[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.

[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.

[Interview] Jo Tan talks about her latest play, Session Zero

In December, Checkpoint Theatre will be staging its first live production for the year, a premier of Session Zero by Jo Tan. The play revolves around a couple trying to save their marriage by playing the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.

Intrigued by the premise of the play, I spoke to Jo Tan to find out more about the show.

What inspired you to write a play about a couple trying to save their marriage?

I don’t know what it was about the pandemic, although I saw friends less, I managed to fall out with several of them… pretty hard. We had common passions about common issues, but the gap between how these issues affected us differently suddenly seemed an uncrossable chasm. I had a hard sleepless time understanding how these relationships had fallen apart so thoroughly, and I wanted to use this play, and the marriage in it, to try and figure out whether any differences are truly irreconcilable.

Why did you decide to choose the game, Dungeons & Dragons, as a main feature of the play?

Dungeons & Dragons got me through a large part of the pandemic – I couldn’t go out or act much, but I could escape to a different body and fantasy land in my head. And it just fascinated me how people (including myself) played their game characters. You could see how it was a tool for them to express how they could have been if only things were a little different. What if the play’s hopelessly estranged couple could be other people for a day?

As you are an avid player of the game itself, has the process of creating this piece made you appreciate new facets of the game?

I generally play with actors (which make up three-quarters of my social circle), and you tend to take it for granted that they will be quite unabashed when inhabiting the characters. However, when my co-actor Brendon led everybody in the show’s crew in a game as part of the rehearsal process, it was quite incredible to watch how playing the game characters empowered some of the more reserved personalities to make dramatic flourishes, laugh out loud, and take up more space. That’s the magic of the theatre of the mind.

As you are also performing in the show, has the rehearsal process made you see the story and characters you created in a new light?

Definitely. I always tend to separate my playwright self and my actor self, since the playwright just sets things on paper while the actor is generally a tool and channel for the visions of many people – the director, the writer, the designers.

You always see different things when performing something than when writing it. In both this and previous things I’ve written, I’ve definitely tried to say some lines which made me go, “who the heck wrote that?” But just walking through the story as opposed to living it in your head makes you understand them better, so I even have to empathise with the aggressors.

How does one win in a game of love and marriage?

Try to equate the two. That’s probably most important.


Catch It!

Session Zero by Checkpoint Theatre runs from 2 to 19 December 2021 at 42 Waterloo Street.

[Interview] Playwright Adib Kosnan talks about his new play, The Karims

The second half of Checkpoint Theatre’s Take It Personally season opens with a new digital production, Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims).

Written by Adib Kosnan, the play looks at how a new son-in-law shifts the family dynamics, which reopens new wounds and surface new tensions.

I contacted Adib, who is also performing in the production, to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write this play?

The inspiration for this play began with my own personal experience of coming into another family as an in-law. While talking to friends who went through the same situation, I found many similarities in terms of our experiences.

What struck me most was how certain attitudes, especially about gender roles, differed in varying degrees amongst families, but always hovered around the same archetypes—who was in charge of certain chores, or who got served first at the dining table. I found these family dynamics fascinating. That was the starting point for me, this constant re-negotiation of spaces and boundaries even as you create your own new culture as a married couple.

I’ve also found that as a Malay Singaporean,  there are certain cultural idiosyncrasies that are prevalent, and sometimes there are religious or cultural ideas that clash with your own set of personal beliefs—navigating these undercurrents was something else I wanted to explore through this story.

This production was initially meant to be staged live, however, it has since changed into a digital production. Has this impacted the way you write in any way?

The decision to stage it as a digital production initially brought mixed feelings for me. There was a sense of excitement and relief that the story could finally be told, but at the same time, I was very aware that certain theatrical moments and nuances I had envisioned would now need to be re-imagined. How do we maintain that feeling of intimate connection with the audience when they are now experiencing the story through a screen rather than sharing immediate space with the cast?

It was very interesting to refine the script while now considering the camera as the literal lens through which the story is experienced. For instance, certain moments could be amplified through a close-up of a facial expression rather than an actor embodying the emotion for the audience to understand. As we worked, I really began to appreciate all the possibilities and nuances that could be captured and portrayed through this new medium of presentation, while still keeping that original essence of the family that I wanted to express. I’m very excited for everyone to experience the final product in September.

As you are also acting in the production, have there been interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process that made you look at the story or the characters anew?

Being part of the performance process as an actor and working with our director, Claire Wong,  is something that I will cherish for a long, long time. Claire’s process of unearthing the depths of each character,  coupled with the other cast members’ layered and thoughtful portrayal of their characters, really helped me understand my own writing in a deeper way.

I discovered—or rather, rediscovered—the different sparks of inspiration that led me to craft these characters, which became a very emotional process for me because the stories came from real places of connection. There were times I even questioned myself whether it would have been better to maintain some distance from the work as its playwright, instead of immersing myself in it as an actor as well, because I was so affected by the words that were spoken. However, that would have meant missing out on an opportunity and process that really pushed me to grow as an artist.

Claire’s careful crafting of the rehearsal process allowed all the actors the space to explore and connect with each other as a family, as well as develop each character’s distinct voice. My character, Aqil, was originally written very much in my personal voice; the Aqil that you see in the play is quite different, but still retains the motivations and empathy that I initially envisioned for him. The challenge of exploring this expanded version of Aqil as an actor felt like a parallel to the play itself: the idea of entering a new group or family and having to adjust and adapt to foster a new dynamic.

Seeing how the other cast members resonated with their own characters, or hearing about the versions of each character that existed in their own families, not only helped to add depth to each character but also gave me a sense of personal validation—that these voices and stories that I was trying to represent by writing this play truly existed and should be told. This entire production has definitely left an indelible mark in my heart.

What is the one thing you love and hate about being in a family?

I think the one thing I both love and hate about being in a family is how connected we become. This connection can be nurturing and fulfilling, but also needs untangling as individuals go through different situations and evolve. Sometimes we continue to communicate with the versions of our family members that still exist in our heads, forgetting that they too may have changed, and that’s when conflict arises. Communication becomes miscommunication. It is easy to be understanding, but difficult to truly understand. But family is family—the love is there to help us get through these rough areas. At least I’d like to think it does, for the most part.


Catch It!

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) will be shown online from 29 September to 15 October 2021.

The performance is in Malay and English (with English subtitles).

[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.

[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.

[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.

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.