Monday, July 25, 2011

Documenting the Man Theatre Festival

I have spent much time taking publicity or production photographs for various performing arts groups in Singapore. And I am happy that there are other photographers stepping up to take on this work. But due to the tight budget of performing arts groups, documentation of the production process has rarely been done for productions. So I have started to step into the gap and document the process for performing arts groups. I started off this work with Singapore Dance Theatre which is the group I am most associated with. And when I saw the line up for Wild Rice's Man Theatre Festival, I offered to help document the production process. And my offer was accepted to cover the two productions that Wild Rice is preparing for the Festival, The Weight of Silk on Skin and Cooling Off Day. The first play is a Monologue written by Huzir Sulaiman, directed by Claire Wong and performed by none other than the artistic Director of Wild Rice, Ivan Heng. The other play is an ensemble piece by playwright Alfian Sa'at based on the recent landmark Singaporean elections. It boasts a cast of veteran actors like Neo Swee Lin and Peter Sau. It's director, Jo Kukathas also acts in the play.

Even though I have been around performing arts groups so much and so many of my friends are actors, dancers and musicians, I have not really been a witness to the birthing process of plays. I entered the rehearsal building of Wild Rice on Kerbau Road with two rehearsal rooms on the second floor. The first sight that greeted me when I reached the top of the flight of stairs is a table with neat stacks of plastic cups labelled with the names of actors and production crew. And the cups were color co-ordinated for the two productions, red for Cooling off Day and Blue for The Weight of Silk on Skin. An irony to use Red for a play titled 'Cooling' and blue for a play peppered with allusions to hot sex? But I digress. The neatly labelled cups hint at the professionalism of the company. Another hint was the neat list of personnel in each play found in each rehearsal room. Already, you can see that Wild Rice is a focused organization, but not overly so because it is also a creative place.

In the rehearsal room for Cooling off Day, is a chart with the names of characters from the play and next to those characters, the name or names of the actor who would play the character. The rehearsal started later than scheduled when I first arrived, with only the stage manager there. She happened to be a Lasalle graduate whose graduation portrait I had taken. Then old friends arrive, Peter Say, Kheng Hua and Swee Lin. New to me is the actor Najib and the director Jo. The rehearsals started with the actors standing in a group, playing the roles of Singaporeans talking about the elections. Some of them were for the PAP and some were against. The actors read the scripts like they were trying out new clothes, adjusting a line or delivery like one would adjust the sleeves of a new shirt. And the director Jo, coaxing a form out of this ensemble performance. She was clear that the characters had to be distinct from one another so that they would not become a monotonous delivery. And at the same time, both director and actors were aware that the delivery had to be authentic, believable. And I noticed Kheng Hua, shifting with nervous energy while waiting to deliver her lines, not because she was nervous but because this was a way for her to emotionally find resonance with her character.

The playwright Alfian came in half way and sat watching the rehearsal. It was obvious that he enjoyed seeing his characters coming to life. And he was also very much part of the theatrical birthing process, explaining the rationale behind parts of his script and clarifying the characters, many which were based on interviews with real people.

With so much experience in the room, each actor brought a wealth of life to their roles. The process of directing was not a dictatorship but more like a conductor coaxing the essence out of a well honed orchestra. And even though I knew how talented the people in the room are, I was still astounded by how versatile and malleable they were under the directions.

Entering the rehearsal room for The Weight of Silk on Skin was immediately more intense. A table of four production crew and Ivan sitting on the edge of a seat, running lines. I always wondered about that process of learning lines, almost to the point of dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's. And then it hits me that the effortless delivery of lines, complete with believable character, is akin to a ballerina who makes floating en pointe look effortless. Both are herculean tasks made to look simple. There was no need for anyone to create drama for my camera, this was an actual battle as visceral as any life and death struggle found on National Geographic.

When I later asked Ivan whether remembering lines has become harder or easier, he replies that it has never been easy for him but he has a physical memory of the play. He remembers blocking more easily which helps him remember his lines. And this explains why acting is not simply oration, but an act that requires the whole body.

Claire and HuzirHuzir, experienced professionals, discussed the play on myriad levels, asking questions that I would never have thought to ask. The script writer's intention brought to life by an actor and honed to a razor's edge by the director. And this was no easy script. Huzir is extremely intelligent, his script while on one level being a human drama, is equally full of detail on clothing, fabric production and social anthropology. A heady mix which a new actor would never be able to bring to life. Ivan though, even while struggling with some of the newer lines, was mesmerizing to watch. And Claire was able to keep up with the extent of Ivan's delivery and reshape it. The process was a drama as compelling as the play itself.

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