An epic set, an epic story, and epic four years of painstaking training is one way to describe The Finger Players’ OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya, an aching horror story that retells the classic tale of vengeance revolving around a jilted woman. Combining techniques of Kabuki, Bunraku and Ningyo Buri, as well as the Singapore theatre company’s own methodology when it comes to actor training for these forms, OIWA is one of the rare shows in these COVID times that manages to achieve both spectacle and stagecraft coupled with a kind of sacredness one associates most strongly with live theatre.
The various phases of training for the actors, especially for the Singaporeans, involved putting implements under the armpits and walking with a higher centre of gravity to create the desired gait and rigidity a puppet made of wood would have. The Japanese actors were the ones manipulating and voicing the puppets, and besides the first phase in Japan in 2018, they only rehearsed with the Singapore team in April for three weeks before the bump-in phase.
Nabilah Said speaks to playwright and director Chong Tze Chien, fresh out of the live performances of the show at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA), about the online possibilities for the show and what it’s been like for him and The Finger Players for the past four years. OIWA is available for viewing via SIFA on Demand from 5 to 20 June 2021.
How has the process been for you?
It feels surreal, actually. We started the process in 2018, and a lot of my life as a practitioner has changed in the course of these four years. When I embarked on the project, I was still the Company Director for The Finger Players. So with OIWA it felt liberating, because I could finally direct and write a show without thinking about producing it. That’s a huge load off my mind. Because sometimes when you wear those hats as a producer and a playwright, something’s gotta give. With OIWA, I could just focus on being an artist, and just dream the impossible dream. I could create with an ease of mind.
In the early days, I wavered between two options, which was to entirely have the whole production performed by real puppets, or take the other option of having actors perform as puppets and puppeteers appear to “manipulate” the puppets. Of course, I chose the latter – the more challenging, riskier option. And I’m glad that we had the time and the skills to actually define that, train for it and prepare ourselves for it.
How was the company evolving alongside that?
At the close of 2018, before we went to Japan for our first phase of rehearsals, we were in the process of rethinking the idea of a company and unpacking that. Sometimes we are the victim of our own successes. And we wanted to evolve naturally and organically and rejuvenate the company without losing its original essence, but also to not be a fossil in our artmaking. If this show had been staged last year, it would have coincided quite nicely with me passing on the baton to the new artistic directors, Myra Loke and Ellison Tan. It became very, very liberating because [the younger team] were no longer my apprentices, they were my peers.
You mentioned “dreaming the impossible dream”. What made you choose the harder option with OIWA?
I’m a sucker for anything and everything challenging – sometimes to my detriment. I wanted to explore the physicality of an actor. We are, of course, known for our puppetry. But for the longest time we’ve been advocating that it’s not just about the puppet form, it’s actually the idea of manipulation, the theatrical language and how all these different elements come together. Sometimes people think “oh, this is just a puppet show”, but they tend to forget that actually, the actor is very, very important in the equation.
Performing as puppets is another challenge, because they needed to be like puppets, and yet come across as humans. So it’s thrice removed in that process. And then to have the Japanese ensemble, who are not puppetry trained. How do you then get the actors from both countries to actually come together and overcome: a) the language barrier, and be) stylistic and also foundational training, because all of them are from different backgrounds. So they had to work with each other seamlessly without truly understanding the specifics of the language, and make up rules along the way. So that was the challenge.
And it’s not as though there is a traditional technique to learn from. There isn’t a manual. Even though I was inspired by the Kabuki, Bunraku and Ningyo Buri techniques, I did not want to get a master in those traditions. I wanted to just look at the form, study it and then adapt it for our own purposes, which meant that we had to come up with our own training methods, and body conditioning exercises. Everything was made from scratch. So while we honour the source material and the different inspirations for the work, it was also important to make it about us, about Finger Players, and specific to the company members. So we are actually making up a new language that would work for us and for the play.
If OIWA had been done last year, what would the differences have been?
Actually not much, because the mask restriction only made an impact on Tamiya, the main character. Originally, he was full faced. And the two monks. That’s about it. The rest were all masked up. So it didn’t really make such a big impact on us. It was more like an inconvenience.
How did the pandemic affect your vision?
There was a lot of anxiety on my end because I had to assume that every rehearsal would be my last. We were so vulnerable to the things outside the rehearsal room. For one, we did not get approval for the Japanese actors to come to Singapore until early April. Second was that any of them could be down with COVID during quarantine, and during our rehearsal process. All it takes is just one, and then the whole production would be shut down. So I wanted to do as much as I could for each rehearsal. And we only had three weeks prior to bump-in, which is actually not a long time to rehearse everything, even though it has been a long process.
The Japanese performers who came had to be quarantined for 2 weeks. Once that was done, was it easier since you could rehearse?
No, that was around the time that our cases shot up. Every day in the middle of rehearsals, I’d be looking at numbers, anticipating the worst. No one is immune to COVID. And I think the possibility of it not going on was very, very real for me. I had to prepare myself for the worst. As we got closer to the opening night, my anxiety shot up the roof, because we were so close. And if we had gotten so close, and we had a case, or if there were more restrictions imposed, then it would have been a huge dent to everyone’s morale.
If the actors had not been given clearance to come into Singapore, there wouldn’t have been a show. Would that be right?
Yes. We couldn’t do a hybrid, it wouldn’t make sense. It would be an entirely different show. Plan B was to postpone it till the end of the year.
Some other companies used video to beam in performers from outside Singapore. Was there any point in time where you considered this, even if briefly?
No way. It was conceived with the idea of the puppetry and the puppeteers pulling off the illusion as one. So, to reconceptualise the show would mean that all the time and energy that we had devoted to the process would have gone down the drain. And it had been a good process. Each time we met, we developed something, and I knew that we were on to something special. I wasn’t willing to give up so easily. Even if it meant that we had to postpone it for 10 years.
How is the VOD experience for this show?
We’ve gotten Sight Lines to film it. The audience is able to toggle between three camera angles – close-ups, wide shots and mid-shots at any given time. Sometimes when you watch archival material, that’s already been predetermined by the editor or the director of photography. But that actually works against the idea of theatre, where the audience’s gaze is not dictated by any frame. They choose what they want to see.
While we can’t totally replicate the experience of being in the theatre live, we can at least give the audience the freedom to choose what they’re watching on screen. That interactivity is something that we are quite excited about, because we are giving the audience the same experience via the digital realm – the freedom of choice, when it comes to looking at the mise en scène.
With the benefit of hindsight, what have you been thinking about in terms of OIWA’s story and this story that you’re trying to tell?
Jokingly I’ve been telling people that this is a bad breakup play. Take away the horror, take away all the special effects, take all of the epicness and the form out, and it’s really about a disintegration of marriage. For me, watching it for the past month, and watching the actors playing those two roles, I realise that it’s actually a very, very intimate piece. It’s like watching your two friends be on the verge of divorce. Of course, they get very dramatic about it, but it goes to show how theatre is a platform for showcasing human relationships, and the different ways that people connect or disconnect from each other.
There’s something so primal about the way these two characters express their emotions. It’s almost like a soap opera in a horror genre, but essentially it’s about love, and how love is unfulfilled for various reasons. It answers our hunger for connection. Which is why it strangely becomes more resonant now, because we’re all striving to have that connection with someone.
OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya is available from 5 to 20 June via video-on-demand. More info here. Tickets for individual shows are $15. You can also get the all-access bundle of 17 programmes for $60.
This article is sponsored by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.