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Courtesy of How Drama and Sight Lines Entertainment

Podcast 80: Murder at Mandai Camp And Fat Kids

As ArtsEquator’s theatre podcast returns since the start of the pandemic, Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia appropriately discuss two recent Singapore productions created for digital platform Zoom – Murder at Mandai Camp by Sight Lines Entertainment and Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap on Zoom by How Drama.

Murder at Mandai Camp ran from 26 to 28 June 2020. Sight Lines Entertainment also collaborated with local cocktail company laut to offer bespoke cocktails that were delivered to the homes of ticket holders who purchased a special ticket.

Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap on Zoom ran for six shows from 20 June to 5 July 2020. The run was extended due to overwhelming demand.

Warning: This review may contain spoilers for the shows. 

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Matthew Lyon (ML): Hello, everybody. We return with the ArtsEquator Theatre podcast, just barely…

Nabilah Said (NS): We’re back!

ML: There have been good reasons for this absence, as you are all aware, but now we’re back to talk about some – plays? Do we still call them plays? It’s hard to say what they are… Theatrical experiments?

NS: Live experiences?

ML: Live Zoom experiences? Anyway, it’s still theatre – which have started cropping up lately. We’re going to be talking about Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap on Zoom, the latest iteration in a long-running interactive sketch series, and also Murder at Mandai Camp. I am joined as usual by Naeem Kapadia…

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone!

ML: And Nabilah Said…

NS: Hi!

ML: And let’s start with Murder at Mandai Camp.

NK: Yeah, sure. So Murder at Mandai Camp is by Sight Lines Productions. And they’ve not done anything new in the last couple of years – they were a little bit more active a few years ago – so it was very nice to see them come back into the space and especially try to tackle theatre in this new normal that we’ve all been thrust into due to the COVID pandemic.

And what this play is about—so it’s written by Chong Tze Chien; it’s about the murder of a recruit on the eve of his Passing-Out Parade through a rather gruesome disembowelment, and we are taken through a series of investigations by the army as to what led to this murder and who is the potential suspect. And the two people who are brought up are his fellow recruit, a guy called Tan; and his platoon officer who was called Haziq Alim played by Erwin Shah.

And it was quite interesting. So maybe we should talk a little bit about the setup. So basically before we join the show on Zoom, we are told to subscribe to a Telegram channel…

ML: Which is kind of like WhatsApp, but somehow different (for those who don’t know).

NK: So we all are part of this Telegram channel and that’s the primary means by which they send information to us. And during the course of the show, which is presented as an investigation by this investigating officer—

ML: Well, indeed, we are cast as investigators. That’s how they referred to us, wasn’t it?

NK: So we are presented with bits of evidence that are, you know, shown to us as clips on the Zoom interface itself, but also through messages and videos that are sent through the Telegram channel. So there are these two modes of communication, and the story is told to us through two devices simultaneously. Nabilah, what did you think about that?

NS: Well, there’s two things I’m thinking about. The first thing is that it’s actually also billed as a supernatural murder mystery. So there is a gho-o-o-st. Um, yeah, I was trying to make the spooky sound, but it didn’t work… And the other element that Naeem was saying was that there’s a Telegram chat. And I was like super into the Telegram chat—I was an active texter. I was sending like, gifs and stuff. But it was also because I was really, really scared. So I was using the chat as almost like a decompression space where I could be funny, and, you know, everyone was also scaring each other in the chat as well, because within the frames of the story, there would be some times you would see the actual ghost, right?

ML: Little flashes here and there in the background, right?

NS: Yeah. So I was super scared. And for me the chat was a really exciting kind of addition to the whole experience.

ML: That was interesting for me, but I’m not really one who responds to horror in that way. I don’t ‘get it’ in that sense—but I very much enjoy seeing other people be scared. And I kind of like horror for that reason: I can see what it does for people.

But usually live in the theatre, something like Woman in Black, when there’s the jump scare, everybody laughs hysterically, which I guess breaks the tension. And then usually the people in the audience kind of react to that laughter, and it’s this strange kind of undercutting for a moment until you return to the seriousness of the horror. The issue for me with the Telegram chat (and I can see why from your perspective, you did it), but from my perspective who didn’t necessarily want to engage with that, it was a lot of information coming at once and it rather undercut the rest of the play for me. And I guess because in the theatre, it’s just the occasional outburst of shocked laughter, it’s fairly easy to reestablish tone, but the Telegram chat was absolutely continuous, and also in a sense compulsory because they were occasionally pushing information at us which was part of the investigation from the official account.

NK: So personally I didn’t participate in the Telegram chat, but there was also an—

ML: You didn’t even realise it was there, right?

NK: I didn’t even know that we had to go into the chat till the very end. So there’s basically a chat, which is only between the audience participants, but there’s also an official channel where the creators of the show send information to us. So I was still following that. And that itself, together with the information we watch on the screen, was quite enough for me—and I prefer something that’s a little bit purer: I don’t want to have too many distractions; I don’t want to be toggling devices all the time when I’m watching.

So I wouldn’t necessarily have enjoyed that constant interruption from the Telegram channel, but I can see how some people might enjoy that because that’s the way we consume information these days:  there’s the official story, but then there’s the sort of separate conversations that take on a life of their own online.

NS: And I think there is a layer of audience who can do that multitasking really well.

ML: And it serves a purpose for you if it’s that kind of way out of your fear, so to speak. And also, I guess it’s an attempt to replace the liveness and interactivity of theatre. And it’s definitely a worthwhile experience, even if it didn’t pay off for me.

And I’ve done similar things. I did a devised production with students a couple of years ago where it was about… It was called attention, a tension, and it was about where you put your focus. And so we didn’t have any lighting from the lighting rig; we just had some audience members with like miner’s lamps on their foreheads, and wherever they looked was where was lit. And similarly we kind of had WhatsApp integrated into the show, but there, it was a choice: it’s like, you could either watch the stage or read the WhatsApp. And so then it was kind of thematically relevant, I guess. Whereas in this, for me, it was just a little bit of an undercut.

NS: Yes. I see what you mean, because I remember in the chat on the day that I watched… um, because it’s set in the army, right? So there were comments about Ivan Lim, the politician who never was, coming in into the chat, because that’s what people were thinking about, like outside of the play. And it felt like the chat was fair game to talk about anything and everything. So real life would kind of seep into the chat in that sense.

ML: And there were some comments on there that were really responding to the themes that were in the play. It’s not like it was all memes and gifs, you know, it was… Although you played your part in that apparently!

NS: Yeah. So maybe we can talk about the story a little bit.

NK: Let’s do that for the benefit of those who didn’t actually watch it. So it’s, as I mentioned, it’s about the death of this recruit in the army by a rather gruesome disembowelment, and there are also themes of privilege that are brought about in the play. So this recruit comes from a fairly privileged background—

ML: The one who was killed, right?

NK: The one who was killed. And his father was a fairly influential person. And because of the father’s influence everyone in his immediate platoon gets preferential treatment and things like that.

ML: The term for that is that he’s a ‘white horse’ right, which gives you special treatment in the army?

NK: That’s the term they use in the army for people who come from this kind of privileged background. And there’s clearly a resentment, which his fellow platoon mates feel about the fact that he comes from this privileged background.

Whereas they’re kind of more of the typical salt-of-the-earth everyday Singaporeans. And I think for me, that could have been excavated a little bit more. And I’m also thinking about some of the other army plays that we’ve seen in the Singapore theatre canon, in particular, Chong Tze Chien’s Charged, which was a very well-received play several years ago.

ML: Thematically similar.

NS: Yeah, with the class…

NK: Class divides and racial divides as well. I think it was, um, was it the death of…?

ML: A Malay NSman shot by a Chinese one.

NK: Yeah. So again, here there’s one Malay character, there’s one Chinese character. And then this recruit is from a slightly more ambiguous, potentially Eurasian/other category.

There is clearly a space to explore some of these divides. I felt that was not excavated maybe as well as I’d hoped.

NS: Maybe it was a bit sacrificed by all the other elements of the show.

ML: Yeah, I think that’s the problem: that I couldn’t quite tell how well excavated it was because… We’re not in the theatre building anymore. So then can you get away with the text-heavy thing that is a play, where we have the actor in the space who is able to judge how fast he can go with the information? But it’s also not cinema, so you don’t get that very dialogue-sparse visual aesthetic. And this kind of had the verboseness of theatre, but without that sense of waiting for us to catch up… and compounded with the Telegram chat, I often couldn’t tell what was going on…

NS: Hmm. It also drew a lot on, I mean, there was a lot of filmic language that was happening as well.

ML: That I enjoyed.

NS: Yeah. So I feel that what you’re saying is that they were drawing on the languages of two spaces: film and theatre—and then the Zoom and Telegram. So maybe that’s why it contributed to it being very dense.

ML: You know what, although I wasn’t necessarily with the play in the way that it maybe intended me to be (thematically and following the narrative), I was really excited by the technical experimentation. Like that totally made it worth watching for me.

NS: Can you explain a little bit about that? Cause maybe we didn’t catch some of the…

ML: Oh, right. Well, for one thing they had really good green screen work, and they had some excellent lighting, which… I mean, they’re doing this under lockdown. Oh, we’re not supposed to call it that… They’re doing it under circuit breaker! And I thought they did an amazing job for that. But as well as that, if you think of the way that cinema is filmed, obviously the camera cuts, it moves, you get the pushes in. We don’t get that in theatre—we’re stuck in one seat. So they went with that theatrical idea of the static camera, but then they really played very interestingly with what was included in the frame, and with proximity to the lens. So you had Bright Ong at one point, really like we can see his nostril hairs cause that’s how close he is… And then he’s right at the back of the frame. And then he runs off the frame for a minute or two… And that for me captured the spirit of the supernatural, because when you’ve got that empty frame, when there’s this one kind of alien eye that’s watching everything, that’s a, that’s a creepy look. I thought they used that very well.

NK: Yeah, I think the filmic aspect drew me in. Even the main investigation itself was very slickly done. You know, you have a very nice backdrop. You’ve got this army officer who’s talking to you, the investigator—

ML:  And he’s got some kind of Minority Report screens up in the background…

NK: Yeah, yeah!

ML: It was cool.

NK: Exactly, that’s what I was thinking, the Minority Report thing where he’s like, ‘And now let’s listen to this video file’ … click… and then it sort of comes into your phone, and then there’s this little box that goes ‘Transmitting…’ or something like that. And then you get this little Telegram update and you get a video clip. So, you know, I felt all of those audio/video kind of multimedia aspects were synced very well.

And I think that, for a play that’s effectively an experiment, it was done well, it definitely was engaging. I think the response, even from the people on the Telegram chat, generally was very positive. People did enjoy it. And I would imagine that for Sight Lines and, I presume, many other companies going forward, they’re trying to find new ways to explore theatre. And that would also mean trying to extend this to wider audiences. And I think this is a great way to get people who may not necessarily want the formality of that traditional theatrical experience, you know, where you’re sitting down watching a play for one-and-a-half, two hours. You get to chat online… It sort of replicates the way in which perhaps people consume information these days.

NS: I think as a ghost story, it was really good. I mean, I’m not sure whether you guys were scared or whatever, but I was so scared. And also like what Matt was saying, right? Like the way that they framed things, like they always had something reflective or transparent in the background, so you always felt like, ‘Oh, is the ghost there?’ Like, ‘Is the ghost lurking in the corner?’ So everyone was trying to scare each other in the Telegram chat for my show. So to me as a ghost story, it really worked. But what about as a whodunnit?

NK: Yeah, no, I’m not sure. So it’s billed as Singapore’s first interactive murder mystery. And I mean, never mind the interactive bit—I think the Telegram accounted for that… but ‘murder mystery’ for me suggests that there would be several characters, and you decide who is the one who did something.

ML: I was expecting the classic whodunnit.

NK: But when we actually get to the meat of the story, someone’s died and there are literally two other characters and it seems it’s either Character A or Character B, and then it becomes—

ML: And then Character B dies?

NK: No, Character B basically runs away. So then the question that we are asked to participate in at the end – and there is a poll – is whether Character A deserves to be charged for, um, for whatever reason. And then we basically answer the poll, and then we get told what happens to each of those characters.

ML: Spoiler alert… Are we going to say what happens at the end?

NS: Sure.

NK: Yeah. So basically what happens is that the recruit who runs away is found dead on a beach, I think some days later… And the officer gets charged for negligence and gets a dishonourable discharge from the army or something like that.

NS: And I think the ghost did it?

ML: Yup, then at the end, the ghost did it.

NK: Yeah. And there’s also a very interesting plant. We were talking about this earlier. So at the start of the play, Derek, who is the artistic director of Sight Lines asks all of us, ‘Oh, can we have a volunteer?’ And this very enthusiastic girl called Clara says, ‘Oh, I will do it.’ And you know, we’re like, okay, okay—

ML: As do many others, but she gets ‘randomly picked’.

NK: She gets ‘randomly picked’. And then at the end we get the screen on her and she’s supposed to read out the verdict where we have chosen what to do with this character, the officer… and then the sort of image of this “ghost” comes from behind and…

ML: In a huge jump scare… Nabilah, how did you take that one?

NS: Oh, my God, I don’t even think my eyes were open! Like the moment I saw movement behind her, I was like…! Because her door was wide open, right? So already I was like, ‘Why is her door open?’ And then I knew something was going to happen. And then ghost comes out, of course.

NK: Look, to be fair, I did not see that coming at all. I thought they genuinely got a volunteer from the audience because, you know, she kind of played it very calm, like she was just, ‘Uh, can you repeat the instructions? What am I meant to do? Oh just read this out?’

ML: Yeah, she did feel like she’d been dragged in off the street, so to speak.

NK: Exactly. ‘I’m just being a nice, good Samaritan.’ Um, so yeah, that was an interesting touch at the end. It was probably filmed beforehand, I would imagine.

NS: Yeah, it worked really well.

NK: And yeah, I think we should maybe talk a little bit about the cast. Um, I thought they actually perform their roles well. I mean, obviously there’s Tze Chien’s writing, which was, you know, quite authentic and real. He’s done the national service play before, and there is that authenticity to the dialogue. I mean, I felt thematically it could have gone into the elements of class and even race a little bit more, but you know, Bright Ong playing the role of that slightly more disgruntled, salt-of-the-earth, typical heartlander character.

ML: Yeah. I thought he had a really, really good scene where I think he was talking to, was it the girlfriend or something? And he went through a whole range of emotions in this really wide-ranging monologue. I thought he did a good job there.

NK: I actually really liked the scene where he was telling his girlfriend the ghost story, and then the girlfriend was apparently reacting in a negative way, but it just felt like a very, very natural conversation that you would overhear, you know, amongst boyfriend and girlfriend. So that felt nice.

ML: And there was a lot of that kind of imagined interlocuter stuff where they’re speaking to the camera as if we are the girlfriend.

NK: We are the person they’re speaking to.

ML: Or the interrogator in the case of Erwin.

NK: Yep. Yep. Or Erwin speaks to a girlfriend, I think, or an ex-girlfriend rather. And again we’re put in place of that person. So that was nice. Um, perhaps I felt in terms of casting, maybe I wasn’t so sure about Irsyad Dawood as the recruit character. He’s supposed to come from this very privileged background and be the white horse. I mean, that did not necessarily come across in the scenes.

ML: Yeah, he’s a former student of mine, and I thought in terms of the emotions and the interaction with the other characters—because he was actually in a duologue scene there as well, and I thought they’d been filmed separately on green screens, but no, they actually seemed to be in the same space by the end… I thought he was very good in that, but yeah, he’s supposed to be an elitist ACS student and that… that didn’t really come across.

NK: Yeah. So, I mean, look, I think it was well acted, and very, very well done in terms of the multimedia and the filmic elements and all that. So I think as far as a theatrical experiment goes, if we come back to that term, it’s a good one. And I’m very curious—I think the company’s actually working on some sort of a sequel, so do stay tuned for that. It might well be a continuation or another exploration of the story, but I think it’s something which we would be quite keen to see more of.

NS: Yes.

ML: Oh definitely. It was such a vital experiment at this time. I mean, all our resources have been taken away. As a teacher, I’m now trying to teach a subject predicated on physical contact without physical contact. So I absolutely applaud them for making this. And I think that the amount that, not just that company, but that everyone will learn from this is huge.

So huge round of applause from me.

NK: So yeah, so that was Murder at Mandai Camp.

ML: Which brings us onto Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap…

Everyone: On Zoom!

NS: Yeah. So Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap… I’ve watched earlier iterations of this show, when it was just called Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap, and it’s always the same thing where it’s a bunch of young, usually young-ish actors, and it’s kind of sketch-style. So there’s always about 15 very, very short sketches that they have to cover within 30 minutes, right? So they’re all about like one to two minutes long. I mean, playlets. And the audience gets to decide the order of these playlets, right? Which is super exciting. It works in real life and it works on Zoom as well, and how they did it for this one was they would get people to shout out the numbers. And so they would ask you to switch on your audio to shout the numbers.

ML: And your camera.

