Reconsidering Singapore Malay Theatre with Fezhah Maznan

After successful runs of the first two instalments of Baca Skrip, a monthly reading of plays in the Singapore Malay theatre canon presented by Teater Ekamatra and Fezhah Maznan, I interviewed Fezhah to find out more about the project.

 What drew you to this project?

The pandemic got me in a paralysis. Not only based on what was happening in Singapore but also what I had experienced internationally having flown in and out of Singapore in March due to a death in the family. The time that I took to retreat and recalibrate gave me the opportunity to look at what was happening in Singapore theatre and to consider how I would like to respond.

One of the biggest absence I observed then was the lack of Malay theatre programmes. It’s not surprising as there are not that many active Malay theatre companies and the main headliner, Teater Ekamatra had been decimated by two cancelled productions. At the same time, I was and still am very concerned by how my theatre colleagues suddenly found themselves without jobs for the unforeseeable future. Having been a freelancer at the start of my journey in the arts, I know how hard it is to put food on the table. It’s even harder in a pandemic.

It was also then that Centre 42 went onto Zoom to celebrate their 6th anniversary and presented a reading of WRITES by Robin Loon. I was very blown away by how simple and affective the reading was, and I must credit Centre 42 for being the trigger to this project.

What made the production team decide to revisit some seminal works instead of creating a new piece?

We are always caught up in the newer, fresher and the never-been-done-before. If nothing else, this pandemic has really taught me to sit still and appreciate what we already have. So this project started with a simple idea—to sit and (re)consider works from Singaporean Malay playwrights, works that you cannot not mention when you recount the history of contemporary Malay theatre in Singapore. When else could you sit again with these texts? Additionally, there is very little effort in documenting the work done in Singapore Malay theatre. So revisiting these works also help to record a slice of history from the perspective of the playwrights.

I actually imagined this to be a simple reading but Irfan Kasban and Noor Effendy Ibrahim have pushed the bar further by reworking on their scripts and directions for their 2020 audience and also for the digital platform. I am fuelled by their enthusiasm and I admire how patient they are to play around with the digital plane in delivering a ‘live’ reading.

Coming out from our first presentation with Irfan’s Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa, our audience did appreciate how the reading was directed and the earnestness that came through the screen.

What were some of the difficulties in creating this work given that everyone cannot be in the same room?

At the start of the rehearsal, under normal circumstances, there is always time to breathe and be together. There are hugs, jokes, greetings and commiserating. Unfortunately, this doesn’t automatically translate when we rehearse digitally. We came in and immediately started to work. However, this was something that didn’t work out very well for us. So after the first rehearsal with the first cast, we decided to begin our rehearsals with ample time to be together before going into notes or reading.

There is of course the unpredictability of technology. We are not sure if the WIFI connectivity is going to drop or if the platform is going to fail us. There is a HUGE amount of uncertainty. Every rehearsal we find ourselves faced with new issues to deal with from lighting to echoes to mysterious issues that blacked out our surtitles.

All of these sound scary but I am sure it’s only happening because we are just getting to know the virtual platform. I am confident (foolishly or not) that this will only get better with time and lots of practice!

Has this process made you look at some of the scripts in a new way? How so?

One of the things that we didn’t want to do is to over direct the work. It’s a very conscious effort to put the text in the foreground. Hence, each read is accompanied with the original text and English surtitles. Audience members do also have the option to focus on the actors or the text or, if they choose to, to look away and listen to the reading like an audiobook. These options give greater autonomy to the audience to appreciate the text based on their preferred mode.


The next instalment will be a presentation of Aidli Mosbit’s Ikan Cantik on 24 July 2020. Tickets from Peatix. Stay tuned for more information.

[Review] Natural Inspirations

A Grand Design (An Audio Experience)
Checkpoint Theatre
Spotify and Soundcloud
1-12 July 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic compels everyone to recalibrate their plans, rather than putting their season on hold, Checkpoint Theatre opts to tease their audience by reconceiving some of their shows as audio experiences.

A Grand Design was supposed to be a lecture-performance held at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips educates and regales some of her experiences as an environmentalist and educator.

In this audio experience, sound designer Shah Tahir compensates for the lack of physical exhibits that we would have experienced in the museum by immersing us in his soundscapes. He plunges us into the depths of the ocean or plonks us amidst excited children as we look at orangutans with our minds’ eye. This is a nice contrast to the concrete jungle that one faces due to the current situation.

Phillips’s musings about the odd encounters when educating people about nature, or what drew her to environmental studies are entertaining and educational. She manages to go into some technical detail without turning someone like me, with very little science background, off.

But what makes this experience valuable are the surprisingly profound insights that one gains from her observations. In the last segment, what starts off as an explanation of a well-known event unexpectedly evolved into a meditation of life, survival, existence, and death.

Coïncidentally, it started to rain outside towards the last few minutes of my audio experience. Clearly, nature had to get in on the action and add its finishing touches to a well-designed experience.


There will be a live staging of A Grand Design in the near future. Please check Checkpoint Theatre’s website and their social media for updates.

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu

In the second instalment of Baca Skrip, a monthly series of online readings of Singaporean Malay plays, Fezhah Maznan and Teater Ekamatra presents Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Anak Melayu

I interviewed some of the actors involved in this read (Izzul Irfan, Rusydina Afiqah, Farah Lola, and Ali Mazrin) to find out about their experiences with performing via a digital medium. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Izzul Irfan: The rehearsal process has been very interesting for me as an actor because I sort of have to come up with a new vocabulary as a performer. You are playing the dual roles of both performer and technical team in a sense, because if you freeze or get cut off or your connection’s down, it’s on you to bring yourself back online and working well. So, there’s that headspace that I have had to get used to. Other than that, I think learning to connect over Zoom has been interesting—I have always seen this mode as purely a communication platform and not so much a ‘connecting’ platform. But the process has really been about re-learning how to reach out to the audience (when you can’t see them) and it’s been challenging but rewarding.

Rusydina Afiqah: To start off, there was a read to understand the flow of the story and the characters. Then we went straight in to cover the play bit by bit, a little more in depth each time. Questions were raised as we understood this world a little better.

Farah Lola: All of the rehearsals were held over Zoom calls. Other than it being tricky tehnically, the reading and blocking was easy enough to do.

Ali Mazrin: Basically, we have been going through rehearsals online via Zoom. Which includes all the cast, director and also the crew. Having to pick a spot in my own house and making sure everyone at home do not interrupt the rehearsals is quite hard but fun at the same time.

What were some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Izzul Irfan: Honestly, it drives me crazy that I cannot ‘feel’ everyone’s energy properly because we are not physically present together (which is something I really miss). So I think doing an ensemble piece where there is contant ping-ponging of energy on a virtual space has been difficult. With Anak Melayu, getting the tempo right is important and we’re really working hard towards that.

Rusydina Afiqah: For me, understanding the story took a while longer. There were a lot more things to juggle than just imagining the world. There were five more tiny screens during rehearsals that I had to be aware of, all at the same time.

Farah Lola: Perhaps physical and eye contact. Our eyelines were a little different because we were looking at different points of the screen, and you really needed to refine vocal inflections to know who the character is addressing but we’ve managed to work it out. We also had to bounce off energy more vocally as there was no physical space with other actors to feel out.

Ali Mazrin: Because it is an online rehearsal, we face quite a number of technical challenges such as the connection of the internet and also capturing of the cast’s voice. Being in a different space then the rest of the cast makes it more challenging in having the same energy as everyone during rehearsal.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Izzul Irfan: Effendy’s plays are always very physical, and as he told us about the past iterations of Anak Melayu, you can clearly see there is a physical vocabulary that he builds and it’s beautiful. He always says he’s not much of a ‘text’ person. But as I was working on this play on a virtual platform, his words really come to life – all the subtexts in all its glory, and three-word lines from one character hold entire worlds in them. While it has been close to 20 years since he created them, his characters are still very much alive and kicking.

Farah Lola: It is my first time familiarising myself with this piece, and my first time doing a play on camera in my own home! I think everything has been whittled down to the subtleties due to it being closer to the audience, therefore it would feel more intimate.

Ali Mazrin: It’s amazing how we still manage to do rehearsals and shows live, online. But I definitely still wish that this was a staged show where everyone is together, so as to also feel the audience’s energy when we are performing.


Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu will be presented via Zoom on 26 June 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Lockdown Arts Tally

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore went into lockdown—or what the government calls a “Circuit Breaker” period—from 7 April 2020. On 3 June 2020, we went into the first phase of easing of the restrictions. However, it was so minor that it was no different from a lockdown. On 19 June, we transitioned to Phase Two which meant that most activities can resume with minor conditions attached to them.

As such, I thought it would be interesting just to do an arts tally to highlight how the arts played a part to get us through the lockdown. The tally details the arts that I have consumed from 7 April to 18 June 2020.

Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) by National Theatre

An Enemy of the People <人民公敌> (2014) by Nine Years Theatre

Jane Eyre (2015) by National Theatre & Bristol Old Vic

Treasure Island (2015) by National Theatre

Emily of Emerald Hill (2019) by W!ld Rice

Rosnah (2016) by The Necessary Stage

Supervision (2019) by W!ld Rice

To Whom It May Concern (2011) by The Finger Players

Coronalogues: Silver Linings (2020) by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Harap (Hope) (2017) by Teater Ekamatra

Television

Titoudao (2020) by Oak3 Films & Goh Boon Teck

Books

The Field of Drama (2000) by Martin Esslin

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010) by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro

Song of the Outcast: An Introduction to Flamenco (2003) by Robin Totton

Arts Reviewing: A Practical Guide (2017) by Andy Plaice

Films

Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg


In total, I have watched ten screenings of past theatre productions, one television series, one film, and read four books. 

This is a rather modest tally, but it would not surprise me if over a thousand people had a significant part to play for these works to  come to fruition. It would have been a very different experience had these things and people not exist. 

They are there not merely as a means to kill boredom, but I have derived instruction, conversation, and provocation from these works. 

Flawed Review Yields Unexpected Insights

I am pleasantly surprised that my review of Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabharata, is cited in an essay contained in The Methuen Drama Handbook of Interculturalism and Performance (2020).

Initially, I was slightly confused as to why my review was cited, especially when I was a novice back then, and have provided links to reviews written by reviewers from mainstream publications. While I did not have access to the full essay, I was amused to find out that Dr Tan is a Singaporean theatre academic, and his concerns in the essay is about sound design. That is certainly not my forte and my review did not cover sound design at all.

Upon closer reading of the excerpt and my review, I realised that my review detailed four reactions by different audience members, and it served as an indication of the audience members’ reactions to the performance. Hence, it allowed Dr Tan to cite that as anecdotal evidence that the audience was “uninspired and bored”.

At the time of writing, I knew that the review would ruffle many feathers had it gained a wider readership. It was a special review to me because I uncharacteristically privileged reportage over anything else.

Personally, I am not in favour of providing too much reportage. It spoils the show for those who are about to watch it, and it takes the space away from wider analysis, which differentiates one critic from another. Reportage should be in the form of examples to substantiate a wider point.

In that review, I made such a deliberate but uncharacteristic choice in response to the widespread adoration of the show, which seemed to be earned due to Brook’s reputation rather than the direction or performance itself.

I wanted to show that the drama in the stalls is much more interesting that what was happening on stage. And I have used this technique several times since.

That said, if I were to receive that review now, I would still stand by the writer’s decision, but advise him to add a little more context and details of the show.

At that time, I was quite a stickler for keeping to the word count as I believed that most people would not read beyond 500 words. While I am still of that opinion to a large extent, a clear and exciting review would put the readers in a forgiving mood.

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #_____

In an unexpected turn of events, rather than worrying about creating new works through a digital medium, Teater Ekamatra decides to team up with veteran theatre producer Fezhah Maznan to look back at key works in Malay theatre through a series called Baca Skrip: #______.

Baca Skrip is a monthly online script read of Malay plays by prolific Malay playwrights from Singapore. The scripts are selected based on their impact on Singapore Malay theatre history and / or are representative of the chosen playwright’s oeuvre.

