Satire and comedy queen

Maid, goddess, male politician - Malaysian actress-director Jo Kukathas has won fans for being able to slip into any role effortlessly

Jo Kukathas has her hands around a steaming mug of green tea, trying her hardest not to cough. The flu-ridden actress-director, 52, has just touched down in Singapore for the opening of the Wild Rice theatre production, Another Country, which she is co-directing.

"Is that for me?" she croaks, a lime green scarf thrown around her neck, as she gladly accepts a lozenge. However, once she gets into the groove of answering questions, she transforms. She is lively, animated, speaking rapidly and at length about her life in the theatre.

Singapore audiences might recognise her as the widow delivering her husband's eulogy in the late Yasmin Ahmad's award-winning television spot for the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2009. It garnered more than 1.1 million views on YouTube. They might also remember her as the no-nonsense school principal in Anthony Chen's critically acclaimed film, Ilo Ilo (2013). She also has two acting trophies from the Life! Theatre Awards under her belt.

My life so far 

'I created a Twitter account for him and some people think he's real and ask, "Why are you such a moron?"' 

On one of the characters she created, YB (Yang Berhomat, above), a stereotypical Malaysian politician 

'He asked us who our heroes were in theatre. We said we didn't have any and he got a bit upset. He said, "Why do you want to do other people's plays? Don't you want to do your own theatre?" It made us think' 

Actress-director Jo Kukathas on how the late Malaysian theatre luminary Krishen Jit inspired the founding of Instant Cafe Theatre

'We thought, "Let's seduce them. Let's do whatever we can and get them to come and they can decide if they like it later"' 

On getting people interested in theatre

'I grew up reading Shakespeare. My dad loved Shakespeare and read it to us when we were young and made us memorise passages, so Shakespeare was never daunting to me' 

On her love of Shakespeare

'We're not so easily Indian, Chinese or Malay. Our identities stretch back much longer and are bound up in a lot of our history' 

On racial identity in Malaysia Jo Kukathas

In Malaysia, she is referred to reverently in the ranks of "theatre royalty". She is the co-founder of Instant Cafe Theatre, a 26-year-old institution built on its uncanny political satire and biting comedy. The plays she has helped develop under her writing programme Firstworks have sent ripples through the community, including Alfian Sa'at's Parah (2011) and Shanon Shah's Air Con (2009).

However, before she took the theatre world by storm, she led a nomadic life across the globe. On her permanent return to Malaysia years later, she says she felt like a complete "misfit".

The fifth of six children, she was born in Kuala Lumpur, the daughter of the late journalist K. Das, former bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a prominent political writer and journalist in the country. Her late father influenced her deeply and she refers to him often in the interview, delighting in telling stories about his life.

"We couldn't go to the supermarket without someone stopping him in the aisle and asking him political questions," she says. Her mother, a teacher, had attended university in Singapore.

When she was about seven, her father joined the Malaysian foreign service as an information attache and moved the entire family to Canberra, Australia. After a few years there, they relocated to Hong Kong. It was then that she, her five siblings and her cousins began to create performances for the family. They would often style their performances as variety shows, incorporating segments such as Jokes By Jo, where she would perform her own brand of comedy.

In school, Kukathas was reserved. Her report cards would include comments such as: "She is a polite, industrious child" or "She needs to relax a bit more".

The family was about to resettle in Malaysia in the 1970s when the language of instruction in local schools changed from English to Malay, as dictated by national policy. The children, who had been in various international schools, spoke little to no Bahasa Melayu. Their father felt strongly that the children should not go to an international school at home, not wanting them "to feel like a foreigner in your own country". So he sent them to a boarding school in Ooty, India, in the Nilgiri hills of the south.

Kukathas says the experience was "quite Dickensian", where one could take hot-bucket baths only twice a week. She would often "have other people's baths for them", taking hot water from classmates who did not want to bathe. After graduating, she went to the University of Reading in Britain, where she studied politics and philosophy.

When she returned to Malaysia for good in the 1980s, she was not sure what to do.

