[Interview] Finding Resonances in Poop! with Berak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[Interview] 4.48 Psychosis is “already an intercultural work to me”, Director Andy Ng Wai-Shek

In slightly over a week, the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present the first ever multi-lingual adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. I spoke to director Andy Ng Wai-Shek, an award-winning practitioner from Hong Kong  and alumnus of ITI’s pioneering batch, to find out more about the production.

Andy Ng Wai-Shek / Courtesy of ITI

How does it feel to return to your alma mater as a guest director? How has ITI changed over the years since you were a student?

I still feel very much part of the school even though I have met different faces. There is a vibration that keeps reminding me this is where I came from. After 17 years, I’ve come to realise how this programme isn’t just about simply doing theatre — it’s about personal perceptual experiences.

This programme synthesises the differences between cultures; perceptions of different bodily experiences; the possible marriage of body and mind; and, most importantly, the unanswerable question of how to put different training methods into one. It sets a foundation of life-long research for a person in the evolution of his life. In fact, this is the research I’m still doing all these years since my graduation. I suggest ITI can also play a role to encourage the research.

4.48 Psychosis is not immediately thought of as an intercultural work. What drew you to adapt this piece for ITI?

It is already an intercultural work to me when I knew that I had to work with students from Taiwan, Malaysia, India, and Korea. 4.48 Psychosis is more on personal thoughts and feelings than drama. The structure of it drifts on a stream of consciousness. It is logically disrupted. In other words, it can be very personal.

Though the work is in English, I would like them to try certain scenes in their mother tongue. The idea of it is that there are five storytellers telling the story, sometimes deeply immersing themselves into the very thoughts and feelings of “I”. One of my interest when directing is the connection between one’s consciousness and his or her being. Now, the text says it. The actors need to find their ways to reveal it. They show me according to what they can do individually. That’s already intercultural.

ITI’s graduating cohort rehearsing 4.48 Psychosis / Courtesy of ITI

Given that your actors are from different countries and from all walks of life, were there any interesting conversations about mental health that arose during the rehearsals?

I had depression since last August and have recently stopped my medication. I shared my experience with the students. They shared their experiences with me and their fellow peers. Some students have also consulted a counsellor. I think depression or mental health is already a common issue nowadays, it is just a matter of seeing whether it is serious enough for a person to consult a doctor or not. I am not interested in telling a story of mental disorder. I think the playwright did try her last call for help. Why? I hope that the audience can understand that.

Could you give us a glimpse of what the show would be like? Do you tap on the actors’ intercultural training in your direction of the show?

Five storytellers telling this story, using a psycho-physical approach to develop the work of a visual poem. Yes, some of the scenes to use their intercultural training, but it’s a different look. How so? You will have to come to the show to find out.


4.48 Psychosis by Intercultural Theatre Institute runs from 12–14 March 2020 at The Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[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.