Celebrating World Theatre Day with Ghafir Akbar: What I love most about theatre is its immediacy

Published on 28/03/2024

Theatre has a unique ability to connect performers and audiences in the present moment, creating an intimate and powerful experience that is unmatched by any other art form. As an independent theatre artist, Ghafir Akbar has experienced firsthand the magic of theatre's immediacy, both on stage and behind the scenes.

In line with his recent award-winning achievement of the Best Actor award at the ST Life Theatre Awards 2024 and his nomination for Best Director at the BOH Cameronian Awards 2024, we are pleased to invite Ghafir Akbar to share his insights and approaches in theatre on this meaningful World Theatre Day.

Congratulations on winning the Best Actor award for your dual roles of Theseus and the fairy king Oberon in Shakespeare in the Park – A Midsummer Night's Dream! Can you share your initial reaction when you found out you had won?
Thank you very much. I was surprised to be nominated and then to win the award. It was an honor and quite humbling as I rarely win awards. The last acting award I won was probably in school. Shakespeare in the Park is a massive production with many elements, and any recognition I receive is really for the entire production effort. I'm happy and humbled by my role in it.

How do you feel about receiving this recognition for your performance, particularly in a production that marked the comeback of the popular Shakespeare in the Park program?
Yeah, as I mentioned, Shakespeare in the Park is a massive production. They literally set up a whole new theatre smack dab in the middle of a garden, surrounded by greenery. They haul in everything from electricity to water, even dressing rooms and snacks, just for the month-long show. Nearly 100 people are in on it every night, and with crowds hitting 1,000 to 1,005, you can imagine the hustle. It's a big deal for everyone involved. I get why SRT might feel the strain of doing this every year, but the crowd's response makes it worth it. Each night has its own vibe—sometimes breezy, sometimes threatening rain. But when the lights hit the stage and the actors start spitting Shakespeare, it's pure magic. I feel lucky to be part of it and to work with such dedicated folks. 

Looking back on your experience with A Midsummer Night's Dream, what do you feel was the most rewarding aspect of being involved in this production?
The most rewarding aspect for me is being part of the collective effort when everything comes together. With such a large-scale production like Shakespeare in the Park, it's fulfilling to contribute and see the audience's reactions firsthand. Their gasps, laughter, cheers, and even jeers at characters create a dynamic interaction that enriches the experience. Each night is unique, influenced not only by the actors but also by the elements of nature. From bugs swarming during a scene to the warmth of the evening, every performance holds its own challenges and surprises. Despite these challenges, the experience of Shakespeare in the Park is incredibly rewarding, blending difficulty with fulfilment.

You've also been nominated for Best Director for your work on 'Fault Lines' in the 19th BOH Cameronian Arts Awards. What drew you to take on the role of director for this play, and what aspects of the script resonated with you?
With Fault Lines, how it started was, Adriana, the playwright, was looking for people to just help her read the play. So she invited a group of us actors to come to her house and just to kind of hear the playwright out loud and just give our feedback, just have a discussion about the play. I found myself deeply engaged with the story, especially as it mirrored my own experiences living and working in the US. As the pandemic unfolded, I collaborated with Adriana to refine and reimagine aspects of the play, eventually taking on the role of director for online workshops with different actors. When the opportunity arose for a full production, Adriana offered me the chance to direct, and I readily accepted. It felt like a unique opportunity to helm a Malaysian play with characters I could truly connect with, something that doesn't come along often.

As both a director and actor, how do you balance your roles and ensure the actors have creative freedom while staying true to your directorial vision?
Theatre, in my view, is a collaborative art where the role of the director emerged relatively recently. As a director, I place my faith in the actors' abilities, instincts, and skills. While I may have a vision for the scene or play, it's during rehearsals that I truly understand the characters' depths and dynamics. I appreciate collaborative directors who inspire rather than dictate, especially in naturalistic plays like Fault Lines, where actors' instincts are crucial. My role is to guide and inspire actors to deepen conflicts and raise the stakes, creating fully fleshed-out characters facing significant challenges. It's about discovering and nurturing tension to enhance the performance.