"Everyone assumed I'd be a journalist like my dad," she says, and he encouraged her to. She went for an interview with a newspaper. They handed her a stack of court transcripts in Malay and tasked her with writing an article about them. She could not do it and left. (She has since picked up the language.)

So she did other jobs, including proofreading her father's best-selling book, The Musa Dilemma, a critique of Malaysian politics. She would often attend dissident rallies and meetings with him, which was part of her political awakening.

She later joined the marketing team of a nightclub. There, she found one of the secretaries crying because she was overworked and could not care for her three-month-old baby. Kukathas gave her a crash course in workers' legal rights.

When other employees began to approach her for advice, her boss called her up and accused her of being "communist" and "starting an insurgency".

"She told me, you will never fit into this country," Kukathas says, shaking her head. "And it was devastating. I was trying desperately to fit in. I had been away for a long time and had a strong English accent. To hear someone say this was upsetting."

She took on a job as an English and literature teacher instead - and then she found the theatre. She mustered enough courage to go for an audition with Malaysian theatre group Kami, which was putting on a parody of middle-class life in the country. She says, creasing into a smile: "When I met people in the theatre, I thought, ah, okay, this is where all the misfits go."

While she did not land a part in the play, the director asked her if she still wanted to be involved in some way.

"My first job was to get to the rehearsal space early, open all the windows, kill all the mosquitoes and set up the place for the actors," she beams. She joined the cast for warm-ups and rehearsals and even learnt their lines. And, in a twist of fate, one of the cast members dropped out and she stepped in. The show was Caught In The Middle, which travelled to Singapore for the 1988 Singapore Arts Festival. Because it was a devised work, created collectively with the cast, she ended up contributing lines and even scenes to the play. "One guy laughed so hard, he broke his seat," she recalls. She was hooked.

It was through this play that she met Malaysian funnyman Jit Murad. Both of them went for an audition for Romeo & Juliet directed by then stockbroker Andrew Leci, who is now a sports presenter. Actor Zahim Albakri was there too. This was the quartet who would go on to found Instant Cafe Theatre.

Kukathas and Leci tell Life! they faced considerable scepticism. They had wanted to create a theatrical comic revue in the vein of British TV sketch shows Monty Python's Flying Circus and Not The Nine O'Clock News. The group was also heavily affected by Operation Lalang in 1987, a major crackdown by the authorities which detained more than 100 people without trial under the Internal Security Act, ostensibly to prevent racial riots.

Because of their political slant, Kukathas had no illusions about how long the group would last.

"Newspapers had been shut down, some never got their permits back and people felt like they couldn't say things. So we thought, let's say things. Let's use humour to say these things. We didn't care if it didn't last. If we got shut down, we got shut down. That was our attitude." However, they did not get shut down.

Kukathas channelled her strong feelings about social injustice and political dissatisfaction into their work and the first show was staged in an upstairs room of the Bon Ton Restaurant in KL on Dec 1, 1989. They wrote sketches on napkins and paper tablecloths, creating characters such as an air-headed beauty queen who had never won a pageant and a Yugoslavian who seemed to have stumbled upon the show by mistake. They also did satirical songs, taking on everything from Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng's time in the jungle to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Leci recalls how "Jo and Zahim would disappear for days and come back with a perfect script", adding: "Jo understands theatre so well, she's so passionate and so committed to everything about it. For her, if it's not worth doing well, it's not worth doing. It set the standards for everybody at Instant Cafe." To their surprise, hotels and corporations began to approach them to do shows in their ballrooms and expos. Their goal had been to get people into the theatre and it seemed to be working.

A year later, Kukathas directed her first production, an open-air Midsummer Night's Dream on the grounds of luxe hotel Carcosa Seri Negara.

She says: "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. 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."

Leci says of her: "She keeps people on their toes all the time, with a remarkable degree of intensity which never wavers. Her standards are invariably high and she doesn't suffer fools gladly. She knows what's good and what works and she will get there."

