[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] Director Myra Loke on Creating ‘No Disaster on this Land’ Around the Puppets

Following last week’s interview with Loo An Ni about her experiences in designing and creating puppets during her stint at The Maker’s Lab 2021, I was interested in finding out more about No Disaster on This Land, a non-verbal performance that features Loo’s puppets.

What makes this production different from most puppet shows is its workflow. As the main focus of The Maker’s Lab is to nurture designers and makers of puppets, the production was created around the puppets created by Loo. This gives her the freedom to explore and experiment rather than worry about abiding by a pre-determined brief.

No Disaster on This Land 无灾难岛屿
There is no disaster on this land but it is the end of time. The body is defiled. Debris Girl meets Table Boy. In their hands, an effortful tug, an accident of air, a love story that ends with death.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to Director Myra Loke, who is also the co-artistic director of The Finger Players.

Puppetry has been part of The Finger Players’ DNA since the inception of the company. In your opinion, what is it about puppets that captures our imagination?

Puppets can be anything and everything. They can be so close to life that you can’t help but relate to them. At the same time, they are not bound by gravity, physics, logic, and social expectations.

This constant flux between reality and fantasy brings audiences to a level where you simply don’t wish to or can’t rationalize what you are seeing and feeling. And you ultimately just give in to your imagination and intuition. 

Puppeteer Vanessa Toh testing a prototype of the puppet used in the show / Photo: The Finger Players

As No Disaster on this Land is created around the puppets by Loo An Ni, what were your first impressions of the puppets?

The primary material used is metal and we often relate that material to a cold and distanced feeling. However, the movements from the puppets were fluid and transformative, contrasting with what your brain tells you. It was as if I’m watching blobs in a lava lamp morphing into different shapes and images.

As there is no dialogue in the show, how was the general plot of the show conceived?

Oftentimes, we start with a script and the puppet design comes after to complement the story. But as part of The Maker’s Lab, we were interested in the reverse—to discover how a story can be inspired from the puppet design instead.

So at the start of the process, Ellison Tan and I met with An Ni monthly to understand her thought process and creative impulses. Then we moved on to a phase where we had a series of jamming sessions with An Ni and the puppeteers to develop characters or explore possibilities of a narrative. With the devised content, Ellison would piece them together into a script that is inspired and informed by the puppet design and the jamming sessions. 

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing the makeshift handles of the prototype / Photo: The Finger Players

Could you describe the rehearsal process? What were some of the challenges? Were there any interesting moments that left an impression?

The puppet design and its manipulation method developed by An Ni are quite new to us. We were quite lucky that we had jamming sessions in the pre-rehearsal phase to give the puppeteers more time to be familiar with the puppets. This is so that we can concentrate on creating the physical score and visuals in rehearsals.

As this is a non-verbal performance, words are no longer the source of information. A huge challenge is to create imagery that is indicative enough for the audience to follow the journey or thought process of the characters. Yet, it must still be imaginative and leave some space for interpretation.

That involves a lot of trial and error in rehearsals, and it can sometimes be quite frustrating whenever we can’t “nail down” a scene. When that happens, I try to tell myself to be patient and there is no need to create everything at one go. This is something that I learnt through my journey of creating non-verbal performances.

Now, whenever I start a rehearsal process, I would pre-empt the performers and stage management team that there will be a lot of repetition, and that we may find ourselves feeling frustrated, and that is ok. 


Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

Sustainability in Puppetry: An Interview with Loo An Ni

The Maker’s Project is a series of events that serve as the culmination of The Maker’s Lab by The Finger Players. The Maker’s Lab is an initiative that seeks to grow and nurture designers and makers of puppets and objects.

In a span of nine months, the maker will conceptualise, prototype, and research puppet design for performance.

The theme for the second iteration of The Maker’s Lab is Puppetry and Sustainability, which touches on the longevity of the puppet, generating less waste in the construction process, and renewing the afterlives of the puppets after the performance.

One of the main events of The Maker’s Project is a non-verbal production, No Disaster on This Land. This production is created in response to the puppets developed by Loo An Ni, the maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021.

I spoke to Loo An Ni to find out more about her experiences in The Maker’s Lab as well as her processes in creating the puppets.

Loo An Ni, Maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021 / Photo: The Finger Players

What made you decide to join The Maker’s Lab? Could you briefly describe your experiences in the programme?

I wanted to have the opportunity to examine and develop ideas that have been floating around in my mind for quite some time. As there were many components to the puppets, there were a lot of testing and trialling of ideas as I try to improve a different aspect of the make or design each time.

Loo was interested in exploring exoskeletons / Courtesy of The Finger Players

How did you go about creating the puppets? Did you have a character in mind at first?

I started with the puppet structure and explored different movements each puppet structure allowed. The script and the characters emerged from there.

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing out the puppet structure / Photo: The Finger Players

As the theme for this cycle of The Maker’s Lab focuses on sustainability, what are some of the features of your puppets that speak to that?

I approached the theme of sustainability both in the creation process and in terms of performance. I developed a modular puppet structure that will allow us to devise different structure variations using the modular parts. This means that the puppet can be reconfigured for different shows.

I also developed a supportive harness with the aim of reducing the stress on puppeteers’ bodies when working with large puppets.

Loo An Ni (centre) working closely with puppetry consultant, Oliver Chong (left), and physiotherapist, Choong Li Sann (right) / Photo: The Finger Players

How has your experience with The Maker’s Lab inform the other roles you play in the arts scene such as wardrobe or design and construction?

While the other roles that I play such as costumes design and props and puppet design are different, I find myself leaning towards working with textiles. In The Maker’s Lab, I had the chance to apply the use of textiles once again in a very different manner; for long-term use instead of single use.

As a culmination to the project, a production, No Disaster on This Land, is created in response to the puppets you have created. Could you describe your involvement in the production?

I designed and made the puppet structures, of which the production emerged from. Subsequently I designed and made the puppets for the show. 

Further Reading

Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

Lockdown Arts Tally

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore went into lockdown—or what the government calls a “Circuit Breaker” period—from 7 April 2020. On 3 June 2020, we went into the first phase of easing of the restrictions. However, it was so minor that it was no different from a lockdown. On 19 June, we transitioned to Phase Two which meant that most activities can resume with minor conditions attached to them.

As such, I thought it would be interesting just to do an arts tally to highlight how the arts played a part to get us through the lockdown. The tally details the arts that I have consumed from 7 April to 18 June 2020.

Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) by National Theatre

An Enemy of the People <人民公敌> (2014) by Nine Years Theatre

Jane Eyre (2015) by National Theatre & Bristol Old Vic

Treasure Island (2015) by National Theatre

Emily of Emerald Hill (2019) by W!ld Rice

Rosnah (2016) by The Necessary Stage

Supervision (2019) by W!ld Rice

To Whom It May Concern (2011) by The Finger Players

Coronalogues: Silver Linings (2020) by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Harap (Hope) (2017) by Teater Ekamatra

Television

Titoudao (2020) by Oak3 Films & Goh Boon Teck

Books

The Field of Drama (2000) by Martin Esslin

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010) by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro

Song of the Outcast: An Introduction to Flamenco (2003) by Robin Totton

Arts Reviewing: A Practical Guide (2017) by Andy Plaice

Films

Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg


In total, I have watched ten screenings of past theatre productions, one television series, one film, and read four books. 

This is a rather modest tally, but it would not surprise me if over a thousand people had a significant part to play for these works to  come to fruition. It would have been a very different experience had these things and people not exist. 

They are there not merely as a means to kill boredom, but I have derived instruction, conversation, and provocation from these works.