In December, Checkpoint Theatre will be staging its first live production for the year, a premier of Session Zero by Jo Tan. The play revolves around a couple trying to save their marriage by playing the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Intrigued by the premise of the play, I spoke to Jo Tan to find out more about the show.
What inspired you to write a play about a couple trying to save their marriage?
I don’t know what it was about the pandemic, although I saw friends less, I managed to fall out with several of them… pretty hard. We had common passions about common issues, but the gap between how these issues affected us differently suddenly seemed an uncrossable chasm. I had a hard sleepless time understanding how these relationships had fallen apart so thoroughly, and I wanted to use this play, and the marriage in it, to try and figure out whether any differences are truly irreconcilable.
Why did you decide to choose the game, Dungeons & Dragons, as a main feature of the play?
Dungeons & Dragons got me through a large part of the pandemic – I couldn’t go out or act much, but I could escape to a different body and fantasy land in my head. And it just fascinated me how people (including myself) played their game characters. You could see how it was a tool for them to express how they could have been if only things were a little different. What if the play’s hopelessly estranged couple could be other people for a day?
As you are an avid player of the game itself, has the process of creating this piece made you appreciate new facets of the game?
I generally play with actors (which make up three-quarters of my social circle), and you tend to take it for granted that they will be quite unabashed when inhabiting the characters. However, when my co-actor Brendon led everybody in the show’s crew in a game as part of the rehearsal process, it was quite incredible to watch how playing the game characters empowered some of the more reserved personalities to make dramatic flourishes, laugh out loud, and take up more space. That’s the magic of the theatre of the mind.
As you are also performing in the show, has the rehearsal process made you see the story and characters you created in a new light?
Definitely. I always tend to separate my playwright self and my actor self, since the playwright just sets things on paper while the actor is generally a tool and channel for the visions of many people – the director, the writer, the designers.
You always see different things when performing something than when writing it. In both this and previous things I’ve written, I’ve definitely tried to say some lines which made me go, “who the heck wrote that?” But just walking through the story as opposed to living it in your head makes you understand them better, so I even have to empathise with the aggressors.
How does one win in a game of love and marriage?
Try to equate the two. That’s probably most important.
Session Zero by Checkpoint Theatre runs from 2 to 19 December 2021 at 42 Waterloo Street.
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。
[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.