Instant Cafe became a bit of a "revolving door", as Kukathas puts it. Practitioners and artists would come in and work with them. Sometimes, they would stay for long periods. Others would leave after a short stint. They welcomed all sorts of collaborators, including writer-director Huzir Sulaiman, who went on to set up Checkpoint Theatre in Singapore.

The group tackled everything from classics such as Dario Fo's powerful Accidental Death Of An Anarchist in 1999 to signature spoofs such as The 2nd First Annual Bolehwood Awards in 2003, which had them slapped with a ban after a complaint that the show was "rude and demeaning". However, the group bounced back. A year later, Kukathas created Firstworks, a platform for developing new plays.

She got to know several Singaporean practitioners over the years, including Wild Rice's resident playwright Alfian Sa'at, whom she works with frequently. She co-directed his immensely popular political docudrama Cooling Off Day (2011); his heartrending family drama about faith, Nadirah (2009); and the well-received Parah (2011), about race relations in Malaysia told through the eyes of four students. Her Singaporean counterparts have nothing but lavish praise for Kukathas.

She has won herself many fans on this side of the Causeway with her warm, encouraging personality and her gift for slipping into an enormous array of roles almost effortlessly - from a shrewd and vulgar maid in The House Of Bernarda Alba (2014) to a glittery goddess in pink play Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 (2013). She has done all this without formal acting training.

Alfian says his time spent creating Parah with her was "inspiring" and that "it's always such a joy to brainstorm and bounce ideas with someone of such generous imagination". He adds: "As a theatre artist, Jo is nurturing and you can tell that all the actors she's worked with - especially the young ones - adore her. She's never raised her voice in rehearsals and when an actor can't do something, she doesn't think of the actor as having 'limits'. Instead, she'll see the problem as the actor being 'blocked' and that it's her task as director to 'unblock' him."

Kukathas also performed in a revival of Huzir's one-woman show Occupation in 2012. The play, based on the life of his grandmother Mohamed Siraj, who survived the Japanese Occupation, received reviews calling her "phenomenal". She took home a Life! Theatre Award for Best Actress for the role. She also works regularly with Natalie Hennedige of Cake Theatrical Productions, with whom she did Cuckoo Birds in 2010.

Hennedige says of her: "When you're in the presence of a storyteller like her, you're gripped from the moment she starts to share it. She's this huge life force on stage. She's an all-rounded theatre being. We know her great skills and gifts as an actor, but also as a mover and shaker. She makes things happen wherever she goes."

Kukathas, who is not married, is spending about four months in Singapore this year, in-between work for Another Country and Wild Rice's upcoming Hotel in August. However, she still marvels at how "fast" Singaporeans are when getting down to business and found herself "trying to get used to the hectic pace". Her eyes widen: "It was mind-numbing and mind-blowing. How do you learn things so quickly? We don't."

The Malaysian process is a lot leaner, she feels.

She says: "Even while I was rehearsing for Another Country in KL, I was working with five actors and one stage manager and that was it. The stage manager was doing sound, props, costumes and stage managing. The actors also had to contribute: bring and suggest things and get stuff. You can't ask one stage manager to do all that."

The lack of funding is also an issue. While many theatre companies in Singapore receive significant grants from the National Arts Council, this is hardly the case in Malaysia. At the moment, Instant Cafe does about one show a year. This is what she has the resources for.

She is also interested in pursuing other genres.

"A lot of people are doing political comedy in KL, so I feel that need is being met," she says. "Before, we did it because no one else was doing it. There are so many great satirical websites in KL now. I don't feel the compulsion I once felt to do it."

She takes a sip of her green tea. "I know I will always come back to it because it's so present," she says of the issues of politics, race and identity.

"However, I feel there are so many other things about being human that I want to look into and do."

A production manager knocks on the door of her dressing room and Kukathas rises from her chair, pulling her scarf around her, to head back into the theatre and bring the best of another country into this one.

See review of Another Country

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Satire and comedy queen'. Print Edition | Subscribe