[Interview] Playwright Adib Kosnan talks about his new play, The Karims

The second half of Checkpoint Theatre’s Take It Personally season opens with a new digital production, Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims).

Written by Adib Kosnan, the play looks at how a new son-in-law shifts the family dynamics, which reopens new wounds and surface new tensions.

I contacted Adib, who is also performing in the production, to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write this play?

The inspiration for this play began with my own personal experience of coming into another family as an in-law. While talking to friends who went through the same situation, I found many similarities in terms of our experiences.

What struck me most was how certain attitudes, especially about gender roles, differed in varying degrees amongst families, but always hovered around the same archetypes—who was in charge of certain chores, or who got served first at the dining table. I found these family dynamics fascinating. That was the starting point for me, this constant re-negotiation of spaces and boundaries even as you create your own new culture as a married couple.

I’ve also found that as a Malay Singaporean,  there are certain cultural idiosyncrasies that are prevalent, and sometimes there are religious or cultural ideas that clash with your own set of personal beliefs—navigating these undercurrents was something else I wanted to explore through this story.

This production was initially meant to be staged live, however, it has since changed into a digital production. Has this impacted the way you write in any way?

The decision to stage it as a digital production initially brought mixed feelings for me. There was a sense of excitement and relief that the story could finally be told, but at the same time, I was very aware that certain theatrical moments and nuances I had envisioned would now need to be re-imagined. How do we maintain that feeling of intimate connection with the audience when they are now experiencing the story through a screen rather than sharing immediate space with the cast?

It was very interesting to refine the script while now considering the camera as the literal lens through which the story is experienced. For instance, certain moments could be amplified through a close-up of a facial expression rather than an actor embodying the emotion for the audience to understand. As we worked, I really began to appreciate all the possibilities and nuances that could be captured and portrayed through this new medium of presentation, while still keeping that original essence of the family that I wanted to express. I’m very excited for everyone to experience the final product in September.

As you are also acting in the production, have there been interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process that made you look at the story or the characters anew?

Being part of the performance process as an actor and working with our director, Claire Wong,  is something that I will cherish for a long, long time. Claire’s process of unearthing the depths of each character,  coupled with the other cast members’ layered and thoughtful portrayal of their characters, really helped me understand my own writing in a deeper way.

I discovered—or rather, rediscovered—the different sparks of inspiration that led me to craft these characters, which became a very emotional process for me because the stories came from real places of connection. There were times I even questioned myself whether it would have been better to maintain some distance from the work as its playwright, instead of immersing myself in it as an actor as well, because I was so affected by the words that were spoken. However, that would have meant missing out on an opportunity and process that really pushed me to grow as an artist.

Claire’s careful crafting of the rehearsal process allowed all the actors the space to explore and connect with each other as a family, as well as develop each character’s distinct voice. My character, Aqil, was originally written very much in my personal voice; the Aqil that you see in the play is quite different, but still retains the motivations and empathy that I initially envisioned for him. The challenge of exploring this expanded version of Aqil as an actor felt like a parallel to the play itself: the idea of entering a new group or family and having to adjust and adapt to foster a new dynamic.

Seeing how the other cast members resonated with their own characters, or hearing about the versions of each character that existed in their own families, not only helped to add depth to each character but also gave me a sense of personal validation—that these voices and stories that I was trying to represent by writing this play truly existed and should be told. This entire production has definitely left an indelible mark in my heart.

What is the one thing you love and hate about being in a family?

I think the one thing I both love and hate about being in a family is how connected we become. This connection can be nurturing and fulfilling, but also needs untangling as individuals go through different situations and evolve. Sometimes we continue to communicate with the versions of our family members that still exist in our heads, forgetting that they too may have changed, and that’s when conflict arises. Communication becomes miscommunication. It is easy to be understanding, but difficult to truly understand. But family is family—the love is there to help us get through these rough areas. At least I’d like to think it does, for the most part.


Catch It!

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) will be shown online from 29 September to 15 October 2021.

The performance is in Malay and English (with English subtitles).

[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).

[Interview] Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips on Being Vulnerable

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

The next major highlight of Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, “Take It Personally”, is an eight-part podcast titled Vulnerable. Written and performed by Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, it chronicles her experience of the pandemic as a creative freelancer living with congenital heart disease.

I contacted Phillips to find out more about her inspirations and her process.

