[Interview] Taking Five with Actors of “FIVE”

Actors rehearsing FIVE (Photo: Intercultural Theatre Institute)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ITI Navigates Between Live and Digital Performances with “FIVE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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