[Theatre Review] Asylum by ITI — Where Safety and Humanity Collide

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.

Other Reviews

“[Review] Asylum — These Ties That Bind” by Philippe Pang, Arts Republic

Further Reading

Interview with Jean Tay (playwright) and Oliver Chong (director)

Interview with ITI students

Leprosy: A Story of Suffering, But Also of Hope by Danielle Lim, BiblioAsia (Apr-Jun 2020)

[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.

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

L-R: Tobi (played by Aaron Kaiser Garcia) and Gaga (played by Kewal Kartik) / Photo: Bernie Ng

RevoLOOtion
Intercultural Theatre Institute
29 April 2021
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
29 April–1 May 2021

To most of us, we hardly give a second thought about lavatories because we expect them to be there. But the run on loo rolls in 2020 compels us to pause for thought. 

Perhaps this makes the urban Singaporean audiences amenable to RevoLOOtion, a showcase by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conceived as a performance and a workshop, the audience is split into three groups: public service officer, bulldozer, and villager. We then witness a story about a village whose sole lavatory is slated for demolition and the reactions of some villagers.

Baba (Marvin Acero Ablao), the village elder, is resigned to it. Gaga (Kewal Kartik), the orphan, wants a peaceful protest. Tobi (Aaron Kaiser Garcia), the general worker, wants to fight. Yaku (Sandeep Yadav), the carpenter, is worried about how this confrontation will affect his livelihood and family. Long (Lin Jiarui), the farmer, is worried about his mother. Lutin (Sonu Pilania), the shopkeeper, wants to negotiate. 

The diversity and contradictory desires and plans of the characters result in a terrible outcome. The audience members, in their respective roles, are then asked to come up with an action plan to change the outcomes.

L-R: Lutin (played by Sonil Pilania) and Baba (played by Marvin Acero Ablao) / Photo: Bernie Ng

While the performance manages to elicit some sympathy for the villagers, it stops short of winning the audience over to their side. The motivations of the characters, both in the text and performance, are not fully fleshed out.

For example, it is not clear why Lutin gives up and lies to Yaku after being rebuffed by the public service officer in his attempt to negotiate over the phone. Why would he make things worse by lying, rather than saying he failed? 

Perhaps the creative team decided on some restraint so that the audience does not assume too much or how the characters would react. This might limit the possibilities of how the audience decides to intervene later. 

Even so, there must be a sense that the character truly believes that he has done all he can given the circumstances. However, this was not fully conveyed.

That said, the actors do possess a certain synergy and manage to build up the tension in each succeeding scene up to the final confrontation with the bulldozers.

Long (played by Lin Jiarui) / Photo: Bernie Ng

The workshop section was deftly facilitated by Li Xie (who also directed the show), Chng Xin Xuan, and Chng Yi Kai. We are shown possible intervention points and are required to come up with an action plan to hopefully create a better outcome. 

As the scenario plays out, there was an emphasis on taking it step-by-step rather than pushing for an ultimate conclusion. Li Xie reminded us that we were not there to change the world; a small change is still a change.

While most workshops of this nature focus on empowering the audience to have their voices heard and make a change, a refreshing element is the facilitators asking the characters how they feel about the alternative scenario. They then express that feeling through a shape or gesture. 

This provides an alternative view of the impact the audience’s plan has on others, and a start to more conversations if we had more time. 

The sceptical part of me thinks that the conditions presented were too ideal as everyone had goals in a similar direction. However, what left an impression was Li Xie encouraging the representative from the villagers group to think of more alternatives. After all, a change—however small—is better than the status quo. 

The challenge is to scale this up and apply this to our public discourse.

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

“#unravellingimpressions of RevoLOOtion by ITI – Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Ke Weiliang, unravelling Facebook page.

“[Review] RevoLOOtion – Walk alone so it’s faster, or walk together so we can go further?” by Yaiza Canapoli, Arts Republic.

“★★★☆☆ Review: RevoLOOtion by Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Interview] A Chat with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

When I first found out about the premise of RevoLOOtion, a production presented by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), I was most intrigued by there being a workshop element which will explicitly require audience participation.

With safe distancing measures still in place, the premise seems to be intentionally going against the current. Could there be a radical re-conception of what constitutes as audience participation?

Following my interview with the cast of RevoLOOtion, I contacted the director, Li Xie, to find out more about her inspiration and process.

There seems to be a toilet theme in the show. Could you give us more clues about what the show is about, and how does the theme relate to oppression?

The toilet can be seen as a basic right, it can also be symbolic.

When something that matters to you is taken away by force, what can we do as a community?

What inspired you to create this piece?

Sometimes it is clear where the external oppression lies, but it is important to understand what breaks us down internally as a community.

Only when that is achieved will social change be possible, and we can then gather as a community guided by unity, tolerance, and non-violence.

What are some of the challenges in creating a workshop element, which requires audience participation in the midst of the pandemic? Has this given you new perspectives on audience participation?

The audience is always participating, even when they are silently watching a performance. They participate in their own reflective and mysterious ways, even in silence.

In the workshop, we want to experiment with verbal, physical and communal participation. However, with the pandemic and social distancing, it’s both challenging and intriguing. They can’t leave their seats, mingle freely with other audience members, move and execute the actions they wish to do, or physically immerse themselves in the scenes with the characters.

But deep down, is there an urge to express and take action because you witnessed an injustice? That’s our challenge. How do we fulfil and externalise that urge to address it physically without moving? How do they break the silence and empower others too? How do they work as a community when their actions affect others?

There are many ways to be heard, to act, to impact, to change, to disobey, to negotiate, to suggest and to resolve, no matter how suppressed the circumstances are.

We must find a way out together, against the odds.


RevoLOOtion runs from 29 April to 1 May 2021 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

Tickets from Peatix.

[Interview] Looking at Oppression with RevoLOOtion

Next week, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present RevoLOOtion, a performance-workshop that looks at oppression. I spoke to the students involved in the production to find out more about the show.

If you are only given three words to describe RevoLOOtion, what would they be?

Aaron Kaiser Garcia: Fresh, Brave, Powerful.

Lin Jiarui: Discover, Explore, Solve.

Kewal Kartik: Basic, Authentic, Reminder.

Marvin Acero Ablao: Challenging, Transformative, Understanding.

Sandeep Yadav: Power, Democracy vs Majority, and Onion (to me, RevoLOOtion symbolises an onion, with the audience and cast working together to remove the layers piece by piece in the production).

Sonu Pilania: Wake Up, Speak and Speak Loud.

What inspired you to create this piece?

Aaron: The inspiration came from an incident reported on the news several years ago about a community with no toilet.

Sandeep: The simplicity of complicated oppression situated in this piece, which is related to every human’s fundamental rights.

The core curriculum of ITI consists of being immersed in various traditional Asian performance forms. How has your training influenced your approach in creating this piece?

Aaron: The performance may not showcase any of the traditional Asian performance forms we’ve learnt, but the immersion has helped us in (1) creating a common vocabulary as a cohort made up of different specific cultural backgrounds and (2) our grounding and presence for a contemporary stage performance.

Jiarui: Rasa’ in Kutiyattam helps us better communicate with the invisible characters onstage. At the same time, ‘Liang Xiang‘ in Beijing Opera helps us in making moments in the piece better.

Kewal: I believe the training we receive in ITI prepares us to adapt to any form or challenge.

I see this production as a rugby match — it’s intense yet subtle, and everyone is taking turns running with the ball trying to protect it from others. Actually, we’re all helping each other to hold the ball for the required duration. In the same breath, the immersion of traditional forms has provided the strength to hold that ball. It made sure that we don’t let the spectators’ gaze move away from the ball — the illusion of snatching the ball is maintained.

Marvin: It is the tough and valuable training I’ve received here at ITI that has greatly influenced my approach in this production — to not give up easily in the face of self-doubt.  

Sandeep: Art requires different approaches and processes, and these are the approaches that have influenced me in this production.

From Wayang Wong, I adopted the body pilgrimage element when wearing my character’s costume, which helps me to prepare psychologically and physically. Kutiyattam has helped me with my breath control, improving my ‘rasa’ (emotions). Noh has helped me feel grounded in my character, and I’m able to build a sense of awareness with both the space and my co-actors.

Our voice training with Simon Stollery has helped me relax my voice. He has also provided us with incredible voice techniques to use in this production. Humanities classes with T. Sasitharan has fostered critical thinking and self-reflection in me, allowing me to find depth in my characterisation.

Six actors rehearsing a scene from RevoLOOtion

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What are some of the difficulties in creating this piece, especially in the midst of the pandemic?

Aaron: The differences in perspective and the COVID-19 restrictions during the devising process.

Jiarui:
Invisible walls have been built between the audience and the actors, which makes it difficult for us to communicate with them and limits the piece’s impact on both parties.

Marvin:
Being a person who doesn’t like confrontation, the workshop segment has been quite a struggle for me. When it gets chaotic and challenging, it becomes difficult for me to process and comprehend information in my head. However, I’m learning to take my time to break my thoughts down slowly.

Sandeep:
The biggest difficulty is sharing the stage with my co-actors and the audience within the safe management rules.  

Sonu:
We are creating a production that is like forum theatre, an interactive theatre form. It encourages audience interaction and explores different options for dealing with social issues. However, with the pandemic and social distancing, our interaction with the audience becomes limited. So we have to find a substitute for that and adapt.

Were there any interesting discoveries made during the rehearsal process?

Aaron: A discovery we are articulating in the production is that what breaks down a community are differing perspectives of what is the best course of action to take as a community and a lack of understanding.

Jiarui:
It isn’t difficult to solve problems in the creative process, and it is very interesting to create solvable problems.

We also hope that this production will not only expose the audience to oppression, but allow them to explore the source of oppression and try to solve it. Even if we can’t overcome it in the end, we can at least make the outcome slightly better.

Kewal: I really enjoy the workshop segment, where we invite the audience to participate in unlocking the complexities of working together through collective intervention and come up with their own solutions based on constructive dialogue. As Augusto Boal once said, “Everyone can do theatre – even actors. And theatre can be done everywhere, even inside theatres”, as he believes that “life and theatre are related enterprises; ordinary citizens are actors who are simply unaware of the play, and everyone can make theatre, even the untrained.” The workshop segment changes the dynamic of the whole piece, and despite the social distancing, I believe the audience will feel the urge to join us in making theatre. This piece is constantly changing shape, and I’m looking forward to bringing it to the audience at Goodman Arts Centre.  

Sonu:
How to find new and innovative ways to interact with the audience.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What is one sort of oppression that society should pay more attention to?

Aaron: Oppression is present in any form — from the smallest to the biggest encounters in our daily lives. We, as humans, need to be responsible, vigilant and sensitive in our actions towards others.
 
Jiarui:
We should pay more attention to the oppression that exists around us and try to overcome them.

Marvin: There is a wide spectrum of oppression, but I believe we can achieve understanding and compassion despite our different values and beliefs through constructive dialogue.

Kewal: Oppression exists everywhere, and every form of it should be questioned. Sometimes, it’s so ingrained in a culture, tradition, custom or system that it becomes difficult to even identify it. So we need to identify, acknowledge and stand against it whenever and wherever it’s found. We can start with the oppression that exists in a household or a community. Here I’d like to quote Periyar E. V. Ramasamy:

“If a larger country oppresses a smaller country, I’ll stand with the smaller country. If the smaller country has majoritarian religion that oppresses minority religions, I’ll stand with minority religions. If the minority religion has caste and one caste oppresses another caste, I’ll stand with the caste being oppressed. In the oppressed caste, if an employer oppresses his employee, I’ll stand with the employee. If the employee goes home and oppresses his wife, I’ll stand with that woman. Overall, oppression is my enemy.”

Sandeep: Oppression within the community.

Sonu:
Society should pay deeper attention to environmental oppression.


RevoLOOtion runs from 29 April to 1 May 2021 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[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

[Interview] 4.48 Psychosis is “already an intercultural work to me”, Director Andy Ng Wai-Shek

In slightly over a week, the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present the first ever multi-lingual adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. I spoke to director Andy Ng Wai-Shek, an award-winning practitioner from Hong Kong  and alumnus of ITI’s pioneering batch, to find out more about the production.

Andy Ng Wai-Shek / Courtesy of ITI

How does it feel to return to your alma mater as a guest director? How has ITI changed over the years since you were a student?

I still feel very much part of the school even though I have met different faces. There is a vibration that keeps reminding me this is where I came from. After 17 years, I’ve come to realise how this programme isn’t just about simply doing theatre — it’s about personal perceptual experiences.

This programme synthesises the differences between cultures; perceptions of different bodily experiences; the possible marriage of body and mind; and, most importantly, the unanswerable question of how to put different training methods into one. It sets a foundation of life-long research for a person in the evolution of his life. In fact, this is the research I’m still doing all these years since my graduation. I suggest ITI can also play a role to encourage the research.

4.48 Psychosis is not immediately thought of as an intercultural work. What drew you to adapt this piece for ITI?

It is already an intercultural work to me when I knew that I had to work with students from Taiwan, Malaysia, India, and Korea. 4.48 Psychosis is more on personal thoughts and feelings than drama. The structure of it drifts on a stream of consciousness. It is logically disrupted. In other words, it can be very personal.

Though the work is in English, I would like them to try certain scenes in their mother tongue. The idea of it is that there are five storytellers telling the story, sometimes deeply immersing themselves into the very thoughts and feelings of “I”. One of my interest when directing is the connection between one’s consciousness and his or her being. Now, the text says it. The actors need to find their ways to reveal it. They show me according to what they can do individually. That’s already intercultural.

ITI’s graduating cohort rehearsing 4.48 Psychosis / Courtesy of ITI

Given that your actors are from different countries and from all walks of life, were there any interesting conversations about mental health that arose during the rehearsals?

I had depression since last August and have recently stopped my medication. I shared my experience with the students. They shared their experiences with me and their fellow peers. Some students have also consulted a counsellor. I think depression or mental health is already a common issue nowadays, it is just a matter of seeing whether it is serious enough for a person to consult a doctor or not. I am not interested in telling a story of mental disorder. I think the playwright did try her last call for help. Why? I hope that the audience can understand that.

Could you give us a glimpse of what the show would be like? Do you tap on the actors’ intercultural training in your direction of the show?

Five storytellers telling this story, using a psycho-physical approach to develop the work of a visual poem. Yes, some of the scenes to use their intercultural training, but it’s a different look. How so? You will have to come to the show to find out.


4.48 Psychosis by Intercultural Theatre Institute runs from 12–14 March 2020 at The Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

What are some of the difficulties in adapting Lie With Me to a Singaporean context?

KOR: I believe that creativity comes from problem-solving, so any ‘difficulty’ is actually welcome. Adapting an existing script for the Singapore context was illuminating and hugely enjoyable, as I had the whole cast involved, researching topics for me, assisting with any slang, ensuring the language felt ‘right’ in the mouth. The adaptation might have been challenging were I not in Singapore and so able to check material with the company and seek local knowledge and advice whenever I needed it.

The process of creating this piece is complex in that the you are working with an international cast while adapting a play that was initially set in London to speak about contemporary life in Singapore. Are there any interesting discoveries or conversations that emerged out of the rehearsal process?

KOR: There are obviously some historical, cultural, and social differences between London and Singapore. We discussed everything from gay marriage to employment practices, adjusting one of the character’s storyline so it echoed the relationship with migrant workers in this geographical context. But people are people—there are more similarities than differences. I think the conversations confirmed for me how challenging contemporary life is for young people from every part of the world—from the complex evolving dynamics of work, family and relationships in the digital age, to the notion of truth, responsibility and integrity in this world full of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.

Phillip, you are known for using martial arts and yoga to train your actors. How do these art forms feature in the process of creating this show?

PZ: Two years ago, I spent two weeks at ITI with this group of actors and shared with them the process I have developed in training actors using Asian martial arts and yoga. Six weeks ago, when I arrived back in Singapore, we began our rehearsal process by reviewing this training, and we use the training as a 45-minute warm up before we begin every rehearsal.  Throughout our process of rehearsing Lie with Me, I have drawn on the key underlying principles of the training I teach—coaching the actors with regard to attention and awareness.

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?

PZ:  In their third year, this group of ITI actors  have amassed three years of studio encounters with a wide variety of traditional Asian performances genres as well as with contemporary acting/movement/voice training. These shared training experiences have provided a firm foundation for our work on Lie with Me because they share the same basic underlying principles that inform the training that I have developed. To take one example, Japanese noh performance gradually opens up the performer’s awareness of her feet with its emphasis on the basic ‘noh walk’. This ‘foot awareness’ can be very useful to the actor to  stay centred and grounded in performance.

If you can only offer one reason for audience to watch Lie With Me, what would it be?

KOR: I think it is always exhilarating to see work by those emerging from their training, like butterflies from their cocoons, spreading their wings, about to take flight into the world. I’m always interested in seeing the future makers of performance and culture as they cross the threshold into professional work.

PZ: Come and engage with a group of emerging actors/performers who care deeply about what they are doing as artists.


Lie with Me runs from 7–9 November 2019 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Peatix.