Singapore Writers Festival

Literary journeys on stage with actress Siti Khalijah Zainal and playwright Chong Tze Chien

Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal (above) will share how literature influenced her life while writer-director Chong Tze Chien documents the evolution of the Singapore literature scene.
Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal (above) will share how literature influenced her life while writer-director Chong Tze Chien documents the evolution of the Singapore literature scene.PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL
Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal will share how literature influenced her life while writer-director Chong Tze Chien (above) documents the evolution of the Singapore literature scene.
Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal will share how literature influenced her life while writer-director Chong Tze Chien (above) documents the evolution of the Singapore literature scene.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Two theatre productions put literature in the spotlight

Hurtle through five decades of Singapore's literary history and learn how literature helped make Siti Khalijah Zainal the charismatic stage darling she is today.

Literature takes centre stage at two theatre productions in the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from Nov 4 to 13.

In the sold-out Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares, a one-woman show written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by Aidli Mosbit, the actress opens up about how she started off as a student with a love of reading.

Between The Lines: Rant And Rave II sends theatre veterans Serene Chen and Jean Ng slipping into the shoes of real-life poets, novelists and publishers to piece together the evolution of the Singapore literature scene.

It is writer-director Chong Tze Chien's literature-centric follow-up to show Rant & Rave, his whirlwind tour of Singapore theatre first staged in 2012.

  • BOOK IT / BETWEEN THE LINES: RANT AND RAVE II

  • WHERE: School of the Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: Nov 4 to 6, 8pm (Friday and Saturday), 3pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

For Between The Lines, the 41-year-old turns documentarian once more, this time patching together quotes and excerpts drawn from sources such as newspaper articles and journals to trace the growth and struggles of the literature scene here.

This production by The Finger Players, which runs from Nov 4 to 6 at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre, is commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival. There will be a post-show book sale at the venue.

Chong, who is the company director of The Fingers Players, says: "Singapore literature is an important - but relatively unknown - part of our national history. It's about our struggles to try and get our voices heard.

"And it's not just about the writers. It's about the publishers, the bookstores, the different people who have tried to carve out a niche for Singapore literature and literature in Singapore."

The show captures the voices of the who's who of Singapore writing, including literary pioneers Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap; pays tribute to the sweat and tears of unsung heroes such as publishers and booksellers; and tracks milestones such as the rise and fall of Borders.

Chong took about two months to go through materials gathered by Dr Hoe Su Fern, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, and spent another month piecing together quotes so that the various personalities seem to be engaged in a conversation.

"It's a bit of nostalgia, a bit of education. When it comes to documentation, we're just at the cusp of understanding our history. So even though there has been so much happening in our literature scene, so much richness, not many people know that," he says.

Actresses Chen and Ng play more than 100 characters between them.

One of Chen's favourite quotes in the show is from Yap, who died of cancer in 2006, on his illness and the loss of his voice.

"He was a visionary and far, far ahead of his time. There was always a mystery about him, chiefly because I never spoke to him, but got to know him through his writing and the name tag on his room door," says Chen 41, who did theatre studies and English at the National University of Singapore, where Yap taught.

"My friends who took literature would talk about him: about the strong smell of smoke in his room and how he seemed to see deeply without really appearing to go out of his way to engage people."

One of her greatest take-aways from working on the show was the immense role publishers here played in shaping the scene.

"They were and are the believers, influencers, the patrons," says Chen. "Not unlike the theatre scene, there were the individuals who championed the literature scene by putting their money where their mouths were."

Meanwhile, literature played a part in getting Siti into theatre, she says. The 30-year-old recalls looking forward to literature classes at Pioneer Secondary School and breezing through the book assigned to the students in Secondary 1, Roald Dahl's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.

"I loved the book so much, I finished reading it even before our teacher started reading it with us," she says. "My interest in reading slowly grew from there and I always read with a dictionary by my side, so that I could quickly refer to it if I came across difficult words."

In Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares, the actress - who can effortlessly veer from the comic to the tragic - will also talk about the roles she has played and the ones she dreams of taking on.

Performing in a Shakespeare play ranks high on her wish list: She played Hermia in a school production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, "but it was performed in simplified text".

"So I wonder what it would be like if I were given the chance to perform the role again, but this time using the original classic text," she says.

"It will be something new for me and audiences as well, something they've never seen me in before."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to http://www.straitstimes.com/tags/singapore-writers-festival-2016

•Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares is sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'A literary journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe