Faridah Merican at 80: still a child of theatre

Datuk Faridah Merican in the 1983 staging of Ribut, a Malay language adaptation of Thunderstorm. Photo: KLPac

Datuk Dr Faridah Merican is often referred to as the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre with good reason. Today she may be most visible as the executive producer and co-founder of The Actors Studio, helming the work that goes on Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). But her legacy in theatre and performing arts in Malaysia is much more extensive than that, and dates back six decades.

Faridah’s early acting credits include such plays as Lela Mayang, Tok Perak, Uda Dan Dara and Alang Rentak Seribu, works that defined Malaysian theatre in the 1960s and 1970s, and determined the direction that theatre would take in the next few decades.

It was the likes of Faridah, Krishen Jit, Rahim Razali, Usman Awang, Chin San Sooi, Syed Alwi, Lee Lee Lan, Gopal Shetty and Mohd Ghouse Nasuruddin who paved the way for the next generation of artists to shine.

In dancer Marion D’Cruz’s words: “They were the pioneers. They ‘cleared the jungle’. They did theatre and dance against all odds. They showed us that the performing arts was and is vital, necessary and important for Malaysia. They dreamed and made it happen.”

In 1989, Faridah co-founded The Actors Studio with her husband Joe Hasham, and the duo have gone on to have a hand in opening numerous performing arts venues including The Actors Studio in Plaza Putra, Dataran Merdeka, Lot 10 and Bangsar, as well as KLPac and PenangPac.

Today, Faridah and Hasham have many programmes running for the many genres in the industry such as the KLPac Orchestra, KLPac Symphonic Band, KLPac String Ensemble, Theatre for Young People (T4YP), The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat and the Short + Sweet Festival all to great success and continued popularity.

Today, Faridah is most visible as the executive producer and co-founder of The Actors Studio, helming the work that goes on Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

She has received numerous accolades over the years including the Ahli Mangku Negara, the Boh Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award, an Honorary Master of Letters at University Sains Malaysia, Outstanding Achievement award under the Arts, Culture and Entertainment category from the Inaugural Malaysian Women of Excellence Awards, and an Honorary Doctorate in the Arts by Taylor’s University. Faridah is also currently the Adjunct Professor & Programme Development Director of TUTAS, Malaysia’s first performing arts conservatory degree programme by The Actors Studio and Taylor’s University.

As she turns 80 today, StarLifestyle pays tribute to her outstanding contributions to the arts, and speaks to friends and colleagues that she has worked with over the years, for a glimpse into the life of this beloved theatre stalwart.

Made for theatre

Actor, director and sports commentator Datuk Rahim Razali said his fondest memories of Faridah were from when he directed her in the country’s first ever Malay musical, Usman Awang’s Uda Dan Dara back in 1972.

“Apart from being a good actress who’s very knowledgeable about theatre, Faridah is a good human being. I like her both as an artist and a friend. She’s contributed a lot to Malaysian theatre since the 1960s, not just as a performer but also as a theatre activist.”

Co-founder of The Actors Studio and artistic director of KLPac Joe Hasham, 71, first met his wife, Faridah, in 1984 when she was a top advertising executive with Ogilvy, a national newscaster with RTM as well as a leading figure of the stage.

“She was strong, beautiful and highly talented. I was totally besotted. Now, 35 years later she is stronger, more beautiful, more talented am I am still totally besotted,” he says without hesitation, happily admitting that she is his muse, his strength and confidante.

Hasham and Faridah, the power couple behind the long-running The Actors Studio. Photo: KLPac

Hasham reckons that some of his best memories of their partnership are of the early days of The Actors Studio and their “working and playing” with Krishen Jit and Marion D’Cruz. Hasham says that the performing arts scene in Malaysia would not be where it is today if not for Faridah.

“She is the rock on which our foundation has been built,” he fervently believes, and rattles off a list of the qualities that make his partner remarkable – “Her never say die attitude. Her loyalty. Her passion. Without Faridah, The Actors Studio, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre and PenangPac would not have happened.”

This absolute love and commitment to the performing arts for 60 years is something that dancer and Five Arts Centre co-founder D’Cruz, 65, also holds in high esteem.

A long-time friend and collaborator with Faridah, D’Cruz says: “We shared a lot, from a very long time ago. I feel incredibly blessed to be her friend and fellow arts practitioner. I love Faridah so very much!”

The duo often worked together with their husbands back in the day. “There were shows where Faridah, Joe, Krishen and I were billed the ‘Fabulous Four’ or ‘Fearsome Four’... or something like that!” reminisces D'Cruz, adding that she still remembers the stresses, joys, a gamut of emotions as well as the excitement of opening night.

Faridah planning the groundwork for The Actors Studio circa mid-1980s. Photo: Filepic

Shows like Uda Dan Dara and Scorpion Orchid saw Krishen and Hasham sharing directorial duties, while Faridah and D’Cruz were co-producers. “There was much discussion, camaraderie, eating, drinking, laughter and love ... such happy times!” says D’Cruz.

“The four of us even went to the Edinburgh Festival together in 1999. We saw shows, and had such a great time.”

D’Cruz says that she has utmost respect for Faridah’s relentless energy and positivity.

“She does much, much more than most people! She works every day till late at night. Theatre making is often ‘crisis-management’ and Faridah handles crises very well ... there’s no drama there ... just solving problems and getting on with it.”

Actor/director/scriptwriter Mark Beau de Silva, 40, got one of his big breaks in theatre from Faridah when she produced Stories For Amah almost 20 years ago.

A young Faridah acting in a production of Oedipus with the late Bosco D'Cruz in the background. Photo: Filepic

“I thought she was scary as hell at the time, so strict! Now, no la,” he says, laughing, adding that today, he finds her rather “funny” instead.

“She is cute, especially when she takes no for an answer! I really respect her resilience. She doesn’t give up and I think she never will,” he says, adding that his mentor has made invaluable contributions to local theatre scene.

“She has given so much especially to those starting out. Ask anybody and Faridah’s name will surely pop up when they talk of the time they first started out. She is the one who gave so many practitioners their first start. It was Faridah and Joe who first found confidence in my writing, and staged my first play Stories For Amah.”

De Silva says that one of his fondest memories of Faridah was when he directed her for Sisa Sisa last year.

“She becomes almost like a child when she is performing; a young soul who is exuberant on stage! It’s wonderful to watch as her spirit inspires and reminds you of why you are a child of the stage.”

Boundless energy

Joseph Gonzales, 59, head of Academic and Contextual Studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and former Dean of Dance Aswara (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage), says he tries to emulate Faridah’s tirelessness.

“Her energy is unparalleled. If ever there are moments when I feel tired, weak or ready to throw in the towel, I channel Faridah!” he says, echoing a sentiment many others in performing arts seem to share.

Gonzales remembers that it was when Faridah started The Actors Studio Theatre in Dataran Merdeka that his relationship with her began to take firm shape.

“Faridah and Joe began to produce dance performances that I was involved in. I remember them all clearly and among the most notable in the 1990s was When They Dance which gathered numerous choreographers to stage short 10 minute works. I also was cast in Hamlet (in Malay) and played the Ghost King. This was staged in TAS Bangsar,” he says.

Gonzales feels that the biggest contribution from Faridah was to invest in a private performance space.

“TAS made it accessible especially for contemporary dance artists to stage more intimate works without the huge burden of finances. From 1994, artists like myself were able to explore our art and present it to audiences at a far greater regularity than was previously possible. This is vital in artistic growth. The productions of youth singers, orchestras and the ‘Short + Sweet’ series for example have encouraged many young people to explore their talents and given them room to present their work to the public,” he says.

Faridah in tears after The Actors Studio in Plaza Putra, KL was destroyed by flood waters in mid 2003.

Through sheer determination and tenacity, she regrouped with The Actors Studio family and began a new adventure at KLPac in 2005. Photo: Filepic

Omar Ali, 35, KLPac’s resident director, who directed works like Dato’ Seri (2016) and Kandang (2017), had the good fortune of working with Faridah from when he first ventured into theatre, in quite a number of varied projects over the last decade, and in many different capacities: musicals, plays, the Life Sdn Bhd series – as an actor, assistant director, director, set designer, and even sharing the stage with her on several occasions.

“She’s amazing to watch on stage (I guess that’s fairly obvious) but also great fun to work with,” he reveals.

“Yes, she may be the executive producer, she may be our boss and all, but when she’s in her ‘actor’ mode, she’s really something else. A lot of fun and a lot of heart.”

Omar says that off-stage, she has the wisdom, tenacity (even ferocity), and the sheer perseverance to keep on going, against all odds.

“I think 30 years of TAS is living proof of that.

“Her contributions? Where does one even begin? She’s been doing this for a lot longer than most of us. The biggest one for me, I think, is simply keeping this thing going, keeping the love for the arts alive. Her voice isn’t the only one, for sure... but it is perhaps one of the consistent ones. And let’s be honest: we live in a society that doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of the arts, or even the full breadth of culture itself. And to keep it going through the decades ... that’s no small feat.”

