[Interview] Jo Tan talks about her latest play, Session Zero

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.


Catch It!

Session Zero by Checkpoint Theatre runs from 2 to 19 December 2021 at 42 Waterloo Street.

[Theatre Review] Two Songs and a Story – Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue