Love-Information-5
Wild Rice

Podcast 98: Love & Information by Young & Wild

In this episode of the ArtsEquator theatre podcast, Naeem Kapadia, Matthew Lyon and Nabilah Said discuss Love & Information by Young & Wild, which is the youth arm of Singapore theatre company Wild Rice.

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Podcast Transcript 

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone, and welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. This is me, Naeem Kapadia, and I’m joined as usual by Nabilah Said.

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello.

NK: And Matt Lyon.

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.

NK: Today, we are talking about Love and Information, which was performed by Young & Wild. It’s in fact the seventh cohort of Young and Wild, and it’s a platform to nurture the next generation of theatre makers by W!ld Rice.

So this production is by British playwright Caryl Churchill. It was first published in 2012, and it’s directed by Edith Podesta, featuring a cast of 15 young performers. And Love and Information is a kind of interesting play. If anyone’s looked at the script before, there are no lines assigned to each individual character; you just have just chunks of text, and these micro-scenes that range from thirty seconds to two minutes. And it’s really up to the individual cast to interpret the text in whichever way they want to. So I think it gives you a lot of flexibility. So what did you think, Nabilah?

NS: So Love and Information… Well firstly, I want to make a disclaimer that I love Caryl Churchill, so anything to do with form and experimentations with form, I love. And this is very obviously Caryl Churchill’s style. I feel that love and

ML: Well. In that it’s not obvious because she changes so much from script to script. It’s an obvious departure in that she always makes such shocking departures.

NS: Yes, all the time—all her plays are always very different.

Love and Information… How many scenes does it have? Like fifty?

NK: I think almost fifty scenes.

NS: Fifty. It’s one of those things where I don’t think we’re surprised that it’s chosen as part of a Young and Wild showcase, right? It’s one of those perfect plays for a youth showcase. There are fifteen actors in this cohort, and so it totally makes sense that they would do this play. But I think then the challenge is that we can’t really create connections with any of the characters, especially if the acting may not be all of the same standard. So that’s the way I think it falls, and the play allows these kinds of failures to happen.

ML: Yeah, I think it falls even earlier than that. What you say is absolutely true in terms of an acting showcase, a) because all the actors get more or less equal stage time and they get to multi-role. And b) obviously in acting school, you do want to teach a bit of text interpretation and building characters so that they’re larger than what appears on the page. When you’ve got fifty tiny scenes, if you want to set your actors the homework of what’s their backstory, or get them helping to design the costumes, then as a teaching tool, it’s a fantastic text. As something to watch as an audience…? Stay home and watch the worst sketch show on Netflix. What’s the point? It’s just a lot of little, not-quite-funny, not-quite-serious skits.

And there are a couple of good scenes in there, I guess.

I also love Caryl Churchill. When you think of the formal departures of things like Cloud Nine and Top Girls and Far Away, which I had to read three times before I even understood it, but then realised it was a work of fricking genius… I don’t know, maybe in two years’ time, this will creep up on me and I’ll go, ‘Oh! She was right after all, it was amazing!’ But if you’d told me that over her however-many-decade career, this script was just a collection of random snippets from her discarded dialogue, I would totally, totally believe you. So, yeah: good for actors; not for audiences.

 

Photo: Wild Rice

 

NS: So I think they made some choices, right, with this play? You could see the work they had done in rehearsal to build up the characters. Some of them were very specific in their choices, where you could note how they used the Singlish accent at times, or contextualised certain scenes with a Singaporean backdrop.

So Naeem, do you want to talk about that scene?

NK: Yeah. So I think for me, this was a bit of a mixed bag because there was obviously a clear attempt to inject a local flavour into some of the scenes. So you have your coffee-shop uncles, your convent school girls, you have a scene set in an army camp, things like that, which, it’s all great, it’s all part of the Singaporean setting and everything. And then you have very weird Singlish scenes. Maybe ‘weird’ is not the right word… but I just felt that they jarred with other scenes which were played almost verbatim based on Caryl Churchill’s dialogue.

ML: Absolutely verbatim, I think. They read the lines as she wrote them.

NK: Yeah. So you have references to ‘Nan’ and ‘buttercup’ and all that, but then other scenes with a lot of Singlish in them. So I felt that they could have made the decision of whether they wanted to make the whole thing local or stick to the original. And it just would have been a little bit less fragmented.

ML: I wonder if that’s a choice that Edith gave to the actors…

NK: That could have been the case.

ML: Seems plausible because there was one actor who I think in most of his scenes did that, and his name was…?

NK: Jorgan Ong?

ML: Oh, I love you with the names, Naeem! Thank you!

Yeah. And I think when it was done, it was largely a more interesting choice. And I think it’s because the voices of the characters in the play – as well as not being attributed by character names, or even by A/B or Man/Woman distinctions – are often so vanilla. So I think adding any kind of flavour to those lines by any means, improves them.

NK: To be fair, I actually enjoyed certain elements. I think I did want to talk about one of the scenes called ‘Fate’. And this is a scene where I think two female characters are lamenting about their lack of choices. And it was interesting because the actual English text of Caryl Churchill was flashed onto the screen, and they would communicate to each other in a mixture of Singlish and Malay and a bit of other dialects. And it was quite interesting just seeing that juxtaposition. And again, it was a very nice way of bringing that unique Singapore flavour into a scene. So they would say things like, ‘Oh, I’m chionging through life.’ Whereas the English texts would be like, ‘I’m on a roller coaster of emotions,’ you know?

So I think it was quite a nice choice, but it didn’t work for me all the time. But you know, it allowed them to show some degree of versatility and differentiation.

NS: I think it definitely did, but it’s one of those things where now that we are commenting on it one month after the play, I do feel that I’m struggling to really remember the majority of the scenes, save for maybe one or two. And I feel like when you showcase versatility, that’s okay, but then as a graduation piece where you are trying to showcase the future of theatre and all… I mean, there were some actors who I felt did well, and when they did do well, it was almost like they did well in only that one scene with that particular character. But you did see glimpses of some really good talent.

 

Photo: Wild Rice

 

ML: Walking out of the theatre, I felt that I could only remember tiny little glimpses. And there were some people that I quite liked in certain roles. As you say, there was Rachel Linn Brabbery who had a nice sense of chemistry and timing. And there was Adi Sri who had a really nice interiority in one scene. But would you cast them on the basis of showing something that’s quite good for ten seconds?

And if they can do that, they’re probably very good. But I think I’d trade depth for versatility personally, even in a student showcase.

NK: Yeah, I have to agree. I felt a little disappointed because I have also seen several other plays from Young & Wild, and indeed other young performers, where you had very vivid roles. And I think this was one of those cases where yeah, there might be something good. But it went on for all of thirty seconds. And then when people ask you to describe the play, it’s just snapshots of dialogue.

And I think the other thing about this play (and we were talking about this briefly) is that I really do not think it’s aged very well at all. It was written nine years ago. This was probably a time before Instagram and TikTok. And honestly…

ML: It feels like she was vaguely aware of what was about to happen at the time she wrote it, but she just slightly mis-predicted the details. Like she didn’t quite see it was going to be Instagram and TikTok. Maybe she thought it was going to be like a weird short-form YouTube which changes the channel for you. But the play does have that weightlessness and doomscrolling quality.

NK: It’s basically TikTok theatre. You’re just kind of scrolling through scenes, right?

ML: It’s like, what’s popular on Reddit: you may engage; you may not.

NS: It’s called the ‘For You Page’ on TikTok.

ML: You see, I know nothing. But she didn’t quite get it right. And back in 2012, I think it was a fairly obvious thing to say that our imaginations are fragmented and our attention spans are shrinking, but now, that’s an incredibly obvious thing to say! It’s so obvious that it doesn’t need saying; it needs critiquing with a lot more finesse than just shovelling it on a plate and sticking it in front of our face.

NS: Right. I’m glad you’re saying that because I think that we can’t fault Caryl Churchill for not seeing the future, right? So I can imagine that back in 2012 in the Royal Court… because Matt, you were talking about how it was staged in this kind of this white, cube-like…?

ML: From the production photos, it seems to be a very clean white tile set, lit almost shadowlessly, and with very vivid colours in the costumes.

NS: Gridlines in the set, yeah.

ML: That kind of idea. It gave the impression—I just said shoving things on a plate; it actually gave the opposite impression back then of being like nouvelle cuisine portions on a plate. So everything looked important because of the design, whether it was or not.

NS: But I can imagine that it would have been exciting at the time. And then it almost feels like once you went out of the theatre, that was the end of the shelf life of the play even. But now it’s almost ten years later, and it’s not saying anything new, it’s not saying it in any new way.

ML: Maybe in fifty years, it’ll be an incredibly interesting snapshot of 2012, but I don’t even think it’ll be a snapshot of 2013.

NK: So, I mean, look, the play did not age very well, but there was also an interesting decision by the director and the cast, I presume, to inject some level of continuity. Because the actual script itself is just fifty-odd scenes with no characters, but what they had was certain characters repeating. So you have, for example, a man who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and told he has a few months to live, and later you see that same character having another interaction with his wife and he can’t remember her. Or you have two women waiting in some clinic and later bickering with each other. And then there’s a recluse character who’s dealing with an intruder, and he comes back. So I think they wanted to inject some continuity into the scenes to give it some structure.

ML: To be fair, I thought it was written in until I looked at the script,

NS: I think it’s an attempt at a little bit of coherence.

ML: But you’re not going to get coherence with this. So maybe that was not the right call.

NS: Mm.

ML: Maybe make it seem even more divergent, to the point where it’s uncomfortable to watch. And I wanted that from the transitions. This is the kind of play where a beginner director would put a blackout between every scene because they have nothing to do with each other, and then the running time would be sixteen hours. So obviously Edith’s not going to do that. But I wish she’d been braver with the transitions because she did kind of these loose, mimey handoffs where one scene finishes downstage-right, and then one of the characters turns and looks significantly upstage-left, and then the characters in the new scene start talking.

And… sure? But if this is a play about how experiences zigzag and hit us from multiple angles, maybe you just abruptly snap cut from one scene to the next. Or maybe you have one character who’s in two scenes at once… Or whatever it is, but you find extremely, I want to say upsetting ways to do these transitions and work them into the material of the play so that we come away with some kind of judgment or opinion about how erratic life is today—something to consider, whether we agree with it or disagree with it.

As it was, this is just what the wallpaper looked like in 2012. And you walk from room to room… The end

NS: So are you saying that there was an opportunity to inject some metatheatrical references?

ML: Yes, because I don’t know what the play is. It’s just a load of stuff. Could you say more than three scenes were intrinsically interesting or original?

NS: I mean, I can only remember like three scenes, yeah.

ML: Yeah, about three, right? The other forty-odd were clichés…

NK: Vanilla.

ML: …and vanilla. And if that’s going to be the point…? That can’t be the point! You need to put some chili powder in your vanilla! You need to get something in there, right?

 

Photo: Wild Rice

 

NS: So what do you all think about the space to fail when it comes to youth theatre and these kinds of showcases.

ML: I’m still not sure that in terms of an actor showcase, it was a complete failure because I’m a theatre educator and clearly the young people had learned a lot through this process. They made the context of every scene very, very clear through costumes, through the way they interacted with each other. I would actually have preferred to differentiate less and allow a little bit more ambiguity, but in terms of their ability to do that and imply a greater world beyond what is written in the script, I think they were very successful in that regard.

So then it’s the space to fail for an audience. And… yes, I suppose you can do that. But I think that’s the area that in regular theatre without any educational aspirations, you need to try and fail least. Would you agree?

NS: So you are saying that if there wasn’t an audience, it would have been successful in terms of experimentation?

ML: As a learning experience, I think it was probably very successful. As a showcase experience, I think there was merit to it. As an experience for an audience, I don’t really see the point.

NK: I think in my time as an audience member and a theatre critic, I’ve just seen so many of these youth showcases before, including many shows from Young & Wild, and there have been full-blown productions that they’ve done in the past. But this just felt very ‘drama school’.

I remember when I did drama classes years back, we used to have these exercises where you sit on a park bench and you invent a scene, and then one character leaves and another one comes in, and then you start a scene with that same character. It felt a little bit like that. It’s just random little vignettes.

So for me, that felt a little bit disappointing.

NS: Right. Maybe I should qualify what I said. I don’t mean that they failed; I mean that youth showcases should be a space where you can fail, right? But not that you will fail, of course: you don’t set them up for failure. But maybe with this play, they sabotaged that effort a little bit, perhaps? Maybe if they had chosen another play where the students could really dig into their characters and grow with them as the play progressed, that might have given them a fairer shot.

ML: I have to stage school plays with unpredictable numbers of actors, and my word it is hard to find scripts. So I sympathise deeply. If I’d known about this script, I would have been tempted by it on multiple occasions. I’m not saying I would have gone there because I think I would have read it and gone, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ But I can see the appeal.

NS: Yep.

 

Photo: Wild Rice

 

NK: Yeah. And I also found myself a little confused by the set. Now the set designer is actually not credited in the program, but the set is basically two staircases on an empty stage. And there’s a space in between. And there is also a pit. And the pit was actually used pretty well for them to stow away props, and as an acting space or as a table, et cetera.

But I found it very distracting when actors would walk up and down those staircases to exit or enter each scene. And I’m just wondering, was there a specific design intention? Was it trying to create maybe a three-dimensionality to the space, perhaps? It felt distracting. And as you were saying, if the original staging had this white, cube-like, very clinical space where you are forced to zero in on two people, that may have actually been better than this grungy design.

ML: I think the design does need some focal pressure to it where everything you’re looking at says, ‘This is the main event’. And then the main event is actually twenty seconds of something completely inconsequential. But the fact that it’s been raised on a platform for you to examine with that level of scrutiny becomes an important part of the play’s aesthetic argument. And this design, while not intrinsically bad, did not do that.

NK: Yep. And then you find your eye tends to wander, because mine did, and I would look at a scene and tune out after the first fifteen seconds, and look and see what the other actors were doing. Because it just becomes very fragmented. I feel like I’ve kind of gone through theatre mush—just sitting through, as you said, scraps of discarded dialogue from a variety of plays.

And if you had given me the text of this script and not put Caryl Churchill on it…?

ML: Yeah, there’s no way it would have been staged.

NK: There’s no way I would have thought this was anything special. I think it felt dated and it didn’t really work to its full potential.

ML: Ten years… Ten to fifteen years is the worst period for dating because it’s not history yet, but it’s also not the present.

NS: Yeah.

ML: So I’m very wary of staging plays that have been written ten years ago because they’re never going to quite feel right. You’re much better doing something period. Or classic. Or new.

NS: That’s super interesting because recently I watched an archive recording of a Malaysian play from 2008 called Air Con by Shanon Shah. But it wasn’t a restaging; it was literally the archive recording. So what we could see was something that’s almost like a time capsule. And then we are seeing it with different eyes, so it doesn’t fall into that trap of what you’re saying because we’re not staging it in today’s context. But that worked. So that was kind of an interesting…

ML: But if that had been put live on stage, would it have worked?

NS: I think we would have looked at some of the more problematic things in a different light. Yeah.

I think with the idea of the datedness of this play, I think Naeem I were talking about Cyril and Michael, right?

NK: Yes, and the only reason we brought this up is because one of the performers, Theo Chen, was actually the writer of this play, Cyril and Michael. And we were just joking about how his play could well have been called ‘Love and Information’. But it’s basically a play about two men who have an encounter in a hotel room, and they meet on a gay dating app. And one is a much older Caucasian man, one is a young national serviceman. And they have a hook-up online, and then they meet, and they end up spending the night just talking and exploring their individual identities, if you like. And I thought it was actually quite a nuanced and powerful examination of people at different stages in life, and just about the lived experience of being gay in this day and age.

NS: And Naeem, you wrote a whole review about it, which people can read. But really I was thinking about how it’s a more conventionally plotted play, I would say, even though it unravels over just one night. But in terms of literally love and information, how do people meet each other these days? It’s through apps and it’s through like Grindr and TikTok and Instagram—you know, sliding into DMs and things like that. And it’s not quite as fragmented as Love and Information portended.

ML: Hm, that’s interesting.

NS: I mean, they are very different plays, so I shouldn’t even really be comparing them, but it just so happens that there are resonant issues and themes coming out of both.

NK: The play we were talking about, Cyril and Michael, had elements of randomness. You have two completely different characters, right? You have a very feminine guy from an ethnic minority who is like 20 years old. And then you have a proper businessman, you know, a middle-aged white guy… And yet the interaction between the two of them felt quite organic. And that was kind of a way in which disparate things could come together and still somehow be a little bit cohesive. Whereas this just felt a little bit, as I said, of a brain mush. I think there’s a scene where two women are talking to each other and one reveals that, oh, I’m actually your mother.

NS: Was there?

ML: Yeah, there was.

NK: I was just like, ‘Oh, okay. That kind of warrants a little bit more examination.’ It felt like kind of a major point. And then there are all these powerful one-liners so I felt like I wanted to dwell with these characters just a little bit longer—but that was just pulled away from me. So every time I want to make a connection, that connection is taken away from me. And I’m just wondering if that was…

NS: The point.

NK: …the point of the whole play: that we are only living in the now; we are only given this small amount; there’s no beginning and there’s no end; and we only given this random scrap of paper and we just have to take it at face value—

ML: I think that probably was the intended point, but—

NK: —and then another scrap gets added on top and on top and on top, and in the end, it’s just a random collage.

ML: Yeah. But no element of the writing of the production was quite forceful enough to get that point across strongly.

NS: Yeah. I don’t know, Naeem, when you were talking, I was like, ‘Oh, is it the theatrical equivalent of a cock block?’

[Laughter.]

NS: Like literally just never giving us what we actually want.

ML: I believe you mean a “prick tease”!

NS: Oh!

NK: Yah.

ML: But either way…

NK: So yeah, it sounds like we have a lot of issues with the text itself. But that being said, I think it could have been a bit more ambitious in the way it was presented to us.

NS: And I guess even the brief moments of brilliance were really, really, really short as well. Which is kind of sad because it would be nice to have seen some people pushed a lot more, just to see where the potential was—like Matt was saying, would we cast them in another project further down the line?

NK: Could they be in the next big drama or whatever.

NS: I mean, it would have to come down to another audition to see what they would be capable of.

NK: Well, so there we go. That’s Love and Information for you, and feel free to read the script if you’d like to explore it more…

ML: We’ve all got copies, either digital or physical. Because we were so confused! We had to have a read!

NK: Yeah, we had to. So thank you very much, and we will be back hopefully with something more exciting very soon.

ML: Bye-bye.

NS: Bye.


Love & Information by Caryl Churchill was performed by Young & Wild from 9 to 12 Sep 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan.

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About the author(s)

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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