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M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2016: Best Original Script

Fresh look at history

Plays that revisited and reframed Singapore’s history in the year of its Golden Jubilee dominate the Best Original Script category. Lee Jian Xuan reports

CHONG TZE CHIEN

Nominated for: Seed (The Finger Players)

Previous nominations: Five nominations including Furthest North, Deepest South (The Finger Players and Mime Unlimited, 2005); Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (The Finger Players, 2006); Poop (The Finger Players, 2010); Turn By Turn We Turn (The Finger Players, 2012); Rant & Rave (The Esplanade, 2013)

Previous wins: Charged (Teater Ekamatra, 2011) Director-playwright Chong Tze Chien recalls how stressful it was to first stage the play Seed, which has earned him his seventh Best Original Script nomination at the Life Theatre Awards.

As part of the 2013 Asian Performing Arts Festival in Tokyo, he was tasked to create a 15-minute excerpt of a play to be staged at the festival, but Chong, 41, opted to work with Japanese actors from the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre to devise the play. "I'm a sucker for difficult parts, so we created the play from scratch, which is the essence of collaboration. I had five days and about four hours daily with the actors," he says.

There was also another difficulty. Chong does not speak Japanese and two actors translated for him.

"There was a language barrier, but we all understood one another as we spoke the same theatre language. They knew what I was gunning for," he says.

The festival's theme for that year was rice and, from his cast, he drew out stories of love, death, sex, life and family, all centred on the devastating 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The devising of the work produced so much material that Chong expanded it into a full-length play, which was staged here last year with the same cast. He says: "This feels like the right way to do things. This play is like wine - I let it sit and mature. With the luxury of time, I could tweak it every year."

Chong, who is single, is having something of a Japan moment this year. He is directing Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's The Damask Drum for a production to be presented at The Esplanade's Super Japan Festival next month. Japanese director Shigeki Nakano will direct the same production, to be staged the same night.

He says: "Through these experiences, I get to know myself better as I have to share my approach with the Japanese and what Singapore is about. It's almost like re-introducing Singapore to myself."


JEAN TAY

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

Previous nominations: Hopper's Women (Action Theatre, 2001); Boom (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2009)

Previous wins: Everything But The Brain (Action Theatre, 2006) To retell the debate over the fate of Bukit Brown cemetery in a theatre piece, playwright Jean Tay spent about three months looking up the people involved and interviewing them in-depth.

"The transcripts were about 300 pages long, so luckily I had some help getting through those," the 41-year-old tells The Straits Times.

The historic cemetery, which spans about 200ha, became the centre of a debate in 2011 when the authorities announced plans for a road cutting through it, which would result in the destruction and exhumation of up to 5,000 graves.

Heritage interest groups, who said the cemetery is home to the graves of pioneers in the Chinese community, wanted it preserved. Nature advocates were concerned about the impact of development on the floral and fauna.

From the interviews and research, Tay penned a script narrating the Bukit Brown story, which was staged at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre last September.

Her 90-minute play, titled Dusk, was part of the It Won't Be Too Long trilogy by theatre company Drama Box.

The other two pieces were an interactive theatre work titled The Lesson and a performance piece at the cemetery titled The Cemetery: Dawn. Together, they explored the issue of land scarcity here and its impact on Singapore society.

Tay remembers vividly her conversations with passionate civil society activists, as well as people whose ancestors' graves would be exhumed, who banded together to fight for Bukit Brown's preservation.

"What was nice was getting the simpler stories of ordinary people who might lose this part of their heritage and what it meant for them," she says.

Tay, who is married with two daughters, has always taken an interest in historical-themed works. One of her most well-known plays, Boom (2008), centres on the en-bloc fever during the 1990s property boom, when buildings were sold "en bloc" for redevelopment for huge profits. Boom is used as an O- and N-level literature text in schools here.

She says: "These are issues that never go away. How do we contest for land? What are our priorities and how do we deal with them?"


MEIRA CHAND  (right) AND TONY PETITO (left)

Nominated for: The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions and Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None Despite knowing the history of pre-independence Singapore like the back of her hand, novelist Meira Chand did not find it a breeze to pen the story for The LKY Musical, which traces the life of modern Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

"The main challenge was giving life to that political story, as it can get heavy and boring fairly quickly," says Chand, who was tasked to write the musical's storyline.

Based on her material, playwright Tony Petito, who is the founding artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre, developed the script of the musical.

The LKY Musical spans 26 years of history, from Mr Lee's student days at Raffles College right up to Singapore's independence in 1965. It includes characters such as Mr Lee's wife, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo (Sharon Au), and opposition politician Lim Chin Siong (Benjamin Chow, a Best Supporting Actor nominee this year).

Swiss-Indian Chand, who is in her late 60s and was born in London, says she was picked for the project as she had already researched the era for her previous novel, A Different Sky, which tells of three families living in Singapore between 1927 and 1965. The book took her eight years to research and write, compared with the musical's story, which took eight months to complete.

"Writing for the stage is very different from writing a novel. It's a more linear process and you can't go off-tangent. There was such a wealth of material, so it was also about choosing the right events to string together," adds Chand, who is now a Singaporean. She is married with two children.

American Petito, 66, who is based in the United States, tells The Straits Times: "Some of the personal scenes between Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew were perhaps the hardest to write, as there were not many records."

In her review of the musical, The Straits Times' theatre critic Corrie Tan said Chand and Petito had the "unenviable task of playing historian and historiographer to a personality at once feared and admired, and they have done their best both in taking poetic licence and in reserving judgment".

There was an added touch of poignancy to the project, as the musical was staged a few months after Mr Lee's death in March last year. Chand says: "We all regarded this as a legacy project, even before Mr Lee died... He had so much fight and fire. His whole life was about making the impossible possible."



PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG, DESMOND WEE, TONY PETITO

ALFIAN SA'AT (right) AND MARCIA VANDERSTRAATEN (left)

Nominated for: Hotel (Wild Rice)

MARCIA VANDERSTRAATEN

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None Hotel, the Wild Rice epic spanning 100 years of Singapore's history between 1915 and 2015, was partially conceived to "subvert the SG50 narrative and contest official periodisation", say its playwrights Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten.

"It was important to go further back because we didn't spring out of nothing in 1965, which is what a lot of people seem to think," says Vanderstraaten, 33.

Alfian, 38, adds: "It wasn't all just mudflats and swamps then. There was history prior to Singapore's independence. Without recognising it, we can't have a sense of who we are and where we come from."

The play, which stretches for five hours, was divided into two parts and had a 13-man cast. It is set in a hotel room and tells the Singapore story through the characters who inhabit the room through the decades, such as Japanese soldiers, Bugis Street transvestites, a British plantation owner and modern Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

"When we did a workshop for the play, it was harder to deal with the early decades than the later ones as they are not so familiar. In a sense, it was more academic as we had to do more research on the earlier periods and we had only cut-and-dry historical records to work with," says Vanderstraaten, an up-and-coming playwright whose previous works include the dinner theatre play, Mind Map Of Love (2015).

The pair, who are both single, consulted materials ranging from plays by British playwright Somerset Maugham to silent Chinese films starring actress Ruan Lingyu.

He wrote seven scenes and she, four. Vanderstraaten, then an associate playwright with Wild Rice, was enlisted to help Alfian with the project. She has since left Wild Rice.

Hotel premiered to unanimous praise from reviewers and was sold out at last year's Singapore International Festival of Arts.

It will be restaged this year as part of Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival in July.

Alfian says: "We will resist the temptation to keep it as it is because of the acclaim that it has. We will try to go deeper this time."

ALFIAN SA'AT

Nominated for: Geng Rebut Cabinet (Teater Ekamatra)

Previous nominations: Five nominations including Asian Boys Vol. 1 (The Necessary Stage, 2001); Homesick (Wild Rice, 2007) and Cooling Off Day (Wild Rice, 2012)

Previous wins: Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 (Wild Rice, 2005); Nadirah (Teater Ekamatra, 2010); Kakak Kau Punya Laki (Teater Ekamatra, 2014) For the political play Geng Rebut Cabinet, playwright Alfian Sa'at flipped Singapore's Group Representation Constituency (GRC) political system on its head.

In Singapore where the Chinese form the majority, all GRC teams must have at least one member from a minority community. But in the play, Malays are the ethnic majority and the ruling party fields a Chinese - school principal Catherine Seah (Neo Swee Lin) - in a GRC alongside her Malay party mates (Farah Ong, Dalifah Shahril, Khairudin Samsudin and Fir Rahman).

The play uses the GRC system to explore issues of representation, racial stereotypes and identity. For instance, the Chinese, now a minority, find their social problems, such as gambling, highlighted. They are unable to attain high military positions - a clear parallel to a debate over whether Malays are able to do so in Singapore.

Alfian, 38, tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "The biggest challenge was self-censorship. When you grow up in Singapore, you're always told that race is a sensitive topic, so you studiously avoid it... I told myself, 'I'll write it anyway.' But once it's expressed, we can see it doesn't result in tension or conflict and, slowly, these taboos melt away."

He is no stranger to writing about politics. His 2011 play Cooling Off Day captured voter sentiment in the watershed General Election the same year, when the opposition won a GRC for the first time, and he often pens candid Facebook posts on race, culture and politics in Singapore.

To research Geng Rebut Cabinet, he turned to election rally videos online, which were aplenty as the play opened last December, just months after the General Election.

To him, it is important to address the concerns of minorities and issues such as racial privilege as the "Singapore identity is a work-in- progress, so minority voices should be included in its formulation. These voices will ultimately allow us to distinguish a Singaporean from a Hong Kong or Taiwanese identity".

For more stories on the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, go to str.sg/Zy7U.

The winners will be announced on April 25, at the invitation-only awards ceremony held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

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