The first Malaysian play: a conversation with the co-director
by Georgia Good on 29 May 2019
Shameera Lin is a Malaysian undergraduate at Lucy, where she studies English. Last term, she co-directed the first Malaysian play to ever be funded by the ADC Theatre, Cambridge. The play, Atomic Jaya, is a political satire; it takes on racial issues, national hubris, tenuous relationships between the East and West, and the post-colonial hangover. Shameera directed alongside Wolfson's Jonathan Chan, in a Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Society production. The play was a great success, with glowing reviews and tickets selling fast.
We caught up with Shameera about the play, the issues facing Cambridge theatre, and her own inspirations and ambitions.
First, can you tell us about Atomic Jaya in your own words?
Atomic Jaya is about Malaysia’s mission to build the first nuclear bomb in Southeast Asia. It’s unique because the hero is a female scientist, so there’s a lot of intersectional representation: minority ethnic (she’s Chinese), women in STEM, denuclearisation and all sorts of movements coming together; it’s a whole, zany environment where she’s stuck with all these incompetent men, and she’s the only one who knows what she’s doing. We see how the mission eventually fails – but the joke is not that it fails, it’s what she does after that.
What inspired your involvement in the play?
Actually, I pitched the show to the theatre. Over the summer, I did a political internship with an MP; I asked him “what’s your favourite Malaysian play?”, and he said “Atomic Jaya”. I thought it was a weird, interesting title, because ‘jaya’ means ‘success’ in Malay, so I checked it out and thought it was really funny. It’s very Malaysian, but at the same time connects with a broader audience, which is really important in the Cambridge context. That’s why I pitched it. Oddly enough, we brought a lot of Singaporeans on board – my co-director (Jonathan Chan) has roots in both Malaysia and Singapore, so he got the whole Singaporean contingent to join the production. It was an interesting act of unification (we were one country before, and then Singapore split from us in the sixties)!
How did you find co-directing?
Co-directing is always a challenge, because it’s tough to make two different visions come together – but it was very fulfilling. It’s not my first time directing, so I was anticipating all the difficulties that come with it. It was quite intense, because as directors you’re invested from the very start, and the whole process was seven or eight months long (for the actors it’s just the last eight weeks). I have no regrets, though; I think it went well, and paid off.
So what other experience do you have, directing and otherwise?
I’ve done a lot of comedy, and some drama and Shakespeare… I’ve done a mix of performing and production, but I usually perform. I write, as well; when I perform, I usually perform my own material. It’s mostly comedy: sketches, songs, things like that. I directed another show in the same term as Atomic, about the LGBT community and intersections, which were my big theme for the term. I’ve also assistant-directed a whole bunch of shows, mostly Shakespeare and comedy.
Do you have a favourite play, playwright or source of inspiration?
Growing up, the playwrights I looked up to were African playwrights like Wole Soyinka, but also local art. I looked at Samuel Beckett, too. My inspirations are mostly Southeast Asian playwrights, who write on very niche topics. I don’t have a favourite, but if I had to choose, I’d choose Albee, who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That’s a brilliant play – a play I wish I had written!
Why do you think theatre is important?
Theatre offers a space to explore possibilities. For Atomic Jaya, we could present something very uniquely Southeast Asian from a visual perspective. Theatre combines all the sensory elements, and it’s very immersive. On each performance day, something different happens, and the energy depends on the audience. You can play with one word, and really change the tone of the show. I really like that flexibility.
How can Lucians get involved in theatre at Cambridge?
There’s a Facebook group called Cambridge Theatre, which is the main route in. Then there’s Camdram, the CV of Cambridge theatre. Everyone involved has their own Camdram page, where you can build your portfolio, and see auditions, vacancies, what to get involved in. For BME students, there’s the Cambridge BME Theatre Group, which I love; the reason I got involved in theatre is representation, and I really care about BME issues. BME theatre has been growing in the last few years, but getting students involved can be hard.
In Cambridge or in general?
In London, there are more BME initiatives now, but in general it’s a problem. In Cambridge, lots has been done since I was a fresher in 2017, but not enough. It’s very homogenous – if you go to a musical theatre show you’ll see one BME person, two if you’re lucky. The same is true of Shakespeare. It can be alienating, having shows that don’t click with the BME student body. That’s why I felt compelled to do Atomic – the amount of Singaporean and Malaysian people auditioning was astounding. We had so many first-timers coming to audition. We had a fifth year medic – and medics don’t audition for theatre! We attracted a really different crowd, because the topic was just something that isn’t represented normally. So get involved with the mind-set of what you want to achieve. That’s really important.
You’re directing a show this term, too. Can you tell us about it?
It’s set in the Caribbean. It discusses the sex trade there, and how it’s used as a form of exploitation by external forces. The play is light-hearted, with incredibly unique prose – it’s written colloquially, in local language. We’re auditioning now, and still making creative choices – it’s tricky right now, but I’m really excited about it. It’s being staged in Week Seven.
Has being at Lucy helped you with your dramatic endeavours?
In my first term, I met another English student, who also did comedy at Cambridge. I think that showed me that I could do it, too. Cambridge comedy can be alienating, so talking to her helped me get into it; being at Lucy allowed that to happen.
What’s next for you – at Cambridge and beyond?
I’m a corporate scholar, but my long term aim is to be a writer, and be like Anthony Bourdain – travelling the world, making documentaries. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of journals and poetry, and see how that carries me in the artistic realm. I’d also like to write a play this summer, and hopefully stage it next year – that’s the last thing I want to do here. The big aim!
Photos: Shameera Lin; Atomic Jaya cast and crew; Atomic Jaya