A lasting legacy

Faridah’s contribution – opening four major arts spaces in Malaysia – is a grand legacy according to Jo Kukathas, 56, Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT) co-founder and thespian.

“It’s not an easy feat to not only open but sustain an arts space. It takes hard work, determination, dedication, grit, single mindedness and a love for the arts and country. It’s obvious she feels the arts is a space for openness and inclusivity. I’ve enjoyed listening to Faridah when she speaks frankly about the need to return to a more tolerant open society,” she says.

Radio personality and actor Patrick Teoh, 72, shares that he worked with Faridah long before there was an The Actors Studio .... “or a Joe Hasham even!”

Faridah doing a read-through of a theatre script circa 1970s. Photo: Filepic

Teoh shares: “Faridah was a friend and client during her earlier days in advertising. When she and Joe formed The Actors Studio they offered me a role in their first major theatre production, A Man For All Seasons, in 1991. In that, their first of three productions of the Robert Bolt play, I played the role of Cardinal Wolsey.”

Teoh shares that like the others he respects Faridah’s incredible passion and the energy that she shows in her love for theatre.

“Faridah has single-handedly brought Malaysian theatre to the level of audience appreciation it enjoys today. Doubtless, there are others and other companies who also contributed to the advancement of theatre in Malaysia. But in the years to come, the name Faridah Merican will be synonymous with Malaysian theatre.”

Hands Percussion founder and artistic director Bernard Goh, 48, first met Faridah in the 1990s at TAS Plaza Putra.

“We had rehearsals for one of our earliest productions, Ritual Of Drums, in 2002 at the well known underground studio rooms,” says Goh, adding that since then, they have worked together on other shows including on Lee Swee Keong’s Chicken Parts series, Rashomon and A Streetcar Named Desire.

“We (Hands) have also helped to celebrate all Actors Studio’s new theatre openings at Bangsar, Lot 10 and KLPac. It will always be an honour to work with Faridah.”

Goh says that Faridah is able to let go and not hold on to troubles for too long and this is one of her strengths.

“It means that you are not easily affected by issues or challenges; this attitude helps you move on, find solutions and lead a healthier lifestyle. Maybe that’s why she is able to carry on doing what she loves for so long.”

A teacher himself, Goh respects Faridah’s own desire to teach, nurture and always speak her mind fearlessly.

“Her belief that the performing arts is important enough for the government to set policies for schools to include the arts in their curriculum because it can nurture and encourage confident, driven and creative young minds, is to be taken seriously. I’ve learnt so much from her, the simplest yet most significant being to never give up on what you believe in.

“She’s a friend, mentor and a muse to me. You never know when she’s going to give you some advice that helps to put things in perspective," says Goh.

Faridah and Edwin Sumun on stage in the play The Killing Of Sister George in 1999. Photo: Filepic

Associate Professor Dr Anindita Dasgupta, head of school of liberal arts and sciences at Taylor’s University, says she heard about Faridah while she was still living in India, from where she hails.

“I had read newspaper articles, seen theatre advertisements and had conversations with theatre loving friends about Faridah Merican,” she shares.

Theatre practitioners like Faridah are living legends and in today’s world of education, attaining a holistic education is key to success.

Anindita says: “The arts play a major role in the identity of a nation, impacts the health and well-being of its citizens, and we all know that creative industries contribute to the national economy."

With that in mind, Taylor’s University was deeply honored that Faridah, Joe Hasham and The Actors Studio enthusiastically supported its vision of jointly developing a Performing Arts degree – Malaysia’s first conservatory Performing Arts degree, which gives students the option of learning technical aspects of theatre such as stage management, lighting and performance.

“Being the leaders of Malaysian theatre, it was a natural choice for us to seek a collaboration with TAS as they represented the highest standards in Malaysian performing arts scenario.

“Faridah is a woman of many talents. Her deep commitment to contribute to performing arts in Malaysia by producing the next generation of artists was something that really impressed me. She also believed that a collaboration between the academia and the industry to create the first conservatory for performing arts was the way forward and I am so happy to say that we launched the programme in August 2019.”

Anindita says that she admires Faridah for her humility.

“Despite having reached the pinnacle of success – she is a very grounded and caring person. Always open to ideas, always willing to hear and consider other people’s opinions, and always ready to support budding artistes. I believe she is a fantastic role model for the younger generation of performing artistes.”


Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 46
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3
Join our Telegram channel to get our Evening Alerts and breaking news highlights

Stories You'll Enjoy