[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] Facing Fears with Victoria Chen

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

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

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

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

What drew you to this international collaboration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

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

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

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

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

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


Catch it!

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

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

Lockdown Arts Tally

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore went into lockdown—or what the government calls a “Circuit Breaker” period—from 7 April 2020. On 3 June 2020, we went into the first phase of easing of the restrictions. However, it was so minor that it was no different from a lockdown. On 19 June, we transitioned to Phase Two which meant that most activities can resume with minor conditions attached to them.

As such, I thought it would be interesting just to do an arts tally to highlight how the arts played a part to get us through the lockdown. The tally details the arts that I have consumed from 7 April to 18 June 2020.

Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) by National Theatre

An Enemy of the People <人民公敌> (2014) by Nine Years Theatre

Jane Eyre (2015) by National Theatre & Bristol Old Vic

Treasure Island (2015) by National Theatre

Emily of Emerald Hill (2019) by W!ld Rice

Rosnah (2016) by The Necessary Stage

Supervision (2019) by W!ld Rice

To Whom It May Concern (2011) by The Finger Players

Coronalogues: Silver Linings (2020) by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Harap (Hope) (2017) by Teater Ekamatra

Television

Titoudao (2020) by Oak3 Films & Goh Boon Teck

Books

The Field of Drama (2000) by Martin Esslin

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010) by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro

Song of the Outcast: An Introduction to Flamenco (2003) by Robin Totton

Arts Reviewing: A Practical Guide (2017) by Andy Plaice

Films

Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg


In total, I have watched ten screenings of past theatre productions, one television series, one film, and read four books. 

This is a rather modest tally, but it would not surprise me if over a thousand people had a significant part to play for these works to  come to fruition. It would have been a very different experience had these things and people not exist. 

They are there not merely as a means to kill boredom, but I have derived instruction, conversation, and provocation from these works.