[Theatre Review] The Fourth Trimester by Checkpoint Theatre Brings Up Gravid Issues

Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn / Photo: Crispian Chan

The Fourth Trimester
Checkpoint Theatre
4 August 2022
Drama Centre Theatre
4–14 August 2022

Getting pregnant and giving birth may seem like the most natural thing to some of us. But to do so safely and ensuring the child thrives can be absolutely mind-boggling.

Faith Ng’s The Fourth Trimester features three couples and a single woman who span the spectrum of circumstances regarding pregnancy. 

Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn. In contrast, their neighbours, Sofia (Rusydina Afiqah) and Johan (Al-Matin Yatim) struggle to conceive. While Lisa (Julie Wee) and Daniel (Hang Qian Chou) seem to be doing fine with two children, their communication problems regarding intimacy issues strain the marriage. Having just come out of a relationship, Ann (Oon Shu An), who is Lisa’s sister, strives to be independent as she faces the attendant pressures of being a single woman in Singapore.

While medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds, pregnancy is still a very personal process with each body responding in different ways. As someone who has yet to witness the pregnancy of a partner, the choices that Samantha and Sofia have to consider are bewildering. 

The acronyms and abbreviations of various readings or medical processes rattled off by the characters will give any rapper a run for his money. And the pump-and-rest routine, recommended by the lactation expert for Samantha, sounds like a manic choreography created by an evil robot. 

Add the emotional burden of self-doubt; comparing oneself to others; and familial and societal expectations, it sounds nothing short of a messy ordeal. 

Far from avoiding it, Ng takes a deep dive into the messiness of human relationships and writes them in very affecting ways.

From the audience members cooing in sympathy with the opening scene to the countless post-show Instagram stories yapping about how “relatable” the play is, it is clear that the audience is in for the ride at every second of the three-hour emotional odyssey. 

However, all these knee-jerk reactions overlook something that director Claire Wong has done that is rarely achieved. She allows the scenes to breathe and run its emotional course. Many directors often cut their scenes short after a revelation or climax, almost apologetic about taking up the audience’s time.

This is complemented by the actors experiencing every crinkle of emotion. Witness Isabella Chiam as Samantha going from anxiousness to anguish, before picking herself up; or Julie Wee’s Lisa starting with annoyance, but ending with red-faced rage. 

The other characters have similar moments as they cycle through the whole gamut of emotions, undergirded by an inability to articulate, or expecting the other to know and fulfil one’s physical and emotional needs. This makes the relationship familiar and infuriating, yet all too human.

That said, how everything settles into the ending is a little unsatisfactory. As we are taken to such emotional highs and lows, the way the show ends feels as if it is because the allotted time of three hours is up. 

At the curtain call, director Claire Wong mentioned that the production took many trimesters for it to be put together. For a play that makes one feel so much and reflect on so many issues, it will be remembered for many more trimesters hence. 

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: The Fourth Trimester is a must-watch play about parenthood” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! (Review is behind a paywall. Read the partial transcript here.)

“Pandemic era’s first essential Singapore play” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times (Review is behind a paywall. Read the partial transcript here.)

[Interview] Victoria Chen struggles with identity in upcoming audio drama, Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis

What should a Chinese woman achieve before she reaches 30? While the answers may vary, one thing is for sure; the list of expectations is long, and so is the number of people willing to contribute to that list.

Victoria Chen has always struggled with familial and societal expectations of what a Chinese woman in Singapore ought to be. When she moved to the UK for university, she was eager to live her life away from those expectations, but soon realised that being Chinese meant something different there.

Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis, a five-episode audio drama, is Chen’s way of exploring the themes through the character of Jade, who goes to Beijing in the hopes trying to discover herself.

I contacted Victoria Chen to find out more about this project.

What inspired you to create this audio drama?

Growing up in Singapore, I already knew I couldn’t live up to familial and societal expectations of what a Chinese woman in Singapore had to be.

As I lived through my 20s, I grew to realise that these expectations were arbitrary anyway. Many friends and counterparts don’t feel like they can or want to live up to these expectations. And I learnt that the generation before us—mothers, aunts, and mentors—never really agreed to these expectations that they’re also complicit in perpetuating. So why do these expectations still exist? Because of our heritage? Because tradition says so? This project sets me on a journey to find out.

Why did you decide to use the medium of audio drama to tell this particular story?

The beauty of audio works is that they leave much to the imagination. While Jade’s story is specific, I want the audience to draw from their personal experiences to form the images in their heads. Furthermore, I want this work to reach people around the world, and an audio experience felt like the most accessible way to do it. 

Speaking of access, I recognise that those with hearing difficulties will not be able to experience this work the way I intentionally designed it. If we manage to exceed our funding goal, I can acquire resources to make a transcript of the work accessible at a later date.

What were some of the difficulties in writing the script of this audio drama?

It was difficult to be patient as the story needed the time and space to grow into its current shape. The idea for this story originated in 2015 during an arts residency in Beijing. Back then, I had collected a ton of research, but the first draft was a terrible word vomit. It was incredibly discouraging. 

Seven drafts and seven years later, it’s a wholly different story and I’d like to think it’s gotten a lot richer as I’ve grown through my 20s. 

The story also transports the listener to different locations and time periods. So it’s a challenge to make that transition seamless yet clear to the listener when we don’t have visual cues, but we have a brilliant composer on board so I’m sure it’ll be fabulous. 

The story is partly inspired by your experiences living and studying in the UK, could you tell us a particular incident that made you question your identity?

I’m a fluent English speaker and I grew up speaking English as my first language. When I studied in Scotland, there were English speakers who didn’t understand what I was saying. Then I met a group of students from mainland China, and they didn’t understand me either! So now I’m stupid in two languages that I’ve been speaking since preschool. How is that possible‽

On the bright side, these experiences made me incredibly proud to be Singaporean. It’s like we have a secret language only five million people in the world would understand. You can identify a fellow Singaporean within the first 10 seconds of speech. I love that. 

Another concern of yours is Asian representation. Do you aim to put out an authentic Chinese story with this project?

I don’t think this is an authentic Chinese story. This story is for anyone who spent their 20s realising how much they have to unlearn, in order to fully manifest their own personhood and individuality, told through the lens of a Singaporean woman. 

Having created works here in Singapore and abroad, what is one misconception about Asian artists that annoys you?

One misconception that annoys me is that we can only depict Asian characters, tell Asian stories or exist within Asian narratives. Hello‽ Cast us in fantasy, write us into chick flicks, put us in Shakespeare, let us just exist without it being a statement on our ethnicity! We can do anything. 

As this is an independent project, it is difficult to get funding. Apart from covering the upfront costs, what would it mean to you and your team if your audience contributed to your Kickstarter campaign?

Anyone who backs any project is essentially saying, “I see value in what you do, I believe in your ability to execute it, I’m willing to be part of making this happen, and I’d like to be there when it’s done.” It means so much to anyone to have that kind of support!

Crowdfunding essentially reminds people that things can happen when a community comes together. Choosing to crowdfund this project wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did because it reinforces my belief that an artist’s work is always for an audience, and that there are people out there who want to see and be part of your work. Word of mouth can go a long way, and small contributions from many people can make a real difference.

I still believe that what goes around comes around, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that others still believe in that too. At the very least, it’s similar to purchasing an early bird ticket or season pass… but you also get perks!

If you had to give some advice to young adults experiencing a quarterlife crisis, what would it be?

If anyone has the answer I’d love to know too! We may be on different paths but we’re all still on the same journey. I hope Jade will be able to provide some perspective. Let’s figure it out together?


Support the Work

The team behind Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis is currently running a Kickstarter campaign. Supporters will not only bring this project to fruition, but are entitled to a variety of perks.

[Theatre Review] Asylum by ITI — Where Safety and Humanity Collide

Photo: Bernie Ng / Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum
Intercultural Theatre Institute
26 May 2022
SOTA Studio Theatre
26–28 May 2022

The Asylum is established with actors taping everything to demarcate the lines and boundaries of the set. 

Those who are familiar with theatre will be familiar with the slight buzzing sound when the tape is pulled to mark the stage. However, with 12 rolls of tape going at the same time, the buzz grows and is reminiscent of a swarm of pests invading a space. 

By all accounts, the opening sequence and its significations of the lines and boundaries that we draw for ourselves, or are imposed on us, are clear-cut and simple. But the visceral impact such a simple device has is a testament to the wondrous alchemy that is Jean Tay’s script with Oliver Chong’s direction.  

From there, one witnesses the unravelling of an asylum as a fictional infectious disease rages on in a colonial settlement, and rumours of a tiger roaming the boundaries increases the tensions within the asylum.

The graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) plays 12 different characters: four female patients (Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing, Ng Yuan Ci, Ruthi Lalrinawmi, Wong Jin Yi), four male patients (Kaleem Zafar, Karlwinn, Peh Jun Kai, Will Wong Keng Ip), two nurses (Ismael Gallaza Pantao, Oliver S.K. Wu), a doctor (Jemima Dunn), and a security guard (Wan Ahmad).

The patients are treated more like inmates, as they are constantly observed by the asylum staff, led by the doctor who carries a big stick. They also fall along a spectrum of coming to terms with the fact that their family and society have abandoned them—from naïveté to being downright jaded.

In this highly charged atmosphere, it is inevitable that the characters would clash with each other due to their conflicting desires. The collisions happen on different levels, and fueled by fear and rumours, result in an implosion. Several patients attempt to escape as the staff tries to hold the fort while looking out for the tiger.

A moment of care between patients / Photo: Bernie Ng

A way to get a grip on the conflict would be to see it as a conflict between safety and humanity. Intuitively, it might seem easy to understand both concepts at first, but one soon realises that it is difficult to articulate precisely what constitutes both. 

Separating patients with infectious disease from the community for the sake of safety makes sense on some level. But how far does this entail policing the movements and lives of the patients? 

Wanting to live one’s life with a freedom to choose is understandable, but how much freedom should one have without harming the well-being of the wider community?

Jean Tay’s decision to abstract her script away from the peculiarities of old quarantine sites in Singapore not only allows the deeply resonant debate of safety and humanity to come to the fore, it also allows her to touch on the inner fears and hysteria of the unknown, which serves as a foil to the supposed tiger outside the walls of the asylum. 

Tay’s ambitions are matched by the deft direction of Oliver Chong. With all the characters being on stage throughout the show, it is tempting to par down the interactions such as letting the characters sleep in their cell when the focus is not on them. However, Chong decides against it, and this results in all sorts of unspoken interactions that entices one to rewatch the show several times. 

The rigorous training of the actors in various traditional art forms have certainly paid off in terms of their presence and synergy. This is evident during the climatic scene in which the patients stage their getaway. The movement around the set and the stillness when tragedy strikes, creating some beautiful stage pictures.

Tragedy strikes / Photo: Bernie Ng

While there are some mis-timed line deliveries and the buildup was not intense enough to warrant the climax on the opening night, it is a beast of a show. This critic cheers the actors on and hopes the beast is tamed by the third show. 

There may be no armed guards or barbed wires, and the act of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore is seen as a social responsibility, but scratch the surface and we realise that we are still being tracked, traced, categorised, and imposed upon. 

Where we draw the line between safety and humanity will forever be contentious, making Asylum a play worth restaging from time to time.

Other Reviews

“[Review] Asylum — These Ties That Bind” by Philippe Pang, Arts Republic

Further Reading

Interview with Jean Tay (playwright) and Oliver Chong (director)

Interview with ITI students

Leprosy: A Story of Suffering, But Also of Hope by Danielle Lim, BiblioAsia (Apr-Jun 2020)

[Interview] Asylum by ITI – Students Reflect on Art, Pandemic, and Society

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Following the interview with director Oliver Chong and playwright Jean Tay on the process of creating Asylum, I asked the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute to reflect on the process as well as their perspectives on the current COVID-19 pandemic.

What were some of the difficulties in devising this piece?

Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing: The play unfolds slowly to me as we continue rehearsing every day. Every new finding is challenging for me. Whatever the other characters are experiencing, or have experienced, I find part of my character in that. While watching others, I am moved inside, allowing myself to be affected and connected to them. Another difficulty is being onstage for the entire show and having to design every single detail of the simple actions and reactions that come from the character’s core.

Oliver S. K. Wu: All of us are always onstage at the same time, so stage business has to be sustained. Being aware of everything that’s happening onstage and to my character concurrently has been a stimulating challenge.

Peh Jun Kai: Coming together as one piece took awhile because there are 12 different voices, so the giving and taking of space required some trial and error along with patience. Each week is about digging deeper to find the authenticity, energy changes and nuances of the character while being brave and generous in the face of the work.

Wan Ahmad: Crafting the character was simple, but crafting the character’s depth and logical pathway as well as pushing their stakes and vulnerability was tricky and arduous. Every line, every monologue, every moment had to have intention, and trying to achieve the specificity Oliver Chong envisioned in all of us was challenging but fun. I explored many paths for my character’s actions and journey.

Synopsis of Asylum
A tiger lurks outside the building, a doctor attempts treatment using unorthodox methods … and within the high walls of the neglected facility, a patient hatches an escape plan.

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

Ismael Gallaza Pantao: The progress of all of us in this piece. It is amazing to see my peers using what they have learnt from their training in contemporary and traditional theatre over the past two years. The togetherness as an ensemble is also another interesting discovery — how we have come together to elevate each other and our individual crafts.

Karlwinn: The rehearsal process fleshed out the core significance of my character in the play. As an actor, every rehearsal is the opportunity to assess how my character evolves. This includes the character’s personality and behaviour, their relationship with other characters, and the goal of my character by the end of the story. Because of this, the most interesting discovery I found is that as an actor, I am no longer the only one who decides the who, what, where, when, and how, but the character himself can decide that too. When my actor self and character become one.

Ng Yuan Ci: As the rehearsals progressed, I felt everyone starting to immerse themselves into their roles and it slowly felt like we were living in an actual asylum. The immersion helped our creativity in the space and the connections we made with each other come naturally to us. The challenge of ensuring our actions have meaning started to come easy for all of us as well.

Peh Jun Kai: The characters in our play are stuck in a physical place. It is like being in a prison. And likewise, during the pandemic, many of us experienced that feeling of being trapped, physically unable to go out or go overseas to places we want to. There is a sense of collective loss.

