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Rehearsing With An Unknown Cast – Qahar Aqilah Takes On Every Brilliant Thing

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Throughout the theatrical run, you are the only actor playing the same character. As for the rest; the cast changes from night to night. And there’s a bigger catch. You only meet your fellow players the night of the performance. Not before, but during. How in the world do you rehearse a part like this one? Actor Qahar Aqilah and Director Christopher Ling talk about rehearsing for Every Brilliant Thing.

“The play first crossed my plate as a piece in the New York Times,” says director Christopher Ling. It was a review of a funny, poignant one-man play that had opened to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Within a year it had traversed the UK, then crossed two oceans to equally delight audiences in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The play was called Every Brilliant Thing and two things struck Christopher as he read the article. First, the play dealt with a topic gravely misunderstood and yet very close to his heart. More on that later.

“My second thought was, ‘wow, this would be perfect for Qahar’.”

At the time of the interview we are three weeks away from opening night and both Qahar and Christopher are deep in rehearsal mode. About his choice for protagonist, Christopher can now say, “I was so right.”

A brand new play…

While Christopher’s enthusiasm exploded with that first article, Qahar is more of a slow-burn personality. What first called to him was the subject matter and how it’s dealt with. “With a lot of projects I’ve gotten more excited along the way.”

On the first page of the script, Qahar tells me, are instructions from the author to localize the play. In this case, actor and director make it resonate with Malaysian audiences. They have included recognisable locations, an original piece of music written for the play and multiple additions to the real star of the show; a list of one million things that make life wonderful.

In this sense, Christopher says, audiences here are watching a brand new play – an international hit that has never been performed anywhere else.

… every night

We meet Qahar’s character, the protagonist, when he’s seven years old on the day of his mother’s first suicide attempt. To cheer her up, the boy starts a list of every brilliant thing he can think of. The list grows, occasionally drops out of his life only to be revived when the boy – growing into a teenager, a man, falling in love, getting married – most needs it.

Qahar’s role is the only scripted part in the play, but there are other parts and these Qahar draws from the audience, identifying among us his father, teachers, girlfriend and the family vet. In fact, the play depends every bit on the audience as it does on the protagonist. He relies on us for interaction, support, to supply props, to remind him of the individual brilliant things on his list.

Which means that every performance Qahar will do more than act. He also has to coach that night’s unsuspecting cast, put them at ease, feed them lines or accept theirs.

Rehearsing for the unexpected

Christopher has been drilling Qahar to react to and work with any number of personalities that could show up at each performance. He’s invited friends from the industry to sit in and interact with Qahar’s character, asking them each time to take on a different persona and try to trip Qahar up. It doesn’t hurt that Qahar has miles of experience in improv and interactive theatre. He appeared in Gardner & Wife’s 2014 Shear Madness, in which all characters are murder suspects interrogated by the audience.

Qahar also teaches masterclasses in acting and theatre skills. He has some experience with putting fellow actors at ease.

As for his skill and dedication as an actor, Christopher has long experience with that as well. Years ago, Christopher directed The Crucible and still remembers being blown away by Qahar’s performance. “His played the role of Giles Corey. He was a 20-year-old playing an old man… an awesome old man”. Many years later Christopher would cast Qahar as the fast-talking, pitiless Roy Cohen in theatrethreesixty’s epic production of Angels in America.

‘Perfect for Qahar’

Qahar has a great story about one of his earliest auditions, about 15 years ago. The story suggests an actor that even then would one day be perfect to take on the role he’s preparing for today.

Qahar had wanted to join a new youth theatre company, Rep16:21. “Maybe because I was young, I only found my monologue one week before the audition… which I would not recommend to anyone.”

And here is why: As hard as he worked during that week, when it was his turn to audition he blanked out after the first paragraph. But then, “a switch happened and I just started improvising.” Luckily he had set the monologue during a badminton match between a father (the speaker) and his son, “so while I was pretending to play I had time to think of my next line.”

He was offered a place in the company. Whether or not the auditioners caught on, young Qahar’s performance had them in stitches. Among the three judges was future Every Brilliant Thing director Christopher Ling.

Every Brilliant Thing opens for its two-week run on Thursday, 10 November. To find out more, visit their event page.

UPDATE – FEB 2017 – After last year’s sold out run, theatrethreesixty is restaging Every Brilliant Thing this February. If you missed it last time, here’s your chance.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.