Saturday, 23 April 2011

Ann Lee, writer, producer, director

Email Interview  with Helen Musa 20 March, 2011 (biography below)

I believe that working in Malaysia (as in Indonesia) a “Muslim theatre worker” is obviously defined in terms of their stated religion. But it is useful, I believe, to think in more fluid terms to gain a more nuanced understanding of how Islam may be said to influence a person”s work or themes. As you say, “nonetheless I have been working with women”. Similarly, nonetheless I have been working with Muslims.

Perhaps, like the science of the hadiths, you may need to have various categories for the Encyclopedia – “friends of Muslim theatre workers” or some such! – who may or may not be considered close to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). I don”t mean to be facetious.

Does my Malaysian IC state that I am a Muslim? No, it doesn”t. But while I may not be defined by state as Muslim, nevertheless, the themes that I am interested in, and the references that I turn to, are also Muslim or from Islam (and/or wash with at the same time “Malaysian” and “Malay”. Pls see a bit more about this in terms of the country”s Constitution below). I”ve been reading the Quran since 1987 when I first received a free copy from ABIM, the dakwah association. I have found reference to this not only useful but actually imperative to help me understand and contribute to the times and society in which I live. I have also tried to read the Bible, Buddhist texts, Hindu, Sikh and other sacred texts.

On another personal note, my partner is Muslim (as was my previous) which means that while I am not officially a Muslim convert, I am fairly steeped in many cultural practices and dimensions that are described as Muslim.

But further of course, one may be a person who is not secular but defines their religion in a very private realm and chooses not to articulate specific personal facts to support one”s faith. Nevertheless we may find themes in their work that are also arguably Muslim, derived from Islam (or also spiritual or religious in a universal sense).

Regarding  the social role and cultural importance of women playwrights, actresses, directors, producers and patrons, there are so many in Malaysia but unfortunately no consolidated histories. Still, there are official state bodies (the Ministry of Culture and Information, formerly Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism; the universities, but especially noteworthy would be UKM or the National University of Malaysia; and then there are the private universities of which suggest Sunway would be a primary source.) All of these are, however, focused on peninsular Malaysia. The theatre cultures of Sabah and Sarawak also include Muslim theatre workers but are written of even less, though things are improving.

To consider just the playwrights of the last 20 years, here are names I would single out:

1) Playwrights: Including a person who may have written one work for the stage. Or been part of a devised or collaborative work (after all, playwright is only a recent invention as a particularized occupation). This doesn”t include choreographers or “curators” of stage works and installation-like performances that cross the boundaries between dance, movement and text.

i)                    Sabera Sheik: she has written a number of plays and works for the stage, and in fact is performing in one of them now Lady Swettenham, for “100Women”, the series of performances and workshops now under

ii)                   Shahimah Idris (also known as Charmaine) wrote From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan with myself, Sue Ingleton and Jo Kukathas, that was produced in 2000 and in 2002 (at invitation of the New York International Fringe Festival) by Kuali Works.

iii)                 Solehah Ishak (Dept of Malay Letters, UKM or National University of Malaysia). For a while, she was translating many plays from Malay into English that can perhaps qualify to call her woman playwright. Her translated works include Modern ASEAN Plays-Malaysia (Gen Ed: Zakaria Ariffin and Editors Hajah Ainon Abu Bakar and Zullkeply Mohamad, ASEAN Publishers, 1993); she also written the introduction of this book.

iv)                 Rosminah Tahir (Dean at ASWARA): she is mostly a director but has also written her own/adapted works for the stage.

v)                  Mira Mustaffa (A Silent Scream and Hero) Dina Zaman (Why did he sleep with me if I”m so fat?), all wrote monologues for “Dramalab One by One” monologues produced in 1995. Dina also wrote “Gula Girls” for the “Talking AIDS” series produced by the Actors Studio and Dramalab in 1999.

vi)                 Yasmin Yaacob has written a number of plays, including her first, A Flight Delayed, that was produced in 2000 (produced by Dramalab).  The Artistic Director of Dramalab is (Dato”) Zahim Albakri.

2) Patrons: There are many unsung Muslim women who have been working in the private and public sectors in positions of senior and middle management who have brought about sponsorship of new or staged work. Just as one example, I would highlight the late Endon Mahmood, first wife of former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi. Her daughter, Nori Abdullah, has also been very supportive.

Re: to what extent Muslim/Malaysian women  playwrights reflect their Islamic beliefs in their plays.

I think one”s beliefs and faith are inevitably reflected in one”s works. Same goes here, though none may overtly cite text from the Qur”an or hadiths, so far as I recall. I do understand but I find it rather unhelpful to divide Islamic beliefs from secular, or at least certainly from the personal. As one acclaimed law professor has said about the Malaysian Constitution -= “It may be secular but it is not Godless”. Faith in God is a stated principal principle of the document. Perhaps one should try to calculate the number of atheists in a Muslim majority population. That might add weight to the arguable cliché of secular/Islamic convenience. As you can tell, I chafe under this and perhaps have no right as a non-Muslim, whatever that is: - )

Re: whether these plays have been staged and if so, by male or female directors.

The plays have mostly been staged by male directors. I consider the gender of the director to be relevant, but not necessarily the predominant factor.

Re: any strong or archetypal female characters in modern Malaysian theatre and if so, who are the actresses who have played them?

Modern Malaysian theatre (post-Merdeka/Independence or from the 20th century onwards?) is inextricably linked to many social/political dimensions of the country”s context. Critically, for example, Malay and Muslim are entwined in the Constitution”s definition of a Malay. (Very interestingly, while one as a non-Muslim cannot be a Muslim except by conversion, one may be a Malay and therefore also Muslim by definition). Most of the strong, archetypal female characters are of female Malay warriors/political leaders. Most recently, and most famously, Puteri Gunung Ledang, played by Jacqueline Tiara. I would also include “Hang Li Poh”, typically portrayed as a daughter of the Ming Emperor who was sent as a gift from the Emperor to the Sultan of Melaka (Malacca). However, she was arguably also a Muslim. Certainly, Admiral Cheng Ho or Zheng existed, the astonishingly accomplished  sailor of expeditions from China, a Muslim, and also a eunuch. As some legends have it, he brought her to Malacca. Muslims in China were already well known in the Ming era (if not now!)

Also, modern Malaysian theatre may be said to flow in distinct streams, depending on language – Malay (Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu), the official language, but also Chinese (various dialects) and Indian (mostly Tamil) and other “Other” languages.

Re: there are some stereotypes of women in modern Malaysian theatre and are they being challenged.

I would say Modern Malaysian theatre, in the last 20 years, has been very taken up with issues about sexuality and gender, and challenging them. However, religion remains a very sensitive issue, particularly for any works in Malay that may challenge officially approved tenets. English language theatre has been the most overtly provocative but this has been allowed, arguably because it is a language of the elite and not therefore the main powerbase of the ruling party.

The story of how Eve Ensler”s The Vagina Monologues was  produced in Malaysia – one version produced by Five Arts Centre (directed by Hari Azizan, a woman director/performer who has staged a number of works now) and another produced by AWAM, the All Women”s Action Society of Malaysia (directed by me) would be an obvious but revealing case study as to how far stereotypes about women may be challenged, irrespective of language, in Malaysia.

Re: who are the audiences who attend these plays?
Largely urban and middle class.

March 11, 2011

I”ve been a “student” of Islam since 1987 and finding sources about women is especially difficult.

Ann Lee – Biodata

Ann Lee began writing for theatre when she joined the Royal Court Young Peoples Theatre in London, England while studying for a film degree. Selected for a year-long writer”s workshop with writer, scriptwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia), she returned to Malaysia in 1987.

She went on to complete her first play, Happy Families, performed in Kuala Lumpur in 1993 at the British Council as part of a double-bill by Instant Café Theatre Company”s Dramalab.

A year later, she co-founded Kuali Works, Malaysia”s all-women theatre and television and publications company with Karen Quah, Anita Zafina, Goh Soon Siew and Shahimah Idris, which sought to foreground original Malaysian work, and training for women in production technologies.

Lee”s critically-acclaimed written work for the stage includes Kuala Lumpur-Knock Out (KL-KO, 1995), about an electronics factory worker who aims to fight Mike Tyson in a boxing match; Hang Li Poh: Melakan Princess, eight dramatic re-tellings of the myth of the 16th century Ming Dynasty princess who was sent as a gift from the Emperor of China to the Sultan of Malacca; From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan by Shahimah Idris (with Ann Lee, Sue Ingleton and Jo Kukathas) 2000, about a woman who grows up in Apartheid-era South Africa then escapes by migration to Australia only to then find herself and family in Malaysia, this time on the right side of the “race” tracks. This show was first performed in Kuala Lumpur and then invited to the New York International Fringe Theatre Festival (2002) where it was praised. Lee”s shorter works for the stage include Sarong! (1999) about a salesman made redundant whose only chance at a job is selling a product that cannot be mentioned in public and Perpustakaan about love and censorship. Her latest play, Tarap Man, about a boy who may have been wrongfully imprisoned for 50 years and a veteran journalist who must find out the truth won the Best Original Script Award at the Boh Cameronian Malaysian Arts Awards (2007).

Lee  writes for various languages. Although mostly in English, her plays include various languages spoken in Malaysia including Bahasa Malaysia, Hakka (Chinese) and Kadazan. From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan by Shahimah Idris (with Ann Lee, Sue Ingleton and Jo Kukathas) includes Afrikaans.

She was invited as Guest Writer to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali (2007) where an excerpt of Hang Li Poh: Melakan Princess was performed by Teater Satu, from Lampung in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Also a director, Lee has received a theatre directors” award from the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur in 1996, and in 2001 was selected as an Asian Leadership Fellow by the Japan Foundation and International House of Japan where she spent two months with seven other Fellows from Asia. She last directed Eve Ensler”s award-winning The Vagina Monologues in Kuala Lumpur, which was banned but went on to be performed as a private function (and raised funds for an NGO dedicated to raising awareness about abuse and violence against women).

Lee has been a judge for school theatre competitions in Malaysia and has been a guest lecturer in performing arts and creativity at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), and Sunway/Monash amongst others.

A former newscaster, she also writes on arts and popular culture in Malaysian/regional newspapers and magazines, and is currently a contributor to,, and Tempo magazine, about arts and current events in Indonesia. Her most recent work has been published in Body to Body (Matahari Press), New Malaysian Essays, Vol II (Matahari Press) and 8 March: The Day Malaysia Woke Up. A collection of her plays and stage works including From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan by Shahimah Idris (and works with collaborators) as produced by Kuali Works will be published as “Sex, Stage and the State” (forthcoming, 2011).

Ann has a B.A. (Hons) in Applied Photography, Film and Television (Westminster University, UK) and a MSc. in History of Science, Medicine and Technology (University of Oxford, UK).


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