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

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

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

What were some of the difficulties in devising this piece?

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

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

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

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

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

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catch It!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were some difficulties in creating this show?

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Were there any interesting discoveries during the rehearsal process?

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

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

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

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

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


Catch It!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tatiana Konovalova as Lady Macbeth / Photo: Hawk Liu

Were there any interesting things that happened during rehearsals?

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

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

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

See for yourselves!


Catch It!

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

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

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

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catch It!

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

Sustainability in Puppetry: An Interview with Loo An Ni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Catch It!

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

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

Refugees huddling together on a boat / Photo: José Farinha

Borderline

PSYCHEdelight

Online

12–23 January 2022

Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Theatre Review] OK Land by Circle Theatre (Thailand) — Ills We Conveniently Overlook

Boss and Joy, employees of OK Land

OK Land
Circle Theatre (Thailand)
Online
12–23 January 2022
Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

Convenience stores are quick and dirty. We visit them for an easy fix to satisfy our hunger, thirst, or nicotine and alcohol urges. Little thought is given to it, and we even overlook the higher prices in exchange for the sheer convenience.

But in Circle Theatre’s OK Land, a chain of convenience stores in Angel Land, it becomes an arena where the wants of different segments of society play out.  

The whole set-up is a thinly veiled reference to a dystopian future that is quite close to home. As the Zombie Ant disease ravages the whole world, we see two store employees; a food blogger; an architect that has just returned from Trumpland; a student activist; a poor, hungry woman; and a ghost coalescing in the convenience store. 

Triggered by the poor woman trying to steal food from the store, issues of growing restrictions, corporate dominance, inefficient bureaucracy, social media prominence as social capital, and political activism come to the fore.

As the characters debate how best to help the woman, while a ghost bears witness by filming everything, personal interests are slowly revealed. This shows how messy socio-political issues can be as it is difficult to untangle the personal from the political.

The characters try to help Pa Orn, the poor and hungry woman

Yet, in the midst of the cacophonous debate, we hardly hear the poor woman apart from her laments and desperate outbursts.

Even though the show is being touted as a reflection on society by other critics, something is missing as most of the characters are middle class. We soon realise that this particular outlet of Ok Land is near a condominium that some of the characters live in, several storeys above the majority of the population. 

Despite these flaws, kudos to director Paspawisa Jewpattanagul for a taut production and playwright Nuttamon Pramsumran for fleshing out a variety of important issues, without forcibly shoehorning them into the production. 

Additionally, the Zombie Ant disease is not merely a quirky alternative to COVID-19. It is an allegory of how we are hosts to the ills of society and are blindly behaving according to the way these ills have structured society. 

At the end of the show, there is a rallying cry from the student activist to work towards change; to carry on even though it feels hopeless. But how do we change course when we, like the ants, only recognise our territory and therefore our path by familiar smells?  


OK Land was originally staged from 3 to 12 December 2020 at 6060 Arts Space, Bangkok, Thailand. The online stream for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival features a recording of one of the performances.

[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.

[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
29 September–15 October 2021

If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?

In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface. 

In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.

Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration. 

While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama. 

With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men. 

Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road. 

The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?

Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family. 

It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.

Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.

Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!