[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

[Theatre Review] 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

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.

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu

In the second instalment of Baca Skrip, a monthly series of online readings of Singaporean Malay plays, Fezhah Maznan and Teater Ekamatra presents Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Anak Melayu

I interviewed some of the actors involved in this read (Izzul Irfan, Rusydina Afiqah, Farah Lola, and Ali Mazrin) to find out about their experiences with performing via a digital medium. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Izzul Irfan: The rehearsal process has been very interesting for me as an actor because I sort of have to come up with a new vocabulary as a performer. You are playing the dual roles of both performer and technical team in a sense, because if you freeze or get cut off or your connection’s down, it’s on you to bring yourself back online and working well. So, there’s that headspace that I have had to get used to. Other than that, I think learning to connect over Zoom has been interesting—I have always seen this mode as purely a communication platform and not so much a ‘connecting’ platform. But the process has really been about re-learning how to reach out to the audience (when you can’t see them) and it’s been challenging but rewarding.

Rusydina Afiqah: To start off, there was a read to understand the flow of the story and the characters. Then we went straight in to cover the play bit by bit, a little more in depth each time. Questions were raised as we understood this world a little better.

Farah Lola: All of the rehearsals were held over Zoom calls. Other than it being tricky tehnically, the reading and blocking was easy enough to do.

Ali Mazrin: Basically, we have been going through rehearsals online via Zoom. Which includes all the cast, director and also the crew. Having to pick a spot in my own house and making sure everyone at home do not interrupt the rehearsals is quite hard but fun at the same time.

What were some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Izzul Irfan: Honestly, it drives me crazy that I cannot ‘feel’ everyone’s energy properly because we are not physically present together (which is something I really miss). So I think doing an ensemble piece where there is contant ping-ponging of energy on a virtual space has been difficult. With Anak Melayu, getting the tempo right is important and we’re really working hard towards that.

Rusydina Afiqah: For me, understanding the story took a while longer. There were a lot more things to juggle than just imagining the world. There were five more tiny screens during rehearsals that I had to be aware of, all at the same time.

Farah Lola: Perhaps physical and eye contact. Our eyelines were a little different because we were looking at different points of the screen, and you really needed to refine vocal inflections to know who the character is addressing but we’ve managed to work it out. We also had to bounce off energy more vocally as there was no physical space with other actors to feel out.

Ali Mazrin: Because it is an online rehearsal, we face quite a number of technical challenges such as the connection of the internet and also capturing of the cast’s voice. Being in a different space then the rest of the cast makes it more challenging in having the same energy as everyone during rehearsal.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Izzul Irfan: Effendy’s plays are always very physical, and as he told us about the past iterations of Anak Melayu, you can clearly see there is a physical vocabulary that he builds and it’s beautiful. He always says he’s not much of a ‘text’ person. But as I was working on this play on a virtual platform, his words really come to life – all the subtexts in all its glory, and three-word lines from one character hold entire worlds in them. While it has been close to 20 years since he created them, his characters are still very much alive and kicking.

Farah Lola: It is my first time familiarising myself with this piece, and my first time doing a play on camera in my own home! I think everything has been whittled down to the subtleties due to it being closer to the audience, therefore it would feel more intimate.

Ali Mazrin: It’s amazing how we still manage to do rehearsals and shows live, online. But I definitely still wish that this was a staged show where everyone is together, so as to also feel the audience’s energy when we are performing.


Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu will be presented via Zoom on 26 June 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #_____

In an unexpected turn of events, rather than worrying about creating new works through a digital medium, Teater Ekamatra decides to team up with veteran theatre producer Fezhah Maznan to look back at key works in Malay theatre through a series called Baca Skrip: #______.

Baca Skrip is a monthly online script read of Malay plays by prolific Malay playwrights from Singapore. The scripts are selected based on their impact on Singapore Malay theatre history and / or are representative of the chosen playwright’s oeuvre.

Each session will be accompanied with an introduction which provides a sense of the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the work. After the reading, a critical response will be given by an invited guest. This is meant to provide audience several ways of looking at the work.

This series serves to rekindle the work with today’s Malay theatre audience and create a sense of continued history for Singapore Malay theatre in general.

First Session (29 May, 8 p.m.)

Baca Skrip: #HantaranBuatMangsaLupa

Genap 40 (read by Shida Mahadi and Izzul Irfan)

Hawa, who is pregnant, receives a premonition that she will meet Malaikat (angel) on the 39th day, where she hopes to enquire about the fate of her child and her self; revealing her true desire to challenge predestination.  

W.C. (read by Mish’aal Syed Nasar and KayKay Nizam) 

Two mean in a toilet cubicle. 

They talk, but not a lot. 

They touch but not too much. 

Only the four walls bear witness to their dispositions. 

W.C. was created to examine the complexities between men—abandonment, trust, and maybe even love. It speaks of comfort and sacrifice, or lack thereof. 

94:05 (read by Fir Rahman) 

94:05 invites the audience to the life and memories of Ahmad bin Abdullah. As he tidies his studio apartment, Ahmad finds it hard not to reminisce. He shares with us every important juncture he has passed through, slowly revealing his struggles with fate. Every now and then he contemplates mortality, especially in moments when hope becomes fleeting. 


Performed in Malay with accompanying Malay text and English surtitles.

Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic

[Book Review] Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

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Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2015)/ 408 pp./ SGD 29.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

If one were to peruse the syllabus of a Singapore English-Language Theatre module offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it categorises the playwrights into three generations. The publication of Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1 marks the start of the fourth generation.

The whole collection is tinged with a deep sense of ambivalence. Rather than focus on what constitutes Singapore theatre or champion certain issues which were the main concerns of the previous generations, Tan explores what it means to be living in Singapore and dealing with what life throws at you. To aid this exploration, he constantly uses the context of failed or unfulfilled relationships, in subtly different ways, to show the complexity and vulnerability of his characters.

In Family Outing, Joseph plans to come out to his family as a gay man. He gets electrocuted after a freak accident and his boyfriend, Daniel, tells his family the truth a year later. On the surface, this plot appears to be about a family accepting or rejecting the son’s sexual orientation. However, there underlies a certain uneasiness about family relationships and what it means to be a gay man.

After the initial outrage, Joseph’s mother and brother try to reconcile Joseph’s sexual orientation with the Joseph whom they know. Scenes from the past and present intersect one another on stage as they negotiate and come to terms with Joseph’s sexuality. While one’s sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity, does it mean that the Joseph the family knows is less of a person? If so, does one sexual orientation matter more to one’s identity as compared to other areas of one’s life?

Towards the end of the play, there are intimations that Joseph’s mother and brother have a slight inkling about his homosexuality but chose to ignore it due to their deep religious beliefs. This throws a new complexion on the matter as this has got to do with familial relationships and the violence members of family inflict on one another through denial or the supposed desire to protect. This estrangement is further enhanced when we realise that what we are seeing is Joseph’s fantasy which leaves open the possibility that the family might reject him instead.

With this being one of his earliest plays, Tan displays a great deal of sophistication in being able to pack all these into a light-hearted play which is brought out by the brother’s antics and the mother who is slightly prone to histrionics. While Tan manages to balance the moods of the play well, he is a little overambitious with including all these different layers in the play especially—as Tan himself admits— the fact that it is Joseph’s fantasy may not come across clearly.

The ambivalence of being a gay man is also seen in That Daniel but it focuses on a young man fitting into the gay culture. In this deeply personal monodrama, Tan displays his linguistic dexterity in expounding on the pressures of conforming to a certain type and how this might affect one’s relationship with food. This is best encapsulated by the metaphor of noodles as Daniel says:

“We are noodles, we begin life as lumps of human starchiness, sliced by the noodle-cutter of life into pretty shapes, acceptable to the human eye and fit for human consumption, palatable” (271).

The richness of the gastronomical descriptions enhances the poignancy of the play as Daniel realises that he has pursued unrequited love at the expense of a certain happiness that he finds in food. It might be tempting to say that everyone faces a similar pressure to conform, but—as Isherwood’s A Single Man points out—it unfairly whitewashes the experiences of the individual. While this play does not enlighten us about the particularities of the pressures faced by gay men, it compels sympathy and reflection that hopefully precedes conversation.

That said, I wished this play was a wee bit longer. Tan sees this play as an optimistic one because he sees Daniel making a positive change after coming to a certain realisation. However, we only see Daniel coming to terms with his hurt and it stops there. This realisation could have made a positive or negative impact on Daniel which is why there should be a hint of what is to come.

Aside from linguistic versatility, Tan is keen to experiment with form and structure which is clearly seen in Postgrads and People.

The phrase “true-to-life” has been used and abused by critics of all stripes, but this term is most apt for Postgrads. The trajectory of life’s events does not follow a curve of climax and resolution, some conversations are never had, and some relationships remain unfulfilled. More importantly, one does not necessarily have a clear reason for doing something. And that is what confounds a group of housemates who are postgraduate students when one of them decides to drop out of the PHD programme.

While the conversations consist of feel-good reminiscences, private regrets, and banal chatter, there is a mounting sense of resignation and sadness. The atmosphere may be relatively serene, but the conversations appear to be a desperate attempt to forestall the final goodbye. Despite the fact that the play is crafted in a certain way due to the demands of the commission, Tan excels in infusing a certain sensitivity and subtlety to his play and it does not feel that he is consciously working around certain limitations that were placed on him.

The vignettes in People, which are either monologues or duologues, make it the most ambitious play in the whole collection. Tan once again returns to the motif of estranged relationships and see variations of it play out across a cross-section of society.  Set in either Singapore or Tokyo, there is a distinctively urban sensibility to it as we see the characters relate to others either across geography, class, or on a spiritual level. Tan’s ear for dialogue is apparent as he captures the milieu that the characters operate in. The litmus test for any playwright with regard to Singaporean dialogue is to balance between Singlish and whatever language the working class character speaks. In the hands of a careless writer, the dialogue makes the character nothing more than a caricature. While Francis the mobile phone seller has certain speech quirks that one—rightly or wrongly—associates with the working class, Tan is careful not to overdo it. Additionally, Tan even experiments with verse in the monologues of Nicholas who decides to leave the priesthood.

Given that Tan allows the director to arrange the vignettes as she pleases, this play merits several re-stagings just to see what can be excavated from the text.

Speaking of estranged relationships, the one in Hotel is the most ugly and toxic. Within a few pages, Tan raises all the ugly implications of economic success through the explosive arguments of the rich couple. What is notable is that Tan resists any form of resolution—the argument at the end of the play is interrupted and will probably occur again. Bearing in mind that Hotel is supposed to be a reimagined history of The Arts House (Singapore’s former parliament house), the play serves as a fitting platform for Tan to rail against the excesses of Singapore. Its brevity also ensures that it does not go overboard.

Mosaic explores another form of emotional violence in our lives—the destruction of physical space, and the memories that go with it, in the name of progress. However, violence is also inflicted upon one’s memories if it is co-opted and turned into some kind of fetish or commercial enterprise. This play thus juxtaposes both forms of violence and expresses a deep sense of ambivalence towards the efficacy and appropriacy of popular causes such as heritage activism.

This is embodied by Sharon, the protagonist who ropes in her boyfriend and tries to organise a demonstration against the authorities tearing down an old playground. She is clearly unable to rally people to her cause and when asked what how she is going about the event, she retorts: “Nothing is going to happen, why must thing always happen? What we’re doing is symbolic […]” (212, original emphasis). Later on, she tells Rong Cheng, a passer-by who lives nearby and used to play in the playground that the “playground is like a tile in the giant mosaic that is the things I care about” (222). However, a mosaic on the whole should form a coherent picture but her specious replies and lack of planning cast doubts on the coherence of her pet causes. The conflict between Sharon and Rong Cheng also raises the question of whether someone can legitimately oppose any governmental re-development projects if she does not have any prior relationship to the place.

Tan’s talents are seen in how, on one level, the characters are symbolic of certain things and their conflicts and interactions becomes a dialectic about activism. On another level, the settings and situations are entirely naturalistic and the characters are not reduced to being mouthpieces for a certain position. At the end, Tan could not help but employ the same motif of a failed relationship to bring up themes of moving on, letting go, and the difficulty of doing so as we often have a complex relationship with the past.

The Way We Go is a reworking of Tan’s second full length play that was written as part of a playwriting module at NUS. In it, he explores what it means to love yourself and another by having two parallel romances; the lesbian relationship between two convent school students (Gillian and Lee-Ying) and that of the school’s principal and a cousin of her colleague (Agatha and Edmund). The former relationship fails due to a difference in temperament and goals while the latter is disrupted by death.

Tan employs counter-directional narratives to allow for the parallel relationships to be shown on stage in an economical way. It also shows Edmund dealing with the hurt and finding his way back to the first moment he saw Agatha. This allows him to find closure and begin again. This play rewards the careful reader as a careless one will only see it as containing snapshots of the lives of the characters and nothing more.

That said, Violet (Edmund’s cousin and Agatha’s colleague) feels like a convenient device for the couple to meet and the two romances could have been a little more inter-connected in some way.

Perhaps, it is due to this early and extended exploration of dealing with love, lost, and moving on that led Tan to re-use the motif of failed relationships over and over again. While there is an effort to use it in various ways, Tan has stretched it to its limits this early in his career.

However, this does not detract from the sensitivity, subtlety, and a strong voice which Tan clearly possesses. In this collection, he resists being didactic and focuses on the individual and sometimes painful story of simply dealing with everyday life. He has also shown that he can use this lens to reflect on wider societal issues.

In the interview that is included in the book, he says he is interested in writing political plays which are rooted in the experience of living in Singapore rather than those which preach to the choir. Judging from his output in this collection, I await the next phase of his writing career with much excitement.