Your last project with Checkpoint Theatre was A Grand Design, a one-woman monologue presented in an audio format. Was there anything interesting you learnt from that which you are bringing to this podcast series?

A Grand Design was initially going to be staged at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as a performance-lecture, presented as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2020. The move to an audio experience was initially a practical decision when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, born out of the desire for the work to meet an audience.

I was extremely thrilled when I listened to the audio experience. There is an intimacy that comes with listening with your headphones on, and Shah Tahir’s sound design brings a whole different quality to the experience. I had hoped for the staged version of A Grand Design to be immersive and experiential, and the audio experience version achieved those objectives for me. I’m extremely proud of it. It made me more open to the idea that you do not need bodies in a physical space to share an intimate story, which is also very much the case with Vulnerable.

Why did you decide to create another audio presentation as opposed to a filmed performance?

I needed the audience to focus on the words. Vulnerable comes from a raw personal experience, and every word has its own place. It’s very intentional. With a filmed recording, where audiences may focus more on physical performance, cinematography, etc., the qualities that are so essential to the work would have been diluted.

In a sense, the story required an aural format to bring out its delicacy, and I crafted the words around that. Vulnerable acts like a secret; it should be told directly into the audience’s ears through their headphones.

The experience of the pandemic can be trying. What compelled you to take your deeply personal and difficult experiences and turn it into a podcast series?

Writing Vulnerable has been a process of discovery. I’m learning to be vulnerable, in all the meanings of the word. Deep down, I have to admit that I am still uncomfortable releasing this work — no one wants to divulge personal information like medical history, or loss of freelance gigs and income! But those are the realities that came up when I finally reclaimed that permission to write for myself. If it wasn’t for the support from the team at Checkpoint Theatre, I don’t think Vulnerable would have made it to production.

Did you discover any new insights into what you went through as you articulated your experiences and shaped the narrative of the series?

It’s not really an insight but a challenge: In all our efforts to be nimble in adjusting the work and releasing it as quickly as possible, the situation is constantly evolving on global, national, and personal levels.

The very week we started recording, new clusters were found at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. While in the studio, Huzir Sulaiman, the director and dramaturge, asked me to write a new piece, on the spot, to add to the narrative. This is a line from that piece:

I knew that writing about an ongoing pandemic would mean that something could happen and my story would change and there would be no closure. Because there is truth in the phrase, ‘Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.’

I’ve had to accept that chronicling my experience comes with that level of specificity in capturing time. There’s still material that I go back and forth on, wondering whether it should have made the final cut. But it is this one line that encapsulates why every stage of the journey matters to all of us.

Do you have any advice for those who are feeling uncertain or vulnerable during this difficult time?

I don’t know if I can give advice. I’ve been in that position and I wonder whether advice is the right thing to give. At most, I would encourage you to find the people you can fall into, and land softly. And if this pandemic has weighed you down in any way, I hope you listen to Vulnerable and know that you are not alone.


Catch it!

Vulnerable premiers on Thursday, 17 June 2021. It will be available on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify with two new episodes released every two days. Click on the icons below to access the podcast from your preferred platform.


Related Event

How do we make art to capture history as it unfolds? Will new developments render our stories irrelevant? How do we build resilience for ourselves, and tell these stories with empathy?

On Fri 25 June at 8pm, Cheyenne Alexandria Philips, the writer-performer of Vulnerable, and director-dramaturg Huzir Sulaiman will be in conversation with Daniel Tham, senior curator behind the National Museum of Singapore’s Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 in Singapore.

Join us for this exciting discussion, moderated by Wong Kar Mun Nicole, about exposing our personal triumphs and struggles, reckoning with upheaval through art, and why we need to memorialise a pandemic that we would all rather forget.

Reconsidering Singapore Malay Theatre with Fezhah Maznan

After successful runs of the first two instalments of Baca Skrip, a monthly reading of plays in the Singapore Malay theatre canon presented by Teater Ekamatra and Fezhah Maznan, I interviewed Fezhah to find out more about the project.

 What drew you to this project?

The pandemic got me in a paralysis. Not only based on what was happening in Singapore but also what I had experienced internationally having flown in and out of Singapore in March due to a death in the family. The time that I took to retreat and recalibrate gave me the opportunity to look at what was happening in Singapore theatre and to consider how I would like to respond.

