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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Cakap-Cakap: Interview with Serene Chen and Krish Natarajan

In the latest of our Cakap-Cakap series, ArtsEquator chats with Serene Chen and Krish Natarajan who star in Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT)’s new play, The Sound Inside, written by by award-winning playwright Adam Rapp. The Sound Inside turns the spotlight on an unusual connection forged between a pair of literary-minded people – a professor and a student. Bella Bird (Serene Chen) is an accomplished professor at an Ivy League university who prizes her solitude. But when she faces a challenge she cannot tackle alone, she allies herself with a brilliant, mysterious student (Krish Natarajan).

ArtsEquator (AE): In whatever way you like, please introduce yourself in your own words.

Krish Natarajan (KN): Hi I am Krish – I like to act. I also like to direct. I also like to write. And I’m the co-founder of theatre collective Patch and Punnet.

Serene Chen (SC): I’m Serene, an actress.

AE: How are you doing at the moment? Could you describe your current state of mind?

KN: I’m doing pretty good. Back on stage and feeling alive. So I don’t think I have much to complain about.

SC: I’m doing okay. Is it fair to say I’m in screensaver mode? Which is to say that because we are doing two intense shows a night, I need to conserve my energy for when it  matters. That’s how I get my brain and body to focus.

AE: What excites you about this show and its themes, and of being part of this production?

KN: The script and the complexities of the characters. There is so much poetry and wit in the script and also there’s something really intriguing about the characters. So when you read it there are so many ways to interpret their actions and motivations.

SC: This show is intimate in terms of its themes of loneliness and disconnection. I think it’s important that we bring private pain into focus because that’s very relevant in the “sensible” world, the world of academia, the world of so-called intellectuals. Is everyone here considered “sorted” because they appear to be at the pinnacle of their careers? I love the character of Bella Bird because she is not your usual protagonist.

Photo courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.

 

AE: What are your personal connections/entry points into the themes and issues of the show? How do you relate to your character?

KN: I think the human connection is something very pivotal to the play. The idea that you can find someone you can connect with in the most random of places. I mean a lot of our closest friends now are people we would have called strangers at some point.  I think Christopher is someone that really lives in his head – he’s always thinking. And I think that’s me a lot of the time too. Except I don’t think Christopher thinks about what kind of prata he will have for dinner.

SC: I’m currently younger than Bella Bird, but we will all grow older. I’m intrigued by her. I’d like to think we all have a public and private mask, and I love a great conversation with someone who is clever, interesting and bothers to see how I tick. Bella becomes vulnerable when she meets someone who first pushes the wrong buttons, but maybe they are the right buttons… because through it all, she starts to have to get to know herself, the real Bella, again. And it reignites the life force in her. That is the power of human connection. It sounds simple, but in a world where there is rising depression amongst people, we cannot underestimate the power of deep human connection as the most basic antidote/expectation?

AE: How did you find the rehearsal process? Can you share a particularly memorable part of the process? What’s been the most challenging part of this journey?

KN: It was quite a short process but it was really nice being in the room with Cherilyn (director Cherilyn Woo) and Serene. I think there was a really clear sense of like “yo, this script has so much, let’s talk about all the possibilities”. So I can’t really talk about my most memorable part of rehearsal without spoiling the play! But it was one of our discussion sessions about the script.

I think apart from shaking off the rust, the most challenging was to be able to really analyse everything the script gives you and make really clear choices about the character. Because there are so many questions that need to be answered. And so many nuances within the script where you’re just like “WHY DOES HE SAY THAT AT THIS TIME IN THIS WAY”.

SC: On the one hand, it was really nice to be able to say, “I’m going to rehearsal.” For a year, there was no such thing. However, I was guarded in expressing joy because I kept thinking (and still do) that any developing COVID transmissions could potentially send the theatre shutters down again. I think being on mental guard has been exhausting, to be honest. So when I went for rehearsals, it was always a moment of release. I gave in to the text even though looking at how many words I had to remember really sent chills down my spine. Really – a year in hiatus and now, this chunk of text???

What was memorable were the moments that Cherilyn, Krish and I would crack why some line was said or what the writer, Adam Rapp, might have intended from the flow of a moment.

Small moments where creatives get to trade our points of view. There was a day when we talked about how theatre stress triggers IBS in us – yup, irritable bowel syndrome! Sorry for the overshare, but I think it clearly shows how art-making takes a toll on us, mentally and physically. In the play, Bella Bird hasn’t written her next smash hit in years. And no one understands that insecurity better than fellow artmakers.

Photo courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.

 

AE: What is it like to perform under COVID conditions? How do you deal, manage or prepare yourself for these conditions?

KN: Intimidating. And daunting. 12 shows a week, two shows a night is quite crazy for me. I haven’t even run longer than two weekends before. So this is taxing. But exciting ah. I guess apart from mentally knowing you’re gonna run that long and disciplined vocal warmups, just go jer (just go for it).

SC: Everything takes longer. Except our between-show layover. The interval between our 6pm and 9pm shows is shorter than the interval between matinee and night shows in the old normal. I have to eat. Or else, I really have no fuel to go on.

Audiences are actually more attentive, in my experience so far. The ones who come seem to really want to come… I imagine it takes more effort to put up with the temperature checks and the safe distancing. I’m happy to see warm bodies in the theatre. Every response they have to a line or the charged silence while listening is pretty hard-won. I find myself thinking: they showed up, you know? And I take a deep breath and go go go until the play ends.

AE: Personally for you, what is a sound(s) that has/have been playing inside of you?

KN: This voice that’s telling me I’m growing up and I need to get my shit together. It’s loud sometimes, when I’m busy it’s quieter. But in this industry during these times, it’s a voice that’s not going away anytime soon.

SC: It depends. Sometimes it’s vexatious things. I just drown them out with deep breathing which sounds like a seashell being put to my ear.

AE: Outside of the play, what are you currently interested/obsessed with, and why? 

KN: Well, Patch and Punnet is getting on YouTube. So that’s exciting. We just released a bunch of Shakespeare raps. We also got a cool thing coming up with other youth collectives. So really I’m kinda obsessed with doing more art things, haha. Sorry, no interesting answer here like competitive gardening or anything.

SC: I don’t really have much bandwidth for other obsessions. I take my forest walks where I can!

AE: What is your current go-to song to hype yourself up, or to relax?

KN: Taylor Swift, J Cole and Hamilton are my general go-tos. But right now hauste’s latest album, patterns is pretty great.

SC: Haha! Dont have one. I have this joke that I feel like I’m doing music sets at a nightspot each night. I don’t know why but Stevie Wonder’s lyrics tumble out of my mouth when I warm up: “No New Year’s Day to celebrate. No chocolate covered candy bars to give away…”

AE: Complete this sentence: 2021 is a year of….

KN: Action.

SC: Gratitude.


The Sound Inside runs till 16 April 2021 at KC Arts Centre. Get your tickets here.

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