Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 89: Critics Live: Three Sisters at SIFA 2021

Critics Corrie Tan (SG), Elisabeth Vincentelli (US), Jose Solís (US) and Sharaad Kuttan (MY) chat about Three Sisters by Singapore’s Nine Years Theatre and SITI Company from New York, presented at Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The performance took place from 20-22 May 2021 at Victoria Theatre, and from 5-20 June via video on demand, as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Critics Live! is a critics-led programme series created by ArtsEquator to give arts audiences an insight into how critics formulate their responses to performances. Through Critics Live!, critics will share their experiences watching the show either in-venue or digitally, and discuss how the artists’ choices shape these respectively.

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Corrie: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us this evening. We’re really happy you made time to join us today, wherever you are in the world. We thought while we’re still waiting for people to come in and filter in tonight, we would get started with a little Zoom poll just to find out more about who else is in the room together with us. So we’re going to run two poll questions right now. The first one is, where are you based? In Singapore, in Malaysia or the US, or elsewhere in Southeast Asia or the world? And then we’ll have another question on whose work you’ve encountered before. Whether it’s Nine Years Theatre, SITI Company, both, or you’re diehard fan, or neither – you’re just here to find out more together with us. So ArtsEquator will run those two polls right now.

And while we’re waiting for the poll to be filled in, just wanted to welcome everyone again to Critics Live!. This is a programme organised by ArtsEquator as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable, organised in collaboration with SIFA, the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021. The roundtable brings together critics from all around the world to engage with programmes presented as part of SIFA. Today, we’re going to be discussing Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre from Singapore and SITI Company from New York. And Critics Live! is an open conversation for critics to discuss the recent work, and hopefully open up a critical space to discuss the various responses to a work of art. This session also explores the practice of criticism in hybrid performance spaces as we respond to shows that are being presented both in-venue and digitally, and explores the various choices made by artists with the mediums available to them. 

So I’m seeing the poll results coming in. It looks like almost everyone is from Singapore with a tiny fraction of people from Malaysia, Southeast Asia. And then in terms of whose work you’ve encountered before, mostly Nine Years Theatre. I don’t think any of our audiences have seen… Ah, some people have seen both Nine Years Theatre and SITI Company. And also some I’ve seen neither. Oh, good to know. So how this will go today is that we’ll have a quick round of introductions and first impressions. Our guests here will have a chat about things we’ve observed or really want to unpack, and that’ll be about 30 minutes. And then we’ll have a discussion together. And then in the final 20 minutes, we’ll have a chat with the audience so keep your questions and comments coming. Nabilah and Denise from ArtsEquator are going to be collating and collecting questions and comments from audience members, both on Zoom and Facebook. 

So we’re really thrilled to have three amazing guests with us here today. I’m just going to introduce them really quickly. We have Elisabeth Vincentelli, who’s a regular contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker. She’s the co-founder and co-host of the podcast, Three on the Aisle. Originally from France, she’s based in New York City, and it’s just after 6.30am there right now. Thank you Elisabeth for being here with us. And next we have Jose Solís, who is a culture critic also, well, usually based in New York City, but at the moment, he’s in Honduras, where it is 3.30am. So, again, thank you so much Jose for being with us here today. Jose’s work has appeared in the New York Times, American Theater, among others. He’s also the founder and director of the BIPOC Critics Lab, as well as the creator and host of the web series and podcast Token Theater Friends

And finally, in a much more palatable time zone, we have Sharaad Kuttan, who’s currently in KL. Cheers! I think very familiar to people both in Singapore and Malaysia, he’s a print and broadcast journalist currently hosting talk shows on Astro Awani. He’s also a member of the International Association of Art Critics and a regular commentator on Malaysian politics. And finally, there’s me. Hi everyone, I’m Corrie, I’ll be lightly moderating today’s session. I’m a researcher, educator, critic, and dramaturg based in Singapore, where I’ve been writing about performance over the past decade. And I’m also a contributing editor with ArtsEquator. Okay, so I think that’s enough from me for now. I really wanted first to kick things off, to invite our guests to take turns and speak for about two to three minutes on their first impressions of Three Sisters. So just a caveat, except for me, all our guests watched Three Sisters through SIFA’s video on demand, which is on now till the 20th of June. I managed to watch it both in the venue and also on demand. So we’re really curious about how you, the audience have encountered Three Sisters as well, whether in person or online, or both. But in the meantime, before we pull that poll up again, maybe Elisabeth, you could kick us off with a couple of first impressions.

Elisabeth: Right. Well, for me, what was striking was the fact that if you had told me a year ago that I would be watching a play, this hybrid play that is both live in person, but also involving two companies on two different continents and two wildly different time zones. I just would have laughed. Like a year ago, that seemed like a completely… Not even a dream because nobody would have even thought that will be a good idea necessarily. But now it is what we’re dealing with. And it’s a new reality, and I don’t think it’s going to disappear either. I think this kind of collaboration is here to stay. I personally hope it is. I think it’s really exciting to see different theatrical cultures and traditions collaborating on a third one – the Russian theatre. And there’s so much to absorb and think about in this that it’s almost overwhelming. So just for that I find it really exciting.

My second impression was that it’s a really interesting reading on the play, if we’re going to go into the more specific thing about the show, because what they’re trying to do is, yes, it’s looking– it’s being inside a character’s head. And I thought that was a very interesting effort to do that. I’m not sure it always worked, but I always love when companies are trying to do something that’s very ambitious, and also a little abstract. Because it’s inviting the audience to come along for the experience, and say, okay, well, this is what we’re going to do. And it’s not easy. And it’s not the way it is traditionally done, but we’re going to make you think about what this play means and what this characters think, and how can we get into their head. And it’s an interesting way to look at the psychology of characters, by playing of technology in a way. So I was really impressed with that. And I was impressed about the fact that after a while you kind of forget about the technology. You just kind of go along with it and you just forget about how preposterously crazy this setup is, when you think about it, that they were 12 hours apart. I mean, it’s just nuts. I mean, nuts in the best possible way. So I would say that’s my first very raw impression of- I can’t even say the show, but the experience and the experiment that it was.

Corrie: Thank you so much Elisabeth for sharing that with us. I really hear you on, I think, the future of what international collaborations might look like in performance during the pandemic. I was thinking of- it almost feels like the there’s gonna be a certain like “pandemic aesthetic” to the works that are coming out of this period, where you’re going to see a lot of multimedia that is textured and layered with bodies and physical presence, and thinking about how these relate and connect with each other across temporalities and time lags, sort of what we’re doing here right now where we are both present and not present. So I think slowly, I think we’re learning the shape of this space. This in-between territory. So thank you so much for sharing that. I think maybe next we could have Jose to quickly share your your impressions of the work.

Jose: Hi, everyone. Good morning, or good evening, wherever in the world you are. I… Because of the use of the Cole Porter song that I love so much throughout the play, I kept thinking the production was, you know- I could sing in my head: ‘It’s delightful. It’s delicious. It’s depressing.’ Three Sisters has always been- it’s probably my favourite Chekhov play. But it’s really, really sad, and the way in which this production, by marrying in-person, you know, live actors in person and then also on screens. It, for the first time, made me realise that Three Sisters is totally a ghost story. And the way that Irina was kind of decorating her life with her memories made me think a lot about one of the practices that I took up during the pandemic. Which is, I was trapped in my apartment in Brooklyn by myself. And I started just hanging pictures of people that I love all over my house. I wanted them to be around me, so I was profoundly moved by the way in which the themes of isolation surface in this production. And now I can definitely say that if the sisters were like astrological signs, I’m totally an Irina sun with Masha rising, in case anyone’s wondering.

Corrie: How about your moon sign?

Jose: My moon sign, I still have to figure that out. Like, I don’t want to go with Olga. I’m probably also like a moon Irina. I was, you know, because I found the practices that Irina was doing as a memory play in the production, so akin to what I was doing during my own life through the pandemic, I really thought this was a terrific Three Sisters for the era of COVID-19.

Corrie: Thank you so much for that, Jose, I think, yeah, we really think of these ghostly apparitions appearing on the blank walls of where Irina is confined to. And I think it’s quite interesting because in the video on demand, the figures are maybe a bit more spectral and ghostly- the SITI Company performers. But in the venue, I mean, they’re really huge. I mean, they really dwarf the Singaporean ensemble. So I think there’s a slight difference in encounter, but it’s also really cool that you can read it both ways. And I really hear you on, yeah, to continue the idea of the pandemic aesthetics. You know, the yearning that Irina has for Moscow. And thinking of her, like, in quarantine in this tiny, claustrophobic space, even if we can’t imagine the huge expanse of Russia, and what it means to be in a very far removed, provincial town, striving for a kind of upward mobility. Maybe there’s a bit of that, right, the yearning for some kind of freedom or liberation, something that I was also thinking about. So thanks for sharing that. And here’s to Irina sun and Masha rising. Thanks Jose, and finally maybe Sharaad you could share with us what you’re thinking about.

Sharaad: Yeah, well, I think when it comes to first impressions, and it’s something that in some sense came to me at the end of the production was, “wow, they put this play together”. And there’s actually a festival going on in Singapore. And I must say, it is extraordinary that you know, that this investment in the arts and culture is actually still happening when in many parts of the world, the arts are totally forgotten or marginal to the kind of mainstream response to the pandemic. So, you know, applause to everybody who’s you know, involved in this, I think that’s extraordinary. Myself, I mean, as somebody kind of watching theatre, I guess I’m either really drawn in, and then I try not to think too hard, while the show is going on. But it’s very difficult when you’re sitting in your study, and you’re looking at your, you know, Mac computer. And at one point, I just think, oh, if I was in the audience this is going to look very different to me. I knew that. But very soon, that fell away. And I was just thinking about the characters. And what they were saying.

So I took lot of notes. And I think my response is largely, kind of directed by what I was seeing in the characters and I asked myself several questions. I mean, one is, you know, why Chekhov, why Three Sisters, why now. Right? What does this play… How does this play speak to us at this point in time? And, you know, there’s so many issues that we can go through, you know. The themes that came up, the women, obviously, but I think also the men. I think, as an older man myself, I think very deeply about how men experience the world, how they struggle with their masculinity as they age. And so you know, the Baron and Andrei, all become very interesting characters for me.

Photo: The Pond Photography


Beyond that, there is this thing, and I think it was the technology right? The technology and its choices. I did ask myself at one point, what did the directors want us to believe? What fiction do they want us to somehow embrace in the world that they were, you know, presenting to us? What did it mean when the projections disappeared? Did it mean that you know, all the– Masha or the Baron disappeared? Or were they still in the room? And was it a room? And all that and, you know, what about the very conventional use of the ladder? You know, the use of props, I mean, you know, at one point I think some of the characters were under the table or they hold chairs, I think this was when Irina and that fellow Vassily – who seems to have another name as well – you know, were struggling with each other. So there were these kinds of moments.

The other thing that struck me was the language, I mean, I think it’s so hard not to try to figure that one out. The Mandarin, English, the Russian you know, for us watching it on video-on-demand, the subtitling, and then feeling at so many reveals – it’s like, you know, like a Joseph Conrad novel. You’ve got somebody who heard from somebody, who said they heard something. And so, this kind of… But I think in some ways, the pandemic only accentuates what we’ve already been encountering the last 20 years, you know, this virtual world. And we’ve come to take this for granted. We can have very deeply emotional connections to all these technologies, past all these interfaces. It doesn’t really– I think the question of an authentic experience no longer, I think, applies with these different technologies. And finally, to Corrie’s question of the pandemic aesthetic, I would say, pixelation and buffering. I think that was… initially, there was a lot of Irina skipping, skipping, skipping. She wasn’t skipping like a little girl, she was skipping like, you know, some operating system. So yeah, there you have it, yeah.

Corrie: Thank you so much for sharing that, Sharaad. Yeah, absolutely. I think the glitching, the pixelation, the time jumps, you know, or new kinds of vocabulary, almost, for the digital age. And I really hear you, I think a lot of companies are trying to think, okay, if this is going to be us for the long haul, and we want to continue to have people share in this presence, participate, you know, in the communal space of the theatre, what other approaches can we appropriate or adopt or adapt, that can keep our craft and art going? So I think, yeah, that’s something really to think about. This kind of- slowly, I think we’re finding vocabularies and ways where at the beginning, I think maybe all of us a bit thrown, like, are we watching film, are we watching theatre? I think now, I feel like everyone’s a bit more settled into the kind of vocabulary. 

Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of vocabulary and theatrical vocabulary, because SITI Company is very very much rooted in theoretical practice of theatre. And it is a fairly rare, I would say, approach in the United States to be so rooted in theory, and they use this method called Viewpoints, you know, where they incorporate space, time. And I think now they can add to that this cybernetic space to this list of viewpoints that they have, you know? And this digital space, in addition to the physical space and for a theoretical company like they are, and I believe, Nine Years, they have they’ve studied, you know, they’ve worked together before this show. They’ve been longtime collaborators, and I believe it’s very appropriate for this show to come from this company. 

Corrie: Yeah. 

Elisabeth: And I really, yeah, I think they’re going to add the digital space to their list of spaces that they’re interested in.


Photo: The Pond Photography


Corrie: And I think it’s really interesting, because I think, you know, the companies who are also grounded in physicality and the body. I was watching some of their earlier videos, and there was this, you know, resistance, like, ‘oh my god, we have to do this online.’ Because, I think, there was a lot of… I was just listening to some of the interviews and discussions together. And there’s such a deep longing, right, for like, ‘ah, we want to breathe together. We went to be together on a cellular level.’ You know, a lot of these very tactile phases come up. And I think even the interview that the festival director Gaurav had with Anne Bogart, where she talked about how much he hated Zoom. But yet, you know, they are doing these two-week online workshops together. So I think there’s an ambivalence, but also kind of a working out like, how do we feel each other and have these like, cybernetic viewpoints together on screen. And it feels very strange to watch the earlier publicity videos for Three Sisters where they were actually in a workshop together and touching each other. It’s quite profound watching it now. We’re going to segue very quickly into our- we’ve already started, I think, having our discussion. But yeah, I think further to what Elisabeth was just talking about, I’m curious to hear from Jose and Sharaad, when thinking through kind of physicality of the body and what you, if you’ve seen SITI Company, or Nine Years, maybe you could share a few more thoughts on that.

Jose: So I personally found the very last moment to be the most heartbreaking moment, because it’s that time when we realise that the sisters, although they’re sharing the space, technically, they cannot embrace, they cannot hug. And it’s that lack of touch, which made me think so much about when people were telling me, for instance, for my birthday last year, do you want to have a Zoom party? And I was like, what’s the point? Like, I can’t have cake, I can’t share my cake with all of you. And in terms of the physicality, and Sharaad has talked about props and about the objects. I also find it so fascinating how we constantly saw the nanny, which I think Corrie, that’s my moon, I’m a moon man. So we saw the nanny constantly coming and pushing this little cart. And not only would she use it to move characters, and sometimes enter characters in the scene. But also we saw at some point, I remember, that the cart was filled with dirt, and I believe a shovel. And it really made me think so much about how this one character that the play doesn’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to is basically carrying the sisters and Andrei and the entire structure of what the lives of these people are. And it also made me think about how, during the pandemic, people who had retired, had to go back to work and had to be doing things like the nanny was doing in the production, just to keep alive. And it just broke my heart to see that we saw the way in which elderly people are constantly and often dismissed, especially in American society, and just set aside but how they’re still, you know, the nanny, for instance, isn’t a ghost, she’s there with the actors. So that’s just something that really touched me and something that I just wanted to bring up.

Corrie: Thank you so much for sharing that Jose. Sharaad, yes.

Sharaad: Yeah. I mean, Jose, you bring up a really important point. I think it my own thinking about the play, the value that the nanny and her role and the meaning that she has, except in one regard. Because there’s a throughline about work. And there’s a point in which Olga berates Natasha for being cruel, saying, you know, “what is this nanny for? Why don’t you just put out the- She’s not doing it, she’s sitting down.” And you know, Olga is, I think, appalled by how crass, I think, Natasha is. How vulgar her sensibilities are. And it might actually come from a- oddly enough Olga’s position might be one to do with the dying world. The world of, you know, the serfs and the obligations that the lords and masters might have towards the serfs right? Whereas Natasha’s might be much more the attitudes of the rising bourgeoisie who you know, for whom, yeah, you’re worthless if you don’t do any work. I mean, whatever you did in the past, you can work for, you know, Tesco or one of these big supermarkets in the U.S. for 40 years. And then you know, when you’re not useful, “you just go and die”. I mean, basically. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. She’s actually very important in the story I think.

Photo: The Pond Photography


Sharaad: But very quickly I just want to say, something Corrie talks about in terms of production values, which is film right. So I did think at one point, why not when there was a close up… Because I think what the strategy seems to be here is to shoot it as if you were in the auditorium. Whereas if you’re actually looking at the future of these kinds of collaborations maybe it’s not, that shouldn’t be the point of view. I mean, it should be the way which film is right? So every time there is a close-up, which you would never have if you were sitting in the auditorium anyway, right, you’d never get a close-up of Irina’s face, you know. That we had that and they used that. So that made it a much more filmic strategy, in order that it becomes a much more intimate experience for those who are not in the auditorium, because it’s quite a different thing, rather than an attempt to mimic the filming of the performance as if we were members within a live audience in an auditorium.

Corrie: Yeah, thanks for sharing that Sharaad. I think in watching it twice, it was interesting that I think the VOD maybe shifted my perspectives on the work slightly. I have to admit, when I went to see the show in the venue, it took a while to orient myself to the ways in which performers were relating to each other, right? Through the really two-dimensional SITI Company members who for a while seemed really, you could only see like their shoulders and their arms really pinned to their sides. So for a long time, they felt really trapped, whether intentionally or not, I’m not sure. And I was so relieved when they like broke out of the square. And you’re like, ‘oh my god, okay, they can have a picnic now,’ you know, they’re free. They can have a party. And I spent really, I think a long time trying to sit with that cognitive dissonance. And also because the Singapore ensemble, who really have trained for many years together. Actually, this their ninth year together, so Nine Years is nine years old. You can see you know, how they move together. And it’s only when I got to watch the video, that I got to pay attention to the physicality of the Singaporean performers where in the live venue, they’d been kind of like, dwarfed by the technological intervention. So you know, it was really lovely to even see like the facial expressions flipped across Mia’s face (Mia plays Irina). And also even to see like the detailing on the costumes done by Jacqueline and also… it was two costume designers. They were Zhiying and Jacqueline. And I know, they spent a long time working with the texture and the colour palette of the costumes. And I felt really sad that they couldn’t like, you know, really fit it to the bodies of the performers. So I actually did appreciate that the VOD allowed me to pause on those details. I’m not sure what Elisabeth and Jose felt having only watched the video.

Photo: The Pond Photography


Jose: I have a – I don’t know if it’s like a trick or a game, or I don’t know what to call it – that I play when I’m watching digital theatre. And it’s that every time that the camera is doing, you know, using cinematic language, right with the close ups, what I do is that if I’m home, I pretend that I’m in a theatre, and I get to skip around and sit in the balcony and that I can sit in the mezzanine. And that I can send the orchestra and that I can sit on stage. And I kind of like, I feel like I’m a ghost of the theatre that no one else can see and I’m just like jumping from seat to seat. Because one of the other things that that allowed me to, you know, imagine and to realise, especially with this production was what a wonderful marriage it is of literature– when it starts we’re almost getting like stage directions like said to us, right? And then it’s a beautiful measure of literature and film and theatre and how very much each medium is almost like one of the sisters and as much as we would love to like turn all of them into this one happy perfect medium, that’s impossible. Like each medium is doing their best and each medium is satisfying you know different needs in us in that production… So that’s where my mind went. I was like, huh, I wonder which of the sisters is film, which sister is theatre, and which sister is literature?

Elisabeth: Yeah, and Natasha is TikTok. She’s the Real Housewife of Regional Russia. 

Corrie: That is… Sorry Elisabeth, go on.

Elisabeth: No, no, that’s it. I’ve done my job. (laughs)

Corrie: We have a comment from someone in the audience, from Naeem, which says that we should also note that the actors were masked. They were masked in the live performance. They were actually wearing a kind of translucent mask. And he said “I was able to enjoy the wonderfully expressive faces with the live Nine Years Theatre actors when watching the video-on-demand.” So that was, I think, nice to see. Because really, when you’re watching in the theatre, they’re all I mean- they really had to adapt to a lot of… The COVID cases in Singapore were spiking just at that moment. So they really had to react to a lot of safe management measures in the lead-up to the work that they hadn’t quite counted on. So that’s one thing. I think we can probably start taking more questions and comments from the audience. So it would be great if you could start leaving your comments or your questions for us, and then Nabilah and Denise will send them over to me, and then I can read them out and we can have a chat through all of them. But I guess while we’re waiting for questions and comments to come in, I’m curious to hear about – I think we touched on this a little bit earlier, I think maybe it was Sharaad – thinking about the multilinguality of the work. And I also know that Elisabeth talked about how in the US at least, Chekhov is pretty common whereas here, maybe not so much. So I wanted to hear a little bit more from each of you. Whether it comes to ‘Why stage Chekhov?’ and also thinking about the multilinguality of the play.

Elisabeth: I think for me, I mean, when I first started seeing Chekhov’s plays a long time ago, I remember that I did not like them at all. I remember when I first started getting into or seeing Chekhov, I was so bored and so frustrated by every single character. They all, like in every play, they all drove me crazy. But I think he’s a playwright where the more you see it, and it feels counterintuitive, but the more you see it, the better it gets. Because you start recognising the patterns and how each production deals with them. And what we think of now as cliches or archetypes – like you could think, ‘oh, the sisters, each one is an archetype’ – they’re not at all. They’re not. They’re really, very carefully shaded characters. And every production adds to this sense of this great work. He’s really a playwright that, the more I’ve seen, the more I love it. Whereas the reverse has been true of some playwrights where you feel, ‘oh, that’s it, there’s not that much going on. So the more you see it, there’s just not that much to explore.’ But with him every time – and I’ve seen so many, you can do it in, you know, classic style, you can do it in an experimental style. I’ve seen three sisters with all-male casts. You can do almost anything you want with it and it always works. And even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to see how it fails. And there’s very, very few playwrights like this. And so I was really curious, watching this experiment that we’re all part of, is how the Singapore audience reacted to it. Like, I’m just dying to hear what people thought of it and how they reacted to it, and what they took out of it. How is that registering this seemingly very foreign world. It’s fascinating.

Corrie: Yeah, speaking of which, I think we actually do have a question from a Singaporean audience member. This is from Max. He says, “my biggest question or my problem about my experience of the play is thinking about the relationship between the performance on site and the filmed presentation projected on the wall.” So I think similarly, it was hard for him to reconcile between these ghostly projections or apparitions, and also people on site. So that’s something Max shared. Okay, and we have another, I guess, question/comment from Weiliang. He says “beyond the practicalities of not being able to travel to Singapore for the show,” so this is for the three of you, “what did you feel about having the pre-recorded projections of the SITI actors beamed in, and how that contributed to the interpretation of Three Sisters? For me, the characters played by the SITI actors made it feel like they were ghosts that had already been through what Irina was about to go through. And that they were in Irina’s headspace as guardian figures that actually exacerbated the overall sense of fatalism for me.” So I think, yeah, both questions, we see Weiliang’s question on the screen now. I think both questions have to do with this, this seeming gap, I guess, between the projections and also the people embodied on stage.

Jose: I guess I would start by asking Max… Hi, Max! When you go to a museum, for instance, or when you go to a gallery, haven’t you ever at least, you know like maybe silently, or I don’t know if you could go that loud… Haven’t you had conversations with the pieces that you’re watching? Because I have to confess that I’m guilty of having- I had a terrible crush on this Titian painting, and I would go to the Frick Gallery in New York at least once a month to just say hi to my boyfriend that died five centuries before. And I would imagine conversations with this painting. And I wonder for Max, if you can imagine something like that. Almost like if we were living in a sci-fi world and you could project your memories and your dreams straight from your head and your brain onto a wall – what would they look like? Because something that’s also interesting about what the play does is that one of the sisters is a Caucasian actor, she’s a white actor. And it makes me think a lot about the way in which we remember, and you know, do we remember accurately? Is our memory trustworthy? Can we really rely on the things that we remember? And how we remember them? And that game of what to keep and what to get rid of, especially again, during the pandemic when a lot of us I think have been doing a lot of spiritual and emotional cleansing of so many sorts. What do we want to keep? And what do we want to treasure? And then I imagine that and then I imagine what would I project on my walls. In terms of the things I want to remember, even if I remember them wrongly.  

Corrie: Thank you so much for that, Jose. I think that was really lovely. Thinking about you know, what you’re going to – I think ‘mount’ sounds like the wrong word– ‘frame’, maybe, on the walls of your mind. Sharaad or Elisabeth any other responses? 

Sharaad: Yeah, very quickly, I would say that you know, I think part of the problem was the high level of pixelation that I found – and I don’t know if it was my computer, my internet speeds or whatever it was… But what I then relied on is the voice, and the voice was- And if you think about it right, depending where you sit in the theatre whether you buy the expensive seats or the cheap seats or you’re in the rafters or on the stage, you have a very different relationship to the face of the actor. And you know, you fill in the blanks, right? And so things like the voice, I think become extraordinarily important in theatre and the ability of the actor to project right to the back of the room. So that even if you see them in a different scale because of your particular position in the auditorium, you still feel them because their voice is so powerful. Having said that, it really opens up another huge issue around language and accents again, but I think many of us in the last 20, 30 years where there have been so many experiments. Multi-cultural productions of the Mahabharata by Peter Brooks. You listen to different accents, all inhabiting a mythological Indian world– the Indic world, if you’d like to kind of get away from a racialised sense of Indianness. And I think we’ve all come to accept- Masha sounds, I don’t know, was she Japanese? Right? She sounded like a lot of computerised voices I think – I don’t know why I thought that. But her English speech really is kind of interestingly robotic but still evocative. So that’s where I was, for me that’s how I kind of accepted the experience, and took on what she was saying, rather than be fixated by her accent, how she said it, the intonation, whatever. Yeah. 

Corrie: I think that’s quite interesting, I think that really actually is a nice segue to maybe what I was talking about multilingualism earlier. I think I’m curious to hear maybe from Elisabeth and Jose about experiences of encountering multi-lingual work in the US, because it’s really common in Singapore and Malaysia. And multilingualism is well interrogated, right? You also will have people speaking five or six different languages in a work. And also questioning hegemonies of language – dominances of  certain languages. So we’re quite used to that and very used to seeing subtitles. So this was interesting for me because it didn’t feel like that kind of lineage of multilingualism that we’ve explored in Singapore. It felt like maybe something else. I’m reminded of Ong Keng Sen’s Desdemona where you have different people from different countries in Southeast Asia And someone will speak Javanese to someone else and that person will respond in Japanese and they will just understand each other kind of miraculously and that’s kind of understood. But there were a few moments in Three Sisters where there’s a bit of that incommensurability of language where I think the Baron is like, “Irina?” And then she says, “Shen me?” which is “What?” And then he says, “Irina.” And she’s like, “Shen me?” And it feels like they’re having these cross-wires moment. So I was just thinking about those during the play. I think Elisabeth you had a comment. 

Elisabeth: No, I was just going to say that I think the United States is woefully behind on that. I’m stunned that there is not more of multilingual, or even just bilingual theatre. I think it’s a disservice to the audience. I think it’s really shameful and it’s cutting yourself off from so much. And there are various theatre companies doing, you know- you could have theatre companies doing all their work in Spanish. But you don’t have that sense of mixing things up, similar to what you just talked about. I think it’s starting, I mean, it’s not starting, but it’s getting better. But I feel like everybody’s in their own little world in a way. There’s a Spanish language company in New York called Repertory Español. I don’t speak Spanish at all and I love going to their shows. But it feels like everybody’s in their niche. I find it really frustrating. You would think in a city like New York you would see more plays using that multilingual approach that you’re describing, but I can’t really think of any and that’s very frustrating to me. I think it’s a really under-explored- it’s just insanely stupid I think to be cut off from so much. I really do think so.

Corrie: Thanks for sharing that, Elisabeth. I’m aware we only have about ten minutes left, so we are going to try to take more comments and questions from the audience. So, question five, we have from Naeem again. He’s curious about what the panel felt, about the fact that we could only see three SITI actor projections at one point, even though there were sometimes a lot more characters in the scene. And he found this personally a little bit confusing and frustrating because you don’t really know who’s entered a scene, or were they there all along? And he felt personally if the experience could maybe have been more coherent or emotionally powerful if we could see all the cast members at one point. So anyone want to respond quickly to Naeem’s question?

Elisabeth: I’ll just say something very quickly. I think it’s the new thing now with digital theatre, where we really need – the directors have to figure out how to work together. You have the director doing the physical staging, and then you have the director handling the video stream, editing and deciding what to show. So now, we are in a situation where digital theatre needs to have two directors working together in deciding what to show. It’s a very new thing, obviously. New as in the past year. And that’s something that I think will get better as we move forward. 

Sharaad: Can I just add to that? Naeem, I had the exact same question in my mind. When the projection left the wall, did it mean that the person has exited the room or were they still there? But you know, I tried not to be too troubled by these things. I mean, it’s like you just think, ‘okay, does it work? Does it make sense? Does it sound like this person is still in that conversation?’ Right? Fyodor comes in, remember that Fyodor moment where he, it’s Skype, right? The Skype sound. And you think, well, in a theatre setting what was he, would he be walking through the door? Did he call? Was there a phone in the drawing room? Yeah, I don’t know. 

Corrie: Thanks for sharing that, Sharaad. Jose or Elisabeth, did you have any responses to Naeem?

Jose: Yeah, I guess what I would say is going back to what I was talking about earlier. If we think of this version of Three Sisters as a memory play, and you’re talking, Naeem, about being confused and frustrated. Don’t you kind of feel like that when you’re unable as a human being to remember or to have all the people that you love, that you have loved, that you have lost. So I would try to say, what we get is what we have in the production. So I would say to Naeem, those feelings of frustration and confusion, maybe that’s what it was meant to do for you all along. So try to think and sit with that a little bit, it’s super uncomfortable. Like I said, I tried to hang people that I love, you know what I mean, frame them everywhere and it’s impossible, we’re human beings. So I would just think a little bit about that.

Corrie: Yeah, thanks for sharing Jose. I’m also thinking, I guess there are a couple levels at work here. So I suppose for people who might find the names confusing, and how people are related to each other in this kinds of tree of familial and kinship relationships, especially with all the Russian patronymics and last names. I think it can be a bit overwhelming to kind of sort out, who is having an affair with whom? Do I need to know that for the narrative climax of this story? Will I miss out if I don’t understand the relationships that they have between each other. So I think you know for some people it’s okay, you know. Like, alright, we’re going to look at this, as you said, absolutely as a memory play where things fade in and out. I’m really okay to think about this as a philosophical musing on loss, on claustrophobia, on memory. But I think maybe others might struggle with the- I do want to know, who is sleeping with who behind whose back. Elisabeth? 

Elisabeth: No, I think it’s like different philosophical approaches to theatre. You have some people who are fine with being a little puzzled and flummoxed, then you go with the flow. Then you have others who feel that not understanding something is very frustrating and very alienating. And that immediately puts them out of the show. The show is rejecting them, they can’t be part of it. And you can be a different person depending on the show. Sometimes I love being completely perplexed by a show, and sometimes it drives me crazy if it’s another show. That’s a very subjective thing. You’re not the same person all the time. In this particular case, I would say sometimes, I wasn’t sure at all what was going on. But my response was like, ‘okay, let’s see what they’re doing. Let’s see where they’re going with this.’ And also, something that looks visually good goes a long way for me, If something looks good, I tend to be very forgiving and I thought the show looked really good.


Photo: The Pond Photography


Corrie: Speaking of the show looking good, we have another comment from Shu. She says that aside the actors being trapped in the box in those moments, I thought the use of the screen was really beautiful and refreshing. Because she thinks that Nine Years Theatre rarely uses multimedia, if ever. So it was really lovely, she thought, to see these carefully crafted stage pictures silhouetted against the more abstract multimedia, I think we get the birds, we get the snow, we get the birch forest. And she said that one scene where Masha and Vershinin’s shadows were dancing, the scene where Irina swings the bulb and it casts swirling shadows on the wall. She says, ‘those were the moments of screen and stage interplay that I found very precious about this production and blur the lines between the digital and the physical’. So that’s someone who was kind of echoing what Elisabeth was talking about in terms of the aesthetics of the work. 

Yes, Sharaad?

Sharaad: I want to push back a little bit on what Elisabeth said, not to defend multiculturalism or monolingualism, but I do– It’s wonderful when you can quote a character in a play, so I thought I’d do that because I’ve done that in our pre-discussions. Is Masha saying– you know because Irina said she speaks so many languages and even Italiano, Andrei says. Because Masha’s obviously the intellectual in so many ways– she says, “this is a silly affectation.” And I wonder if, you know, if we take Masha seriously, right? In many ways theatre does not have to mimic the real world in its polyglot nature, right? But it brings up some sort of empathy for the very different experiences of people sometimes expressed linguistically, and in language, but not always. Sometimes it’s cultural, and class positions and such. That’s more important for theatre. If the theatre cannot represent that gamut of experiences then I think that it’s doing poorly, rather than just the language. Because I think what happens is that we have this over-aestheticisation of this multilingual sound. So it’s like, all the Japanese and the Javanese, wow it’s so beautiful and they’re different. And then we get fixated on those gestures rather than the substance. That would be my pushback, though I completely respect your position in terms of American culture, I mean I’m not sure, I’m not there so I don’t know. 

Elisabeth: I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I’m not saying this should be the case for every show. I’m just saying that in some cases, it’s very frustrating, that for instance, there is not more plays. I’ll just talk about a very specific thing. I find it very frustrating that there are not more plays reflecting the fact that New York, in some neighbourhoods at least, or among some people, is very multilingual. I mean, I’m French and with my friends we speak this Frenglish and we just go from one to the other all the time. And I’m sure Jose, you’re in a similar case, you just kind of go between languages, and the theatre here does not reflect that at all. Especially because a lot of American theatre is very naturalistic. So there is a kind of idea of realism, up to a point. That’s the thing: up to a point. You know? So I’m not saying everything has to be in five languages, and yes I absolutely agree, it can be an effect. But I think in some cases when appropriate, I feel like it’s a tool, it’s just a reflection of who we are that is just not there in New York theatre. I’m definitely not saying, oh my god, we have to have Shakespeare in five different languages. It’s not that. I just think it’s a blind spot for New York theatre.

Corrie: Thank you so much. Jose, sorry, go on, yes.

Jose: Thank you, Corrie. I would even say even beyond New York theatre itself, which as a native Spanish speaker – and English is my second language –  I find New York theatre to be very extremely provincial. There’s not a lot of options for people who speak more than one language. And for instance, I’ve always wondered, why can’t Broadway do what the opera does and get those little screens and have subtitles for tourists? Tourists come from all over the world to go see Broadway shows, and we don’t even have that, so that’s nonsense to me.

Elisabeth: At The Phantom of the Opera, you can get a headset with a translation in like, six or seven different languages. That’s the only one that I can think of. 

Jose: Oh wow, good to know.

Sharaad: Can I add just a little bit of Singapore theatre history. Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat. I went to the production, it had a lot of Chinese dialects. So these were… How do you describe a Chinese dialect? These are not necessarily mutually understandable languages, right, between Mandarin and all that. What Chua Beng Huat, who was my professor at university in Singapore said, to Kuo Pao Kun was that, interestingly, Mandarin, like English, is the language which everybody has a stake in, or a buy in. So actually in some ways, these hegemonic languages are much more democratic. Whereas if you use those specific languages, you’re really caught within those group identity that small community of those people who share the language. So you know, this is a curve ball in the cultural politics of Singapore. I don’t know how many people remember this, but Mama Looking for Her Cat was really quite a phenomenal attempt to push back against hegemonic theatre and language practices in Singapore. 

Corrie: Yeah, maybe just to add on to give some context for what Sharaad is sharing. So in 1988, Kuo Pao Kun, who was a really big figure in contemporary Singaporean and Malaysian theatre, he was really sorrowful about the Speak English campaigns, the Speak Mandarin campaigns that were taking place and were erasing the rich dialects in Singapore to be replaced by these two other languages, which have their own baggages, right, I think, Mandarin Chinese and English. So it was kind of this longing for a more polyglot past that was quickly being erased. But I think what’s interesting, speaking of multilinguality, is that here we see those two languages which is English and Mandarin Chinese. And in fact, one of Nine Years Theatre’s big pushes is to speak Mandarin Chinese in a standard diction, that doesn’t really sound like the colloquial Mandarin we use in Singapore. The accent is different. Like Elisabeth is saying, in New York you have a lot more vernacular colloquialisms, so the kind of Mandarin they’re speaking on stage in this production is very far removed from what we would use on a daily basis. So that is also another question about multilinguality and the vernacular and the everyday and what standards are imposed on this kind of language? How should we speak this kind of language? What is appropriate? What is appropriate for the stage? So it’s interesting to think of that also, within that kind of training, just to give some context to the discussion. Any quick responses to wrap up the multilingualism discussion? We kind of went on a tangent.

Elisabeth: Yeah, we kind of went on a tangent. But it’s very interesting because if you think that theatre is a very key part of cultural discourse, which obviously I think we all here think so, it’s a very important question. Yes, do we use surtitles? And that’s one of the things actually that digital theatre has made a lot easier. Because I’ve watched a lot more theatre in Spanish in the past year, because it’s very easy to have surtitles now. And to watch that is a lot cheaper than maybe having surtitles machines or whatever they are on stage, now you can just have surtitles in your stream. So that has been – in terms of access, and again just the fact that we were all watching a collaboration between these two companies with subtitles in two languages – I just love that. Frankly if you had told me a year ago that we would be doing this, it blows my mind. It really does. I love it.

Corrie: Thanks for sharing that, Elisabeth. Yeah and another thing I really appreciated about the subtitling is that in the past year or so, Singaporean theatre has really wised up to access requirements. So you’ll notice a lot of the music is described as melancholy, triumphant, military. And I think there are a lot more access entry points built into work, especially so with the video-on-demand videos that I really appreciated, so kudos to SIFA and the team for including that. Okay, I’m just going to see if we have any more questions or comments from the audience. We have a comment from Clarissa. She says, “Thanks Elisabeth and Jose for sharing your love for Chekhov. It’s my first time watching a Chekhov play. I’ve seen and read much more Ibsen which I love. And I experienced some of that profound irritation that Elisabeth you spoke of when you first watched Chekhov. In the course of the play, the characters grew on me though. What you shared is an incentive to journey deeper into Chekhov’s work. 

Elisabeth: I would highly recommend that chekhovOS play. That I was mentioning offline, because if you are into Chekhov or starting to get into Chekhov, it is a very funny streaming play. The concept is that the Chekhov universe is this kind of fixed universe. And the characters feel very stuck in it. Because they would like to go to Moscow for a change. They would like to not have to argue about a cherry orchard for a change. They would love, you know. It’s very funny. So I highly recommend it. Its called chekhovOS

Corrie: What we’ll do is we’re going to find a link to the play and later on we’re going to post it in the comments for the Facebook Live so that people watching it can go check it out. And also I think Elisabeth wrote a review of the work.

Elisabeth: And I think it’s free too. You can really watch it from anywhere. Although it’s live, so you will have to make sure that you watch it at the right time. But yeah, for anybody interested in Chekhov, it’s very entertaining. Very affectionate, but it does make fun of the fact that they’re all stuck and they feel so stuck.

Corrie: I have to say, thank you so much. This has been an incredible conversation. I’m really sad that we have to wrap up soon because we’ve already gone seven minutes past. But we’re really grateful for all the comments and questions that have come in from the audience. We’ve really enjoyed not just hearing questions but also your reactions to the work and how you’ve made sense of the piece together with us. I mean the four of us are also equally figuring it out, our own reads of the work and coming in from different entry points. I’m really really grateful for everyone who has joined us here today. I noticed the sun has risen where Jose is and we can see through the dark window. So we’re really glad that through glitches, pixelations, time lags and the whole of Zoom crashing, we managed to maintain a conversation between the four of us. This will be kept on Facebook for posterity, do have a listen. 

Three Sisters is still available on SIFA on Demand from now till 20th June 2021, you can check out the SIFA website for details. I think really what we’ve had here in this conversation today is four of us making sense of: what is this new world that we inhabit? What new sets of vocabulary are we bringing to it? And also what can the theatre ecologies of the U.S., of Honduras, Singapore and Malaysia – what is it like when we all kind of rub up against each other? And the contexts are so different, so I think it’s really lovely that a single play, that ordinarily, you know, a few of us would never have been able to watch, could kind of bring us together and have this discussion here today and also think about Chekhov and the pandemic through a performance lens that is quite new to all of us. So I’m really grateful to everyone for being here. 

ArtsEquator would also like to thank the Arts House and SIFA for inviting us to be part of the programme through the Asian Arts Media Roundtable. We have two more Critics Live! sessions coming up. One is The Year of No Return that was by The Necessary Stage, that’s coming up on 9th June. And then we also have a discussion of Oiwa: The Ghost of Yotsuya by the Finger Players on 12th June, and you can visit the Asian Arts Media Roundtable website for more details. Finally we also really wanted to say a huge thank you to Nabilah and Denise who have been managing all the audience questions and comments, doing kind of the curation and facilitation behind the scenes. To Agni for translating them and to Kaykay who is our secret puppet master who has been supervising all the tech magic that goes into helping us to look this way. So thank you so much, thank you to Elisabeth, Jose, Sharaad for joining us. This has been Critics Live! Thank you so much everyone, have a really good night. 

Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre and SITI Company took place online from 21 to 22 May at Victoria Theatre and 5 to 20 June on demand, as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021.

Critics Live! is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021. 

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