One of the biggest absence I observed then was the lack of Malay theatre programmes. It’s not surprising as there are not that many active Malay theatre companies and the main headliner, Teater Ekamatra had been decimated by two cancelled productions. At the same time, I was and still am very concerned by how my theatre colleagues suddenly found themselves without jobs for the unforeseeable future. Having been a freelancer at the start of my journey in the arts, I know how hard it is to put food on the table. It’s even harder in a pandemic.

It was also then that Centre 42 went onto Zoom to celebrate their 6th anniversary and presented a reading of WRITES by Robin Loon. I was very blown away by how simple and affective the reading was, and I must credit Centre 42 for being the trigger to this project.

What made the production team decide to revisit some seminal works instead of creating a new piece?

We are always caught up in the newer, fresher and the never-been-done-before. If nothing else, this pandemic has really taught me to sit still and appreciate what we already have. So this project started with a simple idea—to sit and (re)consider works from Singaporean Malay playwrights, works that you cannot not mention when you recount the history of contemporary Malay theatre in Singapore. When else could you sit again with these texts? Additionally, there is very little effort in documenting the work done in Singapore Malay theatre. So revisiting these works also help to record a slice of history from the perspective of the playwrights.

I actually imagined this to be a simple reading but Irfan Kasban and Noor Effendy Ibrahim have pushed the bar further by reworking on their scripts and directions for their 2020 audience and also for the digital platform. I am fuelled by their enthusiasm and I admire how patient they are to play around with the digital plane in delivering a ‘live’ reading.

Coming out from our first presentation with Irfan’s Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa, our audience did appreciate how the reading was directed and the earnestness that came through the screen.

What were some of the difficulties in creating this work given that everyone cannot be in the same room?

At the start of the rehearsal, under normal circumstances, there is always time to breathe and be together. There are hugs, jokes, greetings and commiserating. Unfortunately, this doesn’t automatically translate when we rehearse digitally. We came in and immediately started to work. However, this was something that didn’t work out very well for us. So after the first rehearsal with the first cast, we decided to begin our rehearsals with ample time to be together before going into notes or reading.

There is of course the unpredictability of technology. We are not sure if the WIFI connectivity is going to drop or if the platform is going to fail us. There is a HUGE amount of uncertainty. Every rehearsal we find ourselves faced with new issues to deal with from lighting to echoes to mysterious issues that blacked out our surtitles.

All of these sound scary but I am sure it’s only happening because we are just getting to know the virtual platform. I am confident (foolishly or not) that this will only get better with time and lots of practice!

Has this process made you look at some of the scripts in a new way? How so?

One of the things that we didn’t want to do is to over direct the work. It’s a very conscious effort to put the text in the foreground. Hence, each read is accompanied with the original text and English surtitles. Audience members do also have the option to focus on the actors or the text or, if they choose to, to look away and listen to the reading like an audiobook. These options give greater autonomy to the audience to appreciate the text based on their preferred mode.


The next instalment will be a presentation of Aidli Mosbit’s Ikan Cantik on 24 July 2020. Tickets from Peatix. Stay tuned for more information.

[Interview] Choreographer Norhaizad Adam on Complexnya

Dance in Situ strives to bring dance out into the community. Their works are inspired by the chosen sites or residential areas that they perform in.

For the fifth edition, Dance in Situ has collaborated with choreographer Norhaizad Adam from P7:1SMA and sound designer Chong Li-Chuan to stage a performance walk around Hong Lim Complex. 

To find out more about the work, I spoke to Norhaizad Adam about his choreographic process. 

Norhaizad Adam (Photo: Shania Regina Santosa)

Could you describe your choreographic process for this production?
After our team’s first site recce of Hong Lim Complex in February 2019, I am immediately drawn to this space. I decided that it will be my priority to invite others to walk with us. The complex’s  architecture brings to my mind a sense of complexity. It may be common flat in plain sight, but a stillness exists. In every decision I make, I refer to the characteristics of Hong Lim Complex.

My choreographic processes are centered on instinct through tasks such as silent walk and artist talk-back. I value my team for considering the site’s presence and behaviour, and how it resonates strongly with each individual. My senses tend to pick up on fleeting and intangible elements which may motivate my choreographic score.

 How do you go about choosing the various locations within Hong Lim Complex for performance?
I am attracted to pockets of public spaces that feels poetic and cinematic. My instinct grows as it is loaded with nostalgic stories and the spaces offer different smells, textures and temperatures. It’s hard to describe in words, but I chose locations where its presence can be felt.

I try to avoid locations that are decorated with commercial and modern elements so as to offer everyone a chance to consider the element of time and an alternative vantage point.

How often were you able to rehearse in the actual space? How did you structure your rehearsals?
We had the privilege to rehearse and immerse in Hong Lim Complex. From February to June 2019, all our rehearsals were on-site. At first, we started with a silent walk to huge areas in the complex. Every level, turn, and corner led us to various routes and gave us different sensations. Eventually, the performance walk route developed through the choreographic process. I hope each space will slowly unfold its intentions, revealing secrets layer by layer.

In my practice, I believe that a site-work should be rehearsed on-site to awaken my senses and imagination. Our ‘Complexnya’ team is lucky to exercise and chit-chat with elderly Hong Lim residents during block parties whilst taking in everything that the space provide and hinders.

Another integral part to the performance is sound design. What was your brief to the sound designer? Could you give us some clues as to what sort of soundscape the audience can look forward to?
I am blessed to work with sound designer, Li-Chuan. In addition to creating soundscapes, based on his generous insights he has definitely expanded my impulses in the work. I am open to give full freedom to my collaborators as I trust Li-Chuan’s instinct and reasoning of what Hong Lim Complex is or used to be. He is present through the entire choreographic process, listening to conversations between dancers.

I also value Li-Chuan’s sense of adventure as he often explores Hong Lim Complex to find hidden sounds and ways of making sounds from objects and traffic. I appreciate Li-Chuan as his approach to sound design does feel like it is coming out from within the cracks in the walls or from a far distance. The interplay between the sounds of the place and Li-Chuan’s sonic input heightens the presence of the place, and adds another dramaturgical layer to the piece.


Complexnya runs from 28 May to 2 June 2019 at Hong Lim Complex. Meeting point is at Chinatown Point KFC. Tickets from Peatix

[Interview] Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s Cross-Cultural Leanings

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) latest production, Vinayaka, sees the troupe collaborating with Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia)  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore) as part of their Traditional Arts in the Region series. To better understand BAA’s new direction towards cross-cultural collaboration, I arranged an email interview with Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA .

Mrs_Santha_Bhaskar

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

What made BAA decide to launch the Traditional Arts in the Region series?

In 1990 I was awarded a scholarship to study Thai culture at Chulalongkorn University. I think my most profound experience was the collaboration among the delegates of that ASEAN Exchange programme. The sharing of cultures from the representatives  made me realise how old and how much of a treasure our traditions are.

At the end of the course, we were expected to create an item to signify the unity of ASEAN in dance. Singapore is in a very unique situation because of its cosmopolitan nature and its multi-cultural tradition. My representation, being an Indian dancer, was a question that I had to answer to many and to myself. I knew I had to make my contribution “Singapore” in nature. It was difficult initially but in the end I created the evolution of man (through the avathars of Vishnu), finishing with the struggle to attain ultimate intelligence and symbolised this with Buddha (the enlightened one).

Again and again I have choreographed ASEAN epics such as Ramayana, Manohra and Vinayaka. With each production, BAA’s connection to the ASEAN region became stronger and that led to the launch of the series.

Earlier this year, BAA performed in Bangkok for the ASEAN plus Ramayana Festival. Has BAA been very involved in cultural events organised by ASEAN? If so, how has such encounters influenced the artistic practice of BAA?
In addition to my early encounter in 1990, many more ASEAN Ramayana performances have been staged in this region. BAA has been involved in several of them starting with the Ramayana Festival in Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 1994. Subsequently there were several others in Myanmar, India and Thailand. My daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, also spent more than a year touring the region with Realizing Rama — a production that brought together artistes from all around the region. These events did influence BAA to create an awareness of ASEAN traditional arts and culture, and foster collaborations with our neighbouring countries.

I noticed that the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore is listed as one of your collaborators. What is their role in this production?

Department of South east Asian Studies’ Gamelan ensemble is collaborating with BAA’S musicians to play joint compositions of Carnatic and Javanese music. It is a definitely a happy marriage of two happy partners.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview conducted with the choreographers and musical directors of Vinayaka about the rehearsal process. 

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com