ACTORS, as the stereotype goes, are usually either out of work or prancing across the stage in tights, trying to draw laughs with their antics.
Why then are so many people still drawn to the lure of the theatre and fascinated enough to try, come what may, for their one shot at fame?
“Theatre is about passion”, explains Ghafir Akbar, as he hands over a stellar list of productions he has appeared in over the past few years.
The 22-year-old student is one of a very select few who has received several Boh Cameronian Arts Award nominations, including that for 'most promising artist' in 2002, 'best ensemble performance' in 2003 and 'best solo performer - theatre', also in 2003.
Currently in his second year at Sunway College, pursuing a twinning degree programme in theatre, Ghafir juggles his time between college and his strong involvement in theatre. It is a demanding commitment. At a time when most students may not even have ventured out from the sheltered bowers of the campus grounds, Ghafir is already carving a name for himself in theatre circles, having worked alongside stage personalities like Soefira Jafaar, Joanna Bessey and Anne James.
After high school, Ghafir, together with three friends, decided to venture into acting. They wrote a play and put up their own production. Ghafir was spotted and called for auditions. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, he has performed with The Actor's Studio in Box of Delights, played Horatio in a Malay version of Hamlet and acted in Expat Comes to Town.
From there, he moved on to audition with the highly acclaimed Instant Theatre Cafe Theatre for Gross Indecency: The three trials of Oscar Wilde. Subsequent performances included playing a total of 13 characters in Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, and appearing in the improvisation comedy Survival! and the comedy revue The 2nd First Annual Bolehwood Awards.
More recently, he performed in Five Arts Centre's 7 Ten: Seven original 10-minute plays, directed by Krishen Jit. Ghafir has also just completed work in The Actor's Studio in Flies and Foreigners, written by Malaysian playwright Ridzwan Othman.
His interest in theatre can be traced back to his childhood days, when his sister took him to watch plays and he participated in performances at school. He now cites Shakespeare and local playwright Jit Murad as the writers he most admires.
As the country, and most of the rest of the world, shifts into high gear to keep apace of developments in science and technology, Ghafir is quick to remind us that arts still holds a prominent place in society.
“Sometimes I worry about the Government's preoccupation with science and technology. Malaysians are slowly becoming less culturally sensitive and less aware of what the arts can offer.
“The arts are just as important. The arts are about us, as humans; it's all about our emotions, our relationships, how we love and think. Think of all the literature written and performed by communities in the past. It can tell you a lot more about the life of people than science can,” reflects Ghafir.
Although the Malaysian arts scene is still relatively young compared to that in neighbouring Singapore for example, the young actor is optimistic about the potential for expanding Malaysian theatre. Citing the work of playwrights like Jit Murad, whom he feels “probably knows Malaysians better than they know themselves”, Ghafir remarks that there is a lot of avenue for development. “A lot of playwrights are now using English as a medium while dealing with local culture. At the end of the day, people here would be more interested to learn more about our own culture and people than people far removed in the West.”
In particular, he speaks enthusiastically of the opportunities in theatre to merge both Eastern and Western traditions. For example, in Flies and Foreigners, a contemporary play in English set within a Malaysian setting, traditional Malaysian art-forms such as the wayang kulit are used in their rehearsal process.
“When people think of Asian productions, they tend to think only of tourism and 'Cuti-Cuti Malaysia' but there is so much more to things; it's very exciting.”
Ghafir also points out that in Malaysia, parents usually do not encourage their children to pursue acting passions.
“The perception is that acting is not a secure vocation, and that people who do arts are dumb. In reality, it's not like that at all: many actors I have worked with are lawyers, and you have to realise that just because someone wants to go into acting, it doesn't mean that they're dumb, or that they're on stage all the time.”
Ghafir opted for an undergraduate course in theatre because of the opportunities this degree will open up in future. The curriculum in the first two years of such a course covers topics similar to those in communication and sociology courses, he adds.
He is set to transfer to Western Michigan University in the United States later this year to complete the last two years of his degree.
In fact, Ghafir has already had the chance to dabble in more than just acting. He has experimented with playwriting although he admits: “I don't think my work is good enough to be published. It takes a lot to take something onto the stage. I mostly write for myself, as a creative outlet.”
He has also given directing a whirl, when he co-directed Fourplay, a collection of four plays by comedic playwright David Ives, with Zalfian Fuzi under the first Young Directors Showcase.
“It was an eye-opening experience as I never realised there was so much work involved! It's not just telling people what to do - the hard part is doing something substantial,” he explains.
In any case, Ghafir's love of the theatre is not solely because of the fame and fortune it may bring.
“You know, the work can be crap, the pay can be crap, you might not get the recognition, people might not come to your shows,” he points out.
“In the end, it's not so much about the outcome or the product, but the process of creating something, of coming up with a really good idea and nurturing that idea until it becomes a full-fledged production that people will come and watch and feel touched by.”
Ghafir is still not certain of what he wants to do after graduating. For now, acting is his passion. This is simply a deeply-ingrained interest he pursues ardently because it makes him happy.
“When I was in primary school, we had to fill out a form stating our top three career choices. Every year, I would have different answers. After I left high school, I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but the opportunities in acting came, so I just went along with things.
“A lot of my friends are studying engineering or the sciences as a result of parental influence, or expectations they put on themselves.
“They feel that is the right choice because of the money and the security, but I think that if you don't feel good when you do something, and you can't imagine yourself doing it for the rest of your life, then you shouldn't do it,” he concludes.
Ghafir is flying off to the United States in August to pursue his passion for the theatre at university and to try and make it big on stage. Until then, we definitely hope to see more of him.