[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

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[Interview] Crossing Lines with Director Koh Wan Ching

In the latest public showcase by the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), they will be presenting a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, a new play by Australian playwright, Andrew Sutherland.

According to him, the play “attempts to untangle difficult concepts of futurity and futurelessness against the imminent existential threat of climate futures. From the natural to the interpersonal, the play contends with the deep exhaustions and ambivalences of witness and memory.”

To find out more about the play, I spoke to the director of the production, Koh Wan Ching. 

In your previous work, precise purpose of being broken, there is a scene in which you highlighted our insatiable consumption of plastic. How has that process of creating that work made you more aware of environmental issues?

For precise purpose of being broken, I had to collect hundreds of plastic water bottles to be used as props. Rather than partnering up with organisations that had an easy supply of used bottles, I decided to see if it was possible to accumulate the bottles I needed by doing tiny beach clean-ups along East Coast Park. The speed at which I began to accumulate bottles was shocking, and it became clear to me day by day that the so called environmental concern I was addressing is more rightly described as environmental crisis.

What is your process of working with playwright Andrew Sutherland?

Andrew and I worked sporadically together; I read his plays and poetry and followed his development as a theatre-maker, performer, and playwright. The seed for this project was planted two to three years ago, when I asked Andrew to write some texts with the stimulus: rising water, furniture and two women. Although this particular project did not take off, the texts he had written stayed with me until I was given an opportunity to direct this showcase by ITI.

I asked Andrew what most occupied him at the moment and what he would most want to write about. Likewise, I shared with him what kept me up at night. We exchanged articles and readings, notes, songs and videos. I think we built between us a well of thoughts, feelings, memories, stimulus and provocations that Andrew then drew upon to craft into a play.

ITI students in rehearsal (Photo courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute)

As you are working with students from ITI, will the show incorporate any intercultural elements?

The process that I try to bring to all my projects is one of exploration and experimentation. We spend a lot of time in the beginning of the process making compositions and devising assignments in and around the piece. We present these compositions to each other and thus develop a collective memory of movement vocabulary, sounds, objects, and imagination. These will then go on to inform the design, staging and blocking of the piece. In building up this rich and diverse store, the students negotiate their training and their contemporary bodies and sensibilities.

In the process of researching and directing this piece, have you discovered any interesting or shocking facts?

Definitely. I asked the cast to choose research topics they are interested in and we do weekly research presentations on a wide range of topics such as animals being affected by human action, costs of food production, lives of sea turtles, different types of lightning, and many more. 

While climate change affects everyone. Different cultures will have different relationships with the environment. In the course of working with a diverse cast, were there any differences that came to the fore which you found interesting or challenged your own perspectives?

In terms of the main question of the piece: What does it mean to face futurelessness and the environmental crises? We have gained a broader outlook and perspective by looking at them from different countries and societies.

For some of the cast, environmental issues may not be the most pertinent thing they want to speak about, as they currently face challenges far more pressing in their societies. But when we look at environmental concerns in less restrictive ways – it is not just about plastic in the ocean and using less plastic in our lives – we begin to see the ways that climate crises are linked to inequality and social justice. People who are the least equipped for climate adaptation and the least responsible for carbon emissions can be the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. Their food and water safety and supply can also be compromised by climate change. These issues are inter-connected. 


a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be runs from 5–7 September 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Interview] Choreographer Norhaizad Adam on Complexnya

Dance in Situ strives to bring dance out into the community. Their works are inspired by the chosen sites or residential areas that they perform in.

For the fifth edition, Dance in Situ has collaborated with choreographer Norhaizad Adam from P7:1SMA and sound designer Chong Li-Chuan to stage a performance walk around Hong Lim Complex. 

To find out more about the work, I spoke to Norhaizad Adam about his choreographic process. 

Norhaizad Adam (Photo: Shania Regina Santosa)

Could you describe your choreographic process for this production?
After our team’s first site recce of Hong Lim Complex in February 2019, I am immediately drawn to this space. I decided that it will be my priority to invite others to walk with us. The complex’s  architecture brings to my mind a sense of complexity. It may be common flat in plain sight, but a stillness exists. In every decision I make, I refer to the characteristics of Hong Lim Complex.

My choreographic processes are centered on instinct through tasks such as silent walk and artist talk-back. I value my team for considering the site’s presence and behaviour, and how it resonates strongly with each individual. My senses tend to pick up on fleeting and intangible elements which may motivate my choreographic score.

 How do you go about choosing the various locations within Hong Lim Complex for performance?
I am attracted to pockets of public spaces that feels poetic and cinematic. My instinct grows as it is loaded with nostalgic stories and the spaces offer different smells, textures and temperatures. It’s hard to describe in words, but I chose locations where its presence can be felt.

I try to avoid locations that are decorated with commercial and modern elements so as to offer everyone a chance to consider the element of time and an alternative vantage point.

How often were you able to rehearse in the actual space? How did you structure your rehearsals?
We had the privilege to rehearse and immerse in Hong Lim Complex. From February to June 2019, all our rehearsals were on-site. At first, we started with a silent walk to huge areas in the complex. Every level, turn, and corner led us to various routes and gave us different sensations. Eventually, the performance walk route developed through the choreographic process. I hope each space will slowly unfold its intentions, revealing secrets layer by layer.

In my practice, I believe that a site-work should be rehearsed on-site to awaken my senses and imagination. Our ‘Complexnya’ team is lucky to exercise and chit-chat with elderly Hong Lim residents during block parties whilst taking in everything that the space provide and hinders.

