M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2016: Best Director

Bold directions

The nominees for Best Director set themselves major challenges, from epic productions to more intimate work. Akshita Nanda reports

ALVIN TAN

Nominated for: untitled women (The Necessary Stage)

Previous nominations: Best Director for Fundamentally Happy (The Necessary Stage, 2007); Good People (2008); Gemuk Girls (2009)

Previous wins: Best Director for Model Citizens (The Necessary Stage, 2011) The Necessary Stage often uses language for theatrical innovation - director Alvin Tan's first win was for the English, Mandarin and Malay Model Citizens. But for untitled women, he literally threw away the script at first, asking his collaborators to go beyond words and text.

Untitled women is derived from two plays written by the troupe's resident playwright Haresh Sharma: untitled cow number one and untitled women number one, both about mourning and mortality. They were performed in the early Noughties under the direction of Jeff Chen.

On revisiting the scripts, Tan, 53 and single, decided the work "invites a lot of intervention and collaboration" from artists in different disciplines. He says: "I thought, let me try this through my own understanding of interdisciplinary theatre."

While the troupe has created inter- disciplinary work in projects such as this year's Manifesto with Drama Box, which married visual art, soundscapes, multimedia and old- school theatre, he felt these were "not radical enough".

Tan asked actress Sharda Harrison and musician Bani Haykal to "explore the vocabulary between the physical theatre artist and sound artist". As Harrison played a widowed cow in mourning in untitled cow number one, for example, her wails were accompanied by the sounds of the musician playing his guitar or reading out the scripted text.

The Straits Times' reviewer Corrie Tan described it as "the beautiful and the bizarre thrown into stark relief".

Tan has always had an egalitarian attitude - "We look for good ideas, it doesn't matter where they come from, actor, dramaturg, director" - but even more so during the development process for untitled women.

He says: "I have mixed feelings about the nomination because it's a collaboration. I wouldn't be here at all without the text and the two artists. I feel it's the production that's been nominated."


KOK HENG LEUN (left), KOH WAN CHING (right) AND LI XIE

Nominated for: It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk) (Drama Box)

KOK HENG LEUN

Previous nominations: Best Director for A Stranger At Home (Drama Box, 2007); and Best Original Script for Happy (Drama Box, 2006)

Previous wins: None

KOH WAN CHING

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Big Fool Lee (Toy Factory Productions, 2008); Best Ensemble for A Cage Goes In Search Of A Bird (A Group Of People, 2011); Best Costume Design for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Nine Years Theatre, 2013)

Previous wins: None

LI XIE

Previous nominations: Nine nominations including Best Director for Little White Sailing Boat (Singapore Arts Festival, 2008); Best Actress for White Songs (Drama Box, 2003); Best Original Script for House Of Sins (Drama Box, 2009); Best Costume Design for Trash (Drama Box, 2007); Best Supporting Actress for Temple (Drama Box, 2009)

Previous wins: Best Director for House Of Sins (Drama Box, 2009); Best Supporting Actress for Happy (Drama Box, 2006) Long inspired by disappearing landmarks, Drama Box's artistic director Kok Heng Leun sees preserving Bukit Brown cemetery as more than an issue of attachment to a place. It is also about the conversations between the authorities and the public, matters he has been exploring since 2007 in community theatre project IgnorLand.

"I feel we should be more careful with what we are tearing down," he says. The 50-year-old married father of two brings up the loss of the former National Library in Stamford Road, now a tunnel, as well as the Chek Jawa Wetlands at Pulau Ubin. "Our hearts are always attached to something physical, be it a person or a place."

When the Singapore International Festival of Arts commissioned Drama Box in 2014 to create new work for Singapore's Jubilee Year last year, Kok knew immediately that he would create a project around the redevelopment of Bukit Brown cemetery. Discussions with Li Xie and Koh Wan Ching helped refine the form of the It Won't Be Too Long trilogy.

Li's interest in working with audiences led to interactive forum theatre in The Lesson, held in early September. Passers-by at Toa Payoh Central were invited into an inflatable theatre to consider which landmarks, including a columbarium and a marsh, should be demolished to make room for a fictitious MRT station.

Koh's work in movement theatre led to the site-specific work The Cemetery: Dawn, performed in mid-September. The dawn show was followed in the evenings by The Cemetery: Dusk at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre. Playwright Jean Tay used press clippings and interviews to create the Dusk script about the furore over the new road through Bukit Brown cemetery.

Koh, 36 and single, does not identify with the term director. "I think I focused a lot on facilitating our methods of collaboration. Heng Leun set a clear artistic direction and, because of the collaborative way in which he works, many people brought their life force, will and creativity together."

Li, 44 and single, says her work on The Lesson was inspired by "chronic construction fatigue" as one condominium development after another cuts into the green space near her home in Thomson.

But forum theatre is not didactic, she is quick to say. "We don't deliver a message. The audience has to find out the answer for itself."

The Lesson took place over four nights and, each time, the outcome was different, she says.

Drama Box will restage The Lesson in Taipei in December.

Kok, a Nominated Member of Parliament, is also thinking of restaging the trilogy in Singapore because he would have liked to have had more time to engage the community. "There were too few shows. It is still so relevant," he adds.

Referring to the public discussion about the new 50km underground MRT line cutting across the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, he says: "Think about the Cross Island Line issue."


IVAN HENG (right) AND GLEN GOEI (left)

Nominated for: Hotel (Wild Rice)

IVAN HENG

Previous nominations: Six nominations, all for Wild Rice productions including Best Director for Cooling Off Day (with Jo Kukathas, 2012) and Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 (2014); Best Actor for The Weight Of Silk On Skin (2012) and La Cage Aux Folles (2013); Best Supporting Actor for The Importance Of Being Earnest (2010); Best Costume Design for The House Of Bernarda Alba (2015)

Previous wins: Best Director for Animal Farm (Wild Rice, 2003)

GLEN GOEI

Previous nominations: Best Director for The Importance Of Being Earnest (2010)

Previous wins: None No viewer of Hotel, Wild Rice's five- hour epic take on 100 years of Singapore history, has correctly guessed which scenes were directed by Ivan Heng and which by Glen Goei.

Put that down to their 16 years of working together. Even they are hard-pressed to remember, so close was the collaboration. "We have a Wild Rice style by osmosis," says Goei, 53, associate artistic director of Wild Rice. He has been with the troupe since it was started in 2000 by founding artistic director Heng.

Wild Rice has had productions nominated every year since the Life Theatre Awards started in 2001. This year, it has four plays in the running with 14 nominations in various categories. Hotel has the most nods: seven, including for Production of the Year and Best Ensemble.

Even among last year's line-up of large-scale productions for Singapore's Jubilee Year, Hotel stood out. It showed a century of the country's history, took place over two nights at Victoria Theatre and featured 13 actors playing 40 characters.

Goei, who is single, says: "The play traces 100 years of Singapore history and the comings and goings of people in this imaginary hotel. You see the changes in Singapore through this."

At first, the directors thought they would direct alternate decades or sketches, but some scenes required more rehearsal and development than others. One director would develop one with the actors and present it for the input of the other director and the rest of the cast. As actors often took on multiple roles in sketches, Goei says: "We didn't even rehearse in sequence in the end."

As for a dress rehearsal of the entire show? Both laugh. The dress rehearsal for Part One happened hours before it opened. The technical rehearsal for Part Two happened the next day, again hours before the show opened.

The directors plan to restage Hotel in late June with tweaks and polishing they did not have time for in the first staging.

Apart from their own nominations, they are happy the work of younger talents in Hotel is being recognised, including scriptwriter Marcia Vanderstraaten.

Heng, who is 52 and married to Wild Rice's executive director Tony Trickett, says: "The Life Theatre Awards are wonderful. They encourage people to come to the theatre. They also shine a spotlight on new actors, writers and say: 'We have this talent, this is the future.'"


ONG KENG SEN

Nominated for: The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers (Ong Keng Sen, Chris Lee, Reckless Ericka, Kaffe Matthews, Brian Gothong Tan, Francis Ng; Singapore International Festival of Arts; Singapour en France - le Festival) Previous nominations: Best Director for Lear Dreaming (TheatreWorks, 2013); Best Original Script for Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun (TheatreWorks, 2013) and National Broadway Company (The Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 2013)

Previous wins: Best Director for Geisha (TheatreWorks, 2007) Singapore International Festival of Arts' director Ong Keng Sen is nominated for his largest work yet, the roughly five-hour The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers. His rivals include directors scaling equally ambitious heights, thanks to him commissioning them to create new work for the arts festival.

These include Hotel by Wild Rice and the It Won't Be Too Long trilogy by Mandarin theatre troupe Drama Box. But Ong, 52, is happy to let the theatre groups take the credit.

It is tough enough to direct a theatrical production while also helming a festival, but Ong's The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers posed more than just the challenge of time management.

The work defies description, as part-fashion runway show, part- karaoke, part-visual installation and part-multimedia, with viewers roaming at will during the production. Most of the 20 performers sharing their stories of crossing borders were not theatre professionals, which meant Ong spent more time than usual trying to, say, coax a therapist to perform the traditional Cambodian dances learnt in childhood.

His intent was to show the many unsung cultures that make up Singapore, rather than focus on new citizens who, he says, tend to have the same backstory about moving here for better opportunities. He heard about 250 stories before picking the final performers.

"Most people see migration as problematic, as a competition for resources, but there are people passing through for professional reasons. Like me," he says, drawing parallels to his time in New York, where he has begun his doctorate at New York University.

"The show is a microcosm of their travels and movements. It's also about trying to understand how they live with art as human beings."

The production debuted at Paris' Palais de Tokyo in March last year for the Singapore Festival in France, before returning home for a September staging at the National Museum of Singapore.

It was hailed by The Straits Times' reviewer Corrie Tan as a "slick, futuristic museum of moving dioramas" and has also been nominated for Production of the Year, Best Multimedia Design and Best Costume Design this year.

Ong, who is not married, says he is thrilled with the nominations. "I'm very happy the show was recognised. I'm very aware that what we did with Border Crossers was a very special show. It was a big landmark for me."



PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, DRAMA BOX

TRACIE PANG

Nominated for: Tribes (Pangdemonium) Previous nominations: Eight nominations including for The Snow Queen (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2006); The Dresser (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2007); The Pillowman (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2008); The Full Monty (Pangdemonium, 2011); Dealer's Choice (Pangdemonium, 2012); Rabbit Hole (Pangdemonium, 2014); Next To Normal (Pangdemonium, 2014); Fat Pig (Pangdemonium, 2015)

Previous wins: None Tribes is a play about difficulties in communication within a family where one member is deaf.

So Pangdemonium's Tracie Pang, 48, challenged herself to stage something that audiences - both those who can and cannot hear - would enjoy.

Five of the 19 shows in the run last May had sign-language interpreters on stage.

"I really wanted the deaf community to be part of the show and come and see it," says Pang.

"I feel the deaf community struggles to communicate with the rest of society in Singapore and highlighting that, giving it a voice, was very important."

The director runs Pangdemonium with her husband, actor Adrian Pang, and their productions often marry slick entertainment with a deeper message.

Next To Normal, staged in 2013, was a musical about mental illness, while Fat Pig a year later was about biases against plus-sized people.

What drew the mother of two to Tribes was the combination of heartrending story and comedy in the family drama written by British playwright Nina Raine.

"I loved the family dynamic. The heart of the story is the struggle of the deaf child to be understood, to communicate and act, but many of the family members couldn't really communicate well either.

"It wasn't one person - it was all of them."

People with hearing disabilities joined rehearsals of Tribes to teach the actors sign language and work with Thomas Pang, who was then studying at the Lasalle College of the Arts and played the role of the deaf son.

His performance earned him a Best Actor nod in this year's Life Theatre Awards. Tribes has five nominations in total, including for Best Ensemble.

The director does not know how to sign and it was a steep learning curve before she felt she was no longer "directing in a language I didn't know".

"It was about working with the sign and then the emotions, the direction we wanted to take in the scene. It was always going to be a challenge, but a challenge I set for myself."

All stories on Best Director nominees by Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Bold directions'. Print Edition | Subscribe