country (2015), and acting in Hotel (2016).

All in all, an extremely impressive resume, which comes as no surprise. “Once I started with my first audition in KL, I wanted to be better at this. I went for every workshop that came along. I would save money to go and watch stuff, to read,” she is quoted as saying in a 2015 interview in the Singapore Straits Times.

“When I was told, ‘Jo, you’re going to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, I went to the British Council library and borrowed every book on Shakespeare and read them all.”


Datuk Faridah Merican

Actor, producer and director

The title of “First Lady of Malaysian Theatre” is a weighty one indeed, but if there is anyone worthy of it, it would surely be the indefatigable Datuk Faridah Merican.

Faridah, who was born in Penang, started her illustrious career in the 1960s and 1970s, acting in plays such as Lela Mayang (1968), Uda Dan Dara (1972) and Tok Perak (1975) which defined the early Malaysian theatre scene. Despite having no formal training in acting, Faridah shone, discovering she had a natural flair for the stage.

She also worked with Radio Malaysia as a broadcaster, programme host and newsreader in the 1960s, often also working in the production side of the industry. In the early 1980s, she was co-founder of the theatre group KAMI, working with the likes of Kee Thuan Chye, K.S. Maniam and Sabera Shaik, among others.

In 1989, she and her husband Joe Hasham co-founded The Actors Studio, and in 2003, after floods destroyed the studio complex in Plaza Putra, Dataran Merdeka, both of them helped create the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) in Sentul. She also sits on The Laureate Advisory Board, and is the executive producer and co-founder of the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (PenangPac).

She’s been awarded accolades – state awards and industry nods – such as the Ahli Mangku Negara in 1973, the Darjah Johan Negeri in 2001, the Johan Setia Mahkota in 2004, and the Boh Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Faridah, now 78, keeps active in the performing arts to this day. Last year, for example, she acted in Datuk Seri, (a Malay version of Macbeth) and directed a Malay version of Hamlet, as well as One Million Smiles, a musical tribute to Sudirman.

At the 13th Boh Cameronian Awards, held in April 2016, she was nominated for Best Actor in A Leading Role for her performance in Three Doors, a segment of the Sisa-Sisa production. She also recently directed Life Sdn Bhd: People, the 13th edition of her acclaimed Life Sdn Bhd series.

Faridah is fiercely passionate about the performing arts scene in the country, and believes in mentoring and training new talents for the future.

“The arts scene is not just a passive form of entertainment. It is active and it is reaching to the people,” she said in an interview with The Star in 2016.


Datin Marion D’cruz

Dancer, choreographer and producer

Datin Marion D’Cruz is certainly a woman who wears many hats. While most know of her as a dancer and choreographer, she also teaches, produces, and manages.

“Now I see myself as dancer-choreographer-teacher-producer. I like where I have taken dance into and will continue to take dance into. Hard to say, but a singular choreographic career might have yielded boring work. If I were not engaged in education and society the way I am now, what would I be dancing about?” said D’Cruz, 62, in an interview on the Five Arts Centre website.

One of the pioneers of contemporary dance in Malaysia, D’Cruz has long aimed to shape a contemporary Malaysian identity in dance, and to create works that speak of what she is passionate about. In 2006, she was presented with the Cross-Cultural Champion of the Arts Award at the Boh Cameronian Awards.

Born in Johor Baru, D’Cruz studied classical, modern and contemporary dance in Malaysia, Indonesia, London and New York. In 1983, D’Cruz founded Marion D’Cruz and Dancers, which has performed extensively both locally and internationally.

In 1984, she was one of the co-founders of the Five Arts Centre, alongside Chin San Sooi and her late husband Datuk Krishen Jit. The Five Arts Centre has been creating experimental, interdisciplinary and intercultural work for Malaysia’s arts practitioners over the past three decades.

She is now the manager for the Krishen Jit Astro Fund, which supports artistic work by Malaysians, and others committed to the development of the arts in Malaysia.

This very capable woman is also an educator, who has taught at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Prime College, The One Academy and Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan.

D’Cruz’s work has been seen in shows such as The Cord (1984), Alter Art (1991), Suara Rimba (1994), Playground (1999), War On Iraq (2003), Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya (2007) and Gostan Forward (2009), In 2013, she facilitated the acclaimed 2 Minute Solos, and in 2015, was part of the participatory reading We Will Read These Names.

Today, she is also executive producer of the Five Arts Centre, and has helped bring projects such as Cheras!The Musical, and Unfinished Business (a conference on Krishen Jit’s performance practice) to life.

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