Another integral part to the performance is sound design. What was your brief to the sound designer? Could you give us some clues as to what sort of soundscape the audience can look forward to?
I am blessed to work with sound designer, Li-Chuan. In addition to creating soundscapes, based on his generous insights he has definitely expanded my impulses in the work. I am open to give full freedom to my collaborators as I trust Li-Chuan’s instinct and reasoning of what Hong Lim Complex is or used to be. He is present through the entire choreographic process, listening to conversations between dancers.

I also value Li-Chuan’s sense of adventure as he often explores Hong Lim Complex to find hidden sounds and ways of making sounds from objects and traffic. I appreciate Li-Chuan as his approach to sound design does feel like it is coming out from within the cracks in the walls or from a far distance. The interplay between the sounds of the place and Li-Chuan’s sonic input heightens the presence of the place, and adds another dramaturgical layer to the piece.


Complexnya runs from 28 May to 2 June 2019 at Hong Lim Complex. Meeting point is at Chinatown Point KFC. Tickets from Peatix

[Interview] Nancy Yuen Celebrates Her Career As An Opera Singer

In the lead-up to the Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) Gala Concert which celebrates Nancy Yuen’s operatic career, I spoke to the soprano about her career and plans for SLO as artistic director. 

What was your first encounter of opera, and is there a specific event
that made you decide to become a professional opera singer?

I have always enjoyed singing on stage since the age of 7. As for opera performance, my first encounter was when I was around 20 years old—I was invited to sing one of the principal roles in a short opera called Le Cinesi by Gluck to orchestral accompaniment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I decided to pursue my interest in the most serious form  by enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer today as compared to
when you first started out?

YouTube and the internet did not exist when I first started. We were all trained to attend as many performances as possible to watch the top artists at work,  observe the intricacies of stage craft, and absorb the whole ambiance inside the theatre during the performance.

Nowadays, a lot of singers watch opera performances on the internet and listen to the electronic sound coming out of the computers and mobile phones. They end up paying more attention to the facial expressions of the singers rather than the artistry. Unfortunately, as technology progresses, development of live performing arts somehow suffers as people have a difference preference to watching theatrical performances.

If you can only pick three highlights of your 30-year career, what
would it be?

My debut performance  which marked my transition from a student to being the prima donna in Madama Butterfly in 1988 with the Welsh National Opera. That was my biggest breakthrough.

Second, the standing ovation at the 4500-seater Royal Albert Hall in 2000, also as Madama Butterfly.

Another highlight was singing my first Wagnerian role as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer in Singapore in 2016, which was tremendously thrilling. 

Under your leadership, SLO has been an advocate of bringing opera to
the masses. Why do you think it is important for more people to
experience opera?

Opera is the most complete art form of theatrical experience, with music, drama, sets, costumes, and lighting. They all come together to bring the audience into intricate worlds created by the composers and librettists with the help of directors, conductors, and singers.

We all need a little escape to the imaginary world from time to time. What’s more rewarding than to live through the experience of someone else on stage, shown through music and drama,  and sharing their passion while watching the tragedies or comedies unfold?

How did you go about planning the repertoire for this concert? Any
highlights that the audience should look out for?

All the music chosen in the concert are  from operas I have performed over the years. Many of them are iconic pieces that have been performed many times all over the world. They include highlights from Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Carmen and La Boheme. The audience are guaranteed for a real treat as they will know most of the tunes and stories.

Any big plans for SLO in the coming years?

SLO will continue the work to promote operas, mounting large-scale opera productions, and doing more and more outreach programmes.

Our SLO Leow Siak Fah Artists’ Training Programme is going from strength to strength. We currently have nine participants working regularly to bring opera to the public, and helping more people appreciate the art of opera.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

[Interview] Jason Lai on Conducting Singapore Lyric Opera’s Gala Concert 2018

The main theme for this year’s Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) Gala Concert is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of  Nancy Yuen, SLO’s artistic director, being in the opera scene.

I spoke to the concert maestro, Jason Lai, to find out more about the concert and his thoughts on our local opera scene. 

From a conductor’s point of view, what qualities should an opera singer ideally have?

I love working with singers and the best ones are able to conduct the conductor. They have the ability to lead and be led, while being absolutely strong in their musical convictions. In the opera house, a singer also needs to able to act well and project their voice to the back of the hall without the need for amplification. It’s very difficult—try running across a stage, grabbing a sword, running at someone, while singing as if you life depended on it. And all this is done on a stage that is raked (sloped downwards toward the audience). This is not easy!

With several smaller opera companies arriving on the local scene, how would you describe Singapore’s opera scene? What do you think is lacking?

It’s quite an exciting time on the local opera scene, and I’m glad that opera is beginning to take off in Singapore. I think it’s largely a question of funding; opera is an expensive business and all those sets, costumes, and orchestras don’t come cheap. But when it all comes together, it’s thrilling.

The question is how do you get an audience to come along with you as you explore the world of opera? What would it take to build that audience? I’ve always been a huge proponent of musical education, and I often talk about music in concerts before I conduct it.  So  it’s also a question of how could we guide the audiences more, and help them grasp what they are seeing and hearing? There’s a culture of Chinese opera here in Singapore that has a strong following. The challenge is to find a way to do the same for Western opera. How do we make it more accessible and attractive? This takes a lot of effort and outreach.

Are there any artistic challenges when it comes to conducting this concert? Is there a particular piece in the concert’s repertoire that excites you?

There are always going to be artistic challenges in any concert. When you put on an opera gala, you’ll have singers, orchestra, and chorus, and that can be tricky to get all of these forces working together. Galas are also tricky in terms of performing music from many composers and that means being sensitive to different styles. There are many chunks of Verdi and Puccini that I will be looking forward to conducting for the first time.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

[Interview] Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?

The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok  between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.

The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.

In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are  versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.

In modern Thai  or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.

As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?

So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian  elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.

I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to  understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.

Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way? 

It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!

However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.

We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

[Interview] Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series:

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra