[Interview] Facing Fears with Victoria Chen

The silver lining of COVID-19 closing theatres worldwide is that the yearning to reach out and connect whilst in isolation has led to many interesting artistic experiments.

The Art of Facing Fear is set in a dystopian future in which people are trying to reconstruct stories from a life before the pandemic. In the midst of quarantine for 5555 days, isolated and anguished, they create an internet group to connect.

With the success of its first staging in June 2020, featuring Brazilian, Afro-European and North American montages, the show is back with a bigger and more diverse cast of 25 actors from five continents, including one actor from Singapore.

I caught up with Victoria Chen to find out more about the show.

What drew you to this international collaboration?

I’m drawn to international collaboration all the time! Last year, dancer Valerie Lim and I paired dancers and movers of different disciplines from Singapore with those from various cities in Europe to create a digital piece called Vaudeville-In-Place

The Art of Facing Fear is my first time embarking on a worldwide project of this scale. I want to know who’s out there! I believe in transcending geographical boundaries and blending cultures, and in a time when travel isn’t convenient or possible, the digital space becomes our main point of connection.

What is the creative process like for this production? What were some of the difficulties?

The creative process has revealed how little we know about the world, and yet how much connects us. What will stay with me are the glimpses I get into everyone’s lived experience. An actor kept dipping in and out of a rehearsal because their city’s telecommunication services had been disrupted. Another actor rehearsed their scene in a car because they were stuck in traffic. One actor had to leave rehearsal before it ended because their city was observing a mandatory curfew. And another actor’s landlord switched off their electricity supply and disrupted Internet access.

With such a massive team coming from varying time zones, it is almost impossible to have everyone in rehearsal at the same time.  I missed out on most of the first week of rehearsals because I was in tech for a live production, and last week I woke up at 4 a.m. to work on a scene with actors from Iran and Kenya. (And we thought arranging a meet-up with our friends in Singapore was tricky amirite?)

But this experience has been moving, to say the least. Coming from so many different worlds, everyone forms their personal, unique associations to the piece. The diversity of perspectives and responses while developing this production emphasises the significance of its creative process.

Your previous work, Charlie, also deals with isolation and compels the audience to relook at their world. Do you see resonances between both works? Was there anything you learnt from that production which you are bringing to The Art of Facing Fear?

Both works were created in response to significant events with global repercussions, and both question what the future would be like. The success of a Charlie experience depends on the level of intimacy between the participant and me, and I’d like to create this sense of intimacy with the audience for The Art of Facing Fear. Compared to the one-on-one experience of Charlie, this show has multiple vignettes and 25 actors. It’s a true team effort.

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

So many! But one thing that really surprised me was the impression others have of Singapore. They’re still holding on to the narrative of the chewing gum ban, strict rules, lack of human rights, locals speak Cantonese, etc. I showed them pictures of our skyline and they were amazed. Now the team wants to visit Singapore… they want to ride the MRT and see the yellow boxes we demarcate for smoking!

Of course the same goes for me; the discoveries I make about their countries and how their cultures influences the way they make art, express adoration, and resolve conflict. Some people need to escape, some need to express their anger, some rely on humour, but this is all part of humanity. All of it is art.

You were probably asking more about any artistic or creative discoveries, but the magic of international collaboration is that the discoveries go beyond the work. We could totally say the same about the conventional rehearsal process, in that we learn more about our ensemble members as the weeks go by, but with this show, every rehearsal feels like International Friendship Day.

What is your greatest fear and how do you face it?

I have a fear of losing my memory and I don’t know how to face it. I try to stay mentally active through reading, navigating without a map, playing Sudoku and other small habits, but I’ve started to notice that I’m already becoming more forgetful or maybe it’s absentmindedness. Losing one’s memory feels like an inevitable outcome that I simply have to brace myself for.


Catch it!

The Art of Facing Fear is a free online performance taking place from 19 to 20 June 2021. Donations are encouraged.

