Directors’ vision and scriptwriters’ stories

Speaking to sufferers of bipolar disorder and stomping around a room – the Best Director nominees began their creative journeys at different points. LISABEL TING finds out the challenges they had

Nelson Chia, 41

Artistic director of Nine Years Theatre

Previous nomination: Oleanna (2002)

Nominated for: Twelve Angry Men by Nine Years Theatre

What it is about: The courtroom drama about a dozen jurors debating the outcome of a homicide case is a Mandarin adaptation of the 1954 American classic.

Before rehearsals for Twelve Angry Men even began, director Chia was already working his actors hard.

Chia, who practises the Suzuki technique of theatre training, led the full ensemble of 13 actors through five sessions of the physically demanding method, which involves exercises such as stomping, sliding and crouching.

"It was difficult for some of them because they hadn't gone through the training before," he explains. "Suzuki training is designed to expose what actors cannot do, their weaknesses and why they need to keep training."

But he thinks that the gruelling training also helped to bond the large group. "When we started rehearsing, they very readily listened to one another and created blocking on the spot quite organically. All I had to do was tidy them up."

In theatre, blocking refers to how a director positions actors on stage.

Chia translated Reginald Rose's script from English into Mandarin himself. He says: "In this script, I think what is particularly challenging is that it's set in one location and we have 12 men locked in one room for a two-hour duration. There are no location changes and it's all focused on one issue."

In order to connect with a local audience, he chose to remove direct references to the United States in the dialogue and set the play in a nameless city. He says: "I feel that rather than adapt it to a local context, keeping it this way also suggests a kind of universality to the issues, and that's what I wanted in the adaptation."

Oliver Chong, 35

Actor and resident director with The Finger Players

Liu Xiaoyi, 30

Actor-director currently helming The Theatre Practice's Lab programme

Previous nominations: Chong for I'm Just A Piano Teacher (2006); Liu for 11: Kuo Pao Kun Devised (2012)

Nominated for: Citizen Pig by The Finger Players

What it is about: The pair shares their real-life experiences with nasty landlords and legal wrangles as they try to rent a property in Singapore.

The only duo to be nominated for the Best Director award this year are both actors, scriptwriters, directors and firm friends.

Chong says the play Citizen Pig began as a casual chat over drinks. "We were talking about how we got conned when renting - an office for myself, and an apartment for him - and we thought that there were a lot of similarities between our stories."

To create the script, they "recorded talking to each other" and edited each part separately before juxtaposing them.

After they settled the script, they began piecing the play together - an interesting experience for Chong, who won Production of the Year at last year's Life! Theatre Awards for his one-person exploration of his family history, Roots.

"It's more difficult because when it's just a monologue, you can control the pacing of the play. Now that it's two people, there is a lot of negotiation. Every show we do is slightly different - it's very organic."

He adds that having two people involved in the directorial process is better for decision-making: "There's one more person helping out when it comes to making decisions. He will have his selection, his way of doing things. We open each others' minds and help each other see our blind spots."

Tracie Pang, 45

Co-artistic director of Pangdemonium Directors' vision

Previous nominations: The Snow Queen (2005), The Dresser (2006), The Pillowman (2007), The Full Monty (2010) and Dealer's Choice (2011)

Nominated for: Rabbit Hole by Pangdemonium and Next To Normal by Pangdemonium

What they are about: Rabbit Hole is a heartwrenching look at a couple coming to terms with the loss of their only child and son; Next To Normal is an unflinching take on the impact of bipolar disorder.

Before the cast of Rabbit Hole began rehearsals, they met grieving parents who had lost their children; to prepare for Next To Normal, the cast spent an afternoon with two sufferers of bipolar disorder.

Pang, the director of both shows, says meeting people who have experienced what the characters in the story are going through lends a sense of truth to the performance. "It's not something that we do for every production. But for these two, they were very delicately balanced on a knife's edge between being over the top and being real, so I felt that it was very important."

She says directing Rabbit Hole was an exercise in grief and restraint. The two leads of the show, Adrian Pang and Janice Koh, were nominated for Best Actor and Actress for their performances.

"It's interesting - the playwright wrote notes at the end of the play, and gave advice which urges actors not to cry if it doesn't say 'cry' in the script," says Tracie Pang of the play by American writer David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007.

