So your father is Kuo Pao Kun, better known as KPK, who is as close as it gets to Singapore theatre royalty and considered the pioneer of the thriving local theatre scene. You could distance yourself from his very large shadow, or you could face it head on. Kuo Jianhong, 45, has gone for the latter, kicking off a year-long festival of her late father’s work with Lao Jiu, a play written by KPK himself and performed by the theatre company he founded.
KPK was an internationally awarded and acclaimed playwright, director and arts activist, who was detained for four years under the Internal Security Act in the late 1970s but came back to win the prestigious Cultural Medallion in 1989. He founded The Substation and the Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS), nurturing the latter for almost 40 years while it developed into the highly respected Theatre Training and Research Programme with a performance wing, The Theatre Practice (TTP).
If those sound like impossible boots to fill, then Kuo Jianhong has made a more than decent stab at emulating her father’s glories. She is now artistic director of The Theatre Practice, the company behind the production of Lao Jiu, having been chosen by the board to replace her father when he died of kidney cancer in 2002.
‘There was no plan [when my father died],’ she recalls when we meet her, looking every inch the single-minded theatre practitioner with her glasses and not a hint of make-up. ‘My father’s extremely against nepotism. If he were alive, he would tell me to have nothing to do with TTP, to do my own thing. It wasn’t inheriting a company. TTP is an institute of public character, so the board decides.’
Accepting the position, Kuo returned from the US, where she had married a filmmaker following Master’s degrees in stage design (University of Iowa) and directing (University of Hawaii). She had been directing and designing for films, including taking the director’s chair for a fluffy indie flick called Dog Story. ‘It’s about a man saving a dog, and somehow involved guns and mobs,’ she explains. ‘I wouldn’t show it in Singapore. My father was an intellectual, an activist who lived through war and upheaval. You think people will say, “Why’s his daughter doing a brainless movie?”’
But there was nothing brainless about the task facing her on her return to Singapore, a full six years before her husband would join her. The challenge was to modernise The Theatre Practice and find the right direction for it, but also to protect the legacy of her father. ‘TTP must evolve…it’s older than Singapore! Also, theatre has gone more commercial. That’s not a dirty word. It’s the fact that people make a living doing this.’
Accordingly, Kuo’s been trying to keep theatre sustainable for both practitioners and audience. She’s known for paying fair wages, and for the Poor Theatre Series, where audiences pay what they want. In addition, TTP continues to be a key training ground, hiring repertory actors to learn all aspects of the scene; flying in foreign masters to direct and/or train local actors; and casting complete newcomers alongside veterans to give them opportunities and education. All of this would be unthinkable for other local theatre companies. Kuo also produces, designs and directs, with a special focus on local, original Mandarin musicals, which are scarce.
Now, ten years after returning, she’s paying an extended tribute to her father by launching a year-long KPK festival, inviting people worldwide to stage his works. And, of course, directing one herself: Lao Jiu itself is about a youngest son, the sole shining hope of a lower-middle-class Chinese family with eight daughters. Instead of seizing opportunities to elevate his family by becoming a scholar with career prospects, the title character falls in love with the dying art of Chinese puppetry.
Kuo first directed this classic in 2005 as a Mandarin musical, to markedly mixed reviews. ‘I stuck too close to the original,’ she reflects. ‘I was still emotionally too close, I didn’t have perspective.’ This time will be different, she says. ‘I want to Disney-fy it – [but] not as a bland sellout. I mean, sharing a simple human quest. People of all ages and cultures love Disney, simply because Disney tells universal stories. That’s what I want to do.’
Accordingly, performing a brand new script and songs are a new local cast including vernal pop singers Sugianto Phua and Inch Chua as the leading lovebirds; TV and radio personality Marcus Chin as the patriarch; recording artists Joanna Dong and Sing Chew as two of the sisters; plus fresh faces, theatre veterans and a horde of puppets.
‘Sometimes I think to myself, if my father were around, what would he say? But he was always fascinated by directors inserting their own ideas in his scripts.’
She also recalls her father’s words when she was ashamed to show him Dog Story. ‘He said: “Don’t carry that burden. There are things you can do that I can’t. You must do things your way, on your terms.” So when people say, “You sold out”, or “KPK wouldn’t have wanted this”, it can’t affect me. I’m at peace with my father.’
Lao Jiu is at the Drama Centre Theatre from 12-29 Jul.