Photo: Bernie Ng / Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute
Asylum Intercultural Theatre Institute 26 May 2022 SOTA Studio Theatre 26–28 May 2022
The Asylum is established with actors taping everything to demarcate the lines and boundaries of the set.
Those who are familiar with theatre will be familiar with the slight buzzing sound when the tape is pulled to mark the stage. However, with 12 rolls of tape going at the same time, the buzz grows and is reminiscent of a swarm of pests invading a space.
By all accounts, the opening sequence and its significations of the lines and boundaries that we draw for ourselves, or are imposed on us, are clear-cut and simple. But the visceral impact such a simple device has is a testament to the wondrous alchemy that is Jean Tay’s script with Oliver Chong’s direction.
From there, one witnesses the unravelling of an asylum as a fictional infectious disease rages on in a colonial settlement, and rumours of a tiger roaming the boundaries increases the tensions within the asylum.
The graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) plays 12 different characters: four female patients (Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing, Ng Yuan Ci, Ruthi Lalrinawmi, Wong Jin Yi), four male patients (Kaleem Zafar, Karlwinn, Peh Jun Kai, Will Wong Keng Ip), two nurses (Ismael Gallaza Pantao, Oliver S.K. Wu), a doctor (Jemima Dunn), and a security guard (Wan Ahmad).
The patients are treated more like inmates, as they are constantly observed by the asylum staff, led by the doctor who carries a big stick. They also fall along a spectrum of coming to terms with the fact that their family and society have abandoned them—from naïveté to being downright jaded.
In this highly charged atmosphere, it is inevitable that the characters would clash with each other due to their conflicting desires. The collisions happen on different levels, and fueled by fear and rumours, result in an implosion. Several patients attempt to escape as the staff tries to hold the fort while looking out for the tiger.
A moment of care between patients / Photo: Bernie Ng
A way to get a grip on the conflict would be to see it as a conflict between safety and humanity. Intuitively, it might seem easy to understand both concepts at first, but one soon realises that it is difficult to articulate precisely what constitutes both.
Separating patients with infectious disease from the community for the sake of safety makes sense on some level. But how far does this entail policing the movements and lives of the patients?
Wanting to live one’s life with a freedom to choose is understandable, but how much freedom should one have without harming the well-being of the wider community?
Jean Tay’s decision to abstract her script away from the peculiarities of old quarantine sites in Singapore not only allows the deeply resonant debate of safety and humanity to come to the fore, it also allows her to touch on the inner fears and hysteria of the unknown, which serves as a foil to the supposed tiger outside the walls of the asylum.
Tay’s ambitions are matched by the deft direction of Oliver Chong. With all the characters being on stage throughout the show, it is tempting to par down the interactions such as letting the characters sleep in their cell when the focus is not on them. However, Chong decides against it, and this results in all sorts of unspoken interactions that entices one to rewatch the show several times.
The rigorous training of the actors in various traditional art forms have certainly paid off in terms of their presence and synergy. This is evident during the climatic scene in which the patients stage their getaway. The movement around the set and the stillness when tragedy strikes, creating some beautiful stage pictures.
Tragedy strikes / Photo: Bernie Ng
While there are some mis-timed line deliveries and the buildup was not intense enough to warrant the climax on the opening night, it is a beast of a show. This critic cheers the actors on and hopes the beast is tamed by the third show.
There may be no armed guards or barbed wires, and the act of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore is seen as a social responsibility, but scratch the surface and we realise that we are still being tracked, traced, categorised, and imposed upon.
Where we draw the line between safety and humanity will forever be contentious, making Asylum a play worth restaging from time to time.
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?
[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.
Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.
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.
Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.