There are three shows catering to three time zones. The one most suitable for Singapore is on 20 June, 7 p.m. (Singapore Time).

[Interview] Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips on Being Vulnerable

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

The next major highlight of Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, “Take It Personally”, is an eight-part podcast titled Vulnerable. Written and performed by Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, it chronicles her experience of the pandemic as a creative freelancer living with congenital heart disease.

I contacted Phillips to find out more about her inspirations and her process.

Your last project with Checkpoint Theatre was A Grand Design, a one-woman monologue presented in an audio format. Was there anything interesting you learnt from that which you are bringing to this podcast series?

A Grand Design was initially going to be staged at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as a performance-lecture, presented as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2020. The move to an audio experience was initially a practical decision when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, born out of the desire for the work to meet an audience.

I was extremely thrilled when I listened to the audio experience. There is an intimacy that comes with listening with your headphones on, and Shah Tahir’s sound design brings a whole different quality to the experience. I had hoped for the staged version of A Grand Design to be immersive and experiential, and the audio experience version achieved those objectives for me. I’m extremely proud of it. It made me more open to the idea that you do not need bodies in a physical space to share an intimate story, which is also very much the case with Vulnerable.

Why did you decide to create another audio presentation as opposed to a filmed performance?

I needed the audience to focus on the words. Vulnerable comes from a raw personal experience, and every word has its own place. It’s very intentional. With a filmed recording, where audiences may focus more on physical performance, cinematography, etc., the qualities that are so essential to the work would have been diluted.

In a sense, the story required an aural format to bring out its delicacy, and I crafted the words around that. Vulnerable acts like a secret; it should be told directly into the audience’s ears through their headphones.

The experience of the pandemic can be trying. What compelled you to take your deeply personal and difficult experiences and turn it into a podcast series?

Writing Vulnerable has been a process of discovery. I’m learning to be vulnerable, in all the meanings of the word. Deep down, I have to admit that I am still uncomfortable releasing this work — no one wants to divulge personal information like medical history, or loss of freelance gigs and income! But those are the realities that came up when I finally reclaimed that permission to write for myself. If it wasn’t for the support from the team at Checkpoint Theatre, I don’t think Vulnerable would have made it to production.

Did you discover any new insights into what you went through as you articulated your experiences and shaped the narrative of the series?

It’s not really an insight but a challenge: In all our efforts to be nimble in adjusting the work and releasing it as quickly as possible, the situation is constantly evolving on global, national, and personal levels.

The very week we started recording, new clusters were found at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. While in the studio, Huzir Sulaiman, the director and dramaturge, asked me to write a new piece, on the spot, to add to the narrative. This is a line from that piece:

I knew that writing about an ongoing pandemic would mean that something could happen and my story would change and there would be no closure. Because there is truth in the phrase, ‘Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.’

I’ve had to accept that chronicling my experience comes with that level of specificity in capturing time. There’s still material that I go back and forth on, wondering whether it should have made the final cut. But it is this one line that encapsulates why every stage of the journey matters to all of us.

Do you have any advice for those who are feeling uncertain or vulnerable during this difficult time?

I don’t know if I can give advice. I’ve been in that position and I wonder whether advice is the right thing to give. At most, I would encourage you to find the people you can fall into, and land softly. And if this pandemic has weighed you down in any way, I hope you listen to Vulnerable and know that you are not alone.


Catch it!

Vulnerable premiers on Thursday, 17 June 2021. It will be available on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify with two new episodes released every two days. Click on the icons below to access the podcast from your preferred platform.


Related Event

How do we make art to capture history as it unfolds? Will new developments render our stories irrelevant? How do we build resilience for ourselves, and tell these stories with empathy?

On Fri 25 June at 8pm, Cheyenne Alexandria Philips, the writer-performer of Vulnerable, and director-dramaturg Huzir Sulaiman will be in conversation with Daniel Tham, senior curator behind the National Museum of Singapore’s Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 in Singapore.

Join us for this exciting discussion, moderated by Wong Kar Mun Nicole, about exposing our personal triumphs and struggles, reckoning with upheaval through art, and why we need to memorialise a pandemic that we would all rather forget.

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

L-R: Tobi (played by Aaron Kaiser Garcia) and Gaga (played by Kewal Kartik) / Photo: Bernie Ng

RevoLOOtion
Intercultural Theatre Institute
29 April 2021
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
29 April–1 May 2021

To most of us, we hardly give a second thought about lavatories because we expect them to be there. But the run on loo rolls in 2020 compels us to pause for thought. 

Perhaps this makes the urban Singaporean audiences amenable to RevoLOOtion, a showcase by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conceived as a performance and a workshop, the audience is split into three groups: public service officer, bulldozer, and villager. We then witness a story about a village whose sole lavatory is slated for demolition and the reactions of some villagers.

Baba (Marvin Acero Ablao), the village elder, is resigned to it. Gaga (Kewal Kartik), the orphan, wants a peaceful protest. Tobi (Aaron Kaiser Garcia), the general worker, wants to fight. Yaku (Sandeep Yadav), the carpenter, is worried about how this confrontation will affect his livelihood and family. Long (Lin Jiarui), the farmer, is worried about his mother. Lutin (Sonu Pilania), the shopkeeper, wants to negotiate. 

The diversity and contradictory desires and plans of the characters result in a terrible outcome. The audience members, in their respective roles, are then asked to come up with an action plan to change the outcomes.

L-R: Lutin (played by Sonil Pilania) and Baba (played by Marvin Acero Ablao) / Photo: Bernie Ng

While the performance manages to elicit some sympathy for the villagers, it stops short of winning the audience over to their side. The motivations of the characters, both in the text and performance, are not fully fleshed out.

For example, it is not clear why Lutin gives up and lies to Yaku after being rebuffed by the public service officer in his attempt to negotiate over the phone. Why would he make things worse by lying, rather than saying he failed? 

Perhaps the creative team decided on some restraint so that the audience does not assume too much or how the characters would react. This might limit the possibilities of how the audience decides to intervene later. 

Even so, there must be a sense that the character truly believes that he has done all he can given the circumstances. However, this was not fully conveyed.

That said, the actors do possess a certain synergy and manage to build up the tension in each succeeding scene up to the final confrontation with the bulldozers.

Long (played by Lin Jiarui) / Photo: Bernie Ng

The workshop section was deftly facilitated by Li Xie (who also directed the show), Chng Xin Xuan, and Chng Yi Kai. We are shown possible intervention points and are required to come up with an action plan to hopefully create a better outcome. 

As the scenario plays out, there was an emphasis on taking it step-by-step rather than pushing for an ultimate conclusion. Li Xie reminded us that we were not there to change the world; a small change is still a change.

While most workshops of this nature focus on empowering the audience to have their voices heard and make a change, a refreshing element is the facilitators asking the characters how they feel about the alternative scenario. They then express that feeling through a shape or gesture. 

This provides an alternative view of the impact the audience’s plan has on others, and a start to more conversations if we had more time. 

The sceptical part of me thinks that the conditions presented were too ideal as everyone had goals in a similar direction. However, what left an impression was Li Xie encouraging the representative from the villagers group to think of more alternatives. After all, a change—however small—is better than the status quo. 

The challenge is to scale this up and apply this to our public discourse.

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

“#unravellingimpressions of RevoLOOtion by ITI – Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Ke Weiliang, unravelling Facebook page.

“[Review] RevoLOOtion – Walk alone so it’s faster, or walk together so we can go further?” by Yaiza Canapoli, Arts Republic.

“★★★☆☆ Review: RevoLOOtion by Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Comic Book Review] Putu Piring – A Ruminative Snack

The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

Michael Chabon, ‘The True Meaning of Nostalgia’, The New Yorker

If Chabon’s characterisation is accurate, the “consciousness of lost connections” could not be more keenly felt during the circuit breaker period (a nation-wide lockdown in all but name) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

It is out of this context that Putu Piring is conceived. 

The lost connection is manifested in “the ghost of a wild boar” as a man decides to buy putu piring (steamed rice cakes) and cycles to a park―his favourite childhood haunt―to feed the wild boar. En route, he contemplates the various changes in his life. 

Like a well-prepared dish, Tay’s text is sparse yet impactful, as he manages to encapsulate the changes in the protagonist’s life with a few food items that serve as striking metaphors. 

In an interview, writer Myle Yan Tay explained that he chose putu piring for his story because it is sentimental yet current; it evokes a sense of the past, yet it is still around today. In a similar vein, the contemplations of the protagonist straddles being elegiac and coming to terms with the changes. Such a choice strikes the right chord as it leaves space for the reader to contemplate about one’s own life in tandem with the protagonist. 

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Shuxian Lee’s illustrations may appear simple, but they have some delightful subtleties. She uses shades of brown for scenes in the past to give it a sepia complexion. This is in contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme for the present. However, the contrast is not too stark and there are portions where past and present seem to meld together. This is in harmony with the aims of the plot that straddles both past and present.

There is a striking use of small panels in various sections of the comic, which only shows an element of the whole picture such as the snout of the wild boar or the fingers of the protagonist’s grandfather. This resembles the nature of our memories as we tend to recall in vignettes. Additionally, it complements the literary elements such as placing emphasis on the culinary metaphors. 

With it being only 20 pages long, Putu Piring might be bite-sized as compared to other comics. However, it offers a flavourful bite that tempts one to crave for more. 

Further Reading

Interview with Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee on Putu Piring

[Interview] A Chat with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

When I first found out about the premise of RevoLOOtion, a production presented by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), I was most intrigued by there being a workshop element which will explicitly require audience participation.

With safe distancing measures still in place, the premise seems to be intentionally going against the current. Could there be a radical re-conception of what constitutes as audience participation?

Following my interview with the cast of RevoLOOtion, I contacted the director, Li Xie, to find out more about her inspiration and process.

There seems to be a toilet theme in the show. Could you give us more clues about what the show is about, and how does the theme relate to oppression?

The toilet can be seen as a basic right, it can also be symbolic.

When something that matters to you is taken away by force, what can we do as a community?

What inspired you to create this piece?

Sometimes it is clear where the external oppression lies, but it is important to understand what breaks us down internally as a community.

Only when that is achieved will social change be possible, and we can then gather as a community guided by unity, tolerance, and non-violence.

What are some of the challenges in creating a workshop element, which requires audience participation in the midst of the pandemic? Has this given you new perspectives on audience participation?

The audience is always participating, even when they are silently watching a performance. They participate in their own reflective and mysterious ways, even in silence.

In the workshop, we want to experiment with verbal, physical and communal participation. However, with the pandemic and social distancing, it’s both challenging and intriguing. They can’t leave their seats, mingle freely with other audience members, move and execute the actions they wish to do, or physically immerse themselves in the scenes with the characters.

But deep down, is there an urge to express and take action because you witnessed an injustice? That’s our challenge. How do we fulfil and externalise that urge to address it physically without moving? How do they break the silence and empower others too? How do they work as a community when their actions affect others?

There are many ways to be heard, to act, to impact, to change, to disobey, to negotiate, to suggest and to resolve, no matter how suppressed the circumstances are.

We must find a way out together, against the odds.


RevoLOOtion runs from 29 April to 1 May 2021 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

Tickets from Peatix.

[Comic Book Review] Through the Longkang #1 – Paranormal Intrigues

Through the Longkang #1
Myle Yan Tay (writer) and Shuxian Lee (artist)
Checkpoint Theatre (2021) / 20 pp.