Can you share any memorable experiences or moments from your career as an independent theatre artist that have had a profound impact on you?
As an independent artist, I've had the flexibility to move between various productions and projects without being tied down to any particular company. I consider myself fortunate to have worked in theatre, TV, and film, both in Malaysia and Singapore. Additionally, my training in theatre and subsequent teaching at the university level have been integral to my career. While it's difficult to pinpoint one defining moment, I'll always remember my first professional production at the Actors Studio in 1999, which led to subsequent auditions and collaborations. Working with Instant Cafe Theatre also left a significant impact, introducing me to a vibrant artistic community in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Teaching at University of Malaya and Aswara has been rewarding, especially seeing my students enter the industry and contribute to the theatre scene. Overall, there's a sense of continuity in my journey as an artist, which is both fulfilling and important to me

As an actor who has worked extensively in both Singapore and Malaysia, how do you view the differences in the theatre scenes between these two countries, particularly concerning support for the arts and the availability of opportunities?
Both Singaporean and Malaysian actors share similarities in history, culture, and political exposure, which enriches their storytelling. While both are driven and creative, Singapore enjoys advantages in infrastructure and government support for the arts. In Singapore, there's a consistent effort to support the arts financially and through attendance and exposure. However, in Malaysia, while there's some support, it's not always consistent, making it difficult for theatre companies to sustain their work. This inconsistency can hinder the creation of bold, impactful productions, as there's fear of financial loss. Additionally, the difference in exposure to performing arts in formal education between Singapore and Malaysia may contribute to varying levels of theatrical engagement and development in each country.

How do you perceive the contribution of theatre to society and culture, and how does this perspective influence your approach to balancing artistic expression with commercial success in your career?
The arts play a huge role in our lives, offering an escape from the daily grind. Whether it's through theatre, music, film, or visual arts, they provide a way to disconnect and immerse ourselves in something meaningful. Personally, I believe theatre is especially powerful. There's this unique connection between the audience and the performers during a live show, like we're all in it together for those few hours.

When it comes to my work, it's about finding that balance. I want to create pieces that resonate with people but also challenge them. Sometimes that means taking familiar themes and putting a new spin on them to convey a deeper message. As trust grows with the audience, I can push boundaries and explore different storytelling methods.

Ultimately, success for me isn't just about making money. It's about the opportunity to keep creating and digging into narratives that make us think, both about ourselves and society as a whole. It's a shared journey between artist and audience, diving into stories that provoke reflection and introspection.

In light of World Theatre Day, can you reflect on why you chose theatre as your medium of expression and why it continues to be important to you?
What I love most about theatre is its immediacy. Everyone gathers in one room, agreeing to share in this ritual together. While I have deep respect for other art forms like visual arts and music, there's something unique about the physical presence shared in a theatre. Each performance may repeat, but the experience is always fresh. Performers feel the audience's energy differently each night, driving them to return and start anew. Nothing compares to the immediate impact of live theatre on both performers and audience alike.

As an independent theatre artist, what message or sentiment would you like to convey to fellow artists, audiences, and supporters on the occasion of World Theatre Day?
For my fellow artists, I'd say keep pushing forward. Creating art can be a rollercoaster, but remember, theatre has endured for centuries for a reason. Even when success feels distant, keep working quietly behind the scenes. Every bit of effort contributes to our eventual masterpiece, whether it takes months or years. Perseverance is key in our craft. And to our audiences, please keep supporting us. Your presence is vital for our growth and inspiration. You don't just have to give money; simply showing up, bringing a friend, or sharing your love for theatre means the world to us. After a show, don't hesitate to connect with us. Your feedback and questions keep the conversation alive, enriching both you and us. Let's continue this journey together, making each other better and fostering a brighter future for the arts.

Lastly, can you offer us a sneak peak into any recent or upcoming project that you're particularly excited about?
Yes! I've got a project lined up for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, collaborating with two local playwrights and directors. Then, I'll be involved in performances with both the Singapore Theatre Company and Wild Rice in Singapore, including a co-directed production with Malaysian director Jo Kukathas. Looking ahead, Drama Lab will be back towards the end of this year and into 2025, featuring a new play alongside theatre legends. It's shaping up to be a highlight, but I can't spill all the details just yet. Keep an eye out for it in KL!

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