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Performed and created in Singapore.
“The theme of the piece was “desperate romance” – arrived at by Brooker and Clarke as they looked about them and saw how difficult it must be for lovers in Singapore to be alone. The island republic was crammed with more than three million people, and most young, single Singaporeans still lived with their parents in matchbox housing developments; socializing took place mainly in the city’s crowded food courts, while cars were prohibitively expensive and not allowed in certain zones at certain hours – so where did you go to make out? Not only that, when did you find the time?”
– An Excerpt from Wild Theatre by Martin Morrow
How did your Pacific Rim experience come about?
Blake Brooker: It started with a play called Serpent Kills, which One Yellow Rabbit did in the Edinburgh Festival in 1992 - the Fringe Festival, at the Traverse Theatre. We were performing at a venue that had a number of guest companies. One was Theatreworks, a contemporary theatre company from Singapore. They were doing a play called Madame Mao's Memory. And although it was a one - person show, they were very thorough. They had a large crew: designer, technician, stage management, performer and artistic director. The artistic director, Ong Keng Sen, made it a point to see as many shows as he could. He saw our show and a little while later he introduced himself to me. You know Serpent Kills has a scene in it from Singapore. (laughs) I guess he got a little charge out of that. He was really interested in the style of the show. That particular version was a very physical one with minimal scenography. All kinds of packing cases and suitcases used to pack the whole show were the actual set. They were painted - it was a very colourful, mobile set. He enjoyed the way we used it; he liked the way the narrative went and he liked the attack of it, the sense of it, the style. So he asked me if I was interested in coming over, and I told him that I worked quite closely with a choreographer on this production - Denise Clarke. And he said, "Well, how would the two of you like to come over and work with our company? There are a couple of stipulations. You can't just come and set a piece on us because you have to understand how we work; you have to understand our situation. So come do a workshop to begin with, meet the possible performers; see how that goes; pick your theme. Then come do the piece, as part of our season."
How far apart were these gigs?
Well, one was in June of '93 and we returned in October - November of '93. The piece ran that November - December. So, the first engagement was three weeks. After that, seven weeks, which the rehearsal period took. So, we went in; they made an audition call for people who wanted to participate with these foreign artists. We had thirty people out. We could have used as many as we wanted. In the end we settled for around a dozen.
Is this a professional company?
It's a professional company as far as professional companies go there. It's a different situation. They don't have in place the unions and arts support that we have in Canada. Actors, even though they are "professional", work at night. Every - one's expected to work during the day. There's no such thing as government assistance; there's no such thing as welfare or unemployment insurance...
Your rehearsals were in the evening...
Which is good in a number of respects. It's cooler in the evening and we were rehearsing in a large dance studio that didn't have air conditioning, just all these fans. So, just as the sun went down - we were in the middle of this park ... [rehearsing] ...
Theatreworks is the leading contemporary adult theatre company in Singapore. There are several theatre companies there. There's a company that is focused in Tamil; there's a company focused in Chinese; there's a company that does multi - language productions and then there's Theatreworks, which basically focuses on English.
Although the artistic director sounds as if he ...
Yeah, he's Chinese. It's a mixed theatre company, like Singapore ...
It reflects the population?
No, I don't think so. The population is more Chinese than Malay. The three major groups would be Malay, Chinese, and Indian (Tamil). This company was mainly Chinese. It seemed as if the major decision - makers were Chinese but they operated totally in English. It is a dynamic group. Ong Keng Sen is a visionary. He's a Fulbright scholar. He was at NYU last year; he went to take his master's in theatre. He presented one of his works - very modern performance style theatre - at the Public Theater in New York last winter. But they (Theatreworks) put on a full fourevent season plus ancillary events - workshops - side - bar type events. They have a black box theatre that they work out of and they rent other theatres. So, it is a professional theatre company; it is a creation theatre company; but it has connections to the rest of the world. They bring in people to do workshops or to direct.
Where does their budget come from?
There is an arts council there now - it is a recent thing, it's the Singapore Arts Council. It's set up a little bit like the British Arts Council. And they're funded quite heavily by industry. They have major sponsors: a hotel chain, pharmaceuticals, department stores and the like, probably petroleum too, because there are a lot of industry head offices in Singapore. And - this is the other factor - they don't pay the actors. They pay the actors honorariums. And they rehearse for very long periods of time. Six weeks, eight weeks, twelve weeks sometimes. Our rehearsal process was considered to be short and it was six weeks. And every day. They come in at five - thirty and stay till ten or eleven at night, or as long as you want. We instituted a day off because we weren't used to working every day. They worked incredibly hard. We usually worked until ten because we didn't want to tire them. Ours was a physical show and we can only work four or five good hours anyway. But they were prepared to rehearse seven days a week for eight or nine weeks. So these people are incredibly serious.
They realize that the way it's set up there, economically speaking, it is impossible to be a professional actor. There are a number of professional directors, writers, and technical people, because they can work at their jobs full time. Also, the style of life there is quite a bit different than ours. People are much more dedicated.
When you went the first time for your June Workshop - can you tell me what you and Denise planned for that?
At the time, we didn't know what we were going to do. We didn't want to lay a scenario on them that wasn't going to fit. And we didn't know who they were or what they would be like. So, what we planned were a series of physical workshops, which Denise handled. She began by moving with them - movement for non - dancers which Denise has done for years. We put the emphasis on fun, not work. This was hard for them because they were used to really rigorous and disciplined approaches to their work. Our idea of fun in the theatre was a little bit different.
