[Interview] Jean Tay and Oliver Chong on Creating Asylum with Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum marks the first time the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) presents a graduation show in a venue at full capacity in two years. Having come out of the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asylum is inspired by the the long-forgotten histories of Singapore’s old quarantine sites.

To find out more about the show, I interviewed playwright Jean Tay and director Oliver Chong about the creative process and their thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic.

What inspired you to look into the history of quarantine sites in Singapore?

Jean Tay: I have long been intrigued by old quarantine sites, like the one at St John’s Island. The idea of quarantine always seemed a somewhat distant one, popular in colonial times, but increasingly regarded as a blunt tool given the advances in medicine and technology over the years. As I started to explore further, as part of a research residency with the National Library Board, I came across some incredible hidden stories, from the old leper asylum, Trafalgar Home, in Yio Chu Kang. To me, it was fascinating (and heartbreaking) to see how people dealt with their fear of illness and each other, and how that ended up breaking up families and relationships, but also created new relationships amongst the inmates themselves.

What were some difficulties in creating this show?

Jean Tay: My challenge was having to create a piece that would feature 12 distinct and diverse characters. Fortunately, I was able to work with the final-year students closely to improvise individual characters, loosely based on some of the historical research and different characteristics… we must have come up with over 40 of them! And then from there, I narrowed in on the most compelling characters with the greatest potential and used that as a basis to develop the narrative to see what would happen to these characters when put under pressure. As I did so, the script also moved into a more creative realm, so that it’s not leprosy we’re talking about anymore, but a fictional illness, set in a fictional asylum, in a fictional country.

Oliver Chong: The self-imposed agenda is to give a fair share amount of space to showcase all of the 12 students. This is a challenge I often face when creating graduation shows with a large group of students. There is the pressure of being fair to everyone while knowing that it would be impossible to flesh out all characters, and hence be unfair to all.

As the actors are trained in a myriad of art forms across various cultures, are you tapping into their training to create this show? If so, how?

Oliver Chong: The aim is not about displaying the myriad of art forms that the actors are trained in. Rather, I believe it should be about distillation, that is discovering the core in the different art forms and fusing the training into a melting pot to find meaningful contemporary applications.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Were there any interesting discoveries during the rehearsal process?

Jean Tay: It is easy to lose track of characters when one is working with such a large cast. Fortunately, my director, Oliver Chong, has come up with the brilliant concept of keeping all the cast onstage at all times, regardless of whether they are featured in the scene. So it means that we get to see what is happening with the other characters, even when they are not actively highlighted in one particular scene, and I love the little discoveries in seeing these “unwritten scenes” come to life, as the characters continue to live and breathe “off-stage”.

Oliver Chong: Not because of the rehearsal process per se but moving along with the development of the pandemic as we rehearse, we have observed that it is the impact of the disease on our livelihoods and ways of life. The disruptions, reaction, and the overreaction of society that is no less detrimental to the interests and mental health of most people. This is unequivocally no less frightening than contracting the disease itself.

How has the process of looking into old quarantine sites and the country’s attempt to deal with epidemics affect your view of the current COVID-19 pandemic?

Jean Tay: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought quarantine back into the spotlight, and brought fresh resonance to this issue, especially seeing how people had to deal with the challenges brought on by an enforced quarantine. It’s a little sad to realise how, even after years of technological and medical advances, it is so easy to revert back to a very basic and primal fear of the unknown, and of each other, when confronted when an unknown disease once more. But even in the midst of that fear, it’s also eye-opening to see the moments of compassion and courage, when individuals reach out beyond themselves to extend a helping hand, even when it puts themselves at risk.

Oliver Chong: Cross-referencing leprosy and the Trafalgar Home with the pandemic and quarantine facilities now, the knee-jerk reaction of rounding up and ostracising the unknown and its carriers remains the same. It is a defence mechanism in the name of the greater good. The question remains as to whether we have done better in compassionate quarantine and isolation.


Catch It!

Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.

[Interview] Director Hawk Liu on Creating an Abridged Version of Verdi’s Macbeth

Steven Ang as Macbeth and Tatiana Konovalova as Lady Macbeth / Photo: Hawk Liu

Over the years, The Mad Scene has been reviewing operatic, musical theatre, and classical music performances. Spurred by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Ang, founder of The Mad Scene, decided to seize the moment and produce an abridged version of Verdi’s Macbeth, an opera that he has longed to perform in for many years.

To realise his vision, he brought Hawk Liu on board to direct the show. I spoke to Liu to find out more about the show.

What is it about Verdi’s Macbeth that attracted you to direct it?

When Steven Ang approached me to direct the opera, I said yes immediately. It’s a delicious opera to direct with so much potential for drama, and my own temperament suits the intensity of expression that this opera demands. I wanted a visually driven drama piece that uses physical manifestations of the internal emotions of the characters. I told the cast that I wanted to audience to see what they feel and I think that is coming along nicely.

What are some of the difficulties in working on this adaptation?

For me, the difficulty in creating anything is to start from zero. It means I need to workshop quite a bit in order to see something stronger in my mind coming to life. But once I get going and have something to work with, I can build a lot more from there. That has been my experience in this production as well.

As I am a dancer, I wanted the singers to feel where the music is coming from in order to put the flow of the music into their movements. There is quite a bit of working with movements to get the visual effect I wanted, especially so when the music drives the drama so much. It can be a subtle thing but I think it can make a lot of difference in the visual and emotional experience.

There was also the issue of how to bring about a completeness of staging in an abridged opera. I had numerous discussions going back and forth with Steven Ang, the producer, about how we wanted the drama to play out given there will be no crowd scenes, etc.

I feel the main difficulty in a modest production like ours, is working with accompaniment tracks during rehearsals. Trying to start and stop the action is most trying for me without a pianist when the music drives the action so much.

Tatiana Konovalova as Lady Macbeth / Photo: Hawk Liu

Were there any interesting things that happened during rehearsals?

The curious thing about a production like this specific one is whether we see a lot of bad luck happening. Yes, we did. Our Lady Macbeth, Tatiana Konovalova, was stuck in Russia for many months as she could not get a vaccination to get herself back to Singapore. A member of our cast had a heart problem and had to go for an operation. We wondered whether we had to hunt for a replacement, but thankfully, he’s still with us. In the props department, we ordered some swords and we sparred too hard and one of them broke into two pieces!

Our original Witch (yes, just one!) had to leave the production due to her own professional commitments, but we found a replacement – yourself, Isaac, a male actor. I was quite excited about the prospects of turning a witch’s role to a male one and after doing a few hours’ experiment, I think we got it!

If you are only given three words to describe the production, what would it be?

See for yourselves!


Catch It!

Macbeth will be performed on Saturday, 23 April 2022, at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

[Theatre Review] No Disaster on This Land by The Finger Players — What disaster? What land?

Hairi Cromo as Table Boy and Vanessa Toh as Debris Girl / Photo: Tuckys Photography

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

In its bid to place the process of puppetry construction at the forefront, The Finger Players decided to create No Disaster on This Land around the puppets crafted by Loo An Ni during her stint with The Maker’s Lab

The production is helmed by the co-artistic directors of the company as Myra Loke directs, while Ellison Tan came up with the general narrative through a workshopping process.

The two puppets featured are Table Boy and Debris Girl. Loo wanted to work on exoskeletons and a modular system which would allow one to easily make modifications to a base structure. This prevents wastage from creating a completely new puppet for every show. 

Both puppets have an exoskeleton with aluminium extensions. For Table Boy, different table legs are attached all along the extensions. For Debris Girl, intimations of flesh and concrete pieces are placed along the extensions. 

In the show, these two characters are placed in an apocalyptic scene with concrete bricks and a backdrop of a partial grid wall, as we see how they interact.

The information above was mostly gleaned from the digital programme booklet. The information that we should be getting from watching the production, however, is fuzzy. 

Who are the characters? What sort of world do they inhabit? Why are they there? These questions are hardly answered as we see two characters tentatively existing in the same space. 

Beyond the initial encounter, as the characters suss each other out, it is difficult to make out the dynamics of the relationship. What are they disagreeing about? How are these conflicts actually resolved? How did they fall in love? (I only know they fall in love because the synopsis mentions a “love story”.)

A love story? But how did it develop? / Photo: Tuckys Photography

What about the puppets themselves? Do we ignore the human puppeteers and take the built structure as characters? Or are the structures extensions of the puppeteers, and both man and mechanics form a creature?

Given the skeletal nature of the puppets, it would seem that the latter is the case. But what sort of creatures are they? What do the extensions do? Are they hands or do they have some sort of magical power? 

In terms of actual movements, the extensions are used to move the concrete bricks perfunctorily as the puppeteers still use their hands when not manipulating the extensions. 

To make matters worse, the general rigidity of straight aluminium rods for the extensions meant that there is a limit to what the puppeteers could do with them. In manipulating Table Boy, Hairi Cromo carries the structure like a shell. And the extension occasionally gets in the way of Vanessa Toh’s movement work as Debris Girl—she has to figure out how to tuck it away when she is on the floor. 

All these limitations mean that whatever metaphors or concepts that the show is trying to convey are not articulated clearly. For example, a baby doll and a cradle feature quite strongly in the show. Do they symbolise birth, rebirth, or a literal baby?

Despite all the flaws, there are a couple of lovely moments.

Lovely moments emanating from the anguish of Table Boy / Photo: Tuckys Photography

When we are first introduced to Table Boy we see Hairi Cromo seemingly struggling against the structure placed upon him. Despite the black box being a rather small space, the intensity of his physicality, coupled with the garish strains of the electric guitar and the distortion of Hairi’s voice provided by Ctrl Fre@k, amplifies the struggle to tectonic proportions.

In another moment of anguish later in the show, Hairi rears his puppet up like a pair of wings, and the table legs attached look as if they are floating above him. This seems to suggest a certain sense of implosion or disintegration. 

Unfortunately, those moments could not save the show that is vague in its intent and story-telling.

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni

[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.

[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).

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

L-R: Tobi (played by Aaron Kaiser Garcia) and Gaga (played by Kewal Kartik) / Photo: Bernie Ng

RevoLOOtion
Intercultural Theatre Institute
29 April 2021
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
29 April–1 May 2021

To most of us, we hardly give a second thought about lavatories because we expect them to be there. But the run on loo rolls in 2020 compels us to pause for thought. 

Perhaps this makes the urban Singaporean audiences amenable to RevoLOOtion, a showcase by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conceived as a performance and a workshop, the audience is split into three groups: public service officer, bulldozer, and villager. We then witness a story about a village whose sole lavatory is slated for demolition and the reactions of some villagers.

Baba (Marvin Acero Ablao), the village elder, is resigned to it. Gaga (Kewal Kartik), the orphan, wants a peaceful protest. Tobi (Aaron Kaiser Garcia), the general worker, wants to fight. Yaku (Sandeep Yadav), the carpenter, is worried about how this confrontation will affect his livelihood and family. Long (Lin Jiarui), the farmer, is worried about his mother. Lutin (Sonu Pilania), the shopkeeper, wants to negotiate. 

The diversity and contradictory desires and plans of the characters result in a terrible outcome. The audience members, in their respective roles, are then asked to come up with an action plan to change the outcomes.

L-R: Lutin (played by Sonil Pilania) and Baba (played by Marvin Acero Ablao) / Photo: Bernie Ng

While the performance manages to elicit some sympathy for the villagers, it stops short of winning the audience over to their side. The motivations of the characters, both in the text and performance, are not fully fleshed out.

For example, it is not clear why Lutin gives up and lies to Yaku after being rebuffed by the public service officer in his attempt to negotiate over the phone. Why would he make things worse by lying, rather than saying he failed? 

Perhaps the creative team decided on some restraint so that the audience does not assume too much or how the characters would react. This might limit the possibilities of how the audience decides to intervene later. 

Even so, there must be a sense that the character truly believes that he has done all he can given the circumstances. However, this was not fully conveyed.

That said, the actors do possess a certain synergy and manage to build up the tension in each succeeding scene up to the final confrontation with the bulldozers.

Long (played by Lin Jiarui) / Photo: Bernie Ng

The workshop section was deftly facilitated by Li Xie (who also directed the show), Chng Xin Xuan, and Chng Yi Kai. We are shown possible intervention points and are required to come up with an action plan to hopefully create a better outcome. 

As the scenario plays out, there was an emphasis on taking it step-by-step rather than pushing for an ultimate conclusion. Li Xie reminded us that we were not there to change the world; a small change is still a change.

While most workshops of this nature focus on empowering the audience to have their voices heard and make a change, a refreshing element is the facilitators asking the characters how they feel about the alternative scenario. They then express that feeling through a shape or gesture. 

This provides an alternative view of the impact the audience’s plan has on others, and a start to more conversations if we had more time. 

The sceptical part of me thinks that the conditions presented were too ideal as everyone had goals in a similar direction. However, what left an impression was Li Xie encouraging the representative from the villagers group to think of more alternatives. After all, a change—however small—is better than the status quo. 

The challenge is to scale this up and apply this to our public discourse.

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

“#unravellingimpressions of RevoLOOtion by ITI – Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Ke Weiliang, unravelling Facebook page.

“[Review] RevoLOOtion – Walk alone so it’s faster, or walk together so we can go further?” by Yaiza Canapoli, Arts Republic.

“★★★☆☆ Review: RevoLOOtion by Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[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] 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

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.