Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Testing the Silence by Rui An
June 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,
Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

At the Singapore Arts Festival last year, Rimini Protokoll astounded us with Cargo Kuala Lumpur-Singapore, a road trip into unknown nooks of our city that melded the revelatory power of theatre with the lyricism of the everyday. As we travelled down the roads within a theatre-on-wheels, mundane sights coalesce to form an evocative meditation on migration, pondering both the physical act of displacing oneself as well as the attendant emotional and socio-political ramifications. One would also not forget the two truck drivers, who charmed us not only with their vivid memories of long-distance driving, but also with the endearing little stumbles they commit as they take on what is possibly their first foray into performance.

This theatre of the quotidian is once again realised at the festival this year in Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi, a Swiss director from the aforementioned collective. Taking the stage this time are the muezzins from Egypt, chosen ones in the Muslim world who lead the daily calls to prayer (adhan) from the minarets of the mosques. The stories of four muezzins are represented, of which three are articulated by the muezzins themselves, as they stand upon the stage and narrate the vicissitudes of life that have led them into their present occupation. Their stories, at times dramatic, at others mundane, are presented in an austere, unembellished form. They are simply told, in most instances with that assured, authoritarian cadence devoid of charade or any visible attempt at showing through gesture. Clearly, it flies in the face of the mythical adage, that one must show instead of tell, but despite so, the piece still manages to exude a tender humanity, tinged at times with pathos and humour.

It takes a sleight of hand to achieve this delicate fusion of theatre and everyday life, for life, despite all its authenticity, requires careful calibration upon its transposition to the stage, without which the slice of reality would be but a banality, authenticity without persuasion.

For Radio Muezzin, intrigue is already created by its premise: the distant, ostensibly insular world of deep religiosity fascinates with its otherness. For a country that is pathologically uptight about maintaining a strictly secular public sphere, open displays of piety, upon a national stage no less, is a curiosity. The audience enter the theatre with a kind of anthropological gaze, our minds open to the unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible, with the ultimate intent of bridging the distance between self and other.

The stories of the four muezzins are presented with a full plenitude of gritty, autobiographical details. The first muezzin, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, is a blind Quran teacher who travels to the mosque for two hours every day. He relates his excitement in donning the sheik’s outfit, of which he is able to enumerate the cost that went into every article of clothing upon him. “Four hundred Egyptian pounds for the tailoring”, he says. The second, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, is a retired electrician who becomes a muezzin after a terrifying accident left him with a metal plate and seven stitches in his leg. The third, Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, hails from the countryside and spends much of the day vacuuming the carpet in the small mosque. The fourth, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Farag, the youngest and most accomplished of them, is the only muezzin absent in the line-up, having departed the production previously due to differences with the rest of the cast. In his place are a video projection of his past performances and a stand-in who reads out his impressive accolades as a bodybuilder and the runner-up of the 47th World Competition in Quran Reading.

A certain magic happens when these personal anecdotes are placed within the full splendour of a proscenium theatre production, where there is a script, an impressive set and a leering audience to contend with. The stoic muezzins stand upon a large, ornate carpet, each before a video screen and illuminated by green neon lights that create a surreal atmosphere. The colours are brilliant; the set is like a Technicolor sanctum of Muslim piety. The imposition of the theatrical upon the real pushes the performances towards a certain threshold, in which the overriding artifice and all its iridescent polish causes the little slippages of the amateur performers to become, by contrast, a kind of revelation. The awkwardness and jittery inhibition of the muezzins show through throughout the performance and it is this tension between the glossiness of their environ and their artless, non-theatrical selves that makes these brief glimpses of humanity all the more precious, honest and resonant. We begin to feel for them; the exacting anthropological gaze we came in with is softened into an empathetic response. This is real life seeping through the veneer of the theatrical, which surmounts art to reveal itself in all its luminous clarity.

The stark visuality of the set sustains our act of gazing. As the muezzins recount their lives and times, documentary footage of the streets of Egypt and the day-to-day bustle within the mosques plays behind them. The images are direct transcriptions of what is said verbally; rarely is there any deliberate attempt at incongruity. The images amplify the text unremittingly; they must not detract from it, for the voices of the muezzins must be heard in their unadulterated purity. In the case of the fourth muezzin who cannot be present to deliver his voice, an effort is made to highlight the ineffectuality of his replacement. The stand-in makes no attempt at re-embodiment; he does not hide his surrogate status, instead from the outset, he acknowledges the futility of his re-presentation. Verisimilitude, the quality of achieving mere likeness to the real, is not an aspiration of this stage.

As the audience, one is here purely to listen. Everything is plain, lucid and ingenuous. The false notes of ambiguities that often demand of the audience to play the role of the thinker, to negotiate the issues on their own terms and derive their own conclusions are eschewed. There are no riddles to untangle, no disparities to reconcile. The piece is characteristically unthinking, with little of that postmodern reflex through which a piece displays its self-awareness. In place of introspection is complete projection, to be consumed by the gaze of a compliant, unquestioning audience. One must accept the utterances of the muezzins as they are, for like the chanted verses of the Quran, the words are pure signs – a fact that is put forth in one instance when the surtitles go off and all we hear is the deep, soulful voice of the muezzins. This is listening at its purest and most uncompromised – the act of piety the audience must necessarily perform.

Piety defines also the relationship between the artist and his subjects. In contrast to the trenchant, provocative approaches taken by some practitioners in the treatment of religion-based subjects, Kaegi appears to be examining the world of the muezzins via a purely phenomenological lens. Within the text itself, there is little to suggest the advancing of an artist’s statement; Kaegi’s voice defers to that of the muezzins. When the show veers into the touchy areas, such as the position of women in Islam, for instance, its manner is light and detached, leaving the muezzins to speak for themselves. To the question on why women are not allowed to perform the adhan, one of them answers nonchalantly, “because the Prophet never asked [them] to do so.” Granted, there are those sporadic specks of irony that are clearly devised: a wooden divider that is often used in mosques to segregate the women is used here to hide the testosterone-loaded, weight-lifting gear of Mr. Mahmoud, but they are so benign that they register as nothing more than comic asides.

But the fact that the work is conceived to be seemingly apolitical does not mean that it is capable of transcending the politics that surround its creation. The absence of Mr. Mahmoud, for one, is a sobering indication of the tides of change in Cairo that has left an entire generation of muezzins silenced. The Minister of Religious Affairs has denounced the cacophony emitted by the thousands of muezzins each day across the city and is selecting the city’s best thirty muezzins to take turns to broadcast a centralised adhan via a radio channel. Among the cast, only Mr. Mahmoud has been selected to be a part of this elite cadre. While the differences that led to his departure from the show are not spelled out, it is not hard to make a guess what happened.

Towards the end, as a radio engineer appears to demonstrate the new technology through which the adhan would be emitted, one cannot help but notice the absence of the one person who has been qualified to use the contraption. Prior to Mr. Mahmoud’s departure, he would end the show with a rousing solo chant, but here, his silence is deafening.

The context in which the show is performed can also embed within it significant political undertones. In its 2009 premiere in Berlin, for instance, where loud calls to prayer are prohibited, the piece became a reflection on the waves of protests that have erupted in response to the building of mosques across the country. In an overwrought socio-political climate where overt religiosity is too often misconstrued as extremism, is there still a place where one can practice his faith freely and yet still abide by the contract of his society?

Similar questions can be asked within our society. Would the rapturous music we hear in Radio Muezzin still be appreciated beyond the asylum of the theatre? Or would it too be condemned as noise that encroaches upon the sterile, vacuous silence that is our secular space?

Ho Rui An


Bodies as Violence by Rui An
June 7, 2011, 3:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,
Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

How do we stage the primitive? How do we enact violence? These are critical questions to be addressed in considering Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body, the production which has attracted one of the most polarising reactions at this year’s arts festival. While some members of audience have been most profuse with their compliments, there are those who absolutely hated it, with walk-outs happening as early as fifteen minutes into the show.

Most of the flak were directed towards what was seen as a gratuitous sensory assault, at times tending towards audience abuse. Others decried its apparent lack of meaning, denouncing it as an overblown aesthetic excursion. Both accusations puzzle me, less so due to the justifications provided – which I must say contain a ring of validity -, but the vehemence with which they are articulated. After all, there are a good many other productions at the festival which are equally, if not more vulnerable towards such indictments, and none of them have attracted dislike of such extent.

The reason for this perhaps lies in the sheer baggage of expectations that Tempest had to contend with, most of which were simply not fulfilled. For one, the title carries a heavy literary reference and I would not be surprised if anyone had walked in expecting to see a re-interpretation of the Shakespearean classic. Other references in the programme notes – “post-911”, “Giorgio Agamben”, “institutional injustice”, “terrorism” and “colonialism” – farther suggests an engagement with prevailing political discourses, when discursivity is perhaps the one thing that Ponifasio eschews.

Interestingly, it is the reference that I feel was the least discussed that singularly defined the performance for me – Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Klee is a fitting source of inspiration in many ways, for the works of the painter-aesthetician are similarly bold experiments that come with subdued and thus all the more unsettling political undertones.

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

In Angelus Novus, we see a monster which Walter Benjamin has once described as “the angel of history”. There is something bewitching about this grotesque semblance of an angel, particularly with its sphinx-liked countenance and its head of unfurling scrolls that resembles Medusa’s. Its wings are spread out, but appear locked in stasis. The angel is suspended not in flight, but in limbo. Its gaze is averted away from the viewer, disregarding the present while fixated with an invisible time-space that Benjamin described to be that of history. Its beastly jaws are open, but the viciousness of its snarl is deflated by the tiny fangs that stick out rather lamely. It is an image of surrender, of a hapless angel stupefied by the vistas that it encounters as it is propelled away by the winds of change.

Like in Tempest, the political undercurrents in Angelus Novus are perceptible, but they are there not to buttress a tedious exegesis of what the work is about, but to be dissolved into the textures that constitutes what the work is. As it seems, both Ponifasio and Klee are artists who do not seek for interpretation as an end-point; instead, interpretation, if necessary at all, is that which enriches experience, meant to farther sensitise us to the sensorial plenitude presented.

This is why one who tries to construe Tempest as a kind of political text must necessarily falter, for this is a work that demands not reading, but direct experience. In this theatre of textures, ominous drones, baroque designs and traumatised bodies dominate, collectively conjuring a haunting yet intensely lyrical world.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

The performance opens abruptly with an acoustic explosion, blaring into our ears a wall of mechanical noises. Upon the stage, a hunched, tottering woman appears, dwarfed by a massive, vertical wall with a rock-like surface that is suspended from the ceiling. She appears to be an angel, but the tiny wings that spurt out of her back like vestigial appendages make her look more like a monster. She cannot fly, for the wings that are usually the embodiment of freedom are upon her an ugly deformity. Her body is soiled with dirt, her face ghoulish and the scream that she howls pained and chilling to the bone. This recurring image of the ravaged angel-monster is one of the show’s most startling, and the first of the many traumatised bodies that follow.

Later, a naked, supine body is seen wobbling across a raised platform. He appears not to be moving at his own whim, impelled instead by the onslaught of spasms that run through the length of his torso like a malevolent current. Here, we see the interplay of light, colour and body at its most ingenious. Against the coarse texture of the towering wall, the man appears like a gleaming sapling of a being, with the reflected sheen taking on a surreal purple-grey hue due to the paint on the body. This subtle colouration of the body, seen also in the other performers, is one of the most delicately devised features of the show. Against the inky blackness of the stage, these tinted bodies gain a spectral translucency that suggests their gradual disappearance. The colour is also striking for its reminiscences of the paintings of Francis Bacon, in which the very same hue appears upon the coagulated, deoxygenated bodies that too, lie like pieces of carcasses upon an improvised plinth of sorts.