And I think what is interesting are the lessons that can be learnt from how these characters try to cope or find solutions in this physical and psychological prison.

Will Wong Keng Ip: We are all onstage at the same time, and I’ve discovered how important it is to support and depend on each other — even when it’s dimmed or dark, or we’re not the focus of that scene. We have come together as an ensemble, to the point where we are not able to work smoothly if someone gets sick or is unable to attend rehearsals. And to me, it is that act of working together as a unit that is an important message in the show as well.

Wong Jin Yi:
The importance of creating a full backstory behind each character, and how each character’s backstory grew organically, such as when crafting stakes moment to moment, or giving justification to certain choices the character makes.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Has the COVID-19 pandemic made you rethink the way you want to practise your craft?

Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing: 疫情将我们隔离和囚禁,在恐惧与外界接触的同时,我们却又如此渴望能够再次交流和触摸。也许我该感谢这场疫情,它让那么多问题暴露在烈日之下,炙烤我们的心,迫使我们去追问,去反思,去抗争,和去珍惜。剧场提供一个时空,让一群人共同呼吸,共同经历。能够在灯光下,脱去口罩,诉说故事,是何其幸运的事情。这让我愈发地渴望聆听个体的声音,和相信团结的力量。那些稀松平常的故事让我们知道我们存在着,不孤单。

不能说是重新考虑,而是坚定了我对剧场的信心。让自己表演的脚步变得更踏实和真实。表演不是至高无上的艺术,它是属于每个人的艺术。它是最朴实无华的存在。

[The pandemic strengthened my faith in theatre, in art. In the magical world, we exist in the same time and space, we breathe together, we stay close to each other, we become a mirror to others, and we become home. I feel more grounded, have more hope, and I become bigger than myself because I know we are more connected than ever. Art is not high in the clouds; art is in the soil. Every individual’s story reflects the collective’s needs and wishes.]

Jemima Dunn: It has definitely made me appreciate the liberties of interacting with performers in the space. Despite the challenges of social distancing and the wearing of masks, it has been a valuable experience learning how to connect with other actors in more subtle forms.

Kaleem Zafar: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a lesson for all of us. Theatre has become such a volatile field, so as an artist, it has become important to have a backup plan. On the bright side, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to work on the self and rethink individual habits.

Peh Jun Kai: I think the changes experienced during the pandemic have made me realise what are some of the non-negotiables in the practice of my craft. This has given me more clarity when I am planning my practice. The personal and professional disruptions caused by the pandemic have made the work harder, and have led me to be more intentional in taking care of myself and the people that I am working for and with. It is important to recognise for myself that the creativity, imagination, and deepening of the character and work happen faster and better when safety and care are present for the actor.

Ruthi Lalrinawmi: I am still looking forward to creating my own works as well as learning and sharing together with like-minded people about theatre. To perform live onstage in front of a large audience. However, the pandemic has also taught me how to survive in this field, and to ponder deeply about my life choices.

Wan Ahmad: In many ways it has. It has pushed me to pick up new skills, such as video editing, music production and graphic design. I had to change the perspective of how audiences could view my work. Especially during the early period of the pandemic, when works were being digitalised and the viewers’ focus points evolved. I began experimenting with images and audibility in my works.

Wong Jin Yi: Definitely. It has thrown into relief how important and essential live performances are. But the pandemic has given birth to certain pieces that really try to make use of technology to augment and improve the audience experience, and there are definitely some exciting developments growing on that end. I have started paying more attention to how digital artists interact with perception with an eye on how I might incorporate such things in my work in future.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

How has working on the piece affected your view on the current COVID-19 pandemic, especially in terms of how your home country is dealing with it?

Ismael Gallaza Pantao: I can relate the different stories of suffering and struggle in our pandemic to this piece. It has taught me that we need to remind ourselves to always be strong, have the courage to fight and have faith.

Jemima Dunn: Working on this piece has given me gratitude to both Singapore and Australia for the methods they have put in place to protect their citizens against this virus. On the other hand, it has shed light on how isolating the past few years have been for so many of us, and how it has challenged our humanity in more ways than one.

Kaleem Zafar: Any kind of pandemic is a kind of suffocation for humanity. It has also caused a lot of anger against the system, that is doing their best to pull humanity out of this situation. In actuality, we are all responsible for how we react to this pandemic, so we should learn how to deal with it together.

Karlwinn: Theatre really is the mirror of life. To me, this piece is a minute representation of what is happening to my country in terms of health facilities, work ethics, and system of government towards pandemics. It’s a reminder that my country is not ready for the pandemic because issues such as the country’s infrastructure and tourism (both eco and cultural) are prioritised. A bill was proposed by a senator once on pandemic preparedness, but it was not prioritised and he passed on before the bill could become a law. Two years later, the pandemic hit the Philippines. It is very disappointing.

Oliver S. K. Wu: Working on this piece has made me understand how fragile humanity is. I have also become very homesick, missing Macau more and more each day.

Ng Yuan Ci: The pandemic has reshaped our personal relationships in drastic ways, connecting people in new ways despite the separation. The difference between our play and the real world is the ability to connect with the rest of the world online. It’s allowed for better communication, less worry and rallying help for the people in need. The pandemic has reminded us to not let fear get in the way of helping each other.

Ruthi Lalrinawmi: It just proves that disease does not discriminate, no matter your background or upbringing. The pandemic has also uncovered the world’s cracks and most importantly, the inequalities in social structures and underdeveloped countries. That the infected continue to be discriminated against or looked down on by their respective societies. We may have developed in most ways, but our hearts will always have that resistance.

Wong Jin Yi: It really drives home the persistent sense of isolation people must be feeling. To be locked away from their families for so long, as well as the sense of alienation of being constantly treated as a second-class citizen, which some migrants still are.

Will Wong Keng Ip: I am more patient and understanding toward others and differing perspectives. I also try to step back and reflect more.


Catch It!

Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.

[Interview] Jean Tay and Oliver Chong on Creating Asylum with Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum marks the first time the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) presents a graduation show in a venue at full capacity in two years. Having come out of the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asylum is inspired by the the long-forgotten histories of Singapore’s old quarantine sites.

To find out more about the show, I interviewed playwright Jean Tay and director Oliver Chong about the creative process and their thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic.

What inspired you to look into the history of quarantine sites in Singapore?

Jean Tay: I have long been intrigued by old quarantine sites, like the one at St John’s Island. The idea of quarantine always seemed a somewhat distant one, popular in colonial times, but increasingly regarded as a blunt tool given the advances in medicine and technology over the years. As I started to explore further, as part of a research residency with the National Library Board, I came across some incredible hidden stories, from the old leper asylum, Trafalgar Home, in Yio Chu Kang. To me, it was fascinating (and heartbreaking) to see how people dealt with their fear of illness and each other, and how that ended up breaking up families and relationships, but also created new relationships amongst the inmates themselves.

What were some difficulties in creating this show?

Jean Tay: My challenge was having to create a piece that would feature 12 distinct and diverse characters. Fortunately, I was able to work with the final-year students closely to improvise individual characters, loosely based on some of the historical research and different characteristics… we must have come up with over 40 of them! And then from there, I narrowed in on the most compelling characters with the greatest potential and used that as a basis to develop the narrative to see what would happen to these characters when put under pressure. As I did so, the script also moved into a more creative realm, so that it’s not leprosy we’re talking about anymore, but a fictional illness, set in a fictional asylum, in a fictional country.

Oliver Chong: The self-imposed agenda is to give a fair share amount of space to showcase all of the 12 students. This is a challenge I often face when creating graduation shows with a large group of students. There is the pressure of being fair to everyone while knowing that it would be impossible to flesh out all characters, and hence be unfair to all.

As the actors are trained in a myriad of art forms across various cultures, are you tapping into their training to create this show? If so, how?

Oliver Chong: The aim is not about displaying the myriad of art forms that the actors are trained in. Rather, I believe it should be about distillation, that is discovering the core in the different art forms and fusing the training into a melting pot to find meaningful contemporary applications.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Were there any interesting discoveries during the rehearsal process?

Jean Tay: It is easy to lose track of characters when one is working with such a large cast. Fortunately, my director, Oliver Chong, has come up with the brilliant concept of keeping all the cast onstage at all times, regardless of whether they are featured in the scene. So it means that we get to see what is happening with the other characters, even when they are not actively highlighted in one particular scene, and I love the little discoveries in seeing these “unwritten scenes” come to life, as the characters continue to live and breathe “off-stage”.

Oliver Chong: Not because of the rehearsal process per se but moving along with the development of the pandemic as we rehearse, we have observed that it is the impact of the disease on our livelihoods and ways of life. The disruptions, reaction, and the overreaction of society that is no less detrimental to the interests and mental health of most people. This is unequivocally no less frightening than contracting the disease itself.

How has the process of looking into old quarantine sites and the country’s attempt to deal with epidemics affect your view of the current COVID-19 pandemic?

Jean Tay: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought quarantine back into the spotlight, and brought fresh resonance to this issue, especially seeing how people had to deal with the challenges brought on by an enforced quarantine. It’s a little sad to realise how, even after years of technological and medical advances, it is so easy to revert back to a very basic and primal fear of the unknown, and of each other, when confronted when an unknown disease once more. But even in the midst of that fear, it’s also eye-opening to see the moments of compassion and courage, when individuals reach out beyond themselves to extend a helping hand, even when it puts themselves at risk.

Oliver Chong: Cross-referencing leprosy and the Trafalgar Home with the pandemic and quarantine facilities now, the knee-jerk reaction of rounding up and ostracising the unknown and its carriers remains the same. It is a defence mechanism in the name of the greater good. The question remains as to whether we have done better in compassionate quarantine and isolation.


Catch It!

Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.

[Interview] Director Hawk Liu on Creating an Abridged Version of Verdi’s Macbeth

Steven Ang as Macbeth and Tatiana Konovalova as Lady Macbeth / Photo: Hawk Liu

Over the years, The Mad Scene has been reviewing operatic, musical theatre, and classical music performances. Spurred by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Ang, founder of The Mad Scene, decided to seize the moment and produce an abridged version of Verdi’s Macbeth, an opera that he has longed to perform in for many years.

To realise his vision, he brought Hawk Liu on board to direct the show. I spoke to Liu to find out more about the show.

What is it about Verdi’s Macbeth that attracted you to direct it?

When Steven Ang approached me to direct the opera, I said yes immediately. It’s a delicious opera to direct with so much potential for drama, and my own temperament suits the intensity of expression that this opera demands. I wanted a visually driven drama piece that uses physical manifestations of the internal emotions of the characters. I told the cast that I wanted to audience to see what they feel and I think that is coming along nicely.

What are some of the difficulties in working on this adaptation?

For me, the difficulty in creating anything is to start from zero. It means I need to workshop quite a bit in order to see something stronger in my mind coming to life. But once I get going and have something to work with, I can build a lot more from there. That has been my experience in this production as well.

As I am a dancer, I wanted the singers to feel where the music is coming from in order to put the flow of the music into their movements. There is quite a bit of working with movements to get the visual effect I wanted, especially so when the music drives the drama so much. It can be a subtle thing but I think it can make a lot of difference in the visual and emotional experience.

There was also the issue of how to bring about a completeness of staging in an abridged opera. I had numerous discussions going back and forth with Steven Ang, the producer, about how we wanted the drama to play out given there will be no crowd scenes, etc.

I feel the main difficulty in a modest production like ours, is working with accompaniment tracks during rehearsals. Trying to start and stop the action is most trying for me without a pianist when the music drives the action so much.

Tatiana Konovalova as Lady Macbeth / Photo: Hawk Liu

Were there any interesting things that happened during rehearsals?

The curious thing about a production like this specific one is whether we see a lot of bad luck happening. Yes, we did. Our Lady Macbeth, Tatiana Konovalova, was stuck in Russia for many months as she could not get a vaccination to get herself back to Singapore. A member of our cast had a heart problem and had to go for an operation. We wondered whether we had to hunt for a replacement, but thankfully, he’s still with us. In the props department, we ordered some swords and we sparred too hard and one of them broke into two pieces!

Our original Witch (yes, just one!) had to leave the production due to her own professional commitments, but we found a replacement – yourself, Isaac, a male actor. I was quite excited about the prospects of turning a witch’s role to a male one and after doing a few hours’ experiment, I think we got it!

If you are only given three words to describe the production, what would it be?

See for yourselves!


Catch It!

Macbeth will be performed on Saturday, 23 April 2022, at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

[Theatre Review] No Disaster on This Land by The Finger Players — What disaster? What land?

Hairi Cromo as Table Boy and Vanessa Toh as Debris Girl / Photo: Tuckys Photography

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

In its bid to place the process of puppetry construction at the forefront, The Finger Players decided to create No Disaster on This Land around the puppets crafted by Loo An Ni during her stint with The Maker’s Lab

The production is helmed by the co-artistic directors of the company as Myra Loke directs, while Ellison Tan came up with the general narrative through a workshopping process.

The two puppets featured are Table Boy and Debris Girl. Loo wanted to work on exoskeletons and a modular system which would allow one to easily make modifications to a base structure. This prevents wastage from creating a completely new puppet for every show. 

Both puppets have an exoskeleton with aluminium extensions. For Table Boy, different table legs are attached all along the extensions. For Debris Girl, intimations of flesh and concrete pieces are placed along the extensions. 

In the show, these two characters are placed in an apocalyptic scene with concrete bricks and a backdrop of a partial grid wall, as we see how they interact.

The information above was mostly gleaned from the digital programme booklet. The information that we should be getting from watching the production, however, is fuzzy. 

Who are the characters? What sort of world do they inhabit? Why are they there? These questions are hardly answered as we see two characters tentatively existing in the same space. 

Beyond the initial encounter, as the characters suss each other out, it is difficult to make out the dynamics of the relationship. What are they disagreeing about? How are these conflicts actually resolved? How did they fall in love? (I only know they fall in love because the synopsis mentions a “love story”.)

A love story? But how did it develop? / Photo: Tuckys Photography

What about the puppets themselves? Do we ignore the human puppeteers and take the built structure as characters? Or are the structures extensions of the puppeteers, and both man and mechanics form a creature?

Given the skeletal nature of the puppets, it would seem that the latter is the case. But what sort of creatures are they? What do the extensions do? Are they hands or do they have some sort of magical power? 