Each session will be accompanied with an introduction which provides a sense of the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the work. After the reading, a critical response will be given by an invited guest. This is meant to provide audience several ways of looking at the work.

This series serves to rekindle the work with today’s Malay theatre audience and create a sense of continued history for Singapore Malay theatre in general.

First Session (29 May, 8 p.m.)

Baca Skrip: #HantaranBuatMangsaLupa

Genap 40 (read by Shida Mahadi and Izzul Irfan)

Hawa, who is pregnant, receives a premonition that she will meet Malaikat (angel) on the 39th day, where she hopes to enquire about the fate of her child and her self; revealing her true desire to challenge predestination.  

W.C. (read by Mish’aal Syed Nasar and KayKay Nizam) 

Two mean in a toilet cubicle. 

They talk, but not a lot. 

They touch but not too much. 

Only the four walls bear witness to their dispositions. 

W.C. was created to examine the complexities between men—abandonment, trust, and maybe even love. It speaks of comfort and sacrifice, or lack thereof. 

94:05 (read by Fir Rahman) 

94:05 invites the audience to the life and memories of Ahmad bin Abdullah. As he tidies his studio apartment, Ahmad finds it hard not to reminisce. He shares with us every important juncture he has passed through, slowly revealing his struggles with fate. Every now and then he contemplates mortality, especially in moments when hope becomes fleeting. 


Performed in Malay with accompanying Malay text and English surtitles.

Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Left Over

Bowl cusps remnants left
by small appetite. Too common
a sight to bother compared to
pit stop lunches preceding lists of
errands to run,
commissions to earn.

The bowl, a faulty tire
by the wayside, offends
incoming occupants planned
for swift and sharp refuel.
The race that ensues requires
full concentration; leaving no space
to tar one’s shoes.

The bowl is cleared, not by one
from the hunched, underpaid,
and neglected team.
But by a man, neatly dressed with
umbrella hooked on arm that
extends to deft hand which
swoops in to take the bowl

and puts it to mouth;
swallowing contents along with
remnants of his pride.

Silence issues from gaping
mouths of those in the pits
as the man departs.

But it is soon broken
by chatter pronouncing
hungry hopes superior
to that of body to drown
him out.

The bowl is left cusping
the absence
of an unwitting offering.

Isaac Tan

[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in the South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery. 

[Dance Review] Busloads of Fun

Back of the Bus
Java Dance Theatre (with local artists)
15 March 2020
Various places in Bukit Panjang
14‒22 March 2020
Part of Arts in your Neighbourhood 2020

In the dreariness of our lives, some of us might wish that life could be a musical or a dance piece, even for a brief moment. New Zealand-based Java Dance Theatre grants such a wish to their audience, as we wonder how much dancing one can do on an ordinary moving bus.

The repertoire on this journey consists of character dances in relation to bus rides, contemporary work that takes place outdoors, and endearing moments of human-to-human connection which is part of the company’s ethos.

In this whimsical ride, we get a trio of dancers. Choreographer and performer Sacha Copland brings in the laughs with her rambunctious energy; her effort to pretend to struggle on the bus while ensuring she could actually balance is no mean feat. She also throws in a couple of surprises that are simple, but creative.

With her striped top and breezy movements to French music, Lauren Carr evokes the bliss of the French Riviera. While her movements are fluid and free-flowing, they are anchored by a certain precision in her extensions.

As a counterpoint, local dancer Adele Goh’s staccato movements relays the tension we feel on public transport in peak hour. In another piece, we see her display her contemporary dance pedigree in a heartfelt duo with Carr that seems to hint at longing and connection.

The pieces which sees the trio dancing together not only entertain but impress as the dancers perform athletic feats on the bus.

All this is complemented by local accordionist, Syafiqah ‘Adha and a cheerful host, Sabrina Sng.

The tour brings audience to various parts of Bukit Panjang which they might not know about. While the pit stops are relatively familiar to me, it allows one to look at the place in a fresh perspective.