She says she thought about that directive for a long time, and slowly grew to understand what it meant. "As a human being, we tend to put a lid on things, we hide the pain in laughter, not put it on our sleeves to show the world. And that's how we find the will to continue and move on - that life is still worth living. Life still has joy in it though it has a lot of pain as well, so it was really finding those moments, and making them real."

For Next To Normal, Pang says the challenge was handling the musical in a balanced and truthful manner. The musical, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

She says: "Next To Normal is a musical, and there's a sense that a musical is larger than life, that it's slightly unreal, and I felt that the story we were telling is so important that we had to make sure it was grounded in reality."

Ivan Heng, 50

Founding artistic director of Wild Rice

Previous nomination: Cooling Off Day (2011)

Previous win: Animal Farm (2003)

Nominated for: Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 by Wild Rice

What it is about: Dreamplay takes the audience through an imagined history of gay men in Singapore, with a goddess, Agnes, as their guide.

With Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1, Heng took on one of the milestones of gay theatre in Singapore.

The play was revived as part of Wild Rice's In The Spotlight festival last July, which highlighted works by playwright Alfian Sa'at.

Heng says that the play is significant because it was "written at a time when gay Singapore theatre and literature were rare, and Asian Boys Vol. 1 shone light on a community emerging from the shadows".

"Wrapped in its dream logic and surreal humour, the play managed to sidestep the censors while directly tackling issues that are still resonant today."

Although the play debuted in 2000, Heng says that not many changes were made to the script.

"Apart from several edits for pacing, there were just one or two scenes we updated to a modern context. For example, the characters used dating apps such as Grindr, instead of IRC."

He adds: "The key to staging revivals is working with a company of sensitive, smart and empathetic actors and designers. Because human beings are all the same and we don't really change, a contemporary company handling a classic inevitably holds up a mirror, enabling present-day audiences to see themselves and stories on stage."

He also says that the audience now is different from the audience of 10 years ago who watched the original play. "By all accounts, there was an exciting sense of an underground movement in the first production.

"Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues are aired and understood much more publicly today, and while the play has seemingly lost its shock value, it's a painful reminder that Section 377A is still on the books today."

ST 20140218 LTA2014KQZMG67Y 151405m

From detainee Mas Selamat’s female alter ego to a director-playwright obsessed with his actress muse, this year’s Best Original Script nominations are peppered with characters that are larger than life and achingly real. CORRIE TAN reports

Oliver Chong, 35

Liu Xiaoyi, 30

Previous win: Chong won for Roots (2012)

Nominated for: Citizen Pig by The Finger Players

What it is about: Two tenants, one Singaporean and one non-citizen, confide about their rental woes in Singapore, both commercial and residential. The housing horror stories are told with both light humour and pathos, and were based on the real-life experiences of Chong and Liu at the hands of money-grubbing landlords.

Following the runaway success of Chong's one-man show Roots (2012), a big-hearted play about a man's search through his family history, Chong and Liu wanted to further explore the storytelling genre that Roots employed.

Both Liu and Chong initially wrote a script about fictional rental woes, but on receiving feedback from The Finger Players company director and playwright Chong Tze Chien, decided to go with their own stories instead.

They each wrote a script about their experiences, then exchanged drafts, giving each other feedback and making edits.

They found that even though their experiences were different - Chong's story primarily takes place in an office building, while Liu's unfolds in a residential area - their stories were similar in terms of dramatic structure and fit well into each other.

The play was told conversationally, as Chong puts it: "It's like how you would narrate a story to a friend."

He adds: "More and more, my artistic preference is to go as minimal as possible - as if I was doing a show and I was not given anything. I think theatre can happen anywhere... Street performers can do a play on the street and that's how it started before theatres were built.

"I wanted to explore that and it is very challenging, I think, for any artist to do it, because we have no physical tools to use. You have only yourself, your voice, your body and your story."

Alfian Sa'at, 36

Writer and resident playwright at Wild Rice

Previous nominations: Asian Boys Vol. 1 (2000), The Optic Trilogy (2001), Fugitives (2002, shared nomination) and Cooling Off Day (2011)

Previous wins: Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 (2004) and Nadirah (2009)

Nominated for: Kakak Kau Punya Laki (Your Sister's Husband) by Teater Ekamatra

What it is about: Four sisters are driven to their wits' end by their oldest, oddball sister, Maslindah Selamat - or Mas Selamat for short (Najib Soiman in a gender-bending role). When Mas announces that she has a fiance, her sisters launch a "detention without trial" of Mas to find out his identity in this allegorical play, which draws parallels with the real terrorist detainee Mas Selamat.

Alfian always knew that the protagonist of Kakak Kau Punya Laki, Maslindah Selamat, would be played by a man. There had been talk that former Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari's family had dressed him in a tudung, or a Muslim headscarf, to evade capture by the police when he escaped custody here in 2008.

Alfian says: "We wanted to unravel this image of Mas Selamat in female drag. Because I think it's a very loaded image. On the one hand, you're saying it's a disguise but, on the other hand, there are lots of disguises at work. Obviously one is for his own escape. But I think there's also a kind of disguise where he is not given the opportunity to represent who he is."

He also had to be careful not to overdo the parallels between the real-life terrorist and the play's eccentric spinster. "It was always a struggle to give it meaning, such that it's not a conceit you throw into the play just for the sake of making unlikely juxtapositions."

He had actually not completed the script in time for auditions held in the middle of last year. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"I wanted only Maslindah and three sisters," he says with a laugh. "But at the audition, they were all pretty good - and I think that's the good part of auditioning without a script. Because you can always add an extra sister."

Natalie Hennedige, 39

Artistic director and founder of Cake Theatrical Productions

Previous nominations: Nothing (2007) and Temple (2008)

Nominated for: Illogic by Cake Theatrical Productions

What it is about: A sweeping, abstract work featuring vignettes about the hazy boundaries between art and life, creation and deconstruction, entwined with an overarching love story of a playwright-director (Edith Podesta in a male role) creating a new work and presenting it to his actress muse and lover (Noorlinah Mohamed).

The starting point of Illogic had been Hennedige's love of art.

She says: "It was about claiming, and saying - it's okay to do the art that I'm doing. It can be a big struggle because Cake's work is so experimental - it can be challenging to access.

"My starting point was that kind of a struggle: This is who I am, this is the art I make and I'm going to call the piece Illogic and make a logic out of it, just to share that how I make is as close to who I am."

But the play began to take on a life of its own over the 11/2 years Hennedige spent creating the piece.

One of her mentors, theatre veteran Christina Sergeant, died of a heart attack. And another close friend had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Hennedige spent days sitting by her friend's side in the hospital, having long conversations about art and life and coming face to face with mortality. She began to question the necessity of art.

But once, when they were talking about what could make Singapore better, her friend turned to her and said: "What we need is more art."

It is this intersection of art and life that Hennedige drew from for Illogic. Her characters in the play embodied the act of creation and the concept of the theatre.

She says: "I wanted to create an intensity to the relationship, where it wasn't just their art-making, but it was their lives and art colliding.

"When the heart, the soul is affected by another person, then the creation becomes a more complex layer."

Faith Ng, 26

Playwright and part-time playwriting lecturer at National University of Singapore and scriptwriters' stories

Previous nomination: wo(men) (2010)

Nominated for: For Better Or For Worse by Checkpoint Theatre

What it is about: This intimate and deeply Singaporean production about a long- married husband Gerald (Julius Foo) and wife Swen (Jean Ng) tracks their history together from courtship till the present day, wrestling with the ups and downs in their relationship as the fractures begin to show.

Two years ago, Faith Ng met her mentors, Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong of Checkpoint Theatre, for lunch.

She regaled them with what she felt were funny stories about her parents and her family.

Playwright-director Huzir, however, was deeply moved. Ng says: "Huzir was quite affected and he said, you really need to write this. He told me to send him seven pages. I thought, okay lah, just to oblige him, I'll write seven pages.

"So I wrote seven random pages and sent them to him, and then he really liked it and asked me to continue.

"I thought, I've just graduated and I have nothing to do, so I just started spamming him with drafts of this play."

But the play continued to grow, even as she went abroad later in 2012 to pursue a master's degree in creative writing (scriptwriting) at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

Ng drew from her interactions with her parents and their conversations to construct the arc of the piece, including vignettes on how a married couple might gamble on a soccer match or send text messages to each other.

During one of the play's dramatised readings, Ng and her fiance, a doctoral student, took on the roles of Swen and Gerald, which she found "quite strange".

She says with a laugh: "It was like a potential future. But the reading gave me insight into how to develop the characters and also what the audience is expecting."