In terms of actual movements, the extensions are used to move the concrete bricks perfunctorily as the puppeteers still use their hands when not manipulating the extensions. 

To make matters worse, the general rigidity of straight aluminium rods for the extensions meant that there is a limit to what the puppeteers could do with them. In manipulating Table Boy, Hairi Cromo carries the structure like a shell. And the extension occasionally gets in the way of Vanessa Toh’s movement work as Debris Girl—she has to figure out how to tuck it away when she is on the floor. 

All these limitations mean that whatever metaphors or concepts that the show is trying to convey are not articulated clearly. For example, a baby doll and a cradle feature quite strongly in the show. Do they symbolise birth, rebirth, or a literal baby?

Despite all the flaws, there are a couple of lovely moments.

Lovely moments emanating from the anguish of Table Boy / Photo: Tuckys Photography

When we are first introduced to Table Boy we see Hairi Cromo seemingly struggling against the structure placed upon him. Despite the black box being a rather small space, the intensity of his physicality, coupled with the garish strains of the electric guitar and the distortion of Hairi’s voice provided by Ctrl Fre@k, amplifies the struggle to tectonic proportions.

In another moment of anguish later in the show, Hairi rears his puppet up like a pair of wings, and the table legs attached look as if they are floating above him. This seems to suggest a certain sense of implosion or disintegration. 

Unfortunately, those moments could not save the show that is vague in its intent and story-telling.

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni

[Interview] Director Myra Loke on Creating ‘No Disaster on this Land’ Around the Puppets

Following last week’s interview with Loo An Ni about her experiences in designing and creating puppets during her stint at The Maker’s Lab 2021, I was interested in finding out more about No Disaster on This Land, a non-verbal performance that features Loo’s puppets.

What makes this production different from most puppet shows is its workflow. As the main focus of The Maker’s Lab is to nurture designers and makers of puppets, the production was created around the puppets created by Loo. This gives her the freedom to explore and experiment rather than worry about abiding by a pre-determined brief.

No Disaster on This Land 无灾难岛屿
There is no disaster on this land but it is the end of time. The body is defiled. Debris Girl meets Table Boy. In their hands, an effortful tug, an accident of air, a love story that ends with death.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to Director Myra Loke, who is also the co-artistic director of The Finger Players.

Puppetry has been part of The Finger Players’ DNA since the inception of the company. In your opinion, what is it about puppets that captures our imagination?

Puppets can be anything and everything. They can be so close to life that you can’t help but relate to them. At the same time, they are not bound by gravity, physics, logic, and social expectations.

This constant flux between reality and fantasy brings audiences to a level where you simply don’t wish to or can’t rationalize what you are seeing and feeling. And you ultimately just give in to your imagination and intuition. 

Puppeteer Vanessa Toh testing a prototype of the puppet used in the show / Photo: The Finger Players

As No Disaster on this Land is created around the puppets by Loo An Ni, what were your first impressions of the puppets?

The primary material used is metal and we often relate that material to a cold and distanced feeling. However, the movements from the puppets were fluid and transformative, contrasting with what your brain tells you. It was as if I’m watching blobs in a lava lamp morphing into different shapes and images.

As there is no dialogue in the show, how was the general plot of the show conceived?

Oftentimes, we start with a script and the puppet design comes after to complement the story. But as part of The Maker’s Lab, we were interested in the reverse—to discover how a story can be inspired from the puppet design instead.

So at the start of the process, Ellison Tan and I met with An Ni monthly to understand her thought process and creative impulses. Then we moved on to a phase where we had a series of jamming sessions with An Ni and the puppeteers to develop characters or explore possibilities of a narrative. With the devised content, Ellison would piece them together into a script that is inspired and informed by the puppet design and the jamming sessions. 

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing the makeshift handles of the prototype / Photo: The Finger Players

Could you describe the rehearsal process? What were some of the challenges? Were there any interesting moments that left an impression?

The puppet design and its manipulation method developed by An Ni are quite new to us. We were quite lucky that we had jamming sessions in the pre-rehearsal phase to give the puppeteers more time to be familiar with the puppets. This is so that we can concentrate on creating the physical score and visuals in rehearsals.

As this is a non-verbal performance, words are no longer the source of information. A huge challenge is to create imagery that is indicative enough for the audience to follow the journey or thought process of the characters. Yet, it must still be imaginative and leave some space for interpretation.

That involves a lot of trial and error in rehearsals, and it can sometimes be quite frustrating whenever we can’t “nail down” a scene. When that happens, I try to tell myself to be patient and there is no need to create everything at one go. This is something that I learnt through my journey of creating non-verbal performances.

Now, whenever I start a rehearsal process, I would pre-empt the performers and stage management team that there will be a lot of repetition, and that we may find ourselves feeling frustrated, and that is ok. 


Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

Sustainability in Puppetry: An Interview with Loo An Ni

The Maker’s Project is a series of events that serve as the culmination of The Maker’s Lab by The Finger Players. The Maker’s Lab is an initiative that seeks to grow and nurture designers and makers of puppets and objects.

In a span of nine months, the maker will conceptualise, prototype, and research puppet design for performance.

The theme for the second iteration of The Maker’s Lab is Puppetry and Sustainability, which touches on the longevity of the puppet, generating less waste in the construction process, and renewing the afterlives of the puppets after the performance.

One of the main events of The Maker’s Project is a non-verbal production, No Disaster on This Land. This production is created in response to the puppets developed by Loo An Ni, the maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021.

I spoke to Loo An Ni to find out more about her experiences in The Maker’s Lab as well as her processes in creating the puppets.

Loo An Ni, Maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021 / Photo: The Finger Players

What made you decide to join The Maker’s Lab? Could you briefly describe your experiences in the programme?

I wanted to have the opportunity to examine and develop ideas that have been floating around in my mind for quite some time. As there were many components to the puppets, there were a lot of testing and trialling of ideas as I try to improve a different aspect of the make or design each time.

Loo was interested in exploring exoskeletons / Courtesy of The Finger Players

How did you go about creating the puppets? Did you have a character in mind at first?

I started with the puppet structure and explored different movements each puppet structure allowed. The script and the characters emerged from there.

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing out the puppet structure / Photo: The Finger Players

As the theme for this cycle of The Maker’s Lab focuses on sustainability, what are some of the features of your puppets that speak to that?

I approached the theme of sustainability both in the creation process and in terms of performance. I developed a modular puppet structure that will allow us to devise different structure variations using the modular parts. This means that the puppet can be reconfigured for different shows.

I also developed a supportive harness with the aim of reducing the stress on puppeteers’ bodies when working with large puppets.

Loo An Ni (centre) working closely with puppetry consultant, Oliver Chong (left), and physiotherapist, Choong Li Sann (right) / Photo: The Finger Players

How has your experience with The Maker’s Lab inform the other roles you play in the arts scene such as wardrobe or design and construction?

While the other roles that I play such as costumes design and props and puppet design are different, I find myself leaning towards working with textiles. In The Maker’s Lab, I had the chance to apply the use of textiles once again in a very different manner; for long-term use instead of single use.

As a culmination to the project, a production, No Disaster on This Land, is created in response to the puppets you have created. Could you describe your involvement in the production?

I designed and made the puppet structures, of which the production emerged from. Subsequently I designed and made the puppets for the show. 

Further Reading

Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

[Theatre Review] Borderline by PSYCHEdelight: On the Side of Humanity

Refugees huddling together on a boat / Photo: José Farinha

Borderline

PSYCHEdelight

Online

12–23 January 2022

Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

In the opening sequence of Borderline, a few actors take turns to come on stage and remove their shoes. At the same time, live musicians play Bella Ciao to accompany the sequence. Slightly upstage, there are mountains of shoes. 

The sight of the numerous shoes is a stark reminder of the number of people who had to flee their countries. It reminds me of a Holocaust exhibit which has piles of shoes from the vicitims. But from a distance, it looks like piles of rubbish in the Calais jungle, a makeshift refugee settlement in France.

Despite the sombre themes, complemented by the music that uses the revised lyrics by the Italian resistance movement, the jaunty tune and the actors’ playfulness lend a jovial, almost circus-like atmosphere.

The juxtapositions and seeming simplicity encapsulates the spirit of the show which aims to be a comedy about the tragic refugee situation. 

Through a series of vignettes, we witness the various difficulties the refugees had to endure in order to cross the border: the various means to survive; uncaring bureaucracy; and the absurd actions of supposed do-gooders. 

While the cast—comprising a mix of refugees who managed to find asylum in Britain and Europeans—uses their own names, we are not given any biographical information about the refugees. This allows us to look at the different facets of their experiences in general, without being pulled in by one particular story. 

It also emphasises their humanity, warts and all. They are not simply pure, helpless victims. They have ingenuity as well as weaknesses as evident from the scene where the refugees try to exaggerate the provenance of the donated clothes in the hopes of getting a good price for them.

Police trying to haul a refugee out of a refrigerated truck / Photo: José Farinha

Just as the refugees had to make do with little, the cast deftly transports us to various settings through devised movement sequences. From trains to a police dog sniffing out refugees, the synergy among the cast members is a joy to behold. 

As this recording is made specially for video due to the pandemic scuppering any plans for the company to tour, there is an added complexion to the presentation of this performance. 

There is an inspired choice in the cinematography and editing which presents us with certain scenes as though they were filmed with a camcorder. This adds a mockumentary flavour to the show that live audiences might not get, thus giving the satire about the exploitativeness of news reports and documentaries more bite.

While there are no easy solutions as the world sets about beefing up their physical and legislative borders, this show resolutely stands in humanity’s camp.