Boiler Room welcomes bigger batch

Joining this year's Boiler Room programme are (seated) Zee Wong, (standing, from left) Al-Matin Yatim, Isaac Lim, Timothy Nga and Christian W. Huber.
Joining this year's Boiler Room programme are (seated) Zee Wong, (standing, from left) Al-Matin Yatim, Isaac Lim, Timothy Nga and Christian W. Huber.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

What do two paragons of manhood, Greek god Hercules and cigarettetoting Marlboro Man, have to say about masculinity today?

And where does Taiwanese pop star A-mei figure when it comes to ruminations on identity?

These are just two of the imaginative premises bubbling up in Centre 42's Boiler Room programme to develop works for the stage.

This year, it is brewing its biggest batch, with five playwrights confronting a range of daring topics from sexual violence to spirituality.

The five are freelance writer and actor Isaac Lim Jue Hao, 30; Christian W. Huber, 44, managing director of Astrabon, which offers health and wellness products; freelance theatre practitioner Al-Matin Yatim, 27; actor and singer Zee Wong, 31; and actor and director Timothy Nga, 43.

They were picked for the scheme's third year out of 34 applications by a panel comprising directors Zizi Azah and Nelson Chia as well as Centre 42's resident director Casey Lim and dramaturg Robin Loon. Both Lim and Loon will be on hand for consultations.

Isaac Lim's play on identity - national, cultural and sexual - has an unlikely muse: starlet A-mei, whose aboriginal name is Amit.

"What I'm most excited about is the opportunity to work alongside and learn from other playwrights in this cycle, who have expertise in so many areas in theatre," he says.

Meanwhile, masculinity is on the menu for Nga, with a play that explores what it is to be a man. The idea had been stewing in his head for years - but was brought up only in January, during a workshop on ensemble creation at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training in the United States.

"We each brought an idea to the cohort and whoever was drawn to the idea could volunteer to be in the piece," he recalls. "The number and diversity of people who wanted to explore this and the rich humanity and pain they brought into the rehearsal room gave me a clue that there was a lot to be mined here."

Al-Matin's play investigates existence through a character who grapples with the spiritual reasons for his existence. It is an expansion of a monologue he wrote last year for his final term at the Intercultural Theatre Institute and had hoped to develop into a play.

His lack of experience in scriptwriting - Al-Matin is more used to acting - had him shying away from it for a while. But now that he is part of the Boiler Room, "I am sure I'll be receiving a lot of useful advice for the script to bloom", he says.

The programme is giving Wong an extra push too. She plans to look at gender relations, dipping into issues such as love, consent and respect through the dark lens of sexual violence.

"Sexual violence against women is under-discussed and somewhat taboo in Singapore and I felt that shouldn't be the case. Things need to change," she says. "But to write a play was an overwhelming and scary thought. Who was I to consider myself a playwright?"

Her fellow theatremakers encouraged her to apply for the programme. Wong recalls: "I broke into a cold sweat, but was relieved and happy I pushed myself to."

While the others have been active in the theatre scene, Huber returns to it after a decade away.

He was an artistic director of theatre company luna-id, which stopped producing plays in 2006. He spent the next decade helming his family business, but stepped down in January. He will now juggle playwriting with tending to another family company.

Huber's play deals with migration through two time periods - preindependent Singapore and the world today - and delves into inter-racial relationships

It was sparked by how the lives of his Chinese mother and Swiss father intersected in pre-independent Singapore as they adapted to a new environment, navigated racial tensions in the region and set up a business. "I always felt it would make a good book or play," he says. "The idea to put this on paper struck me about 10 years ago, but gained more clarity over the past two or three years as the word 'migration' has instilled a bit more fear in this ever-cocooning world."

Loon says: "Each playwright invested a stake in the ideas they presented. That showed courage and commitment. While the ideas are close to their hearts, they remained open to change and explorations. This shared combination of dexterity and tenacity won the selection panel over."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Boiler Room welcomes bigger batch'. Print Edition | Subscribe