[Interview] Facing Fears with Victoria Chen

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

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

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

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

What drew you to this international collaboration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

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

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

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

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

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


Catch it!

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

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

[Interview] Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips on Being Vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catch it!

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


Related Event

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

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

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

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

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

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

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

[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.

[Theatre Review] Throwing One’s Hands Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Interview] Taking Five with Actors of “FIVE”

Actors rehearsing FIVE (Photo: Intercultural Theatre Institute)

Next week, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute will present their final showcase, FIVE. It consists of five actors telling their stories which raise the following questions: How does it feel to be cut off from regular human contact? What happens to a mind and body which can only connect with others virtually? What does it mean to be an artist in this “new” world?

As the performance will be catered to an on-site audience at the Esplanade Theatre studio and another group of audience on Zoom, I spoke to the actors to find out more about the process.

As an actor, what are the main changes you have to make in order to cater to both a live and an online audience?

Kyongsu Kathy Han: As an actor, one of our jobs is to understand how the show is framed. This understanding informs our actor’s choice in rehearsal. FIVE is framed in two very different ways: onstage and online. I don’t think this has changed what I do as an actor, but it certainly has made the job more difficult. Each frame has its own boundaries and limits, its own sweet spots. My biggest challenge is hitting the sweet spot for both frames. Or not. I’m still searching.

Li-chuan Lin (a.k.a. Aki): 需要在表演、做動作時,注意電腦鏡頭的位置,以及可以拍攝的範圍。思考要給線上觀眾看到的角度、畫面、細節,在螢幕看到的構圖是否有趣或帶有意義,同時也要考慮現場觀眾看到整體的狀態與畫面。
在創作時,也會思考「這個動作/細節,我想讓線上及現場觀眾都看到?或是只有其中一個?」或是或是「同個動作,能否做出透過鏡頭和現場觀看會有不同的感覺或意義。」
簡而言之,需要考慮到兩個觀看視角,以及試著做出對兩者觀眾都有意義的故事。

[I need to think about the camera when I am acting or moving, as well as creating meaningful and interesting compositions for a screen. I am also considering whether the same movements or gestures can evoke different emotions to the audience that are on-site and online.]

Prajith K Prasad: First, the fundamental difference is that the live audience will see the whole body of the actor, whereas the online audience will only see a certain part of the actor’s body as captured by the computer’s low-quality camera. It is a difficult task to produce good results and it’s up to the director to pick and choose what to show with the help of the creative team.

The main difficulty for the actor is working with the team to tell a narrative on an online medium in the best way you can, while being aware of the energy you are directing to the audience sitting right in front of you. You have to be more generous and patient. The dynamic energy that is usually there while devising a theatre work changes into a different form because of the intervention of technology.

A major component of your training is an exposure to various traditional Asian art forms. Has that informed the way you approach this modern mode of performance?

Kyongsu Kathy Han: The traditional Asian art forms did not directly prepare me for a “Zoom theatre/performance”. What the training did give me is the courage to face difficulties; to remain grounded when negotiating with the unfamiliar.

Li-chuan Lin (a.k.a. Aki): 其實我還在試著了解傳統表演怎麼影響我在當代戲劇的演出。這似乎不是短時間就能悟出答案的問題。目前在創作的過程中,會試著加入傳統表演的form,從外在形體找到內在的感受;或是在某些言語或肢體等的表達過程中遇到困難,也會找尋曾經學過傳統表演內在表現的部分(例如日本能劇外在表現平靜如水,內在能量濃烈如火),來套用在自己的創作上。

[I am actually still looking for the answer on how the traditional forms have influenced me in this contemporary performance. It’s not easy to find the answer.

But for now, in the devising process, I have tried both ways. The first is using the physical form, using outside physical work to find inside feelings/emotions. The second is the opposite. I use the elements of inside expression in traditional forms (e.g. in Noh, the physical movements are as quiet as lake water, but the energy inside is as active as fire) to find vocal or physical expression.]

Ramith Ramesh: For starters, training in various traditional art forms makes me aware of the minute details that are crucial to the craft of performing. This is especially relevant when performing for a Zoom audience, as it ensures appropriate and efficient execution of the movements. 

One key component of Kutiyattam that has made it easier for me to perform in front of the laptop, is to ‘perform for the lamp’ and keeping a close performance area around it in my mind. In Kutiyattam, the lamp is always viewed as our audience. So I simply envisioned the laptop camera as the lamp, while transforming the screen into the close performance area. My training in the traditional art forms has given me stability and flexibility to adapt to all sort of changes.

 Rhian Hiew Khai Chin: For me, the traditional Asian art forms have definitely changed my body and voice in my performance. I am able to create a new way of telling a story by weaving the vocabulary from these forms into a contemporary performance.

Performing for two groups of audiences (Photo: Intercultural Theatre Institute)

Are there any interesting discoveries in the process of creating this piece?

Kyongsu Kathy Han: During rehearsal, we explored different ways we can still play theatre games online through Zoom. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss. I was made aware of the things that I took for granted, such as being able to sense another being when breathing in the same space. But we adapted, changed some rules, and made new games. It is not the same. But with death, we also found rebirth.

Li-chuan Lin (a.k.a. Aki): 第一個有趣的點還是,學習如何作出Zoom的線上演出。

第二個是,第一次可以在舞台上展現我自己喜歡的藝術:繪畫、摺紙、剪紙、小裝置藝術。這些靜態的視覺藝術,多半只是我自己的孤芳自賞。但在這次的創作中,有機會讓它們被展現出來,雖然只是小小的一部分,也是感到很開心。

[First: Studying how to perform on Zoom. Second: It is the first time I can present my other art works (e.g. drawing, origami, paper-cutting and small installation art). These visual art forms are usually an indulgence for me, and are never shown. However, they are seen from this opportunity. Although they are not shown much, I am still satisfied.]

Ramith Ramesh: It is a strange and funny thing for actors to feel a sense of empowerment from looking into the eyes of the audiences. However, performing in front of a laptop screen has made me more self-conscious, as I sometimes overthink about the acting, the voice, and the looks — something that never happened to me while performing live. 

There were also technical troubles at the beginning that I found hard to cope with. The real struggle then came in balancing my acting and voice to fit the requirements and direction of both mediums. It took some time for me to make my peace with it.

What does it mean to be an artist in this new normal?

Kyongsu Kathy Han: That is very hard to say. On one hand, I am mourning, heavily. On the other hand, I feel challenged, which is probably a good thing. For theatre is about conflict and tension, discovery, meaning-making, and pushing boundaries. It’s been a steep learning curve, and despite the drastic change in what we know as theatre, we’re carrying on. So I’m looking forward to sharing FIVE with an audience, onstage and online.

Li-chuan Lin (a.k.a. Aki): 我把這件事當成「藝術進入了另一個時代」。
就像生命會依不同自然環境改變進而演化;人類文化會隨著時間、空間、社會環境產生變化。現在我們遇到這樣的時空背景與條件,對我而言就是保持開放的態度,嘗試不同的創作模式。過程當然會感到不適、不習慣、不知所措等負面狀態,但結果或許會很有趣也說不定。即使失敗了,也沒關係,因為這是下次創作的養分。

[I think that “Art is going to another era”. Life evolves when the natural environment and culture changes because time, space and society are different.

For me, I just keep an open mind and continue trying and learning — maybe there’ll be something interesting. Even if I fail, it is alright, as failure serves as the nutrient for creating my next work.]   

Prajith K Prasad: I believe that a performance without a live audience is not theatre. Theatre should be experienced live. However, I’m glad that we get to bring FIVE to a small live audience in these turbulent times. Regardless, I believe that theatre will find its way back and people will continue to tell stories through art, even in this new normal. So to be an artist in these times is made even more significant.

Ramith Ramesh: Art flourishes in crisis, I believe. The worst times present the best opportunities for nourishment. It is sad, but true.

 Rhian Hiew Khai Chin: There are many challenges the artist needs to work against during this pandemic, as they struggle to find creative new ways to make art. However, I am still hopeful that I’d be able to use this time to reflect on myself and my art in the community. I hope to continue experimenting, to use my art to motivate and encourage others. And, of course, to keep healthy.

Read: ITI Navigates Between Live and Digital Performances with “FIVE”


FIVE will run from 12 to 14 November 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Zoom. Tickets from Peatix

ITI Navigates Between Live and Digital Performances with “FIVE”

In a first for the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), the graduating cohort will present FIVE, a live performance to audiences at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and on Zoom.

Under the direction of Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Drama Box, FIVE is a devised piece which explores the experiences of solitude and separation. This hybrid performance can only be possible with the collaboration of some of Singapore’s leading artists, including Genevieve Peck (video and lighting design), Guo Ningru (sound design), Tan Wei Ting (film direction) and Lim Chin Huat (costume coordination).

I interview director Kok Heng Leun to find out more about the show.

Director Kok Heng Leun speaking to the production team of “Five”
(Photo: Intercultural Theatre Institute)

Why did you choose to create a hybrid performance in which audiences can either watch it live or on Zoom, as opposed to sticking to one form of engagement?

As the pandemic is quite a volatile situation, our approach with dealing with it is to imagine the live performance being watched on both Zoom and on-site. So even if theatres remain closed, we have already designed our rehearsal process to accommodate for online viewing. 

What are some of the major challenges of directing actors to cater to both a live and online audience?

Directing actors for both a live and online audience requires us to create two different scores. The actors have to learn to work with two mediums and cater their blocking and stage composition to both.

Are there any interesting discoveries that would inform your work as a theatre-maker? Is there something you learnt from this experience that you might explore further?

I think it further underscores the importance of having enough resources for experimentation during rehearsal. The two mediums are very different, and a lot of time and resources are needed to see how they can interweave with each other. In a way, we are exploring a new dramaturgy of work. I look forward to seeing how this new form can develop in the future.

What does it mean to be an artist in this new normal?

I feel that it has not changed. As a practitioner, my concern has always been on how to engage with the audience, as well as how the art is made and distributed. In that sense, artists are always dealing and responding to change. And we are still in business.


FIVE will run from 12 to 14 November 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Zoom. Tickets from Peatix

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #Causeway

In the final instalment of Baca Skrip, Teater Ekamatra takes us across the border and back with Aflian Sa’at’s “Causeway”. 

I spoke to the actors involved in this presentation to find out more about their processes and thoughts about the play. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: It has been fun! I’ve always enjoyed working with actors from around the region to share stories. The first session was a read and trying to understand the context of the play and how we are going to interpret it. The next few was to make sure we get everything in order. Being in a room with great talents is a blessing. Everyone is on the ball and gunning to make this production amazing! You might think that having to just sit in your room during rehearsal is easy, but it is quite tiring! You have to deal with the text and technology!

Hafidz Rahman: It’s definitely different doing zoom rehearsals but I think the good thing about zoom is that it keeps me alert throughout—I don’t get to zone out like I usually do during normal rehearsals. It’s a lot of reading, a lot of technical discussions, a lot of preparation and a lot of sitting.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: Most of the time I spend time solving tech problems! When it comes to acting, it is a strange feeling. While it is fun to get into character in my own bedroom, I’m not entirely sure if I’m all in. I feel like I’m giving my all but I’m not sure if my co-actors are feeling me, the way I want them to!

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Proses rehearsal secara online memerlukan para pelakon tidak hanya membaca skrip dan berlakon, tetapi terlibat dalam hal-hal teknikal. Pelakon perlu sentiasa bersedia untuk menukar aplikasi snap camera untuk kepelbagaian karektor. Juga berdepan dengan masalah-masalah coverage internet dan lain-lain. Namun proses interaksi yang baik antara krew dan pelakon dapat melicinkan proses latihan.

(The online rehearsal process requires the actors not only to read the script and act, but to engage in technical matters. The actors must always be ready to change the snap camera app for a variety of characters. We also faced internet coverage problems and others. But the process of good interaction between the crew and the actors help smoothen the training process.)

Arjun Thanaraju: The rehearsal process was definitely different than anything I have ever experienced before. Not only are we taking notes as actors but we are also taking notes as our own camera person, lighting director, special effects coördinator, and so much more! This made me appreciate just how much work goes into a production and how important every element is in making the show a success. 

Darynn Wee: It’s a unique kind of process compared to the usual physical rehearsal. It’s convenient because we don’t have to travel to the rehearsal place, but  it also not that convenient because of the technical demands. A few of us had to figure out some technical issues before the rehearsals and sometimes even during rehearsals. But once we got it settled, it’s a huge relief. With this group of people, it has been really fun! I enjoyed every bits with them. We especially had a good laugh over the ridiculous camera filters. That sort of broke the ice for us. Something we wouldn’t get to experiment with the ‘live’ sort of encounter. That’s a bit sad because we’re still missing that physical connection.

Gloria Tan: All rehearsals have been held online, with a good amount of time spent with us trying out new filters for each scene and giggling at one another, from Singapore to Malaysia.

What are some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: Technology can be your friend and your worst enemy. We always pray for smooth connection all the time. There were times during rehearsals when some of us had to drop out due to poor connection or tech difficulties. As actors, we need to learn to multi-task now and become tech-savvy along the way! It is definitely a new experience. I do miss being in one space with fellow actors and crew not forgetting the live audience. However, we could sense the energy from everyone involved, and everyone is rooting for each other to do well, so that is a nice feeling. The first few rehearsals were to understand the play, now, it is to make sure we get the technology down for a smooth run.

Hafidz Rahman: My main challenge is really bridging that human interaction online because I cannot talk to them in the flesh. We don’t get to hang out together during breaks or after rehearsals so it almost feels like a long-distance relationship.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: It is hard to get a sense of everyone’s energy while we are online. It’s hard to break the ice with the other actors and crew members whom you’ve never worked with on a zoom call. I wished we had more time to speak to each other.

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Saya seorang pelakon yang tidak boleh hilang fokus. Ia akan membuat saya stress dan gelabah. Saya juga kurang arif dalam hal teknologi. Saya selalu berdebar untuk menukar dan mengalih aplikasi. Di waktu yang sama perlu memberi penghayatan pada skrip. Ia sukar pada saya yang amatlah noob dengan teknologi. Saya seorang diri yang mengawalnya. Jadi ia memang menakutkan. Perasaan berdebar yang berpanjangan tidak baik untuk saya. Ia akan buat saya rasa sesal dan sedih tidak dapat beri yang terbaik. Saya faham jika ada sedikit saja kesalahan, ia akan beri kesan pada semua.

(I am an actor who cannot lose focus. It will make me stressed and nervous. I am also less knowledgeable in terms of technology. I am always panicking whenever I need to change and switch apps. I have to appreciate and focus on the written work, all at the same time. It is difficult for me because I’m a greenhorn when it comes to technology. I am the only one who controls it. So it’s really scary. Feeling anxious is not good for me. It will make me feel sorry and sad because I was not able to give my best. I understand that if there are a few mistakes, it will affect everyone.)

Arjun Thanaraju: Theatre has always been about human connection for me. Especially with an ensemble piece like this, building rapport with my fellow actors is something I deem very important. It was definitely a challenge to do that through a screen but I think we managed to overcome that obstacle quite early on in the rehearsal process because everyone was so warm and welcoming towards each other!

Darynn Wee: We don’t really know what is going on to our other cast mates or crew if something happened, and if you’re facing it, it’s like you’re alone, and the rest will be wondering what is going on. I had some internet connection problem at the first read, and I missed out some chunk of the rehearsal.

Another thing is to be on the same page with each other, I may be thinking that you are seeing what I am seeing on screen but we are actually not seeing the same thing. So what we did was we shared screen or shared our screenshots in WhatsApp.

Gloria Tan: Sometimes the room (online) can be rather cold. You come online and saying hello to give a little burst of energy, but no one replies you because everyone’s mics are all muted, and everyone is intently looking at their screens because the internet connection is not stable. Lines with repartee are definitely tricky especially with varying internet speeds (Dear internet Gods, please generously bless us with smooth and stable internet speeds on the 28th of August. Thank you.) which sometimes can be funny when the video frame freezes up when someone is mid-sentence.

That being said, major kudos to the production team for tirelessly working to get everyone up to speed and working to make sure everyone is on the same page while working in isolation.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: I feel that this form of staging lets you view the stories deeper as you could really see what the characters are going through. You literally get a close-up of what is going on. But there’re also parts where you have to leave it to imagination. For a play that was written 20 years ago, it’s funny how some of the stories and criticism still resonates today. As for whether this is new normal theatre? I think this is  just another form of theatre performance in its infancy stage. A lot more to explore. I just like the potential of it getting a bigger reach globally. You can be in Antartica and still watch a live performance!

Hafidz Rahman: I have read “Causeway” when I was in college and the same themes still resonate with me. It’s just that in this process, with COVID and the inability to actually experience Malaysia, it gives a certain sense of longing. I miss Malaysia.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: This process has made me looked at all scripts differently. It makes me question how much of my upper body and voice can help tell the story better!

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Namun begitu, inilah cabaran yang perlu saya hadapi. Perlahan-lahan saya belajar beradaptasi dengan teknologi. Ia bagus untuk membentuk sikap dan pemikiran saya. Belajar benda baru, bertemu dengan orang baru dan meraikan cabaran bersama. Kalau inilah norma baharu seni persembahan, saya perlu berusaha mengatasi ketakutan saya.

(However, this is the challenge I have to face. Slowly I learnt to adapt to technology. It was great way to shape my attitude and thinking. Learn new things, meet new people and celebrate challenges together. If this is the new norm of performing arts, I will continue to work on overcoming my fears.)

Arjun Thanaraju: I tend to favour narrative-driven pieces because I find the stories more compelling. However, this process has definitely showed me that you can still tell a compelling story through whacky and playful means! This has opened my eyes to a different way of storytelling, one that I intend to pursue further in the future.

Darynn Wee: This script is an interesting piece and we got the chance to just play around and explore a few new things together. Although Alfian wrote this piece several years ago,  some of the issues being talked about are still relatable. We don’t really talk about it as much anymore now, but we still have those thoughts and memories at the back of our mind. I believe we all have our identities tied to the country where we are from and have some sense of pride and memory to it.

We had the liberty to give our input at the last part in introducing ourselves and that brought in some form of our own identity to the piece. So to me, this version of the piece is now ours, in a way.

Gloria Tan: I think the one that stands out the most right now above everything else is how much we all miss theatre and being in a space with the whole team. We also miss the bonding aspect of theatre when everyone works together and feels each other’s energy to  create collectively. We are all very much done with the pandemic.

I would like to thank Teater Ekamatra for creating this Baca Skrip: #___ platform for performers to continue practising and (in the aspect of Causeway) reach out to our fellow performers in Malaysia to remind us all that we in this together and that we are not alone.

Singapore needs Malaysia as much as Malaysia needs Singapore.


Baca Skrip: #Causeway will be presented via Zoom on 28 August 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Two Songs and a Story – Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue