[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.

[Comic Book Review] Putu Piring – A Ruminative Snack

The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

Michael Chabon, ‘The True Meaning of Nostalgia’, The New Yorker

If Chabon’s characterisation is accurate, the “consciousness of lost connections” could not be more keenly felt during the circuit breaker period (a nation-wide lockdown in all but name) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

It is out of this context that Putu Piring is conceived. 

The lost connection is manifested in “the ghost of a wild boar” as a man decides to buy putu piring (steamed rice cakes) and cycles to a park―his favourite childhood haunt―to feed the wild boar. En route, he contemplates the various changes in his life. 

Like a well-prepared dish, Tay’s text is sparse yet impactful, as he manages to encapsulate the changes in the protagonist’s life with a few food items that serve as striking metaphors. 

In an interview, writer Myle Yan Tay explained that he chose putu piring for his story because it is sentimental yet current; it evokes a sense of the past, yet it is still around today. In a similar vein, the contemplations of the protagonist straddles being elegiac and coming to terms with the changes. Such a choice strikes the right chord as it leaves space for the reader to contemplate about one’s own life in tandem with the protagonist. 

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Shuxian Lee’s illustrations may appear simple, but they have some delightful subtleties. She uses shades of brown for scenes in the past to give it a sepia complexion. This is in contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme for the present. However, the contrast is not too stark and there are portions where past and present seem to meld together. This is in harmony with the aims of the plot that straddles both past and present.

There is a striking use of small panels in various sections of the comic, which only shows an element of the whole picture such as the snout of the wild boar or the fingers of the protagonist’s grandfather. This resembles the nature of our memories as we tend to recall in vignettes. Additionally, it complements the literary elements such as placing emphasis on the culinary metaphors. 

With it being only 20 pages long, Putu Piring might be bite-sized as compared to other comics. However, it offers a flavourful bite that tempts one to crave for more. 

Further Reading

Interview with Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee on Putu Piring

[Comic Book Review] Through the Longkang #1 – Paranormal Intrigues

Through the Longkang #1
Myle Yan Tay (writer) and Shuxian Lee (artist)
Checkpoint Theatre (2021) / 20 pp.

The second collaboration between Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee brings us the start of a trilogy that delves into the paranormal. 

Through the Longkang brings together the well-loved elements of action-adventure, mystery, and intimations of the paranormal tales that those born in the 1990s and earlier grew up with. 

We are immediately thrown into the heart of the action as Fishball and Brick find a punctured football on a beach, and one of them (they are not clearly identified as neither of them is addressed by name) has a psychic insight upon touching the ball. 

It is revealed that a teenager went down into the longkang (canal) to retrieve a football. Upon climbing out of the longkang, he suddenly found himself exiting a well and saw an abandoned bungalow with a rather inviting swing. Horrors ensue. Our heroes hope to save the boy before it is too late. 

The well being the portal between the longkang and the abandoned bungalow reminds us of horror stories of suicides and wrongful deaths. Could this be related to the disappearance of the teenager? Is Myle Yan Tay bringing in certain local cultural tropes and recontextualising them for a new audience?

Ilustration by Shuxian Lee

As for the art, it is wonderful to see what Shuxian Lee can do with grey, white, black, red, and the occasional dash of brown. Her minimal approach truly exemplifies how less can be more. 

Her backgrounds resemble charcoal drawings, lending the story an ominous feel. Need to make the bungalow look sinister? Simply add shades of red, and highlight the entrance with white to indicate the light is on, while making it appear that the building has eyes and a mouth.

Additionally, the irregular layout of the panels adds a certain dynamism to the action, without needing to add more details to the drawing itself. This is best exemplified in choosing to have two small squares on the top left to show the teenager emerging from the well, while the rest of the two-page spread depicts the sprawling bungalow. 

That said, the first instalment will leave impatient readers unsatisfied as all it does is to set up the story of how a teenager went missing. It is unclear why this is planned as a trilogy. If the other instalments are of similar length, the trilogy could simply be a self-contained comic book. 

However, the set-up is intriguing enough for one to look forward to the rest of the series just to see what other elements will be brought in, and what effect the serialisation has on the overall story-telling.


Through the Longkang #1 is published by Checkpoint Theatre and retails at $7.90 (e-book) and $10.90 (hardcopy).

To purchase a copy, visit Checkpoint Theatre’s online shop.

Checkpoint Theatre Publishes First Comic Book – Putu Piring

When a theatre company announces its upcoming season, one gets excited about the shows on offer and the issues that will be tackled. Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, Take It Personally, remains true to its vision of championing original stories, but there is a twist.

In a first for the company, Checkpoint Theatre will be publishing a comic book, Putu Piring. I contacted the Myle Yan Tay (author) and Shuxian Lee (illustrator) to find out more about the project.

What is Putu Piring about?

Yan: Putu Piring is about a man returning to his childhood haunt with the titular snack in hand. He reflects on his journey of growing up: from being a kid cycling on the parkway home from school, to a working adult, now cycling to escape the monotony of his daily life.

Putu piring itself is an oddly evocative snack. It’s a food that is both sentimental but also current, with new renditions appearing all the time. It’s that sense of being rooted in the past and present that I wanted to capture in this story; that sometimes, in our present moment, we become so cynical that we wish we could be nostalgic. It’s almost a nostalgia for nostalgia.

A theatre company publishing a comic book? How did the project come about?

Yan: During Circuit Breaker, when it was unclear when theatres would open again, Huzir Sulaiman, Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, asked me to write a comic. It had been a long-running conversation between the two of us and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. Faith Ng, Checkpoint’s Associate Artistic Director, put me in touch with Shuxian, and we then worked to write, develop, and publish it. 

Could you explain the creative process in creating this comic book? Did the text come first before the illustration or was it done simultaneously?

Yan: I wrote the first script, passed it to Shuxian to illustrate, and then we’d go back and forth on subsequent drafts together. I had a very clear vision of the ending of the comic; I knew what the reader would be seeing, and what sort of emotions I wanted them to feel. The comic book’s story was weirdly reverse-engineered in that way, with me figuring out what readers would need to read and see in order to get to that ending.

As we worked, Shuxian crafted some new pages that didn’t quite fit into the first draft of the script, but they were too perfect to cut. So together we rewrote and redrafted to figure out how to make those gorgeous pages work. It was a very collaborative process and it was really fantastic to see these pages I had written come to life with such colour and vibrancy.

Shuxian: When I read Yan’s script, I could already see most of the visuals in my head. Either he wrote incredibly vividly, or I was fortunate enough to share his vision, so there weren’t huge differences between what he wanted the comic to look like and what I actually drew. Since I’m based in Belgium, Yan had to provide me with most of the reference pictures for the locations featured in the comic; with those and his script as a starting point, I could build on the scenes and perspectives. I had some guidelines to follow, but was mostly free to do anything I liked with it. I would sketch out thumbnails or uncoloured panels and Yan would send his feedback before we finalised a page.

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

How did you approach illustrating this comic? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Shuxian: I decided I wanted to draw something minimal and almost sterile—Adrian Tomine-inspired illustrations, to reflect the overall sense of ennui. I used disparate colour palettes to differentiate the time frames and contrasting moods of the past and present.

My aesthetic influences vary, but I try to keep a hand-drawn, organic feel throughout my drawings, even when they are drawn digitally.

What were some of the challenges in creating this comic? Were there any interesting discoveries in the process?

Yan: A clear challenge was Shuxian’s remoteness from Singapore. The comic book takes place in Singapore and follows a cycling route near East Coast Park. We worked around it by having me send photos over for reference. Shuxian then recreated them on the page with her own flair. These ended up lifting the comic into a unique visual space: something very real and unreal at the same time.

Shuxian: The time difference as well, perhaps—it would have been more difficult if there was a tight deadline! I also found it challenging to balance a very physically and mentally exhausting day job with illustrating on the side; I’m hoping that illustration and art-making will take up the bulk of my time in the near future. Thankfully, for this comic, I had the weekends to work on it.

I’ve rediscovered my love for the graphic novel medium! And that I actually do love illustrating someone else’s story. This is the first time I’m collaborating on one and it’s been amazingly rewarding seeing what we come up with after bouncing ideas off of each other. I really appreciate being lucky enough to find a collaborator who shares my love for this storytelling medium. Getting to immerse myself in someone else’s inner world has been very enriching.

Yan: In the past, I’ve mainly written and then directed my own work; so it was surprisingly fulfilling to be able to hand off the reins to someone else and watch as they worked. I especially enjoyed seeing Shuxian come up with pages that I could never have thought of myself, because she has such a great imagination.

We had such a good time with this project that we’re actually already working on a new comic, Through the Longkang, which will be launched together with Putu Piring at our comic book launch event Picture This on 23 March!


Putu Piring will be launched, along with several other titles, at Picture This on 23 March 2020 at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box.

[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

[Review] A Grand Design – Natural Inspirations

A Grand Design (An Audio Experience)
Checkpoint Theatre
Spotify and Soundcloud
1-12 July 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic compels everyone to recalibrate their plans, rather than putting their season on hold, Checkpoint Theatre opts to tease their audience by reconceiving some of their shows as audio experiences.

A Grand Design was supposed to be a lecture-performance held at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips educates and regales some of her experiences as an environmentalist and educator.

In this audio experience, sound designer Shah Tahir compensates for the lack of physical exhibits that we would have experienced in the museum by immersing us in his soundscapes. He plunges us into the depths of the ocean or plonks us amidst excited children as we look at orangutans with our minds’ eye. This is a nice contrast to the concrete jungle that one faces due to the current situation.

Phillips’s musings about the odd encounters when educating people about nature, or what drew her to environmental studies are entertaining and educational. She manages to go into some technical detail without turning someone like me, with very little science background, off.

But what makes this experience valuable are the surprisingly profound insights that one gains from her observations. In the last segment, what starts off as an explanation of a well-known event unexpectedly evolved into a meditation of life, survival, existence, and death.

Coïncidentally, it started to rain outside towards the last few minutes of my audio experience. Clearly, nature had to get in on the action and add its finishing touches to a well-designed experience.


There will be a live staging of A Grand Design in the near future. Please check Checkpoint Theatre’s website and their social media for updates.

[Theatre Review] Thick Beats for Good Girls — More Than Fist-Pumping and Finger-Flicking

Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Thick Beats for Good Girls
Checkpoint Theatre
17 April 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
5-22 April 2018

I never had any affection towards hip-hop. While I appreciate its origins in protest, self-expression, and instantiation of one’s existence, the modern ones that are popular enough to be broadcast constantly seem to be excessive.

Furthermore, whatever ingenuity that reside in the lyrics are often drowned out by brash beats. The majority that pulsate to them seem to do so solely for the largely repetitive beats, and only hardcore fans would bother to look at the lyrics.

As such, it is no surprise that my arms are folded as Checkpoint Theatre’s Thick Beats for Good Girls began. But as the show unfolded, so do my arms.

The show, co-written and performed by Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy, does have its share of railing against society and middle-finger-flicking. But at its heart, it takes particular instances of their personal struggles, and how hip-hop serves as a refuge and an outlet of expression, and compels the audience to consider how this has wider resonances.

The chief merit of the show is its ability to go from relaying very personal anecdotes, such as discovering one’s sexuality vis-à-vis the strictures of their religious upbringing, to speaking about the oppression of the Jews throughout history—a particularly arresting moment by Bellamy.

What is refreshing is their critique of politics, and the illiberalism of certain people who are purportedly advocating for social justice. While the duo do not make an overt connection, the parallels between the prescriptivity of their religions stipulating what makes a good girl, and insinuations of what makes a good feminist (to some, listening to hip-hop is definitely not an ideal trait) are striking.

Through the oft-quoted line of the show in which the pair asks whether one’s feminism is big enough to encompass them, they advocate for a more inclusive movement through an intersectional lens.

While this leaves open the questions of what constitutes an intersection and whether a movement must truly account for all intersections, even if they conflict with each other, the pair must be thanked for introducing an often overlooked nuance in the debate.

With this being a very personal show, it is buoyed up by the friendship that the performers share. While Pooja Nansi, started off somewhat cautiously, she soon got into the groove (what is the hip-hop equivalent?) of things. From then on, there is an ease of interaction on stage and both happily role-play various characters in each other’s anecdotes, which makes it all the more entertaining.

That said, like the music they love, the show does have its excesses. While I appreciate the conscious effort having parallel stories for every theme, not all of them are as impactful as the ones presented by the other. Additionally, the choice of transition in which the performers ask whether good girls should do certain things starts off as an intellectual provocation, but it soon turns into a trope. After a while, one stops listening to the question and simply waits for the next anecdote.

Even though my arms are unfolded, one will not see me gyrate on the dance floor or pump my fist in the air anytime soon. However, if there is an incidental encounter with hip-hop music, I would be happy to strain my ears and tease out the thick message within the thick beats.   

Other Reviews

The soundtrack of their youthby Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

Sisters are doing it for themselvesby Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

‘Thick Beats for Good Girls’ Keeps it 100by Patricia Tobin, ArtsEquator

Thick Beats for Good Girlsby Naeem Kapadia, CrystalWords

Thick Beats for Good Girls: A Love Letter to Hip-Hop | Singapore Theatre Reviewby Arman Shah, The Everyday People

Review: Thick Beats for Good Girls by Checkpoint Theatreby Richard Neo, Bak Chor Mee Boy

Thick Beats for Good Girls: Breaking Down Social Constructs with Hip Hop by Teo Dawn, Popspoken

[Interview] Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy on Good Girls and Thick Beats

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

To kick off their 2018 season, Checkpoint Theatre presents Thick Beats for Good Girls. To find out what exactly are “thick beats” or “good girls”, I decided to interview writer-performers Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy.

Both of you come from different cultures. What do you think is your culture’s view of what constitutes a good girl?

Jessica A good Jewish girl is respectful. She doesn’t draw too much attention to herself. She accepts the rules taught to her by her community. She is, of course, allowed to have fun, to express herself, to find joy—but she is also very aware of how her community might feel about some types of behaviour being more acceptable than others.

Pooja: A good Gujarati girl knows how to make the perfect rotli. She puts her community before herself and considers how others will see her before making choices in the way she dresses, who she dates and the things she chooses to say.

What was your first encounter when you were told or felt that you did not fit into society’s definition of a good girl?

Jessica:  Before I started making theatre, I was in a Jewish monoculture “bubble”. I went to a Jewish school and had Jewish friends. It was only when I took up student theatre in university that I encountered a much wider array of different personalities. Suddenly I realised there was a wider world out there than just being a good Jewish girl. And out here, I could do whatever I wanted.

Pooja:  When I was about eight years old, my maternal grandfather passed away and it was the first time I was told that women were not allowed to perform certain rites in the funeral. It was then that I realised that I lived in a world where women and men couldn’t do exactly the same things. But I remember thinking, “Who is going to stop me from doing exactly what I want?”

What was the first thick beat that you really resonated with? Why?

Pooja: It was hearing “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect at Killimanjaros on Boat Quay on the 27th of Nov 1998. It was my 18th birthday and I had never before experienced anything quite as euphoric as a whole room full of people chanting to the same beat and the same song.

Jessica:  Kanye West’s album, 808s & Heartbreaks, straddled too many genres for me not to notice it. It was an album of lovesick, heartbroken ballads. I knew that sort of music very well from the blues and roots music I loved. When I realised this music could be teamed with dexterous lyrics, cheek and swagger, I was sold.

While some hip-hop and gangster rap are expressions of protest, there are some that have themes of gratuitous violence and sex. Given your strong interests in social justice, how do you reconcile both sides of the genre?

Jessica: There’s nothing wrong with writing about violence or sex. The problem is performing violence as well as non-consensual sexuality. It is important for people to recognise that all rap artists have the ability to write fiction. Just because their lyrics are presented passionately or crudely doesn’t mean this particular person did those things. But, evoking a world where people behave in this way is important, because it does exist. It holds a mirror to life, where the colour of your skin might determine the education you receive, your treatment by the criminal justice system, and your ability to survive a traffic stop. Like the best literature, rap music forces us to think deeply about our values.

Pooja: If you are living in a community in which you constantly feel the threat of violence and aggression against yourself and against the people that you love, it’s not surprising that the art that you make would reflect this reality.

I think the question we need to ask is: What’s the bigger problem? The violence in the lyrics, or the fact that there are entire communities in that position to begin with? I also think that sometimes when you’re up against a wall, the only way to exact change is to skip the perfunctory polite conversations and use anger instead. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says that anger expressed and translated into action, in the service of our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification. Anger can be a powerful source of information and energy, and that for me is hip-hop at its best.

While both of you are no strangers to theatre, you are primarily known as writers. What is one thing that actors can learn from writers and vice versa?

Pooja: I am discovering the ridiculous amount of stamina you need as an actor!

Jessica: And in particular: actors who can also dance! HOW DO THEY DO IT?

Pooja: There’s also that interesting tension between thinking about the text as a performer and wanting to constantly tweak it as a writer. The thing about wearing both hats is that you can keep shaping the piece infinitely, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Jessica: Any creative process is a beautiful tussle however, and I’m enjoying this internal tussle very much.

As this is a very personal play, are there any personal discoveries about yourself or each other that have arisen in the course of rehearsals?

Jessica: Pooja introduced me to her hairdresser and I love him. Now I have to fly to Singapore every time I want my hair cut.

Pooja: Jess wears print on print with so much swagger, it is ridiculous.

What is one thick beat that everyone should listen to right now?

Jessica: Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”. It’s an essential reminder for self-love during a time of struggle.

Pooja: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It’s the hope we all need in a difficult time.

Thick Beats for Good Girls runs from 5–22 April 2018 at Drama Centre Black Box, National Library. Tickets from Sistic.

[Interview]Lucas Ho on his new play, Frago

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

Fresh from its successful re-staging of Faith Ng’s Normal, Checkpoint Theatre continues its 15th anniversary celebrations with Frago, a new play by associate artist Lucas Ho. 

Inspired by his reservist experiences, and billed as “a timely look at [an] intergral rite of passage for Singaporean men and the forging of bonds between those not bound by blood,” I caught up with Lucas to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write the play? Was there a specific incident that happened in your life that compelled you to write it?

There wasn’t a specific incident that led to my writing of the play. But as I returned for reservist year after year, I observed some changes and shifts that men in my unit were undergoing as they began to make their way through their 20s into their 30s.  Some were getting married and settling down; some were contemplating career changes and further studies; and some were simply trundling along. I was fascinated by the different ways in which each of them grappled with adulthood and manhood.

Other playwrights such as Michael Chiang and Chong Tze Chien have also set their plays within the context of National Service to explore societal issues. What is it about the military context that makes it a fertile ground to explore such issues?

Tze Chien’s Charged used national service to examine uncomfortable truths about race relations in Singapore, while Michael Chiang’s Army Daze focused on enlistment as a rite of passage, and the confounding and absurd ways boys stumble into manhood. I love both plays dearly, and I think what drew them to write about national service is that it gathers men with apparently very little in common in the same space. And then these men have to go through some very intense experiences together, which brings certain things into sharper focus: their values systems, their long-held beliefs, their fears and their joys. And those things can greatly cleave people together or apart.

What happens when those men—who have had these very intense shared experiences —are made to come together and re-live them over and over again? How does age lead them to perceive their youth? How does their perception of each other shift? Those were things I was interested to explore. Frago is focused on the reservist experience. Reservists essentially do exactly what the full-time NSmen have to do in terms of physical activities and operational exercises, but in a very compressed amount of time every year, over a period of 10 years.

Are you very involved with the rehearsal process? Having watched the actors bring your script to life, has it made you see your own reservist experience in a different light?

We only just started rehearsals, but Huzir has requested that I be present especially during the early phases to serve as a “technical advisor” to the cast because the play is set specifically within an armoured infantry unit. After listening to the actors at our first table read, I found myself wishing that my reservist mates and I could have had deeper conversations, instead of skirting around talking about the things that truly mattered to us.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to enlist, or about to go through reservist for the first time?

NS is a rare opportunity to meet people you normally wouldn’t, beyond your socio-economic circle. So seek to get to know and understand those around you as much as possible. In this day and age, we really do need to listen to each other more, and if men put aside the anger and frustration so often associated with NS, we can pave the way for a more empathetic version of ourselves.

Frago runs from 13–23 July 2017 at Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets at $45 from Sistic

[Book Review] Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

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Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2015)/ 408 pp./ SGD 29.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

If one were to peruse the syllabus of a Singapore English-Language Theatre module offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it categorises the playwrights into three generations. The publication of Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1 marks the start of the fourth generation.

The whole collection is tinged with a deep sense of ambivalence. Rather than focus on what constitutes Singapore theatre or champion certain issues which were the main concerns of the previous generations, Tan explores what it means to be living in Singapore and dealing with what life throws at you. To aid this exploration, he constantly uses the context of failed or unfulfilled relationships, in subtly different ways, to show the complexity and vulnerability of his characters.

In Family Outing, Joseph plans to come out to his family as a gay man. He gets electrocuted after a freak accident and his boyfriend, Daniel, tells his family the truth a year later. On the surface, this plot appears to be about a family accepting or rejecting the son’s sexual orientation. However, there underlies a certain uneasiness about family relationships and what it means to be a gay man.

After the initial outrage, Joseph’s mother and brother try to reconcile Joseph’s sexual orientation with the Joseph whom they know. Scenes from the past and present intersect one another on stage as they negotiate and come to terms with Joseph’s sexuality. While one’s sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity, does it mean that the Joseph the family knows is less of a person? If so, does one sexual orientation matter more to one’s identity as compared to other areas of one’s life?

Towards the end of the play, there are intimations that Joseph’s mother and brother have a slight inkling about his homosexuality but chose to ignore it due to their deep religious beliefs. This throws a new complexion on the matter as this has got to do with familial relationships and the violence members of family inflict on one another through denial or the supposed desire to protect. This estrangement is further enhanced when we realise that what we are seeing is Joseph’s fantasy which leaves open the possibility that the family might reject him instead.

With this being one of his earliest plays, Tan displays a great deal of sophistication in being able to pack all these into a light-hearted play which is brought out by the brother’s antics and the mother who is slightly prone to histrionics. While Tan manages to balance the moods of the play well, he is a little overambitious with including all these different layers in the play especially—as Tan himself admits— the fact that it is Joseph’s fantasy may not come across clearly.

The ambivalence of being a gay man is also seen in That Daniel but it focuses on a young man fitting into the gay culture. In this deeply personal monodrama, Tan displays his linguistic dexterity in expounding on the pressures of conforming to a certain type and how this might affect one’s relationship with food. This is best encapsulated by the metaphor of noodles as Daniel says:

“We are noodles, we begin life as lumps of human starchiness, sliced by the noodle-cutter of life into pretty shapes, acceptable to the human eye and fit for human consumption, palatable” (271).

The richness of the gastronomical descriptions enhances the poignancy of the play as Daniel realises that he has pursued unrequited love at the expense of a certain happiness that he finds in food. It might be tempting to say that everyone faces a similar pressure to conform, but—as Isherwood’s A Single Man points out—it unfairly whitewashes the experiences of the individual. While this play does not enlighten us about the particularities of the pressures faced by gay men, it compels sympathy and reflection that hopefully precedes conversation.

That said, I wished this play was a wee bit longer. Tan sees this play as an optimistic one because he sees Daniel making a positive change after coming to a certain realisation. However, we only see Daniel coming to terms with his hurt and it stops there. This realisation could have made a positive or negative impact on Daniel which is why there should be a hint of what is to come.

Aside from linguistic versatility, Tan is keen to experiment with form and structure which is clearly seen in Postgrads and People.

The phrase “true-to-life” has been used and abused by critics of all stripes, but this term is most apt for Postgrads. The trajectory of life’s events does not follow a curve of climax and resolution, some conversations are never had, and some relationships remain unfulfilled. More importantly, one does not necessarily have a clear reason for doing something. And that is what confounds a group of housemates who are postgraduate students when one of them decides to drop out of the PHD programme.

While the conversations consist of feel-good reminiscences, private regrets, and banal chatter, there is a mounting sense of resignation and sadness. The atmosphere may be relatively serene, but the conversations appear to be a desperate attempt to forestall the final goodbye. Despite the fact that the play is crafted in a certain way due to the demands of the commission, Tan excels in infusing a certain sensitivity and subtlety to his play and it does not feel that he is consciously working around certain limitations that were placed on him.

The vignettes in People, which are either monologues or duologues, make it the most ambitious play in the whole collection. Tan once again returns to the motif of estranged relationships and see variations of it play out across a cross-section of society.  Set in either Singapore or Tokyo, there is a distinctively urban sensibility to it as we see the characters relate to others either across geography, class, or on a spiritual level. Tan’s ear for dialogue is apparent as he captures the milieu that the characters operate in. The litmus test for any playwright with regard to Singaporean dialogue is to balance between Singlish and whatever language the working class character speaks. In the hands of a careless writer, the dialogue makes the character nothing more than a caricature. While Francis the mobile phone seller has certain speech quirks that one—rightly or wrongly—associates with the working class, Tan is careful not to overdo it. Additionally, Tan even experiments with verse in the monologues of Nicholas who decides to leave the priesthood.

Given that Tan allows the director to arrange the vignettes as she pleases, this play merits several re-stagings just to see what can be excavated from the text.

Speaking of estranged relationships, the one in Hotel is the most ugly and toxic. Within a few pages, Tan raises all the ugly implications of economic success through the explosive arguments of the rich couple. What is notable is that Tan resists any form of resolution—the argument at the end of the play is interrupted and will probably occur again. Bearing in mind that Hotel is supposed to be a reimagined history of The Arts House (Singapore’s former parliament house), the play serves as a fitting platform for Tan to rail against the excesses of Singapore. Its brevity also ensures that it does not go overboard.

Mosaic explores another form of emotional violence in our lives—the destruction of physical space, and the memories that go with it, in the name of progress. However, violence is also inflicted upon one’s memories if it is co-opted and turned into some kind of fetish or commercial enterprise. This play thus juxtaposes both forms of violence and expresses a deep sense of ambivalence towards the efficacy and appropriacy of popular causes such as heritage activism.

This is embodied by Sharon, the protagonist who ropes in her boyfriend and tries to organise a demonstration against the authorities tearing down an old playground. She is clearly unable to rally people to her cause and when asked what how she is going about the event, she retorts: “Nothing is going to happen, why must thing always happen? What we’re doing is symbolic […]” (212, original emphasis). Later on, she tells Rong Cheng, a passer-by who lives nearby and used to play in the playground that the “playground is like a tile in the giant mosaic that is the things I care about” (222). However, a mosaic on the whole should form a coherent picture but her specious replies and lack of planning cast doubts on the coherence of her pet causes. The conflict between Sharon and Rong Cheng also raises the question of whether someone can legitimately oppose any governmental re-development projects if she does not have any prior relationship to the place.

Tan’s talents are seen in how, on one level, the characters are symbolic of certain things and their conflicts and interactions becomes a dialectic about activism. On another level, the settings and situations are entirely naturalistic and the characters are not reduced to being mouthpieces for a certain position. At the end, Tan could not help but employ the same motif of a failed relationship to bring up themes of moving on, letting go, and the difficulty of doing so as we often have a complex relationship with the past.

The Way We Go is a reworking of Tan’s second full length play that was written as part of a playwriting module at NUS. In it, he explores what it means to love yourself and another by having two parallel romances; the lesbian relationship between two convent school students (Gillian and Lee-Ying) and that of the school’s principal and a cousin of her colleague (Agatha and Edmund). The former relationship fails due to a difference in temperament and goals while the latter is disrupted by death.

Tan employs counter-directional narratives to allow for the parallel relationships to be shown on stage in an economical way. It also shows Edmund dealing with the hurt and finding his way back to the first moment he saw Agatha. This allows him to find closure and begin again. This play rewards the careful reader as a careless one will only see it as containing snapshots of the lives of the characters and nothing more.

That said, Violet (Edmund’s cousin and Agatha’s colleague) feels like a convenient device for the couple to meet and the two romances could have been a little more inter-connected in some way.

Perhaps, it is due to this early and extended exploration of dealing with love, lost, and moving on that led Tan to re-use the motif of failed relationships over and over again. While there is an effort to use it in various ways, Tan has stretched it to its limits this early in his career.

However, this does not detract from the sensitivity, subtlety, and a strong voice which Tan clearly possesses. In this collection, he resists being didactic and focuses on the individual and sometimes painful story of simply dealing with everyday life. He has also shown that he can use this lens to reflect on wider societal issues.

In the interview that is included in the book, he says he is interested in writing political plays which are rooted in the experience of living in Singapore rather than those which preach to the choir. Judging from his output in this collection, I await the next phase of his writing career with much excitement.