Yeah. So for this particular version, the theme was COVID, right? So all the playlets were satires, basically, on how Singapore has dealt with COVID, circuit breaker, and like the different things that people are doing in their houses. So there was one that’s like COVID cooking. That was a play on how people are all like cooking… What are people doing? People are baking stuff… and like making—

NK: Everyone’s turned into an overnight chef and is making, you know, the latest food, the food fad—

ML: And then uploading it on YouTube or whatever. Everyone’s an influencer, now, everybody’s a home cook.

NS: Yeah, and speaking of that, there’s one scene called ‘Tik Tok Handwashing.’

ML: Which was really good.

NS: How can we describe Tik Tok Handwashing?

ML: Finger choreography.

NS: Yes, finger dancing.

NK: It’s basically someone sanitising their hands or washing their hands in a very artful and choreographed manner. And I was actually very impressed by that.

ML: It was really good.

NS: Yeah.

ML: That was, um…

NK: Vester Ng.

ML: Thank you. Yeah, really strong.

NS: Tik Tok Handwashing, I mean, I wasn’t as blown away as you guys, because I’m on TikTok—

ML: Because you’re young.

NS: No, cause I’ve watched quite a lot of these things on TikTok, and like young people are super, super talented guys with their hands and dancing and stuff. So I just thought it was a nice kind of parallel of what people are actually doing on Tik Tok and, you know…

ML: Yeah, but also very well executed.

NS: And also very topical, right, because of the handwashing and sanitising.

NK: Yeah. And look, I think the group is young. It’s by How Drama and they know their audience. I mean, this is very much a Gen Z, Generation Zoomer audience, basically. And the little plays definitely are targeted at that kind of demographic. So you’ve got TikTok, you’ve got lip syncing to pop songs, you’ve got…

NS: Nas Daily…

NK: Yeah, you’ve got a spoof of the Nas Daily kind of vlog. So, you know, very much things which this generation – you know, maybe the millennial-slash-Zoomer generation—

NS: You just want to be in that group, right, Naeem?

NK: Yeah, I totally want to be in that group! – Things they would be more acquainted with, and I think it’s nice that they’ve incorporated elements of our life and COVID, so it’s very relatable, very authentic. And yeah, you know, I think one thing for me was the element of interactivity. I mean, we talked earlier about Mandai Camp and in that one, there was clearly the element of participation because we were part of this chat group…

ML: Whereas the play itself was clearly prerecorded.

NK:  Yeah. Whereas this one—so it is a live play, but really the only element of interactivity is someone screaming out a number which they then use to determine the order of the plays.

ML: And it wasn’t by any means always the first number or the loudest number that got picked either. And I’ve been trying to devise a play online over Zoom with students, because we’ve got a collaborative project thing for the IB coming up, and if that examination can’t happen, we’re going to have to do it online, so I wanted to get ahead of the curve. And so I understand the challenge, because if scene one is in your bedroom and then scene two is in your kitchen, you probably don’t have time to set up your kitchen. So you have to go to scene five and then come to scene two later.

NS: So you think there’s a little bit of choreography and like which numbers might have been…

ML: There must have been because we saw the different performers, and some of them worked in different rooms, and maybe they’ve got multiple cameras set up, but a lot of it seemed like – Pavan J Singh clearly had a very nice setup in his room, for example – but a lot of them moved to different rooms and that takes time, and checking your camera framing and things like that. And they are under time pressure to do it. Did it matter for you the different orders that might get called?

NK: No, actually it didn’t. I think it might have been fun superficially, but even if they had just performed the plays from 1 to 15 in that order, I think there was enough in it just to get a good experience overall. And I mean, I felt this was a production that was not meant to be overly cerebral at all; it’s just fun, it’s fluffy. Quite frivolous occasionally. And you know, it did what it said on the tin, and it was something I enjoyed. It’s just a half-an-hour show, very bite-sized and easy. And it’s interesting because we watched a show by a young theatre company a couple of months ago called Fika and Fishy, and in that podcast, we talked about how it was something which perhaps would have been more suited for YouTube or…

NS: A sketch kind of dynamic.

ML: It thought it was deeper than it was.

NK:  It was a full-on one-and-a-half-hour-long play. And I think this group knows exactly how to deliver those kinds of sketches: the meme humour we talked about in that very punchy, bite-sized way.

ML: They knew they were a snack selection, not a three-course meal. Yeah. And they handled that well.

NK: And I really enjoyed the snacks. So I think they did what they said on the tin.

ML: One thing that might have perhaps been improved on, and I think they might learn for the next one is… Nabilah, you were saying that when you saw it live, that sense of the time pressure, that they’ve got to get it done, was really thrilling for the audience?

NS: Yup. They needed to finish in 30 minutes, right? And with the live one, it felt like I was always reminded of the time.

NK: Was there a timer actually onstage?

NS: Yeah, I believe there was always a timer.

NK: I think there was one here, but—

NS: This one there was, but it will only appear towards the end of the sketch… It wasn’t always there where you could see it. Yeah, so that time-pressure element wasn’t there for this one.

ML: Moreover, I very much assume that in the live performance, you will see them running around. You’ll get a sense of the buzz and the hustle as they try to meet this deadline. Whereas online, they just shunted us to B-roll. They’d got this kind of trailer that they’d filmed, and anytime we were between scenes, we just saw that. And so that’s like the opposite of time pressure. That’s like watching an ad, and you want to skip the ad, you know…

NK: Exactly, exactly. And I know what you’re talking about. Like, I’ve seen some very, very powerful plays where you have an actor rushing from one scene to another, and you see them literally kind of do that scene change within a couple of seconds. And it would have been nice to see that.

I mean, obviously I appreciate that would have required maybe some extra people to maybe film or whatever,

ML: Do you know, it probably wouldn’t, because again, working on this thing that I’m doing with my students, there’s a scene where we start with a phone Blu Tacked to a wall filming someone, and then they pick it up, and they move it, and they walk with it, and they stick it on a mirror. Or you can do it with handheld stabilisers (gimbals) and things like that.

And I kind of wanted to see that backstage, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to make it!’ And you know, of course you lose some of the sense of, ‘This is the start of the scene, and this is the end of the scene.’ And I guess you lose some of that cleanness? But I’d rather have the energy and the liveness and the tightrope-walking fear that it might go wrong than the finished quality that they successfully presented us with. And impressively so, because it’s hard filming in your bedroom live—they did an amazing job of that, but perhaps too good a job. I want to see a bit of the mess.

NS: I mean, it’s a choice, right? It’s whether you want to be slick and kind of cover up the messiness of it, or deliberately choose to enhance it.

NK: Or warts and all, yeah.

ML: It was clearly a deliberate choice, and they clearly succeeded on their own terms. I just perhaps would have preferred the alternative. Hope I get it next time.

NK: But what did you think of the content itself?

So it’s actually been co-written by, uh, by Melissa Sim, who also directed, as well as Jeremy Au Yong and the cast. And I think we should just maybe name them. So there was Ross Nasir, Pavan J Singh, Nicholas Bloodworth, Victoria Chen, and Vester Ng. So there were six of them who are all part of this ensemble cast.

And yeah. What do you think of the content?

NS: I mean, the one that really struck me or stuck with me is the one by Vester Ng. So Vester Ng is a name that I’m not super familiar with. I don’t—

NK: No, actually, I don’t think I’ve heard of him, but I now want to see more of him onstage.

NS: Yeah. And especially the kind of like sketch energy, I really felt that he had it. So there was one particular playlet (and I can’t remember which one it was, actually, based on the name), but he was basically this kind of energetic storyteller. And he’s this obviously very colourful character telling you a story about – I don’t know – the rules of having an adventure or something? So he’d be like ‘Rule number one…’

ML: Yeah, storytelling for children or something…

NS: So it’d be like ‘Rule number one: do blah, blah, blah.’ And then instead of hearing the rule, it would freeze, right? So it was as if it’s like a Zoom call that got frozen. And he’d be like, ‘Yeah, and don’t forget rule number one.’ And of course we didn’t hear rule number one, and he would always be frozen. And I thought he played that really well. I was like Laughing My Ass Off.

ML: Was that ‘Technical Difficulties’? Was that what it was called?

NK: It could have been Technical Difficulties because I think ‘Work Call’ was the… I actually enjoyed Work Call because that one brought back memories because Work Call was basically about a Zoom call between colleagues in a formal work environment where one person forgets to turn off his microphone and then has a private call where he’s kind of shooting his mouth off about his boss. So that was again very relatable, I have to say.

So yeah, look, I think they had a very nice presence. I enjoyed Ross Nasir’s presence onstage a lot. So she had a very, very, colourful personality. And again, I think that’s something that would probably have made more of an impact if I had the chance to see her live, but she did a good job in her scenes, and she did a scene where she was doing a spoof of the Nas Daily vlog called ‘Ross Daily’. And I think something called—was she the one who did ‘Pandemic Hairstyling?

NS: No, that was Victoria Chen using her hair to create a mask. That was quite funny as well.

ML: Nice concept.

NK: Oh yeah. That was actually funny, that was funny. No, she did something else, but it was still very funny.

NS: Yeah.

ML: I mean it was really a load of skits, which is a diminutive thing to say, but they did them well. The turning your hair into a mask: how long should that last? A couple of minutes. And that’s how long it lasted. Great. Well done.

NS: Yeah, that is true. And I have to say that unlike their previous shows where it was more like laugh-out-loud comedy, this one was more like satirical, and sometimes you would laugh but feel a bit bad.

NK: And you know, even though some of the little playlets we’ve been describing sound quite frivolous, there were some that actually had a very little bit of a political bite to them, which I did enjoy. So ‘Orange Is the New…’ is a very interesting one where it’s ostensibly an eye test where you have this character, who’s just telling you what colour he sees. And he keeps seeing everything that’s red as the colour orange—until the final punchline where he’s like, ‘I’m attending the DORSCON meeting.’ And suddenly… Do we get to hear everyone else’s laughter?

NS: I heard a little bit of laughter.

ML: Zoom doesn’t do well with simultaneous audio.

NK: It doesn’t. But I imagine there would be quite a lot of belly laughs at that point when the final punchline gets delivered. So that was quite clever.

And also there was a bit where they were spoofing the government response to COVID. I think it was kind of a press conference. Something like ‘Press Call’? So that was actually very funny—it was a press interview where you have all these reporters asking a minister how he deals with COVID, and he keeps trying to evade the topic.

So, you know, things like that, that had a little political bite to them. I think that was quite entertaining to watch. ‘Meet the Press’. That was what it was.

ML: Yeah, that’s right.

So what does this say about the new normal, guys?

NS: I don’t know… I think the new normal is experimental and full of like bumbling through mistakes, but not faulting anyone for it.

ML: And what’s more exciting than mistakes? What gives you more room for growth? That’s been really, really nice to see.

NS: Yeah, and it feels like it’s a communal event, watching all these new things. Like you want to watch it and see what people are doing and kind of be inspired by them. And you know, in terms of an artist watching these kinds of shows, you know, to see what else we can do with the medium.

NK: Yeah, and I think there’s probably a desire to… Because look, if they just do a very polished play online, how is that different from television? You know, in a sense how’s that different from consuming something on television or film?

ML: And of course the National Theatre has been uploading all these wonderful shows that we can see.

NK: So it’s good that they are bringing in these elements of interactivity because that takes the show one step further and acknowledges the fact that there is a live audience and that you are playing to that person rather than playing to a blank screen.

ML: There’s a lot of kinks to work out there, obviously, but it’s exciting times…

NK: It is, it is.

ML: …as well as terrifying times.

NK: And yeah, I mean, we unfortunately are going to be dealing with this situation for the next few months until phase three of this, you know…

NS: Possibly the end of the year, or longer…

NK: Or whatever the next few months. We’ve had almost all the major companies cancel their shows for the year. So I can only imagine that we’re going to see more and more of this online theatre activity coming up.

NS: Because with NAC’s digitalisation grant, you can do these plays until the end of the year. So we are going to expect more of these shows for sure.

NK: And it’s going to be interesting how that also affects the theatregoing crowd because the traditional crowd, I think, would be quite keen to support it, but it may also open the door to new audiences. And I think these shows, based on who I saw responding and going and attending them…

NS: Might not have been the usual crowd.

NK: Not the usual crowd as well, so…

ML: And there is… I think both of these shows managed to get that sense of theatricality and that sense of community, which really distinguishes them from TV. That’s what’s been most heartening for me, is that there is a sense that there is a possibility and a community here, and that it’s worth it. So tell your friends.

NS: Yeah. And if it’s widening the audience, I’m all for it. Right?

NK: Exactly.

ML: Yup. So we’ll see some more coming up, and hopefully it won’t be four months until we get back to you again. Thanks very much.

NK: Thank you very much.

NS: Thank you.

ML: And bye-bye.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

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