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

This connection with Bacon, I believe, is more than serendipitous, for in its portrayal of violence, Ponifasio has created what Deleuze, in writing on the paintings of Bacon, called the “violence of sensation”, and here, I find no better way to convey the nuances of this notion than to quote directly from the author himself:

What fascinates Bacon is not movement, but its effect on an immobile body: heads whipped by the wind or deformed by an aspiration, but also all the interior forces that climb through the flesh. To make the spasm visible. The entire body becomes plexus. If there is feeling in Bacon, it is not a taste for horror, it is pity, an intense pity: pity for the flesh, including the flesh of dead animals…

It is the confrontation of the Figure and the field… that rips the painting away from all narrative but also from all symbolization. When narrative or symbolic, figuration obtains only the bogus violence of the represented or the signified; it expresses nothing of the violence of sensation (emphasis mine) – in other words, of the act of painting.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze

The precision with which Delueze’s text can be applied upon Ponifasio’s work is almost uncanny. Indeed, the bodies that populate the stage have been stripped of their capacity for symbolisation. They do not perform, represent or signify violence but are, simply put, the very incidence of it happening. The presence of these diminutive bodies upon the vast cavern of the stage is itself a point of resistance, as each solitary figure wrestles with space that presses upon his body-space. Whether is it the four-legged beast who restlessly circles the stage against an unruly soundscape of barking dogs, or the hefty, heavily-tatooed man who stands solemnly like a bulwark protecting the Maori tradition, the bodies we encounter all remind us of their vulnerability to the surrounding elements. Their movements are prolonged, repetitive and at times Butoh-like, as if their bodies are in pereptual negotiation with the forces acting from within and without them.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

Meanwhile, in counterpoint to these slow-moving, traumatised bodies are the fleet-footed men in black who frequently glide into the stage to enact a set of highly controlled and ritualistic gestures. With their synchronised thigh-slapping and hurried shuffling of feet, these bald, monk-like men come across as a squad of lifeless automatons. Could they possibly, just possibly, signify the bureaucratic colonisers?

Indeed, it would be doctrinaire to consider Tempest as a pure experience devoid of all potential for signification. There are certainly many possible ways to read the performance if one wants to. For one, the distinctive Maori elements already point towards a potential post-colonial discourse. The work could also very well be a larger, more encompassing examination of human history, with the suspended wall construed as a civilisational mural that bears the marks of its vicissitudes.

But these possibilities for signification, I believe, must remain just that – as pure possibilities; insinuations that serve to intensify our experience of the performance’s textures, without reducing them to mere devices for aiding interpretation.

In fact, it is when the performance tries to do the latter, when it tries to interpret itself, that it slightly comes apart. The sequence in which the tatooed man reappears in a corporate suit to delivering a blistering speech against the Christian invaders, for instance, is far too direct, even jarring against the general abstraction of the piece. Other parts such as when the squad of automatons begin to hurl chucks of plaster against a helpless man, creating a massive cloud of white dust; or when the angel-woman tries to use the fallen dust to wash herself, are far too reminiscent of the old-fashioned clichés of purgatory and redemption.

Notably, it is when the performance consciously tries to invoke that the power of its expression becomes lost.

In my conclusion, I turn once again to Deleuze. On the figures on Bacon’s paintings, he said:

These are monsters from the point of view of figuration. But from the point of view of the Figures themselves, these are rhythms and nothing else, rhythms as in a piece of music, as in the music of Messiaen, which makes you hear “rhythmic characters”.

The monsters of Ponifasio’s universe are precisely that: rhythms – rhythms of terror and paralysis that nonetheless manage to animate the senses and expand the power of theatre.

Ho Rui An

Postmodern Chinese Music? by junzpow
June 7, 2011, 1:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

MUSIC REVIEW: Soul Capture by T’ang Quartet and Hu Xiao-Ou (31 May and 1 June)

Upon entering the SOTA Concert Hall, one encounters a landscape of quasi-Savannah stage design with withered branches and wooden logs. Imminently, the musicians dressed in hippie outback gear play a contemporary rendition of ethnic Chinese folk songs remixed in an avant-garde style. Sporadic screen images interrupt the cacophony of extreme high glissandos and repetitious spiccato. This is the music by Hu Xiao-Ou, who has divided the work into six movements, depicting various imageries of ancient China, with titles like ‘A Drinking Song of Sacrifice’ and ‘Birds, Masks and Qing’.

Within an obvious cellular structure, one hears an array of electronic and percussive timbres, with the latter performed with keen gungho by Chek, the second violinist and Lionel, the violist. Yet, the pre-emptive onset of the climax at the end of the second movement appears as a short-circuit against the several variations of ancient Chinese tunes to come in the later movements. Perhaps the use of a single six-note motif to unite all six movements could be deemed as economical, but this also brought musical interest to an auricular abyss. The random interjections of mountain songs and women counting or chanting in the Sichuan dialect more than hindered the teleological path of the music.

Unless one finds this Singapore Arts Festival commission to be postmodern given its juxtaposition of the East and the West, the Classical feel of sturm und drang and the utilisation of homophony and counterpoint, reminiscent of Baroque techniques, reveal the deeply-rooted Western training of the Chinese composer. What convinced me most (more so on the first evening than the second) was the cellist’s solo showcase in the fourth movement, entitled ‘Rotating Totem’. Leslie’s command of the instrument impressed upon the audiences with his extremely high shrills as well as the uber-frantic strums like the performative gait of a Chinese pipa. Otherwise, I must say that I found the yellow lights shining across the entire stage floor as the only uncanny moment of this cultural-historical revival.

In an earlier interview with the composer and performers, the former revealed that the artefacts at Jin Sha, Chengdu, Sichuan ‘belong to nobody’ and thus have allowed for vast inspirations to recreate an aesthetic experience very much similar to that of soul capturing. Thereafter, Hu Xiao-Ou’s decisions to use Sichuan cymbals (as opposed to Beijing cymbals) as well as on-location recordings were strongly influenced by the cultural emplacement of his music. The Singaporeans’ visit to the archaeological site itself instigated awe and awakening of what it meant to be Chinese; as much as Jin Sha being mysterious and abstract, the world premieres were delivered with distinctive imagination amidst a reservoir of extended techniques and choreographic dexterity. Like what Yuying, the first violinist, had mentioned, this project is an attempt at giving meaning to a part of history which was ‘rediscovered but not understood’. Whether the quartet has succeeded, this reviewer remained ambivalent.

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

That Band from a Distance… by junzpow

MUSIC REVIEW: Academy of Ancient Music and Sumi Jo (16 and 17 May)

I should begin by introducing newcomers to Baroque music that there are several schools of thought on performance practice mostly hovering around the use of instruments and instrumental techniques such as the application of vibrato, rhythmic alterations and tuning. Discussions over these topics can be polemic and there remains no consensus, but all agree that a historically-informed performance is most conducive to the intention of the composer.

The Academy of Ancient Music presented two contrasting programme on their last leg of the Asian tour, covering South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The band is a top-notched ensemble of European musicians directed by the very knowledgeable Richard Egarr, who gave a pre-concert talk and answered tough questions at the post-concert dialogues so brilliantly.  For their debut in Singapore at the Singapore Arts Festival, they were honoured to accompany the South Korean diva soprano Sumi Jo in operatic arias by Vivaldi, Handel and Purcell.

For their first evening in Singapore, the players displayed a well-balanced camaraderie with meticulously-sculpted melodic lines sitting atop the throttle of period instruments forming the basso continuo. However, this energy appeared less reciprocal of the director’s beck-and-call. It could very well be the repetitious performance of the same pieces that resulted in, say, the lack of sparkle from the soloists in Albinoni’s double oboe concerto.

The addition of Sumi Jo did not help the situation as her bellismo singing style stood in contrast to the asceticism of Baroque performance practice. Depending on your musical taste, one could witness the mismatch of the otherwise superb musicians. Sumi Jo’s interpretation and diction were immaculate, yet what might have caused the falter of a certain brilliance could be the necessity to sing at a baroque pitch (A=415). The agility of her coloratura upper registers was not given the opportunity to dazzle this evening as it should have been in the case of Purcell’s Music for a While.

As a result, the ensemble’s switch from terraced to tapered dynamic devices betrayed their alliance with period instructions and smaller performance spaces, such as the Wigmore Hall. Their presentation on the second evening was much more persuasive to this reviewer. Perhaps it was an informed familiarity with the Esplanade Concert Hall and certain twitching of its acoustics, that there was renewed confidence from the Cambridge-based ensemble. Maestro Egarr stood in as MC for the entire evening sharing with the audience interesting anecdotes and trivia such as the personification of the lead violinist as Corelli and the double bassist as ‘his boyfriend’.

The star on the Vesak Day evening must be the soloist Ursula Leveaux in Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto. Her delicate scalic pecks brought out the dark subdued tone of her period replica. Her delivery was of sincere intent and achieved the power of the Baroque sublime. If there were any flaws for the band, it would have been logistical: one being the absence of the baroque flute, whose rounder timbre would have been preferred for the works of Bach and Handel. We await the return of this internationally-acclaimed ensemble… and their flautist please.    

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

William Teo/Jeremiah Choy’s Open approach to Theatre: an Interview with Jeremiah Choy by Wong Yunjie

Having been a part of the rehearsal process for The Conference of the Birds, held mostly in the open forum space at Lasalle College of the Arts, I benefited from an operative philosophy that director Jeremiah Choy has attributed to the late William Teo, a pioneering theatre thinker and practitioner in the early days of Singapore’s contemporary theatre scene who has proven to be still influential to several individuals now still working in theatre like Jeremiah. William Teo, as Jeremiah Choy often relates, upheld a philosophy of openness in theatre-making, such that any interested party could be free to participate in his theatre in any capacity, so long as there is demonstrated humility and will to learn.

Through The Conference of the Birds Jeremiah Choy seeks to recreate the magic that drew several people from various backgrounds – whether coffee-shop aunties or Ministers, from the rich to the poor – to William’s theatre.

The project is undertaken as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of William Teo’s passing at the age of 43. Staging the Conference of the Birds at the Festival Village is also an appropriate nod to William Teo’s work as the pioneering Artistic Director for the very first Festival Village on Fort Canning Park in 1997, the first festival of outdoor theatre focusing on Asian performing arts organized by the National Arts Council.

In his lifetime, William Teo touched the lives of several individuals, including Jeremiah Choy. This year’s revisiting of The Conference of the Birds has ensured that individuals such as myself, who have come after his passing, benefit from and understand his vision. The Conference of the Birds show promises to enchant audiences of all ages and backgrounds who attend the show with an open, receptive mind.

I managed to take Jeremiah Choy aside from his busy, intensive rehearsal schedule to discuss an open-theatre philosophy that, audiences will find, defines much of how The Conference of the Birds will be staged on 3rd and 4th of June; an idea which, for me, also underlies Jeremiah’s insistence that all actions on any performance space the actors use must evoke magic – another echo of William Teo’s practice which still resonates.

Q: It is very rare for a theatre production in Singapore to make an open call for the public to audition for roles in a play. I did not audition to be an actor, but merely requested to play a bit part role in the production – now I wish I auditioned for it! I’m very thankful, Jeremiah, for the opportunity you have opened up to me. I have not done as much as I wish, but I do know that I have had an inspired time. I’m very thankful, Jeremiah, for people such as William Teo and yourself, who believed in opening up the theatre experience, and making it accessible to all.

A: It is our pleasure Jacky. You know, you really should write about it. I think it is important for you to write to people about your experiences, so that your experience, and whatever notes you wrote, goes to somebody out there. This is also so that people can realize that there are people who are enthused, and people whose lives have changed somewhat – people who have been encouraged or inspired somewhat. It is not just for you and I, but also for Kee Hong, for other people to see that the arts festival is not just about selling tickets. If an arts festival changes one life, and if in 5-20 years’ time you become a theatre great – for all we know- then I believe the Singapore Arts Festival has served its function. This could well be the seed from which more can grow out of. And this is what the arts festival should be about. I was inspired by the arts festival when I was growing up – I was arts festival chasing!

Q: Very rarely in Singapore will people put their faith in people who come without a proven track record. For that reason I think this year’s festival as well as your own endeavour for Conference of the Birds is very laudable.

A: It is difficult. For me it is something I struggle with, and honestly I have had to realign myself sometimes. I mean, things do go wrong and you do get upset. No one is perfect.

Q: has this occurred because of your open rehearsals?

A: Oh when it comes to rehearsals I feel that the ego has to go. I think people do not open their rehearsals because they are afraid of exposing the process; or they are afraid that they are not ready; or they are afraid people will criticize what they are doing. For me, if you have a good process in place, when people come and watch the good parts and the not-so-good parts, you have to be confident enough to not worry about what they say.

One of the greatest gifts that William has given to me was the ability to Zen out, to pick out the good things – not the good things you want to hear, but the positive things you can work on – there is always something positive about even the bad things people say, so I just take the positive side of whatever people say, and work with it.

Everybody wants to be a director. If you have an audience of 20, there will be 25 different opinions of how a scene should be done. Everyone believes they can do better. But you can only do that on hindsight. When I watch productions, I would always tell myself “Oh I would have done this in a certain way.” I do that and I keep it for myself because it is my point of learning. But I will try not to criticize. I will be critical, but I will not criticize. Because, having been a practitioner we always know that there are difficulties in the budget, in the time schedule, people fall sick, people do not come for rehearsals…etc. You just have to work within the limits that are there to the best of your ability. Some people can turn it on, and some people just can’t, and some people are experienced and others are not. So you just work with whatever resources that you have.

Q: So is there an unspoken code of conduct among theatre practitioners in Singapore that they do not be openly critical of another artist’s work?

A: I don’t know. I think some people operate in a different way. I for one am not afraid of watching other director’s shows, and I am not afraid of other directors watching my shows. In fact I encourage that: I encourage other directors to watch my shows – I want to put it out there.

I feel that the Singapore theatre scene is suffering because people do not go for each other’s performances anymore. The theatre directors are hardly seen to be watching other theatre director’s show. Maybe they feel it is not a good reference, maybe it is not their type of theatre, or they just do not have the time for it. But the community cannot grow without this interaction, this sharing, this communion. It is meant to be a community, and a community cannot happen without communion, or communication for that matter.

Q: And I think William himself would have said the same.

A: I think so too. He was the one who inspired a lot of this thinking in me.

Q: It feels strange but since being part of the production I have begun to encounter people who have worked with William Teo in one way or another. I most recently had to move paintings to the Kids Arts Village, and I got to learn that our regular deliveryman…

A: Cho…

Q: yes! I never knew he worked for William Teo.

A: Cho worked with William Teo. William has this magical ability of picking somebody out from nowhere, and then converting them into a theatre person. Be it a seamstress, be it a deliveryman like Cho, be it a hairdresser, or a coffee-shop auntie somewhere, be it a minister – people from positions powerful or small – he was able to bring these people to see his theatre.

Q: Mr Cho himself told me he saw several of William Teo’s plays, but he also told me that he found William’s shows difficult to understand. He thought that he had to see each show more than once in order to understand the play. Which I suppose is the challenge that William Teo posed to people, knowingly, deliberately.

A: There were a lot of people who were very critical of what William Teo did, in the sense that they would always say that his shows are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but in terms of content, a lot of the actors are incoherent or inarticulate, young or inexperienced. But that is also the charming thing about what William Teo was doing because he just brought anybody who wanted to act under his wings. There was no audition – so long as you wanted to act, and you came faithfully for every rehearsal once a week, you were in! The fact that you were not casted was always because you had one way or another taken yourself out of the equation. If you wanted to be on stage, William would put you on stage somehow, and he would work with you.

For a lot of us working now, even for the young actors nowadays, it seems that when you give notes, they get very defensive. They will say “Oh, today I am not feeling well,” “today I have a sore throat”. To these William would always say: there will always be a lot of excuses. I am just telling you what I saw. You deal with the note yourself. If you want to listen to the note with a positive angle, you work on that, and despite that you are having a sore throat, or your period is on – whatever – you are not supposed to bring all those on to the stage. You are supposed to leave them behind when you go onto the stage, and when on stage you just perform.  And that is an ingredient to the magic of theatre for William.

Q: William Teo believes that theatre should draw people in. The theatre should be magical because it can then be a magnetic influence on people.

A: And it changes someone, somehow. Not necessarily immediately on the first impact, but over time, over years.

Posted by Wong Yunjie