[Interview] Director Aarne Neeme on ITI’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

The final graduation production for the 2022 cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. True to the ethos of the institute, this production features various performance traditions. I interviewed director Aarne Neeme to find out more about the show.

Why did you choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the production for the students to work on?

The choice of the graduation play is a group decision by the teaching staff — relating largely to the student needs and composition. This year we had a relatively large number of talented students, including strong women, which A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave opportunities for, together with the challenges of a Shakespearean play. While I have directed well over a dozen of his creations, this is my first encounter with the Dream, and I am relishing it!

Why did you decide to weave in Beijing opera, Kutiyattam, and Wayang Wong, performing traditions in which students have received some training in, into the show? How did you decide on which characters in the play would take a particular tradition?

One of the aims of ITI is to draw from the rich resources of both traditional Eastern and Western forms. Given the four layers of the play (the Spirit world, Athenian Court, Mechanicals and the “Performance”), it seemed an ideal opportunity to utilise elements of the training to delineate them. While there is no attempt to fully replicate any of the forms, we have simply used aspects to illuminate the differing worlds of the play.

India was the main source of most theatre in Asia, and with its spiritual beliefs, seemed to be the most appropriate for the world of Oberon and Titania. While the formality and morality of Chinese Opera befitted the Athenian aristocracy. This left the largely movement based style of Wayang Wong to the working men, with a touch of Elizabethan theatre for the play-within-the-play.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What are some of the difficulties in working on the show especially in negotiating across four theatrical traditions?

The greatest challenge is the poetic Elizabeth language (even for native-born English speakers!). Sir Peter Hall puts it as: “The first question that the actor must ask about a Shakespearean speech is not who he is playing or what the character wants, first he must ask WHAT the character says and HOW he says it. The reverse of modern practice.” The delivery requires an understanding of sound and placement to enrich meaning. There was no confusion of traditions in specific characters, as they each belonged to separate forms.

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

I was struck by the universal similarities of theatre presentation — story-telling through action with the imaginative power of poetry, abetted by music and dance, all on a bare stage lit by the audiences’ imagination. Also our shared human vagaries of being in love confused by infatuation, dream and fantasy, with society’s attempts to control it through reason, rules and the order of marriage. The play presents eight variations of love’s entanglements, leading finally to three marriages, a reconciliation, a meaningless encounter and the ultimate heroic foolishness of dying for love.


Catch It!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from 3-5 November 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

[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.