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Behind the scenes with the Women of SIFA

By Nabilah Said

ArtsEquator speaks to four women that are part of the local commissions of SIFA 2020 – Siti Khalijah Zainal, Jodi Chan, Ellison Tan and Mia Chee.


Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sukania Venugopal in rehearsals for The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage. Photo: The Necessary Stage.


Siti Khalijah Zainal is one of the members of the multinational ensemble in The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage, an interdisciplinary work dealing with urgent issues around the climate emergency. The work is written by Haresh Sharma and Rody Vera and directed by Alvin Tan. 

The Year of No Return runs from 21–23 May at Victoria Theatre. 

Tell us about the show, The Year of No Return.

Siti: According to scientists, The Year of No Return is supposed to be the year where, if we really hit that mark, literally, the world would be winding down from there. This is the first climate change play in Singapore, but the issue is not just affecting Singapore. It is affecting the world. 

We read that one of the countries that will be badly affected by climate change will be the Philippines, where two of our actors – Rody Vera (who is also one of the playwrights of the show alongside Haresh) and Marco Viaña – are from. I think the sense of urgency for them and the rest of the cast, who are from Malaysia and Japan, is even greater.

How do you feel about doing a show about climate change?

Siti: It’s such a huge topic. How do you do a show about climate change? It’s been force-fed to us ever since we’re in school. People might take climate change seriously when they read the news, because they are faced with evidence and things that are happening around the world. But how do you do a show without making it seem tacky and cheesy, like “Hey recycle! Stop using plastic!”? 

It’s about how we go deeper than that, to make people go: “I really have to do something about this. This is serious, this is no joke.” 

Have you been trying to be more environmentally friendly because of the play?

Siti: When you play other characters in other plays, you can play the character, without having to be that person. But for a topic that is as serious as climate change, for me to send this message across as an actor, I feel that I should be doing something myself. 

Generally I carry my own set of cutlery, and I bring my own tote bags, so when I go to supermarkets, I avoid taking plastic bags. I really don’t know if it can change anything, but I tell myself: “No, no, don’t be discouraged. Believe in what you’re doing”. As much as we might not really make much difference as individuals, we are still doing something good.

What is your entrypoint into this work?

Siti: My approach when it comes to a show which requires me to improvise is to make people feel. I go straight to the emotional connection between us actors first, and then we dig out the bigger issue from there – which is the topic of the show. And as an actor, when I improvise, I always like to represent characters who are under-represented. For a topic like this, there are a lot of voices that are not heard, and I wanted to try to explore that.

I know the script is still being developed, but can you share what rehearsals have been like?

Siti: One of the scenes I remember improvising was based on the tsunami that hit Aceh in the early 2000s. I was lucky enough to visit the area one year after it happened, and it was really shocking to see that nothing had been done after a year. I improvised a character who had lost a child because of the tsunami. But it’s easy to make it about being sad – how do you make a tsunami survivor a strong voice? 

We also improvised characters who were climate change deniers. I’m not sure what will end up making it into the show, and I am really curious and excited to see what Haresh and Rody come up with.


Photo: Toy Factory Productions


Jodi Chan plays Princess Yao Fang in A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence, which caps an epic trilogy of works by Toy Factory for SIFA which are all based on the philosophical writings of Ming Dynasty writer Tang Xianzu. The show is directed by Goh Boon Teck. 

A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence runs from 22–24 May at Drama Centre Theatre. 

How would you describe this show to someone new to it, who might not have watched the previous two instalments? 

Jodi: The third installation of A Dream Under the Southern Bough begins at the crux of the story, where everything coalesces, collides, disintegrates and re-begins. 

How do you relate to the themes in this show? 

Jodi: The struggle between dreams and reality is an age-old one, yet how fascinating it is to see parallels between the world penned by Tang Xianzu then and our society now. It makes one wonder how much has changed and how much wiser we are in this modern world. 

How has your character Princess Yao Fang evolved through the three instalments, and how differently do you relate to her? 

Jodi: As with Chun Yufen, I feel that there is a strong awakening in Yao Fang’s journey, as she ages from a young lady to a mother, as she takes on the different challenging practicalities as a female, and learns to relish the bitter sweetness struggle between desire and reality – an aspect that I and perhaps many others strongly relate to. 

Besides the story, what are some aspects of design that you like about this production?

Jodi: I feel that the set design has been wonderful in creating a space that questions the clear distinction between dream and reality, fiction and truth.

This the last part of a very large-scale, ambitious trilogy. How does it feel to be at the tail-end of the journey? 

Jodi: I’m very honoured and excited to bring the last installation to the audience. The most memorable aspect of this journey would be the opportunity to bask in the beautiful words of Tang Xianzu, and be part of a process where past meets present, classic meets contemporary.


Ellison Tan (second from left) and the rest of the cast training for OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya. Photo: The Finger Players


Ellison Tan is one of the performers in The Finger Players’ OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya, Singapore’s first local horror play dealing with themes of betrayal and heartbreak. The work revolves around the figure of Oiwa, a much maligned female spirit who is said to haunt her cheating husband. 

OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya runs from 28–30 May at Victoria Theatre. 

Horror can be done in many ways. How would you describe the horror of this show? 

Ellison: It’s beautiful. It’s a visual spectacle that has a sort of grotesque beauty about it, which I frankly feel is the best kind of beauty. I think the consideration that (director and playwright Chong) Tze Chien had, which is very evident, is that this is ultimately a story about a very deep love and a very heartbreaking betrayal, and so all the horror elements are always motivated by that, and not done in a gratuitous manner.

One interesting part of this show is that the actors will be using their human body as a puppet’s body, using techniques inspired by the Japanese bunraku form. What is this like?  

Ellison: It has been extremely demanding because the way I move has to be in accordance with the way my puppeteer speaks. I was initially a little gleeful at not having to memorise the text, but soon realised that not only do I have to do that, I also have to memorise the movement and all the micro-details of my puppeteer right down to a T, including following the lilt of their speech, their pauses and their breath. This is an entirely different muscle from when I’m an actor doing text-based work, and training this aspect of my craft has been exceptionally fulfilling.

What kind of training did you have to undergo?

Ellison: The training Tze Chien invented was essentially to get us to tie wooden T-shaped dowels behind our backs to lock our joints, which also meant that our backs had to be extremely straight, our shoulders always had to be squared, and we couldn’t squat or kneel as freely as we wanted. I think he tried to make the training as fun as he could, but the fact is that we could not go to the toilet nor could we sit down with the dowels on. It was challenging but I was then very thankful for all the yoga I had done, and for my previous training as an actor.

What were other elements of research that were particularly interesting?

Ellison: We heard that anyone who wants to embark on creations centred around this story has to go to Younji Temple in Tokyo and pay their respects to Lady Oiwa, as though “seeking permission”. The general public does not have access to the statue of Lady Oiwa, but because we had requested for a specific ritual, we were ushered into the hall where she was enshrined. The priest overseeing the ritual told us Oiwa was actually a kind lady, well-loved by her villagers, but had been villainised and demonised by mainstream media. I think the creative team had all felt a laden sense of inherited fear before that, but that was immediately dispelled and replaced by a sort of guilt at having fallen prey to popular sentiment. I believe the weight of that experience is still ingrained upon us, and therefore we feel the need to tell her story even more, and reclaim her name. 


Mia Chee plays the youngest sister, Irina, in Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre and SITI Company.


Mia Chee is one of the performers in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a multilingual performance presented by Nine Years Theatre (NYT) and New York-based SITI Company. The show is co-directed by Nelson Chia and Barney O’Hanlon.

Three Sisters runs from 2931 May at Drama Centre Theatre. 

NYT is known, of course, for its contemporary takes on theatre and literary classics. Why Three Sisters in particular? 

Mia: We were discussing with SITI Company on the work to perform, and in SITI’s list of works for consideration was Three Sisters. We have always known that one day we would want to do a Chekhov play. We had been waiting for the right moment for it. We don’t have the resources to stage a play like this without special funding and SIFA’s commission has taken this load off our shoulders and allowed us to mount a play on a bigger scale, as it did for Art Studio back in 2017. With SITI Company’s collaboration added into the picture, it gave us enough reason to tackle this work of a literary giant.

Both you and Nelson trained with SITI Company, learning Suzuki and Viewpoints from them, and NYT uses these two training methods in your work. How do you feel about working together with them on Three Sisters?

Mia: When SITI Company approached us for this collaboration we were totally flattered. They have been such an inspiration. When we founded NYT, they were one of the companies that we modelled ours after. So this is one of those strange, bizarre moments that life gives you. When the two companies came together for an impromptu first rehearsal last August, we hit it off right away. This ability to work together instantly because you know the same language is absolutely precious. 

How are NYT and SITI Company putting your own spin on this well-loved classic?  

Mia: At NYT, our work has been steering towards the meta-theatrical while still focused on telling the story well. SITI Company produces sharp, powerful work with gravitas. Both companies are known for strong, grounded performances. We are similar, yet we are so different. We are two companies which perform in different spoken languages, geographically located at opposite ends of the world, coming together to do a play written 120 years ago by someone from another country. This amazes me endlessly. Other than the play by Chekhov itself, if this is not the biggest subject in our particular version of Three Sisters, I don’t know what is. This has to be something that we need to address in our rehearsals. 

The show features a multicultural, multilingual cast. How well do you think the cast will work together?

Mia: That’s really something I’d like to find out myself. Amongst the ensemble members we have been imagining and joking about different scenarios that might happen. We love them all, yet we might be really different in our working cultures. What we’ve learnt from SITI is to work really hard, to be daring and radical, and to not be afraid of venturing into unknown waters. Heck, I think we’ll have a helluva time. 

For more information on the programmes of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2020, please click here. Enjoy savings of 25% when you book before 25 February 2020.

This article is sponsored by the SIFA.

Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.

Tags: SIFA  sifa 2020

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.

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