Podcast 83: Waiting For The Host by Pangdemonium

Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss Waiting For The Host by Pangdemonium. The play is written by Marc Palmieri and directed by Tracie Pang. Waiting For The Host ran from 15 Oct to 1 Nov on SISTIC Live. 

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Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone. And welcome to the ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. I’m Naeem Kapadia, and I’m joined as usual by Nabilah Said…

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello.

NK: …and Matt Lyon.

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello, hello.

NK: And today we are going to talk about a new production by Pangdemonium called Waiting for the Host. Now this is by American playwright, Mark Palmieri, and it was written earlier in the year, specifically designed to be performed through video conferencing platform, Zoom. This show actually comprises two plays, Waiting for the Host and Still Waiting, which are presented as one continuous show in two acts by Pangdemonium. And it’s their first production since The Son, which was staged in March this year, directed by Tracie Pang.

So it’s a sort of quirky comedy drama about a group of parishioners at a small church trying to stage the Passion Play during Lent, and rehearsing it, and dealing with life in lockdown and their experiences. So what did you think, Nabilah? Did it resonate with you? This idea of people talking on Zoom?

NS: Yeah, it’s funny that you put it as people talking on Zoom, because I think if you asked me if I want to watch a play of people talking on Zoom, the answer would be no. But I think with this one, it’s interesting that Pangdemonium is staging a play on Zoom that’s written for the medium. We are in – what? – November of this year, which is really pretty late in the year for a company’s first attempt to do something digitally. I think other companies have done it, during circuit breaker earlier, and dealing with this idea of people talking on Zoom—which by now most of us are experts at already: we’ve done the troubleshooting. And the thing is that Pangdemonium has been putting plays online, but these were their archived plays, like past material that they were putting online. So I think that interestingly enough, they are doing something that’s new for them, but in a way that’s almost slightly too late, if you think about it in terms of the audiences watching this play.

I think the theme kind of resonates because the theme is how people are doing their best to reclaim a sense of normalcy during this pandemic. And in the play, we see the churchgoers, the parishioners trying their best to put on this play. And they’re obviously super amateur—and not just in terms of playing with technology, but just acting-wise, right? They’re an amateur theatre group, and so they don’t have the skills, for example, so you see that…

But I think, to put it bluntly… I think I expected more.

ML: Yeah, I think Pangdemonium faces real obstacles here to overcome because they are the kind of company that wants to, generally speaking, work in a proscenium-arch theatre doing full-length, well-made plays. Sometimes a studio, but pretty much always a full-made, well-length play. A full-made, well-length play? [Laughter.] I’m going to stick with that, I like it!

And those are hard to write and, importantly, they take time to write. Yes, they’ve commissioned a couple over the years like Tango and Dragonflies, but those would have had a real gestation period. And I honestly think it is too early—cos you said it’s too late to do it, and it is: it’s too late to do something like this, that attempts to get most of its entertainment value from recounting the vagaries of Zoom. But it’s actually too early to do the – what am I calling it? – the well-length, full-made play, because that takes time.

NS: Yeah.

ML: Because what you’re doing is, you’re presenting lived experience, but you’re distilling it, you’re highlighting it. And that sense of reducing things to their essence and turning them into a coherent narrative… just as in making spirits, you age it in a barrel. Whereas when you’re doing this fragmented, episodic experience, like we saw in Who’s There? (the play that we talked about on the podcast last time), that’s more like catching flies out of the air: it’s done a lot more quickly, even if they’re both of equal difficulty. And the first difficulty that Pangdemonium clearly faced here is that the well-made Singaporean play about COVID does not exist yet.

And the second problem is that apparently the American one doesn’t either, because this was a bad script.

NK: I agree. I think there’s obviously a nice element of verisimilitude in that whole Zoom encounter, which we all have had. But as you pointed out, we’re in November now; we’ve been doing this for well over six months. And I think seeing someone fumble over technology… that sort of interaction is just not something that is exciting.

I think what I possibly wanted was a play that explored the format a little bit more creatively, but it just felt very textbook. And I think the direction in this instance did not help at all, because I just saw a group of characters who were all apparently amateur apart from one actress played by Mina Kaye, who was the Screen Actors Guild hopeful. Everyone was hamming it up in a way that just did not represent the average Zoom experience for most people. So there was this strange disconnect I felt about people trying to replicate everyday life, but at the same time playing as if they were right on the stage. And I think the biggest culprit here was Mina Kaye, who was completely dolled up, with these beautiful theatrical gestures (which is her character, admittedly), but just completely unsuitable for this medium.

Neo Swee Lin, who was playing this kooky older woman called Effie, who fumbles with getting the camera angled on her face…

This would have worked very nicely as a vignette. And we spoke about these kinds of little snapshots. We’ve seen The Coronalogues by SRT. We’ve seen Who’s There? by the Transit Ensemble, which was a snapshot of different things. But here, they’re trying to take that experience of interacting online on Zoom, and make it into a coherent, well-made, full-length play. And no, it didn’t work for me after a while.

NS: It’s interesting because we keep talking about well-made, right? But when it comes to a play being done on the Zoom platform, well-made means a lot more things than just the story. And I mean, here the story is quite thin, admittedly, and we’ve said that already. But there are things that you can do with framing and playing with space… There’s so many things—there’s chat…

So we were just brainstorming earlier, and we were saying that the ex-lovers who have all this history, they wouldn’t be talking on Zoom about their history while everyone else is there; they might be talking privately on chat, for example, and that might have played super interestingly via this other thing that Zoom offers you, right?

ML: Absolutely.

NS: And it’s not just the camera that you can play with. So I think it’s about exploring the form in a more fully formed way, which I believe Pangdemonium is still in the very early stages of exploring.

ML: And the script is heavily militating against it because the script clearly wants those six Zoom boxes onscreen and no one moving. Now, the script has made that terrible error, but if you’re going to direct that script, you’ve got to fight against that hard. And unfortunately, Tracie didn’t.

And she’s so good at it usually. She’s very good at getting people to respond to each other’s timings. Now that’s taken away because clearly it was rehearsed-slash-performed over Zoom, and there’s a slight built-in lag. So that’s gone. Okay, that’s a bit of a problem. But now she’s stuck into these six frames…? Well, it’s got to be her job to try and find some interesting movement within that, because otherwise it’s so dull to watch.

NS: Yeah.

ML: But just going back to the sense of Mina Kaye having this incredibly big, broad seventies sitcom performance – it was Mind Your Language, essentially, that she was doing – and yeah, she’s supposed to be a big theatrical character, so when she’s ‘acting’, I don’t mind that. But she’s also supposed to have real reactions to what people say, and they were performed in this bizarre music-video-slow-mo, which would work if she were playing Miss Saigon in the National Stadium, but really doesn’t work when you see it on a screen in front of you. It’s like, the bigger, the screen, the smaller you act; the bigger the theatre, the bigger you act. And she took exactly the wrong direction.

But again, not necessarily her fault, because Tracie is usually so good at creating a homogenous performance style from her cast. And we really didn’t see that this time, because on the other end of the scale – and unfortunately, it’s the actor who was playing most against Mina Kaye, so it became really obvious – was Gavin Yap. His performance, especially in the first half, was about right for verisimilitude plus the amplitude that you need just to achieve the heightened form of presentation that is theatre… and the difference between their two levels of performance, especially when they were in the background: she’s mugging, mugging, mugging, and he’s basically just listening. I found him so much easier to watch.

NK: And this is Tracie Pang we’re talking about, and she has done so many brilliant shows in Singapore over the last decade—it has been a decade now! And admittedly, this is their first digital production—but then that has been the case for all the other companies: we’ve spoken of so many shows over the last couple of months that have gone online, or digitally, or through sound recordings, et cetera. And there have been some strong ones that have come out. So there’s a lot that one could do even with a script that isn’t the most sophisticated. And this one clearly isn’t—there isn’t a lot there.

I think, especially when you take a script set in Long Island and you try to transplant it to Singapore, and just throw in the word ‘circuit breaker’ here and there, that does not a nice, coherent, relatable Singaporean play make. You need to also work on adjusting the tone and the interactions, and for me, yeah, there were these very theatrical performances that just felt completely out of place—and then the occasionally slightly more restrained one. So Adrian Pang initially, I think, was trying to reign it in as the Reverend Theo who calls the group together to perform the play. And he’s trying to get order.

But then I just couldn’t quite understand some of the characters. There’s a character played by Petrina Kow, who, for the life of me, I could not understand the reason that character even existed.

ML: All her lines could have been given to the other characters. She brought nothing.

NS: Yeah. I mean, her character is called Grace. And so I think maybe the playwright was trying to do something smart with a metaphor, but unfortunately I don’t think it carried across at all.

NK: No. Literally I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe because they wanted six boxes, and the screen to fill up nicely. So let’s just throw in an extra character and just give her a few throwaway lines.’ But she didn’t leave any impact in terms of her character.

So there were things like that, which I think were script problems, obviously—but then there were the direction problems, which Matt has spoken about. And I completely agree. It’s not something I would have expected from a Tracie Pang play, which is normally so sensitive and nuanced in being able to draw out the exact responses and tone of a scene.

ML: We talked about the biggest performance being by Mina Kaye, but you could also certainly put Keagan Kang in that category. He’s playing a New York director who is idolised by the Mina Kaye character, but is probably actually a bit of a useless prat. His performance was arguably even bigger than hers, but for a different reason…?

NS: Yeah. So he played this hammed-up character, who only appears in part two, in the second half, as a kind of surprise guest. (So he actually troubles the six-frame perfection that you were talking about, which is quite interesting…) But weirdly enough, I actually welcomed him, because for what he was doing, I felt he just knew what he was trying to go for. And if everyone had acted in that kind of archetypal, hammy way, I would have liked the play so much better.

ML: Exactly. If everybody’s overplaying it that much, you lose the verisimilitude, but you gain the amplitude. And that’s a choice, that’s fine.

But Keagan was essentially doing an impression of Wallace Shawn, the American actor. If you don’t know who he is, he played Vizzini, the poisoner in The Princess Bride, and he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story, and lots of other things. And essentially he’s like a 70-plus-year-old New York Jewish guy—comes across a little bit like an aggressive and smug Woody Allen. He’s a great actor. But Keagan was acting in that manner, and Keagan is an attractive Eurasian 40-something year old. And that visually doesn’t make any sense!

If he were acting live onstage, and maybe he’s multi-roling, so his main character is someone he could plausibly play in real life because he looks like that character… and then he does his second character as this Wallace-Shawn-like, 70-plus-year-old, that’s absolutely fine.

But when you are onscreen and there’s that expectation of verisimilitude in casting, and your voice and mannerisms all seem to be those of a septuagenarian New Yorker, it is the oddest and most disconcerting choice! Even though, on its own terms, he played that role quite well. So yeah, I guess if it was all like that, I’d think, ‘This is weird, but okay, sure, that’s what you went with.’ But when you have that, and then you have the people who are underplaying like Adrian, Zack and Gavin, that’s bizarre

NS: It felt like almost an improv class and everyone is—

ML: Table read.

NS: Yeah, for sure, there’s this table-read element—but all the characters are not believable in the same way. So they don’t all feel like they’ve had lived experiences in any way that would be believable.

NK: Yeah. And yes, there were these funny points, which I think as an audience member you would just succumb to them and laugh along… So there was a ridiculously cheesy scene where the two ex-lover characters who played Jesus and Judas are supposed to kiss. And then they moved to the edge of their screens so that it looked like they were actually kissing, and it’s cute and cheesy and silly.

So there was that. And I also quite enjoyed a scene in the second half of the play, where they break into some ridiculous rap, and they get really into it, and all of them are trying to sing in sync, and stuff like that. So, you know, these funny elements make it a little bit interesting, I suppose… But yeah, I think it was the tone that was really weird for me, because you have these characters who are a bit muted and are everyday human beings, and then these extremely theatrical seventies-sitcom-esque characters like Keagan Kang and Mina Kaye, who just somehow do not sit very easily.

And then Petrina Kow? I don’t know what you are trying to do here, and what the purpose of you existing in this play is…

So I think overall, when you watch a Pangdemonium show, everyone has an equal weight. And I think that’s what makes the shows so powerful, because she’s able to give everyone that equal strength so they play to their strengths, and there is that strong energy that comes through. But here it felt very fragmented. And I think that’s why by the time I got to the second part of the play, I was starting to look at my watch, like, ‘When is this going to end? What’s happening?’ It’s like the energy that builds up just starts to go downhill.

NS: Yeah, actually, it’s interesting that you use the word energy. Cos I feel on Zoom, the use of energy and the transmission of energy is so heightened. And I feel like the moment the energies are not all at the same level, the audience withdraws. And maybe it’s what you’re talking about in terms of checking your phone and things like that.

I mean, like you were mentioning, there were things that I did like. So there was one point where they were talking about how someone spits at Jesus—and then, because it’s localised a little bit, Petrina Kow goes like ‘Puiii!’ And I laughed because it’s so unexpected. And I think with the play, they did try to localise it and make it about Singapore, but they didn’t do it quite enough. There were some lines that didn’t quite work, or it just didn’t cohere into a believably… or that these characters would have been Singaporean, or that it didn’t seem like it reflected actual Singaporean experience.

ML: Every element of the credibility or the verisimilitude of this production is unfortunately not there. It was in the use of the tech as well. Clearly because that lag is built in, they did perform it over Zoom. But it doesn’t look like they used the actual Zoom footage—or at least not the video footage, because their video was higher resolution and had better colour depth than you’d get from the average laptop webcam. So presumably they used better cameras, which is fair enough, but it meant that we have this – again – this uncomfortable space between two stools, where… are we supposed to see it as real Zoom? In which case, we’ve all been on real Zoom: we know that maybe one guy has the good lighting like I’ve got this setup here—but most people essentially look like crap: poorly framed, badly lit, background phasing in and out because they’ve chosen the VR backgrounds, things like that. But no, everybody here has a ring light, so everybody here is nicely lit; the characters with glasses don’t have lenses in the frames. So okay, we’re aiming for this hyperreal perfection. Fine. But then the sound is uneven and shit.

So some of them, like Adrian, have a fairly nice acoustic space and a microphone that’s able to capture the nuance of their voice. Others, like Gavin, seem to be using the built-in microphone on cheap Apple earbuds, and it’s this thin, unpleasant, harsh sound that’s very difficult to listen to. And then you also have two characters, Mina and Keagan, who have an incredible amount of background noise. And if you’ve gone to the point where you’re giving them good lighting and reasonable cameras, why not give them good microphones as well?

And what Zoom does is it only lets one person speaking through at once, so other people’s background noise gets cut off—and they did that for the majority of the play, so whenever Mina comes on, you get incredible amounts of background noise, and then it goes to Adrian and you’re fine, and then Mina and background noise… But halfway through the second act, they seemed to forget to do that. So everyone was on the screen, and everyone’s mics were on, and the background noise level was incredibly distracting and hard to listen to.

And it’s just like—just think it through! If you’re going for verisimilitude, you can make it look like crappy Zoom and maybe we’ll all be taken into it a little bit further because we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that is what it’s like!’ Or that’s not what you’re trying to do, and you make it perfect, and you have your ring lights and your good cameras—but then you need your good microphones…!

NK: Yeah, it didn’t help. And I think the other point I made (and this was probably not immediately obvious to many people) is that Mark Palmieri, the author, had written two plays.

ML: I didn’t realise.

NK: This was not very obvious because it was presented as one continuous show in two acts. And the second act actually has this exposition bit, so you have Ben, who’s the son character played by Zach Pang, who talks about a girl he likes who might be coming to the read, and you’re wondering, ‘Oh, why are these two characters engaging in this long exposition?’ And it’s all because it’s a separate play, and you want to build all of that in. And I think Pangdemonium should have been alive to the fact that they’re staging this as one continuous show. So maybe do away with those very exposition-heavy sections.

NS: Yeah.

What do you all think of this theme of losing hope, or losing faith in humanity, and trying to find a bigger purpose? Because that’s what Adrian Pang’s character is standing in for, right?

ML: I think it landed like a sock full of mud. A play that can really make you laugh and then really make you cry? I’m all in favour of pulling it to those extremes. But this was just a little meander around the middle, followed by Adrian suddenly going into full Shakespeare mode a couple of times.

And that might’ve worked if the rest of the play had supported it. But for example (we’re going to do spoilers, I guess), at the end of the second half, a blank screen – you know how some people in Zoom don’t show their video? – a blank screen shows up with the word ‘ME’, and they think it’s the son’s girlfriend, but it turns out that it’s implied to be God—you know, the whole, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am what I am’ idea: ‘ME’. But again, because the second act is supposed to be a play on its own, that hasn’t really been prepared for in the first act. So it’s just, where did this come from again? And suddenly it turns serious, but it hasn’t really earned that seriousness… Didn’t work for me.

NS: I actually liked it. Maybe it’s the play I wanted, so maybe that’s why I liked it. So I was thinking about it, and I realised it was literally a deus ex machina where God literally drops in and ends the story or solves the story. And I thought it was done quite well because usually with a deus ex machina, you’re like, ‘Oh, why did these things suddenly come in and magically solve everything?’

But with this play, I liked it because we are all feeling a sense of hopelessness, with the pandemic, and people losing jobs, and theatres… I mean, now they’re reopening, but a real sense of loss and grief is still there. So I really enjoyed it because I felt like it was something that I really needed deep in my bones. So when I saw that ‘ME’ in the Zoom box, and He was communicating via the thumbs up emoji… (So Adrian Pang would ask yes/no questions. And Then God would be like, ‘Thumbs up!’)  It actually touched me.

But yes, I do feel that it came out of left field and it was shoehorned in, essentially—but it was a kind of clever touch that I appreciated.

ML: So it’s fulfilling your wishful thinking. It’s like, ‘This is what I want the world to be, and oh good, it is!’ It was almost an escapism.

NS: Possibly.

ML: I think that is an interesting segue into kind of the meta, the production surroundings of this, the way it was framed and publicised, because we had to watch this play at set times even though it was not performed live. There was a built-in 15-minute interval, and Pangdemonium has said they wanted to create this special sense of going to the theatre. And we’ve seen that in other plays: whenever people have actually been performing live, or wherever there’s been an interactive element, like with Murder at Mandai Camp, that seems perfectly justified. But the idea that you’re insisting on set timings, but then, because this is on a screen, I’m at home in my underwear watching it, and I don’t have that communal almost sense of going to church, that sense of a shared ritual—I’m just at home on my couch… then that becomes an inconvenience. And it’s such wishful thinking for the theatre company to believe that is still relevant or possible in this production. And of course, one sympathises with them: of course that’s what we all want of theatre, and it’s genuinely sad that we can’t have that.

But the flip side is that, pretending we have that – and I’m sorry to say this – it’s an arrogance. Because you’re up against Netflix where I can pause it and I can play it when I want. And the best of Netflix is of an infinitely higher quality. And that’s very sad to make me feel this way because Pangdemonium is a great company, and I’m really looking forward to a), either them working out how to use this medium, or b), best-case scenario, getting back into packed theatres as soon as possible—I’ll be the first buying tickets. But this is some kind of twisted reality that nobody can get a grip on. And I think their grip slipped very problematically here.

NK: Yeah, I think the timing issue which you mentioned Matt, that was something which I didn’t quite understand in this instance, because the other shows you mentioned – Who’s There? and Mandai Camp – those had real-life interaction with audience members: there were polls or there was a chat. But here, it was completely pre-recorded. Yes, there were live interactions between the characters, but the whole thing was filmed and edited way in advance. I don’t see why they had to have this fiction of ‘Let’s start at nine o’clock. Let’s have a 15-minute interval’, when I could have watched it at three o’clock in the afternoon and then had my evening free. So I just didn’t quite see that. It’s nothing to do with the play, but it’s to do with the company trying to set up this ritual and… Yeah, maybe arrogant might be too strong a word…

ML: I use that word with regret.

NK: …but look at what everyone is doing, and I think you need to perhaps be a bit more sympathetic for the times.

But I wanted to go back to what Nabilah said, because in fact that existential ending? For me, it redeemed the play a little bit, because I got to the point where, okay, fine, the format was entertaining in its own way, and it felt sketch-comedy-esque, and then it really outstayed its welcome… But when that ‘ME’ entity was introduced, and Adrian Pang goes into this slightly deeper soliloquy, and you start to feel the play as a bigger commentary on what has this year done to us: who is out there? can there be hope? what is the point of us doing these things: staging plays and performances and going on with life? is there going to be light at the end of the tunnel? And there was that real sense of a little heaviness that you feel because that’s when the play actually struck a chord. It wasn’t so much the fumbling interactions over Zoom, which I’ve seen in real life and experienced for months now—I didn’t need to see that dramatised for me. But I think those larger questions that we’re all thinking: when will we travel again? when are we going to go back to our regular offices? when are we going to be in a packed theatre? These are things that really genuinely strike a chord.

And I think those were some of the questions that they were trying to grapple with and make that play a bit more universal. So yeah, maybe it was out of the blue and it wasn’t at all built into the first half, but I actually liked that ending – that slight tug at the heartstrings, if you like – that made the play bigger.

NS: I completely agree with you. Yeah.

ML: Yeah. And I’ve said some fairly harsh things about this play, but we’re all…

In theatre, you’re used to the situation of being able to make whatever you want from the materials at hand, the tools that you’re familiar with. But we’re all scrabbling around in the dirt for gold at the moment. And some of that dirt just does not have gold in it.

So this doesn’t mean that I’ve lost any respect for Pangdemonium. And, as I’ve said, I certainly look forward to their next production, and I’m also quite happy to support this in terms of buying tickets, and I’m certainly glad they gave it a go because just exercising those muscles is incredibly important.

I guess that kind of leads us onto what we’re going to do in our next podcast, which is not really talk about the… usually we’d do a favourites of the year, but I think there’s more interesting things to talk about now, right?

NS: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t seem appropriate to be talking about favourites and judging quality in this outlier of a year. So I think in our next episode, we are looking at the landscape of theatre and how companies have been responding to not just the pandemic in general, but all the different things that happened during the year, you know, circuit breaker, and then audience numbers being 50, or 5 even at one point—

ML: I just put on a production with an audience of seven.

NS: Wow. And there’s also now blended audiences or blended performances, and all of those are very specific things, and require a lot of adjustments with the companies and artists, and things like that. So I think we want to really take stock of the year, and really pay attention or give some due credit to what companies have been doing and how the arts scene has rallied together—maybe even like fundraising and things like that that people have been trying to do: outreach, panels (there have been so many panels). So that’s what we’re going to do in our next episode. So stay tuned…

NK: So do check that out. And till then, thank you very much for listening. This is Naeem Kapadia…

NS: Nabilah Said…

ML: Oh, we’re doing our names? I want a special name. This is Chad Powers! Or Matt Lyon. Okay bye-bye.

NS: 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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