The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2019: Taking on tough stories

The nominees for Best Director are (clockwise from left) Aidli Mosbit for Alkesah (Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay), Glen Goei for Supervision (Wild Rice), Tracie Pang for The Father (Pangdemonium), Edith Podesta for Leda And The Rage (Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay) and Nelson Chia for Pissed Julie (Nine Years Theatre and Macau Arts Festival).PHOTOS: CRISPIAN CHAN, DESMOND FOO, TIMOTHY DAVID, GIN TAY

Nominees for Best Director took creative risks to illuminate topics such as dementia and sexism

The five directors nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2019 all helmed plays which either challenged established narratives or reworked classic texts.

The annual awards recognises the best of local theatre in the previous year, and has been given out since 2001.

Director Tracie Pang, 51, is nominated for Pangdemonium's The Father, a play told from the perspective of someone with dementia, rather than his caregivers.

More than half the audience stayed back for the post-show talks last year, she says, which is unusual and showed just how relevant the topic was.

Viewers who were caregivers felt understood and also able to understand their parents. "That was the big takeaway for them, 'I never thought about what it was like for them, I only thought about it from my point of view,'" says the director, who last won in this category in 2016 for the play Falling, about a family dealing with autism.

She says The Father was the toughest show she has directed yet because her father died two weeks before rehearsals. "It was a whirlwind, knowing how to deal with my emotions and feel comfortable with the play. That made me have a very close relationship with Kay Siu (who plays the lead) to try and understand the character." Lim Kay Siu, who plays the titular father, is nominated for Best Actor this year.

Caring for ageing parents was also a key theme of Supervision.

Director Glen Goei, 56, another Best Director nominee, says the play - about the relationship between a senior citizen and his domestic helper and how easily both of them are denied their rights to dignity and privacy through the use of surveillance cameras - questions what such matter-of-fact acceptance of surveillance cameras at home says about Singapore.

"Why is it that people have no qualms about living with surveillance cameras? What kind of society have they been brought up in, not to question whether it's ethically right or wrong?"

His 88-year-old mother once discussed whether she needed surveillance cameras at home to keep an eye on the domestic help. In the end, she opted out.

"I think we know more and more people who have cameras in their home," he adds. "They want to make sure that their child or parent is being looked after properly, but I think they can cross a line. The home is the workplace of the helper, but there must be some private space that is her own."

 

Malay play Alkesah also questions accepted narratives. Director Aidli Mosbit, 46, is nominated in the Best Director category for the first time and worked with scriptwriter Zulfadli Rashid on rethinking tropes in traditional folklore (or "cerita rakyat").

Take the sharp-tongued wife or village idiot - should the woman be devalued or instead respected for the intelligence which makes her speak up? Is the village idiot being held back because he has learning difficulties? "A lot of us growing up knew these characters and we wanted to take them and write them in a way that would be relevant to the audience today," she says.

She and Zulfadli knew what they were aiming for - "a Christmas pantomime type of feel" - but directing a production that relied on song-and-dance numbers was out of her comfort zone. "I've never thought of myself as a director of musicals and now suddenly I'm nominated," she says, laughing.

With Leda And The Rage, Edith Podesta, 39, the director, who also wrote the play and took the protagonist's role, wanted to show how difficult it is for survivors of sexual assault to speak up, as well as highlight the underlying sexism in legal structures.

She also integrated sign language interpretation of the spoken text through two interpreters shadowing her and supporting actor Jeremiah Choy.

"By integrating the interpreter, I was also trying to highlight how hard it must be for hearing-impaired sexual assault victims to report their assaults to police," says Podesta, who has been nominated twice before in this category. "Attending a shadow interpreted performance raises awareness of the challenges people who are hearing impaired face, as well as opens audiences to the potentiality of inclusion."

Using more than one performer to play a character is a device also used by director Nelson Chia, 46, in his Mandarin play Pissed Julie, a reworking of the 19th-century play Miss Julie by August Strindberg, about the decline of the aristocracy.

Strindberg's original play straddles the border of misogyny in its treatment of the main character, an aristocrat who has an illicit affair with her stablehand. Chia used three actors to depict each main role, so every performer might suggest different interpretations of the same gesture or line.

"I didn't choose Strindberg because I'm a big fan. I was thinking of what ways I could retell the story with the same characters but slightly different," says the director.

He won the Best Director award last year for Art Studio, presented by Nine Years Theatre and the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It was a theatrical adaptation of the Yeng Pway Ngon novel of the same name and deployed actors in strikingly visual tableaus.

Chia says: "Theatre is a 3D canvas for me. I like moving actors on stage. I've also learnt to be sensitive to the minor differences when you place an actor here or there and the shape they take on in that position. It's another way of telling the story."

• The results of The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards will be announced in end April.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2019, with the headline 'Taking on tough stories'. Print Edition | Subscribe