It’s my Life

Published on 13 March 2016

Checkpoint Theatre’s next three plays are co-created with Singapore-based artists and based on their life stories. We ask Checkpoint why they’re keen on creating autobiographical theatre.

BY JO TAN

It all began in 2006 when actress Noorlinah Mohamed and I were talking about our mothers,” recalls the director and actress Claire Wong who, with her husband, the playwright and director Huzir Sulaiman, is joint artistic director of Checkpoint Theatre. “Though different, they shared many characteristics. Both barely had any education. Both were monolingual — my mother only spoke Cantonese, Noorlinah’s only Malay. We had so many communication issues with them.”

Eventually, the pair realised that these missed connections had a dramatic resonance, and this led to the writing of the play, Recalling Mother, which Checkpoint premiered in 2006. This was followed by updated versions in 2009 and 2015 as the actresses’ mother-daughter relationships continued to evolve. The last version in New York reflected the idea of role-reversal as the daughters started taking care of their mothers. At each staging, Claire says she was surprised at how much, even in New York, the play really resonated with people and made them reflect. “Audience members would come up and tell us about their own relationships with their parents or grandparents, sometimes for over an hour. Perhaps they felt we were honest enough to share our personal stories with them first.”

Interestingly, Checkpoint’s next three productions will all feature similarly intense personal tales. Recalling Mother will be restaged this fortnight, again with a script overhaul to reflect further changes in the actresses’ relationships with their ageing mothers. July sees a restaging of #UnicornMoment, a 2014 play written (and originally performed) by actress Oon Shu An about defining moments in her life. The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco debuts in August. Written by Huzir and directed by Wong, the play, about the flamenco dancer and choreographer Antonio Vargas, features the man himself alongside
an ensemble of eight actors.

Huzir stresses that while each production is very personal, they won’t be sob-story sharing sessions. “These stories are about certain complex characters, but through craft and skill to make their stories into works of art, audiences relate them to their own lives as well.”

PHOTO  Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

Indeed, each production takes years of work to realise. The Last Bull’s creation process began in 2010 with at least 30 hours of interviews with Vargas about his life. Over the years, Huzir says, the interviews continued, sometimes for up to 10 hours at a time. “Last year, we began devising the play through a team-based process. And while Antonio was giving introductory flamenco classes to the cast this year, I sat in and observed him.”

The process is ongoing with more interviews and exploration, and all this long before rehearsals even begin. For his part, Huzir is careful to be respectful at every step. “I want to honour any thoughts Antonio might have, but I also need to balance that with a sense of critical perspective. There are choices in his life that I might not have made, and there is a way that will come out. These are all things to consider.”

Thankfully, the arduous creative process can also be very rewarding. For Recalling Mother, for instance, Wong says, “I’ve always had conversations with my mother, but not as deeply as now, when I’m researching her. I’ve discovered things about her I’ve never known, like how, as a young girl, she loved singing so much she tried to join an opera troupe. I’ve also finally learnt the recipe for her amazing mee siam! The play has definitely influenced my own relationships with other people in a happy way.”

Huzir believes that making #UnicornMoment also totally changed Oon. “She was interested in looking back at life choices, so my co-director Shiv Tandan and I really pushed her to go to those scary places, like interviewing different people from her past. She was initially a bit resistant, but, in the end, she screwed up her courage to call 40 or 50 people, including ex-boyfriends and estranged friends to have very honest and open conversations. These gave her realisations about what has shaped her as a person.”

This shaping is multi-dimensional, and it extends beyond the stage. Specifically, Checkpoint offers the audience opportunities for conversation and connection. For instance, the new edition of Recalling Mother includes a post-show talk session after every performance. These sessions are not necessarily for the audience to ask questions. Rather, Wong has found that people just want to talk about their own families after seeing the show. “That’s very important, because we work hard to make sure that the work is bigger than just being about us.”

Huzir agrees. “For The Last Bull, I also interviewed the ensemble members. What they said will form a big part of the work, so there’s that connection between being a young performer working in Singapore, and a master who has been dancing for 70 years, been everywhere, done everything, and yet has stayed humble and dedicated to his daily training. When you link those things together, it’s not just about Antonio; it’s about one’s lifelong devotion to a craft, whether you’re an architect or chef or gardener.”

Checkpoint Authorities  Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong, the co-artistic directors of Checkpoint Theatre, also serve as directors, playwrights and performers in the company’s productions. PHOTOS  Zakaria Zainal &  Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

But even without overarching themes, Huzir believes that individual stories are important. “I think Singapore is at a stage where we’ve done a lot of thinking about public history — which is about what people do. But the role of the artist is to shine a light on what people feel and think, and how they make their way in this world. These are private stories which I think our nation hasn’t really had the time for.”

Wong adds, “We must realise that our individual stories are as powerful and valid, and deserve telling as much as any Western classic. And when we turn them into plays, they add to a valuable archive that captures voices, attitudes. Since the country is changing so quickly, time is running out for us to capture our parents’ and grandparents’ voices.”

There is yet another dimension: once the personal stories of the original artists are captured, they can then be revisited, even by different artists. This year’s edition of #UnicornMoment is performed by the actress Zee Wong. This raises the question: does an autobiographical play change fundamentally if it’s performed by someone else?

Glowing, Glowing…Not Gone Oon Shu An’s autobiographical, award-nominated play received rave reviews during its 2014 premiere, and now returns with a new actress. PHOTO Checkpoint Theatre

“I suppose we’ll find out,” muses Huzir. “But we’re happy that Shu An’s story exists as a script to be performed by different people. Hopefully, it will become a classic. It’s already being taught as part of the local contemporary drama syllabus at Nanyang Technological University, and it was nominated for best original script at 2015’s Life! Theatre Awards. That’s the joy of making theatre like this — your story continues after you.”

Recalling Mother is on from 24-27 March.

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