Singapore Arts Festival Blog

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


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