While much more can be said about the planned bits of the show, the unplanned elements of the show do add to the experience.

The occasional honk of a car or scampering of a passer-by alerts one to the contrast between the performance and the quotidian. But it also emphasises what more can be experienced if one is simply open to the rhythms and atmosphere of wherever one is.

Throughout the trip, I have lost count of the number of drivers who stopped beside our bus, but their eyes were dead set ahead; completely oblivious to the seeming mayhem and wonderment that is happening right beside them. If only they looked up.

So it turns out that one could do a whole lot of dancing on a moving bus. And, to borrow a comment uttered by a French audience member, “c’est magnifique!”

 

[Interview] Finding Resonances in Poop! with Berak

To kick off their 2020 season, Teater Ekamatra presents Berak, a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop!, which chronicles an aftermath of the suicide. 

I spoke to transcreator Zulfadli Rashid (ZR) and director Mohd Fared Jainal (MFJ) to find out more about the piece and what drew them to Chong’s original play, which can be considered a modern classic in our theatre canon. 

The work is described as a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop! Could you explain what do you mean by “transcreation”?

MFJ: Transcreation is becoming quite synonymous to our line of work at Ekamatra. Apart from creating original plays, we find originality within these scripts that resonate strongly as viewed through the lens of an ethnic minority.

In Harap (2017), it was about suicide and homosexuality; Potong (2018) talks about dementia in the family with a transgender character; and A Clockwork Orange (2019) was about violence.

Poop! is a great play written by Chong Tze Chien and it’s one of those that strike an emotional chord based on the plot and premise—a broken family whose father committed suicide and a daughter fighting cancer and on the brink of her impending  fate.

What drew you to transcreate Poop! in the first place?

ZR: I watched Poop! a few years ago. I remembered that I left the theatre with such sorrow. No silver lining, no moral of the story. Still so beautiful. I loved how honest it chose to be. Then, sometime in 2018/2019, Shaza asked if I was interested in adapting Poop!  I just had to do it.

MFJ: As depressing as it may seem, on a micro level, these characters represent people who have lost so much—dignity, will, trust, identity, and the meaning to live. They could be our family; friends; neighbour; colleague; the person sitting opposite us in the train; the taxi driver; the stall owner; the man in suit; the lady on a bicycle. Just anyone.

But on a larger view, it reflects how the system is causing people to struggle, to have a skewed perspective and face death way before we are boxed up. 

Are death and berak taboo subjects in a “Malay” cultural context and in Islam? If so, could you elaborate on this?

ZR: I don’t think the Malays view these things as taboo. We talk about both death and passing motion all the time, but some do it  “beralas” (Malay-styled euphemism).

Islam also does not view these subjects as taboo. Death is merely a rite of passage for a human being, and it is not the final destination. How one dies, however, will determine one’s fate in the afterlife.

MFJ: About 98 per cent of Malays are Muslims by default and these plays may contain difficult issues or taboos that do not sit comfortably to some. However, they deserve the attention as we continue to represent a wider spectrum of people within our community. It may not lead us to any solutions, but the bottom line is to acknowledge and say that some people need more help than others. Let’s not sweep it under the carpet.

Are there any interesting discoveries that occurred in the process of transcreation and rehearsals?

ZR: I am always discussing with Fared and Safuan (the sound designer) on how to ensure that Berak is not merely a translated play performed by Malay actors. Berak must exist in a Malay universe with all its absurdities and peculiarities. Only then, I feel that we can have an honest conversation with regards to the play’s subject matter.

MFJ: Zulfadli Rashid (Big) is a bilingual writer who has strong sensitivity towards the Malay language, culture and psyche. He has been brilliant in trans-creating the works at Ekamatra, especially Berak. However, the creative input is not just limited to the playwright or director. Actors, designers, managers and crew help to carve and colour that world, and make it as authentic as possible.

Perspectives definitely change and heightened once culture is brought into the picture. The process of transcreation gives us the artistic licence to build a world within our own parameters and identity.


Berak runs from 25–28 March 2020 at Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, WILD RICE @ Funan. Tickets from Sistic

Update: This performance has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.