Podcast 82: Who’s There & Two Songs and a Story

Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss Who’s There by The Transit Ensemble (Singapore/Malaysia/US); and Two Songs and a Story by Checkpoint Theatre.

Who’s There ran from 4 – 8 August on Zoom as part of Ice Factory 2020 by New Ohio Theatre. Two Songs and a Story is an online video series on SISTIC Live which ran from 6 – 31 Aug 2020.

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Matt Lyon (ML): Hello, everyone. We’re back with the ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. I’m Matt Lyon, and I have it with me Nabilah Said. 

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello.

ML: And, of course, Naeem Kapadia. 

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hi everyone. 

ML: We’ve got two recent plays slash events slash videos slash whatever-the-hell-is-theatre-these-days that we’re talking about, and we’ll be leading with…

Okay, we had a debate about whether we were going to do this just now. And we said we weren’t… but we are. Knock, knock.

NS: Who’s There?

ML: Take it away, Nabilah.

NS: So the first play we’re going to talk about is Who’s There by The Transit Ensemble. This is a devised production made for the virtual space, which explores identity, race relations, politics, and really the new normal of life lived through screens and social media. So this was made in a span of two months, actually by a new ensemble that’s intercultural and international, based in Singapore, Malaysia, and the US; and it was created and presented entirely online. So the directors for this were Sim Yan Ying, who I think is based in Singapore and New York, as well as Alvin Tan, but outside of the Necessary Stage’s auspices—

ML: Ooh! I must compliment you on the use of the word ‘auspices’ there. That makes me very happy! 

Sorry, carry on…

NS: Yeah, so this is essentially a really well-put-together, well-made snippets of different conversations that are coming out about race and things. We were talking about how it’s very, very topical, right, Naeem?

NK: Absolutely. And I think of all the play I’ve seen in the last couple of months, it’s something that truly captures the zeitgeist of how we are thinking about the political issues that are playing out. And the number of these themes that was embedded in the narrative was just really quite remarkable.

So we had obviously the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, and all of that discontentment that was being played out. We had the idea of privilege in the US—but also in Singapore, with the idea of Chinese privilege; the idea of the Bumiputera policy in Malaysia. We even had a reference to Singaporean politics with Raeesah Khan, who was the youngest opposition politician in Singapore as well.

You know, so there were all these themes that were just so rich and topical, but I think it was impossible to watch it and not feel a true sense of implication and being brought into all the issues at the moment.

ML: And it’s remarkable that they managed to put all that together so quickly and so intelligently. And it wasn’t homogenous, but (apart from maybe a couple of scenes, which we might talk about later and which didn’t fit in quite as well), everything felt like it fitted together—but it was such a spiky collage. Like, you know, it’s made out of little bits of glass or something, and if you touch it, you’re going to cut yourself. But it’s got all these interesting reflections and these colours, and it works together very, very well.

NK: Yeah, and I think it was nice because it just wasn’t so homogenous, as you said. So there were these conversations—I think a lot of them were between two characters, and for example, there was one between a Malaysian academic and an African American student who were arguing about issues like colourism and how that is something that should really not be countenanced in today’s society. And it’s sort of pragmatism versus principles, almost that kind of argument. 

And then there was, I think, another altercation between a Singaporean Chinese activist and an Indian Singaporean teacher who is a bit dismissive about her, and you know, there were just these powerful interactions.

But then also spliced throughout the narrative – and I think it’s important to mention – there were very powerful, interactive elements, which for me as an audience member – especially someone consuming content online – really drew me in. So there were polls that we, the audience, were asked to participate in, and these started off with fairly innocuous, broad questions, like ‘Is there systemic racism?’ And, based on the initial responses which we do get in real time, it felt like, ‘Oh, you’re preaching to the choir.’ Very much a left-leaning crowd—

ML: Cos if you ask a leftish crowd, ‘Does systemic racism exist…?’ And it was like 97/3, right? ‘Yes, it does.’

NK: Exactly. But then later on, the questions veered into a slightly more uncomfortable territory where they were like, ‘Is the race of your spouse a political statement?’ And then you’re beginning to really question what exactly race and politics means to you personally. So I think they really had that calibration done quite well because you can’t answer it without really thinking closely about these issues.

ML: And structurally clever in such an episodic play, because it does give you that kind of Brechtian provocation, but it also seems, in a way that doesn’t patronise you, to underline the themes of the play. I was really impressed by that. Because imagine doing that live in the theatre: you stop the play and an actor asks the audience one of those questions… It’d be uncomfortable, pointless, and unintentionally comical. But it really works in this format, and introduces that theatrical, Brechtian sense of provocation in a very useful way.

NS: Yeah. And I feel that in terms of how theatre is being made today, this one really made me think about modes of production of theatre. So the polls was one of the ways that they use the functionality of Zoom. They did a lot of renaming of names really well—

ML: What do you mean by that, sorry?

NS: I don’t know if you remember, but there was one scene where the names became poetic? It became like, ‘The Voice of the Voiceless.’ And someone would be singing… Do you remember?

ML: Oh, like on Zoom where it tells you who is speaking in the bottom corner? Yeah, yeah, sure. Yes, you’re right.

NS: Yeah. The renaming of names. I think also in the way that the sound designer actually came on screen at some point—I think they really played with Zoom in a way that it didn’t feel like you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it; I felt that it really was seamless in terms of the themes.

ML: It was the native medium for this piece. Whereas, we’ve liked a lot of the stuff that we’ve seen online lately, but the native medium for it has not really appeared to be online, it’s been a transposition (often a very skilful transposition). But this piece would suffer from being presented live.

NS: I was wondering why it worked on this Zoom platform. I also think about how, you know when you have a conversation on Zoom with someone, and maybe you don’t want to get into a full-blown argument with them? It tends to be, you push it to a certain point, but it doesn’t go into like, ‘We’re going to put down the phone right now.’

So it felt like a conversation between people who generally agree with each other, and then maybe there’s one sticking point that they disagree on, but it doesn’t go into a full-blown argument. To me, it felt like these are shades of the left of society who are talking about certain issues.

ML: Yeah, definitely. And that was, I think, the biggest takeaway from the show for me: that all of these people are, broadly speaking, progressive—not even broadly speaking! All of these people are progressive, fact. That may mean slightly different things in their societies, but if you gave them a list of the standard questions (not necessarily the very provocative questions that this play asked in its polls), but if you asked the standard questions by which you’d gauge somebody’s political orientation, they would all basically end up in the same column.

And yet they are all insisting on their individual agendas. And they’re all standing up to be counted in ways that differentiate them. And I think importantly, everybody is trying to make everybody else apologize, or to blame them for their failings. And that’s such an irritating liberal thing to do. And it’s absolutely right, and the play captured it perfectly, because obviously, we’ve got Trump in power. We could go on about everything that’s wrong with the world. Of course, people are angry at Trump and Trump supporters. Of course, they want to blame them. Of course, they want to get that apology and that sense of shame—but you can’t shame the shameless.

So then who can you shame? Unfortunately, only the people around you who basically believe in everything you believe in, and are naturally your allies. So. I thought that was very intelligently handled, but also, unlike Civilised from TNS… Was that last year? Year before last year?

NS: Last year, I think?

ML: Anything before COVID seemed like decades ago, doesn’t it? Whenever that was, it was so angry that it just felt like 4chan was screaming at you. Whereas this was, I guess, more of a righteous assertiveness, which is strident, but not necessarily destructive. And yet, because of the way all these moving pieces fit together, you can see that the gears are grinding, and that it’s not a workable machine, and that we need to find a way to talk to each other.

NK: Yeah, I agree. And I think for me that made the play stronger: the fact that you don’t have these polarising views of, you know, the progressives versus the extreme right…

ML: Because all of those arguments are so rehearsed and so pointless.

NK: The idea is that there are these shades of grey, and we realise that you just have to agree to disagree sometimes. And that’s exactly what a lot of the characters do, because there are issues about pragmatism, et cetera, which, you know, you need to think about. And that’s what makes you as an audience member feel uncomfortable watching these things, because these are probably issues that you have to grapple with in some way. It’s not a clear-cut answer as to whether acting in a certain way or doing a certain thing is an outright display of racism. 

And just the way in which privilege manifests itself across different societies… I mean, for me, for example, there was this idea of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. And, you know, it may be clear-cut to you, but then when you have someone who is a Chinese Singaporean, upper-middle-class person who’s sort of a righteous Social Justice Warrior, but then she goes across to the US and she says, ‘Oh, I’m nothing but a disenfranchised immigrant.’

It really makes you think when you see both sides of the equation: how is this idea of privilege played out?

NS: I also like how they used Snapchat filters. I think I hadn’t really seen that in Zoom, in a show until this one. Just the idea of what identities you put on, and who gets the freedom to put on a different identity when they travel out into the world, for example, and who can’t.

ML: Yeah, I’ve been playing with that myself in a piece I’m making—but they used it so much better than I have! Really, that was such a good scene! But I would have said probably not a scene that should be in this play…?

NS: You’re talking about the scene at the end?

ML: Yes, the scene where we have three women talking to each other and they each use Snapchat filters to change their appearance to the way that they feel they have to present to the world, or to the way that they feel they are inside.

NS: Yeah. So we were talking about how this scene felt almost like a reprieve from the arguments of the earlier part of the play. And I think the play ran for almost two hours. And with this particular scene, it slowed down, and there was a sense that these women are choosing something that could represent them, or they’re talking about like hairstyles and, you know, complimenting each other and stuff.

And it was really, really nice, but it felt like a nice thing that (I think, Matt, you were saying), that didn’t quite belong in terms of the tonality of the entire show.

ML: I love the scene. I mean, I wrote down on my notes, ‘This scene is genius.’ But it was human and internal where the rest of the play was intellectual and political. And I don’t think we’d suspected until that point that those characters had that kind of emotional nuance and complexity. And that makes it sound great: ‘Oh, great, you get to see every side of them!’ But if we were going to see that side, I think we should probably have seen a bit more. But then in terms of running time, you’d have had to sacrifice a lot of what makes the rest of the play good. So I just want to see that scene made into a whole other play because it was great; I just don’t think it belonged.

NS: Yeah, it did seem like they had generated a lot of material from the devising, and this is probably part that they wanted to include.

NK: Yes. And I think you can’t blame them because it was obviously quite a large group of creators who put this together. There were two dramaturgs involved as well. 

And just to touch on your point about the Snapchat filters, I think in general there was this amazingly creative use of technology across many different surfaces. So we have FaceTime calls, YouTube videos, Zoom calls, Instagram live streams… you know, basically all the ways in which we communicate with each other in this day and age, that were embedded into this narrative. It wasn’t just a linear form of storytelling. And that’s what made it so powerful, because we’re seeing all these real-life scenarios played out, but then played out with powerful and resonant political themes.

NS: Yes. I remember there was one where you saw someone’s desktop. And then you saw her opening an audio file and then playing it. Do you remember? And it was like migrant workers’ interviews, something like that. So yeah, it felt like it wasn’t just playing with technology for the sake of it, you know what I mean? It really fit into the whole story.

ML: And also they found a way to make it so theatrical. There’s one scene where Sangeetha was playing a pseudo-PAP minister. And of course, she’s Indian, so she was defending the government against accusations of racism. And then we cut to this one Chinese guy sagely nodding his head, and then he duplicates and fills up the screen with slightly mistimed images of himself, giving this idea of this huge silent majority of nodding, blinking idiots.

NS: Yes-men.

ML: And that’s theatrical. You snapshot that scene and you’re like, ‘Well, it’s obviously not TV or film.’ It is theatrical, and they made it work.

NS: Yeah, that’s Jevon Chandra, by the way, the scenic and multimedia designer.

ML: Excellent job.

NK: Yep. And I think it’s things like that that really show an understanding of using the medium of Zoom in the right way, because obviously there were live scenes mainly between two or three characters, but then there were filmed ones presumably done beforehand: a lot of the slightly more aesthetic backdrops—

ML: Anything synched—

NK: And this is I think a perfect example of Zoom being used as a fantastic medium to stage a full-fledged theatrical production. I think it’s probably the best Zoom production I’ve seen.

ML: Easily. And oddly enough, I don’t think the ‘liveness’ of the actors (cos some of it, as you say, was apparently done live)… I don’t know if that helped, because it’s not like you’re in the same space as them. You don’t breathe the same air. You don’t have that sense of the liveness that we get from theatre. I would have been fine with it being entirely pre-recorded. I actually think it might have slightly improved the quality… but those polls—

NK: I was just going to say!

ML: I could see you thinking, ‘Polls!’

NK: In fact, the most powerful ‘liveness’ of it was the fact that you know you’re watching it with all these other people and you want to know what they’re thinking about these issues, and you get that immediate response. It’s like you’re all implicated together, and they’ve tapped on the whole idea of theatre and what makes it different from all the other mediums out there: there’s that sense of a joint participation in something. And that’s exactly what they did with the polls. So I think it’s a master stroke.

ML: That and the expanded aesthetics which take it beyond what is typically seen in TV and film. I think that’s what theatre is when it’s online. And I think they nailed it.

NS: Yeah. I feel that it really explored the possibilities of international collaborations through Zoom as well. You know, I was thinking about how, when you bring a Singapore play overseas, there’s all this baggage about, ‘Oh, what will people understand about Singapore? What do we present?’

But this one was like, we were all judging each other on the same ground. So you could be thinking about how the US is dealing with this same issue from a totally different perspective, like with the colourism and the Bumiputeras in Malaysia.

NK: Yeah. If you put yourself in the perspective of an audience member from this part of the world, Southeast Asia, versus someone from the US I think either one of those people watching it would walk away with quite a strong and powerful sense of the issues, even though certain things may resonate with more strongly.

ML: And they’d walk away having to think. I’m probably just intellectually lazy, but most plays, I don’t have to think. I guess I’ve already decided on most of my ideas, but this one—

NS: But it comes with when the play is made, right? So because this one is so immediate from the things that are happening, events that happened a few weeks ago would come out in this play. 

ML: You’re absolutely right.

NS: So we haven’t made up our minds about certain things, and I think that’s why.

ML: And usually theatre is not nimble enough to respond to that.

NK: So, yeah, look, I think it was very well timed. It’s great. And it’s something which I hope we can see more of, and maybe this whole spate of online theatre making caused by the pandemic might just spur some of these digital collaborations.

NS: It’s definitely not a poor cousin of live theatre.

NK: It’s definitely not.

ML: No, this is the real deal.

NS: Yeah.

ML: Well then, let us move on. So who’s got the notes for the next play, cause it’s never me… It’s Naeem! Naeem will tell us about… (And there’s no joke to lead up to this, is there?)

NS: No.

NK: And the next play is called Two Songs and a Story. And this is an online video series by Checkpoint Theatre. It features five solo performances by five different artists who tell us a story through a monologue and also some song. It’s created and dramaturged by Huzir Sulaiman, and co-directed by Huzir and Joel Lim.

So this series, basically, there are five distinct performances, each about 15 to 20 minutes long. And I think in general, there’s this theme about healing, moving ahead, forging one’s own identity, confronting the world on one’s own terms. And I would say that – apart from one, which is Jo Tan’s piece, which is quite obviously fictitious – I think everything else was quite autobiographical in some way.

ML: Or presented that way. We don’t know, but presented that way.

NK: And it’s very much an intimate confessional where it’s filmed and you see no one else but that one performer telling you their story. So what did you think, Nabilah? What stood out for you?

NS: I think what stood out for me were the ones where I felt like the songs and the story almost merged, and it didn’t feel like two separate things. Which is fine, but I just liked the ones where it was a bit more seamless. So the one by Inch Chua, who is a musician, but increasingly going into theatre… I think she’s done some other things as well.

So her one was ‘Super Q’, which we learn is a—

NK: A lethal disinfectant.

NS: So apparently in the early part of this year, especially during the Circuit Breaker time, she had been working in, I think, sanitation in workers’ dorms. So she actually brought us through what it was like being there, and herself discovering these horrors happening in the fringes of our community.

And I think for this one… Because Inch, I feel like she has this girlish quality to her. And when it contrasted with some of the… um, who does she parody, or who does she imitate? I think like, a…

NK: Oh, the superintendent, the superintendent who is quite coarse and abrasive. 

NS: Super coarse. I mean, she actually swears… and how racist things can be there, and the things that she witnessed. 

I think there was one reference to ‘the lock is outside of the hut’ or something, right?

ML: Her realisation that the foreign workers have been locked into their living environment. And it was presented just as a flat statement that echoed so hard.

NS: Yeah. And so I think the way that she was telling the story was very… I almost thought it was like spoken-word poetic.

NK: I think so too, it was very, very lyrical. Just the way in which she was taking us through. 

And I mean, look, I think there were bits about her performance which I think did not work as well. Like I thought some of the song sequences really were a little bit too overwrought. But I think overall at the heart, that story was incredibly powerful. Because it just shows you, as you said, a snapshot of some of the people living at the fringes of our consciousness, you know, these foreign workers. And I think there was this line saying that the location was so far, it was almost as if they were trying to hide these places—or worse, still people.

Who are these people who are being hidden away, and how do we deal with that? And it was just quite powerful being taken through that episode. And what I liked about it was also that it wasn’t just a linear form of storytelling: you could see the pace quickening as she took us through. And she kind of navigates all these emotions of anger, frustration, bewilderment…

ML: And the music and the orchestration…

NK: Until she finally gets back home with her cats, and life is finally back to normal. But we get that entire rollercoaster of emotions across a day. And it made for quite a strong scene.

ML: Yeah. And at the heart of it, where that rollercoaster is really throwing you around, it was such a fantastic piece. I mean, the signature moment for me is a) the one you mentioned, ‘the lock was outside the door’; but b) there’s the one where she takes on the persona of whatever the supervisor character is, and he’s talking to the foreign— Talking? No, he’s shouting at the foreign workers, ‘Neh! Neh! Ah neh, come, ah!’ And then she’s saying, ‘Sir? Sir? Do you feel alright?’ It’s a horrible contrast. And yet she can’t reach out to him cause she’s in a hazmat suit. It’s just, aargh! No words.

NK: And I think I would be right in saying that of all the five shows, Inch’s was the one where I could very vividly picture what was going on. I could picture her in that suit with the PPE, and being a living, alien-like figure, terrifying all these poor scared foreign workers. And that experience of being trapped inside this suit and wanting to reach out to another human being, but somehow not being able to… It was just so powerful, and all those images played in my mind. Whereas for a lot of the other stories, they were a little bit more anecdotal, a little bit more reflective—not to say that they weren’t powerful, but it was a little bit more of letting them tell you their story and letting it wash over you. Whereas this really took you through the experience.

NS: So with this whole piece, I felt that it’s about where the artists wanted us to meet them at. So with Inch’s one, I felt that it was very immersive. And then maybe if you contrast it with Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, where she’s talking about some traumas that have happened in her life as a child and then with relationships, where it sounds like a personal story, but for that one, for some reason, she made a choice of not quite revealing that much detail, surprisingly.

ML: Yes, that was irritating for me, I must admit, because there were two that were like that: there was hers and there was ants chua, who started the set of five. And if you really don’t want to fill us in on the gory details of what happened to you, then that’s what fiction is for. But both of those to me felt like they weren’t told that by the person who experienced them in flesh and blood, but they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, my hairdresser’s cousin’s friend’s dog told me this story that maybe happened to someone else some other time, so I don’t have the details, so I can’t fill you in, but I’ve got the broad framework.’ And if that’s the case, then why do something confessional?

NS: I think it’s a choice, right? It’s like sometimes you haven’t quite figured out how you feel, so maybe you don’t want to bring us into that perhaps. Because I felt a little bit like that with ants chua: maybe they felt a bit uncomfortable about certain parts of it. So what they showed us was only the bare surface of the story.

ML: But that’s not interesting.

NS: Hmm.

NK: And I think that’s the issue: I just didn’t feel I got into that stories. And I think you mentioned Sangeetha’s piece, which was very beautifully presented: her song sequences were practically a music video where she’s in this gown and very glamorous and everything. And yes, she had trauma—she talks about, I think, a bad relationship, some childhood trauma as her father was taken to the police and things like that. And it’s kind of affected how she has been able to carry herself and move on with life. But at the end of the day, she doesn’t want to tell us any more and reveal any more. And it’s just like, you know, ‘I’m just going to live life on my own terms.’ So you feel like she wants to let us in, but then you let us into the box and there’s nothing in that box. It’s a very pretty, nice—

ML: Beautifully wrapped, nice ribbons—

NK: And that’s exactly how I felt about ants as well.

ML: Contrasting with those two, but also very similar was Weish’s piece, which came at the end. And you said that Sangeetha’s piece was about trauma and yes, it was, but Weish’s was about the re-lived experience of trauma based on a traumatic event  – and she gave us no context about that event either, and didn’t give us the details of what happened – but that wasn’t the point—that’s behind a load of police tape, you know? No one’s getting near that event. And so she made it work, I think.

And she used looping to build up these repetitive layers of sound, which were an artistic representation of the trauma: things that can’t let go, but get muddier and more complex and just control you.

And so she found a way to make that contextlessness, the ‘empty box’, work, because you’re in that box and it’s echoing and it’s horrible and you can’t get out.

NS: Yeah. I think the echo is actually what really draws us in, because you hear every breath, and she actually cries in the piece is one… but you hear all the pauses, and the way that it was shot as well was super in your face. And so you saw all the tics. And so I feel, even though she didn’t actually say the words of it, that you really felt the emotions.

NK: Oh, it was probably the most hard-hitting. And I think that was probably why it was left till the end, because you sort of feel like, ‘I want ice cream and a hug after watching this’ because it is really quite powerful emotionally. But yeah, it’s just beautiful the way in which her music (as Matt was saying, this electronic use of loops and everything) is embedded into the story. It’s this overlapping world of words which swim around your head.

ML: As we were saying with Who’s There?, it’s just the perfect artistic representation of the content.

NK: Exactly. So it just worked together so powerfully in a way which I think some of the other pieces maybe didn’t quite do.

NS: Yeah. I mean, just to defend Sangeetha slightly, hers felt like a documentary of a really glamorous diva, or a really glamorous superstar—

ML: Oh, and they’re always a bit guarded—

NS: They’re always a bit guarded, and you know they’re trying to protect themselves from something that’s happened, and they’ve already moved on—or at least that’s what they say, right?

ML: And the PR guy is in the background saying, ‘No, don’t ask that question.’

NS: So it felt a little bit like that, in the removal of us as the audience. But then of course, when she sings, she is transcendent, and I did feel quite moved by her performance when she was singing.

NK: And I think hers was, if I’m not mistaken, the only piece where her story/interview was quite distinct from her songs, which were in a resplendent gown and colour. And then the interview was black and white. Two separate aspects, so maybe this is someone who compartmentalizes her life a little bit more, and you don’t get access to every aspect of it, and that’s just the way she wants to present herself. 

And then right in the middle of these five pieces is Jo Tan’s and, you know, Jo has again done fantastic work throughout this year.

ML: Yeah, she’s won COVID, basically.

NK: She is basically like the COVID actress. And we spoke about her one-woman show, King in the last episode. And here she does a story that’s a little bit of a continuation of the same kind of character, this slightly diminished individual called Bit Wah who spends her time watching her favourite Japanese anime every single day, and doesn’t really have much interest in doing anything else in her life. And her name is almost like a calling card for the way in which she conducts herself. Like a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Um, so it was just very, very well done. And you have all the trademark, Jo Tan traits of, you know, fantastic ear for dialogue and great accents… She plays the mother, the boss, you know, the dubbed anime character. But it’s also a kind of celebration of quietly enjoying moments on your own terms and not necessarily having to conform to what life expects of you. And I enjoyed that.

NS: It’s like the rich inner life of this introvert in the office that people think is weird. Right?

ML: Well, you say that, but was the inner life rich?

NS: It was colourful.

ML: Colourful, yes. But rich? And I agree because it was a celebration of that, but it didn’t leave me thinking, ‘Power to you!’ You know? 

NK: Yes. I agree.

ML: It left me thinking, yes, you’ve reconciled yourself. Is it the best life you could live? Maybe not, but it is the life you’re living. And I appreciate that you’ve embraced that.

NK: I think the only thing about Jo, and I think this (speculation) may be why it was put right in the middle, was that tonally, that piece just did not sit with the others, because it was obviously the only very overtly fictitious piece. Very nicely packaged in its own right. It felt like a commercial break. And I say that in the best possible way, but it felt like a—

ML: It’s the commercial that you don’t skip.

NK: It’s the commercial that you don’t skip. And it comes with an anime sequence, which Jo stars in, and it’s hilarious and beautifully presented. And, look, it makes you smile.

NS: It does. And I think it’s the only one that uses a green screen, right? And I don’t know, Matt, if you want to talk about technical parts of it, because there’s one part where she gets a drink from someone’s hand. And then—

ML: Oh, I don’t remember that.

NS: Oh, you don’t?

ML: But yeah, they did a green screen thing and maybe she was either walking on the spot or they put her on a treadmill and filmed her. But yeah, it was very smooth and very professional. She’s got a really good lighting setup. Cause the green screen keying was clean.

NK: Yes. The opening sequence, I think I really liked where she wakes up in her pyjamas, brushes, her teeth, gets her coffee and comes into the office, and it’s super seamless.

ML: Yeah, so she doesn’t move, but the background behind her indicates that she is doing so, and slipping between locations. Very well done, and entertaining to watch.

NK: Very much so. Yeah.

NS: Yeah. So I don’t know why, but I didn’t realise until doing the research for this that she wrote that Japanese theme song. I mean, essentially they all wrote their own songs, right? So she wrote that.

ML: No, I assumed she did.

NS: It just sounded like an actual anime, you know, it was that good. Like that’s what I thought: it was actually believable that it was an anime.

ML: Yes, it was. I mean, I don’t speak Japanese, so I don’t know about the lyrics—but it was credibly in style, yeah.

NK: What were your thoughts about the way in which these five pieces were directed or presented? Because they’re obviously all pre-recorded, all filmed. We spoke about the content, but just in terms of how they were presented?

NS: So I watched it twice. I think that Naeem, you watched it twice as well. And for me, it’s my own personal thing with music where, you know, music tends to wash over me quite easily and I get lost in it. So I had to watch it another time to really look at the storytelling and things like that.

I think the general sense of it is that it was very beautifully shot and… I thought that it was lovingly shot because each one had a different treatment from the others.

ML: Yeah. The sound recording and treatment, the soft light, the slow camera pushes. It was…

I’m impressed by how quickly theatre has learned to do this, because we’ve never really had to do it that much before, right?

NS: And also it’s something to be said about Checkpoint, like what they’re doing this year. So it’s kind of like a pivot because of COVID.

NK: I think so. And it’s been an interesting year for Checkpoint because their first big production of the year was Lucas Ho’s The Heart Comes to Mind, which was supposed to be staged for the Esplanade Studios in March, but then COVID happened and all those shows got cancelled—but they managed to reinvent it as an audio performance, a sound recording.

And that play was also interesting because I think they mentioned how music was a third character. They had, um, was it a cellist who accompanied the actors? It was just two actors, a father and a daughter.

NS: Yeah, the soundscape for that was really good.

NK: The soundscape was very powerful. And obviously this is not the first play where music has played a key role. There was Thick Beats for Good Girls with Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy a couple of years ago, about hip hop and two women, and how it was an extension of their lives. So, yeah, maybe they’re trying to establish themselves as not necessarily a company bounded by traditional theatre, but just telling stories across different platforms. And that’s great.

NS: So it was very much like story-centric or story-forward. 

So I think we were talking earlier about how they could do with trimming, a lot of these stories?

ML: We’ve said so many nice things, so I guess we should say some mean ones. Checkpoint – and Huzir especially I think – does a great job most of the time in getting artists to say what they need to say, and really putting it on the page. We saw that in Weish’s piece, we saw it in Inch’s piece. But where is the…

You know, if you right click there’s ‘cut’. ‘Cut’ is in your menu, and you need to use it, because every piece just had bits that you didn’t need. And unfortunately, I think the worst example of it was one of the strongest pieces, which was Inch Chua’s. Because the middle is amazing. And I didn’t realize for about 15 minutes that it was amazing because I hated the start so much: ‘I was at home with my cats…’

And you were saying it sounded a bit like spoken-word poetry, right? It was the twee-est, most sentimental nonsense of spoken-word poetry.

NK: I mean, I didn’t need to know about her waiting for the bus! You know, there were certain bits that felt overwrought. It just felt like, get to the meat of it. And when she did, I was blown away.

ML: Oh, when she did, it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. But it’s such a simple thing! On the base level, just cut these stodgy book-ended bits that you have, and leave the middle. I don’t think that’s the best version: I think you take a little bit of the start and the end, and you weave them through intelligently so that you build in the contrast. (I do see that they’re trying to do the contrast there.) But that’s just not good enough in terms of the dramaturgy. And all the pieces, including the really, really successful ones had bits where you’re like, ‘Okay… Go on… Go on… Go on… Okay, you got there!’ Simple cuts would make it so much better, but Checkpoint is resistant to doing that.

NS: I think especially for an online piece, it’s a bit dangerous when you do that, because people can skip and decide not to come back and watch it, you know?

ML: Yeah: pause it, go off, have a coffee, come back, you’ve forgotten what you’re doing.

NS: And some discipline needs to be exercised with, especially I think online formats where people can skip.

NK: No, I think that’s something I’ve found from all the Checkpoint shows I’ve seen. It’s always needed a little bit tighter editing overall. There’s great material, but then there’s sometimes just too much of it, and that can overwhelm what’s actually really good.

NS: It’s very artist centric, I have to say. But maybe not quite audience centric, I suppose.

ML: Yeah, we had this debate before, didn’t we? Well, not debate—we talked about it before. And I don’t see it changing, but I’m going to complain about it every single time. So…

NS: But they’re going to make it pretty while it’s happening.

NK: Being Checkpoint, it’s always going to be very aesthetically pleasing—and that’s exactly what it was. It was really beautifully filmed. I don’t see how this would not be equally at home as a television show, for example.

ML: Yeah. I mean, I spend a stupid amount of my day watching, like ‘How to Make Your Footage Look Cinematic’. And yeah, they really did—it was filmed to the highest standard.

NS: And in terms of all the things that we’ve been watching, I felt that was a nice refreshing format and take on the offerings that companies are doing right now. 

NK: Absolutely.

ML: So we managed a show where we said like 90% good things! When has this ever happened before?

NS: We’re… nice…

ML: No? Okay, you’re nice. All right, let me rephrase this: I managed a show where I said about 90% good things! So there is hope for the future. Shall we end it there? All right. Thank you very much, everyone. Bye-bye.

NK: Thank you.

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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