The second collaboration between Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee brings us the start of a trilogy that delves into the paranormal. 

Through the Longkang brings together the well-loved elements of action-adventure, mystery, and intimations of the paranormal tales that those born in the 1990s and earlier grew up with. 

We are immediately thrown into the heart of the action as Fishball and Brick find a punctured football on a beach, and one of them (they are not clearly identified as neither of them is addressed by name) has a psychic insight upon touching the ball. 

It is revealed that a teenager went down into the longkang (canal) to retrieve a football. Upon climbing out of the longkang, he suddenly found himself exiting a well and saw an abandoned bungalow with a rather inviting swing. Horrors ensue. Our heroes hope to save the boy before it is too late. 

The well being the portal between the longkang and the abandoned bungalow reminds us of horror stories of suicides and wrongful deaths. Could this be related to the disappearance of the teenager? Is Myle Yan Tay bringing in certain local cultural tropes and recontextualising them for a new audience?

Ilustration by Shuxian Lee

As for the art, it is wonderful to see what Shuxian Lee can do with grey, white, black, red, and the occasional dash of brown. Her minimal approach truly exemplifies how less can be more. 

Her backgrounds resemble charcoal drawings, lending the story an ominous feel. Need to make the bungalow look sinister? Simply add shades of red, and highlight the entrance with white to indicate the light is on, while making it appear that the building has eyes and a mouth.

Additionally, the irregular layout of the panels adds a certain dynamism to the action, without needing to add more details to the drawing itself. This is best exemplified in choosing to have two small squares on the top left to show the teenager emerging from the well, while the rest of the two-page spread depicts the sprawling bungalow. 

That said, the first instalment will leave impatient readers unsatisfied as all it does is to set up the story of how a teenager went missing. It is unclear why this is planned as a trilogy. If the other instalments are of similar length, the trilogy could simply be a self-contained comic book. 

However, the set-up is intriguing enough for one to look forward to the rest of the series just to see what other elements will be brought in, and what effect the serialisation has on the overall story-telling.


Through the Longkang #1 is published by Checkpoint Theatre and retails at $7.90 (e-book) and $10.90 (hardcopy).

To purchase a copy, visit Checkpoint Theatre’s online shop.

[Interview] Looking at Oppression with RevoLOOtion

Next week, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present RevoLOOtion, a performance-workshop that looks at oppression. I spoke to the students involved in the production to find out more about the show.

If you are only given three words to describe RevoLOOtion, what would they be?

Aaron Kaiser Garcia: Fresh, Brave, Powerful.

Lin Jiarui: Discover, Explore, Solve.

Kewal Kartik: Basic, Authentic, Reminder.

Marvin Acero Ablao: Challenging, Transformative, Understanding.

Sandeep Yadav: Power, Democracy vs Majority, and Onion (to me, RevoLOOtion symbolises an onion, with the audience and cast working together to remove the layers piece by piece in the production).

Sonu Pilania: Wake Up, Speak and Speak Loud.

What inspired you to create this piece?

Aaron: The inspiration came from an incident reported on the news several years ago about a community with no toilet.

Sandeep: The simplicity of complicated oppression situated in this piece, which is related to every human’s fundamental rights.

The core curriculum of ITI consists of being immersed in various traditional Asian performance forms. How has your training influenced your approach in creating this piece?

Aaron: The performance may not showcase any of the traditional Asian performance forms we’ve learnt, but the immersion has helped us in (1) creating a common vocabulary as a cohort made up of different specific cultural backgrounds and (2) our grounding and presence for a contemporary stage performance.

Jiarui: Rasa’ in Kutiyattam helps us better communicate with the invisible characters onstage. At the same time, ‘Liang Xiang‘ in Beijing Opera helps us in making moments in the piece better.

Kewal: I believe the training we receive in ITI prepares us to adapt to any form or challenge.

I see this production as a rugby match — it’s intense yet subtle, and everyone is taking turns running with the ball trying to protect it from others. Actually, we’re all helping each other to hold the ball for the required duration. In the same breath, the immersion of traditional forms has provided the strength to hold that ball. It made sure that we don’t let the spectators’ gaze move away from the ball — the illusion of snatching the ball is maintained.

Marvin: It is the tough and valuable training I’ve received here at ITI that has greatly influenced my approach in this production — to not give up easily in the face of self-doubt.  

Sandeep: Art requires different approaches and processes, and these are the approaches that have influenced me in this production.

From Wayang Wong, I adopted the body pilgrimage element when wearing my character’s costume, which helps me to prepare psychologically and physically. Kutiyattam has helped me with my breath control, improving my ‘rasa’ (emotions). Noh has helped me feel grounded in my character, and I’m able to build a sense of awareness with both the space and my co-actors.

Our voice training with Simon Stollery has helped me relax my voice. He has also provided us with incredible voice techniques to use in this production. Humanities classes with T. Sasitharan has fostered critical thinking and self-reflection in me, allowing me to find depth in my characterisation.

Six actors rehearsing a scene from RevoLOOtion

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What are some of the difficulties in creating this piece, especially in the midst of the pandemic?

Aaron: The differences in perspective and the COVID-19 restrictions during the devising process.

Jiarui:
Invisible walls have been built between the audience and the actors, which makes it difficult for us to communicate with them and limits the piece’s impact on both parties.

Marvin:
Being a person who doesn’t like confrontation, the workshop segment has been quite a struggle for me. When it gets chaotic and challenging, it becomes difficult for me to process and comprehend information in my head. However, I’m learning to take my time to break my thoughts down slowly.

Sandeep:
The biggest difficulty is sharing the stage with my co-actors and the audience within the safe management rules.  

Sonu:
We are creating a production that is like forum theatre, an interactive theatre form. It encourages audience interaction and explores different options for dealing with social issues. However, with the pandemic and social distancing, our interaction with the audience becomes limited. So we have to find a substitute for that and adapt.

Were there any interesting discoveries made during the rehearsal process?

Aaron: A discovery we are articulating in the production is that what breaks down a community are differing perspectives of what is the best course of action to take as a community and a lack of understanding.

Jiarui:
It isn’t difficult to solve problems in the creative process, and it is very interesting to create solvable problems.

We also hope that this production will not only expose the audience to oppression, but allow them to explore the source of oppression and try to solve it. Even if we can’t overcome it in the end, we can at least make the outcome slightly better.

Kewal: I really enjoy the workshop segment, where we invite the audience to participate in unlocking the complexities of working together through collective intervention and come up with their own solutions based on constructive dialogue. As Augusto Boal once said, “Everyone can do theatre – even actors. And theatre can be done everywhere, even inside theatres”, as he believes that “life and theatre are related enterprises; ordinary citizens are actors who are simply unaware of the play, and everyone can make theatre, even the untrained.” The workshop segment changes the dynamic of the whole piece, and despite the social distancing, I believe the audience will feel the urge to join us in making theatre. This piece is constantly changing shape, and I’m looking forward to bringing it to the audience at Goodman Arts Centre.  

Sonu:
How to find new and innovative ways to interact with the audience.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What is one sort of oppression that society should pay more attention to?

Aaron: Oppression is present in any form — from the smallest to the biggest encounters in our daily lives. We, as humans, need to be responsible, vigilant and sensitive in our actions towards others.
 
Jiarui:
We should pay more attention to the oppression that exists around us and try to overcome them.

Marvin: There is a wide spectrum of oppression, but I believe we can achieve understanding and compassion despite our different values and beliefs through constructive dialogue.

Kewal: Oppression exists everywhere, and every form of it should be questioned. Sometimes, it’s so ingrained in a culture, tradition, custom or system that it becomes difficult to even identify it. So we need to identify, acknowledge and stand against it whenever and wherever it’s found. We can start with the oppression that exists in a household or a community. Here I’d like to quote Periyar E. V. Ramasamy:

“If a larger country oppresses a smaller country, I’ll stand with the smaller country. If the smaller country has majoritarian religion that oppresses minority religions, I’ll stand with minority religions. If the minority religion has caste and one caste oppresses another caste, I’ll stand with the caste being oppressed. In the oppressed caste, if an employer oppresses his employee, I’ll stand with the employee. If the employee goes home and oppresses his wife, I’ll stand with that woman. Overall, oppression is my enemy.”

Sandeep: Oppression within the community.

Sonu:
Society should pay deeper attention to environmental oppression.


RevoLOOtion runs from 29 April to 1 May 2021 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Throwing One’s Hands Up

Hands Up
Split Theatre
5 March 2021
Sigma Collective Space
5–7 March 2021

An actor in school uniform points to something ahead and above eye level. Another actor with a school top and red shorts holds him back. The former questions the latter. We do not know if the first actor is directing our attention to something, trying to touch something, or just wanting to reach out. We do not know if the second actor wants to stop the other from danger or prevent him from leaving.

The above scene from Split Theatre’s Hands Up—directed by Darryl Lim and Fadhil Daud— struck me because it encapsulates the whole show. This gutsy group of actors (Amanda Kim, Clement Yeo, Ella Wee, Mabel Yeo, Hoe Wei Qi, Xin Rui) may have something to say, but we do not know what exactly that is.

The show is purportedly divided into five sections: silence, self, pride, realisation, and death.

Take ‘Self’ for example. It consists of ten minutes of movement motifs that are repeated by the actors. They, perhaps, gesture towards struggle, conflict, connection, birth. Yet, there is no palpable sense of progression or stasis in the composition. The actors seem like microscopic organisms moving about in the rectangular petri dish of a dance studio.

Worse still, I am assuming the movement sequence just described belongs to ‘self’ rather than other sections simply because one is never sure. And wherever the other sections might be, they all proceed in the same vein of generic gesturing.

We have scraps of text that range from the prologue of Agamemnon to the very mundane question in Hokkien: ‘Have you eaten?’ We do not know if the characters mean what they say or if the piece is perhaps inclined towards absurdism and the emptiness of words.

We have bits of song that are perhaps veneers of the characters; occasional dance breaks that perhaps aid with transitioning to another section; and one could go on ad nauseum.

All of that is such a waste as the show actually started with some potential.

In ‘Silence’ (this I am sure because it is the first thing we see), the actors introduce themselves by writing their names on their individual whiteboards. Next, they inform us that it is difficult to interact because of COVID-19. They then attempt to strike a conversation by writing a question on their whiteboards and would shush anyone up if someone verbally answers them. The fact that fellow audience members could not help themselves but to answer, even after the first couple of instances, speaks of the innate, human need to connect and communicate.

But as with the carousel of vignettes that ensue, it is not developed any further.

With a show that offers perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, we are less inclined to put one’s hand up and more inclined to throw both up.

Checkpoint Theatre Publishes First Comic Book – Putu Piring

When a theatre company announces its upcoming season, one gets excited about the shows on offer and the issues that will be tackled. Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, Take It Personally, remains true to its vision of championing original stories, but there is a twist.

In a first for the company, Checkpoint Theatre will be publishing a comic book, Putu Piring. I contacted the Myle Yan Tay (author) and Shuxian Lee (illustrator) to find out more about the project.

What is Putu Piring about?

Yan: Putu Piring is about a man returning to his childhood haunt with the titular snack in hand. He reflects on his journey of growing up: from being a kid cycling on the parkway home from school, to a working adult, now cycling to escape the monotony of his daily life.

Putu piring itself is an oddly evocative snack. It’s a food that is both sentimental but also current, with new renditions appearing all the time. It’s that sense of being rooted in the past and present that I wanted to capture in this story; that sometimes, in our present moment, we become so cynical that we wish we could be nostalgic. It’s almost a nostalgia for nostalgia.

A theatre company publishing a comic book? How did the project come about?

Yan: During Circuit Breaker, when it was unclear when theatres would open again, Huzir Sulaiman, Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, asked me to write a comic. It had been a long-running conversation between the two of us and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. Faith Ng, Checkpoint’s Associate Artistic Director, put me in touch with Shuxian, and we then worked to write, develop, and publish it. 

Could you explain the creative process in creating this comic book? Did the text come first before the illustration or was it done simultaneously?

Yan: I wrote the first script, passed it to Shuxian to illustrate, and then we’d go back and forth on subsequent drafts together. I had a very clear vision of the ending of the comic; I knew what the reader would be seeing, and what sort of emotions I wanted them to feel. The comic book’s story was weirdly reverse-engineered in that way, with me figuring out what readers would need to read and see in order to get to that ending.

As we worked, Shuxian crafted some new pages that didn’t quite fit into the first draft of the script, but they were too perfect to cut. So together we rewrote and redrafted to figure out how to make those gorgeous pages work. It was a very collaborative process and it was really fantastic to see these pages I had written come to life with such colour and vibrancy.

Shuxian: When I read Yan’s script, I could already see most of the visuals in my head. Either he wrote incredibly vividly, or I was fortunate enough to share his vision, so there weren’t huge differences between what he wanted the comic to look like and what I actually drew. Since I’m based in Belgium, Yan had to provide me with most of the reference pictures for the locations featured in the comic; with those and his script as a starting point, I could build on the scenes and perspectives. I had some guidelines to follow, but was mostly free to do anything I liked with it. I would sketch out thumbnails or uncoloured panels and Yan would send his feedback before we finalised a page.

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

How did you approach illustrating this comic? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Shuxian: I decided I wanted to draw something minimal and almost sterile—Adrian Tomine-inspired illustrations, to reflect the overall sense of ennui. I used disparate colour palettes to differentiate the time frames and contrasting moods of the past and present.

My aesthetic influences vary, but I try to keep a hand-drawn, organic feel throughout my drawings, even when they are drawn digitally.

What were some of the challenges in creating this comic? Were there any interesting discoveries in the process?

Yan: A clear challenge was Shuxian’s remoteness from Singapore. The comic book takes place in Singapore and follows a cycling route near East Coast Park. We worked around it by having me send photos over for reference. Shuxian then recreated them on the page with her own flair. These ended up lifting the comic into a unique visual space: something very real and unreal at the same time.

Shuxian: The time difference as well, perhaps—it would have been more difficult if there was a tight deadline! I also found it challenging to balance a very physically and mentally exhausting day job with illustrating on the side; I’m hoping that illustration and art-making will take up the bulk of my time in the near future. Thankfully, for this comic, I had the weekends to work on it.

I’ve rediscovered my love for the graphic novel medium! And that I actually do love illustrating someone else’s story. This is the first time I’m collaborating on one and it’s been amazingly rewarding seeing what we come up with after bouncing ideas off of each other. I really appreciate being lucky enough to find a collaborator who shares my love for this storytelling medium. Getting to immerse myself in someone else’s inner world has been very enriching.

Yan: In the past, I’ve mainly written and then directed my own work; so it was surprisingly fulfilling to be able to hand off the reins to someone else and watch as they worked. I especially enjoyed seeing Shuxian come up with pages that I could never have thought of myself, because she has such a great imagination.

We had such a good time with this project that we’re actually already working on a new comic, Through the Longkang, which will be launched together with Putu Piring at our comic book launch event Picture This on 23 March!


Putu Piring will be launched, along with several other titles, at Picture This on 23 March 2020 at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box.

[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.