Letting Theatre Make Sense of the World

Christopher Preslar’s stellar performance as the brooding Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and his ability to bring a play to life make him much sought after in Penang’s performing arts scene. Penang Monthly talks to the actor/director to find out why he loves introducing Broadway plays to the local crowd, especially the works of Tennessee Williams; and how being in Penang has affected him as a performer.

What brought you to Penang?
I moved to Penang to be with my spouse who has contract work here. I knew nothing of Penang before I moved, but after I arrived, I fell in love with this island!.

You’ve acted in The Glass Menagerie, Fourplay, W;t, and Syok Sendiri since your arrival in 2016. How did you start your career in Penang?
I was very lucky. I was quickly able to make friends in the community. One such friend introduced me to the theatre community. My first project, teaching an acting workshop, was given to me by Wong Lay Chin who runs the Actors Studio Academy at penangpac. After seeing what a great venue penangpac is for the performing arts, I knew I had to collaborate with them. Luckily the team was very receptive to my proposal, and work for The Glass Menagerie began.

Christopher Preslar

Also during that time I became close with Joëlle St. Arnoult, the executive producer of Penang Players, and we launched a successful production of Margaret Edson’s W;t. The play centres on a terminally ill cancer patient, so we thought it would be appropriate to make our show a benefit performance for the Penang Hospice Society. We were very fortunate to raise quite a large sum for the organisation.

You’re an actor and a director. Which role are you more comfortable in?
For me, while acting and directing utilise much of the same skills, the two are completely different disciplines so they are difficult to compare. As a director, I enjoy the amount of research, planning and collaboration involved. It’s an ongoing process – I can delve deeply into the world of the play, derive an inspired vision and, through countless hours of rehearsal, see that vision come alive on stage. It's pure magic.

What is it about acting that you like?
Nothing matches the thrill of acting! It’s like reaching down into the deepest part of you, grabbing hold and tossing it in front of hundreds of people to see.

Acting – and also directing – is my therapy. Like many artists, I have fought a war with anxiety and depression since I was a child. In my early life, many events beyond my control forced me to seek refuge in whatever way possible. As a small child, I found that refuge in movies and music – they allowed me to submerge myself into other worlds, escaping the real one that was too difficult to face.

As a teenager, I turned my love for art into practice. I began singing in choirs and acting in high school and community theatre productions. To say it was a transformation would be putting it lightly. For the first time in my life, I was able to step out of my shell and let the world see me clearly. I began writing poetry daily, putting on paper the intense emotion that I couldn’t make sense of in my head. From that point on, art was no longer a fascination; it was a necessity. Theatre is how I make sense of the world. It’s cathartic. It allows me to face my demons head on and place that struggle in front of an audience. It’s always my sincere hope that people walk away from my work with the same therapeutic experience.

Preslar found refuge from his anxiety and depression in acting.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will be showing in penangpac from July 7-9

You directed and acted in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. What do you like about the play?
To be honest, I’m a bit obsessed with Tennessee Williams. I relate to him a great deal. We both had turbulent childhoods that manifested into emotional instability in adulthood. He, like me, used his work as therapy.

Much of Williams’ work represents the dire struggles he was dealing with. The Glass Menagerie, for example, is the only slightly fictionalised story of Williams’ guilt about leaving home to pursue his writing career while his sister and best friend Rose fell so deeply into mental illness that their parents forced her to undergo a lobotomy, an archaic procedure in which certain brain connections are severed. Williams’ work is honest and devastating. To quote Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Williams “gives you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”.

Can you tell us about what inspired you to write Fourplay?
The basic concept of Fourplay was to have a compilation of four short works about love by myself, Wong, Alvie Cheng and John de Silva.

Like most of my work, I wanted my piece (“The View”) to tackle a difficult subject. I decided to explore the effect mental illness can have on relationships. My main character is a young woman who engages in a fight with her lover about the way she is living. She has shut herself in her apartment. She refuses to step outside out of fear of what might be out there. Her lover insists that she take the risk, but she refuses. The twist is that her lover is not actually with her; he left her for another woman a short time before. The lover we see is a memory, a symbol of her inability to let go of the past and move on.

What’s the difference between the theatre scene in Penang and the US?
I have been so overwhelmed with the amount of talent and potential in Penang. There are so many different cultures contributing to the scene here, resulting in an array of different art forms to enjoy.

Because the theatre scene in the US is so established, there is not as much diversity as many of us would like to see – a fact that has recently come to light in American film and theatre. Many artists are now actively fighting to make American theatre and film more culturally and ethnically diverse, but it's going to be a long and hard struggle before we see real progress.

It has been so refreshing living and working in such a melting pot of an arts scene here in Penang. I’ve learned so many valuable lessons from Chinese, Malay, Indian and other cultures that will forever affect me as an artist.

What is a typical day for you in Penang?
You’d be surprised how much office work goes into directing a production. Most of my day is spent at my favourite cafe conducting research, reading scripts and answering emails. Then, besides the usual mundane errands and gym visits, I am either in the rehearsal room or at home with my spouse. Of course, I try to squeeze in as much time as possible to enjoy this paradise of an island we live on.

What’s next for you?
I'm currently working with actors from KL, Penang and the US on penangpac's production of yet another Broadway show, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which will premiere from July 7-9. It's a raw depiction of the war in Iraq that examines the consequences of humanity’s violent nature and the endless search for God in a time of devastation. The subject scares me, which gives me all the more reason to tackle it head on.

Hopefully, we get to leave the audiences to do some serious thinking about existentialism after the show’s curtain call. I am very excited about this project.

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