So the non - structured approach was a little hard for them to get used to ...
Well, they had to BE there, but it was different. And I did some text creation workshops with them, too. Cut - up technique in poetry that we used for each person to get them on the path to performing in the ways that we wanted. They rarely performed without a great deal of energy. They would never pull back.
No quiet time ...
No stillness ...
Rare amounts of stillness, at least from what we observed and what we were told.
But that must be one reason why he asked you to come.
I think so. I think he saw that our work had a strong direction. It knew where it was going. And it turned out to be a great experience - the workshop. Just learning about them. A lot of the research was just finding out what they were interested in in their lives.
What age were they?
I would say everywhere from twenty to thirty - seven. So, adults. But young adults. Most of the people were professionals: lawyers, doctors, accountants, computer professionals. They all wanted to be actors or performers; they were all tremendously interested in theatre - taking it extremely seriously. There was no slacking around. They hung on every word more or less. They were totally receptive and very passionate about being involved.
Was this idea a new one or had they been creating their own shows?
They had been creating their own shows, but not in this way. A lot of times they had writers attached to a project. They did improvs based on scenarios and suggestions.
The people who run Theatreworks are familiar with world theatre. One person they've brought in to do a show with them is David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly. I think he directed a production of that there. They are plugged in. They had an actor from Le Théâtre du Soleil in Paris come in and do a production.
That's very enterprising.
The nature of that company is enterprise.
To get back to the workshop: for them, it was to learn work in the way that One Yellow Rabbit works, and for you it was to find out more about them so that you could find a subject for the show ...
Something that they'd be interested in ...
So, what kinds of things came up? Did you have a short list?
We had to pick something thatwas universal. And romance is universal, so ...
And in that age group, they've got it on their minds ...
That seemed to be on their minds. And it was interesting to us. There were a couple of things that happened in discussions with everybody. We found out that everybody lived with their parents. Everybody!
It's a housing thing.
It's a housing thing. It's cultural. You live with your family. Houses are incredibly expensive there. You can't move out and get an apartment of your own. To get a flat, you have to have a family. You have to register with the government and eighty per cent of the people live in government housing. It's a wealthy society, but the government provides a lot of the homes. They're apartment buildings and the terms and conditions of their lives are dictated by their dwelling places. They all live with their families, and to us, coming from North America, it was remarkable. First of all, that you could live in some kind of harmony with your parents for so long. It was just a different way of looking at the world. And a refreshing and interesting one. So we got on to the topic of how do you ... And is sex out of the question? And the questions brought up by these things became very interesting. Also, issues to do with sexuality: is it hard to be a practising heterosexual before marriage, or even during marriage because you're moving into a house with a family. And homosexuality is illegal. It's tolerated, but it is illegal. And it was a factor with these young people we were working with.
It's a very different society. It's very censored. Our script had to go to the censors. The interesting thing is that you can't submit a physical move to a censor, so we had no problems in that respect.
So, the workshop led to something about romance and getting along with different generations?
That was part of it. How do you live at home? How do you relate to your parents? It was about identity. It was about ... what Denise called "dangerous romance". It was called Under The Bed. It was a simple metaphor. What is under the bed? What are some of the things people are thinking about, especially young people, when it come to questions of the soul, questions of sexuality ... There are Western aspects of this country. All the rock and roll, all the movies, nightclubs,all the fashions ...
Coca Cola ... Consumer...
Coca Cola. I mean it's wealthy. It's a very wealthy society. Consumer to the max. It's a consuming sickness. That's what everyone does for fun there. Shopping. It's a small place. It doesn't have the natural splendour and room to do outdoor activity. And it's so hot. But what it does have is indoor activities. And the indoor activities are malls. So, the play became a bit about how their lives are affected by the overwhelming and smothering commercial world that's around them, their home life and the times. It was directly a piece about their lives.
Could you describe some small section or event in Under The Bed that would illuminate what we've been talking about?
It's a very law - abiding society. Crime - free. You can feel safe on the streets. Well, one of the characters, and I don't know how we developed it, but it was a scene that came out. It was a scene about a shoplifter. It showed the guilty pleasure of the shoplifter. Shoplifting is a problem in every society but probably a little bit less there. There is harsh sentencing. You get caned for wrongdoing. It's very much a police state. It's an iron hand in a velvet glove. There was one scene that was physicalized by a man taking a thing and then taking another thing - it became almost a whirlwind of him sliding through the malls filling his pockets with stuff he didn't need. It was based on a story that was in the newspaper when we were there. I guess that it has happened from time to time ... some people who don't need to, shoplift for the thrill. It becomes an act against the government. An act of rebellion in a society that's very difficult to rebel against. In our society, the concept of rebellion is as ever - present as apple pie. Some of our most common icons are rebellious teens. There was also a scene of a couple of people meeting on a train and one of them taking the other one home. It was a series of episodes about the lives of these people. The main set piece was - it was an all white set, white floor, white walls, white costumes - was a big bed. They used the bed in various ways.
I'm trying to think of "One Yellow Rabbit" kind of things that could go on ...(laughs)
There were several visual things that happened. The bed was made of strong light wood. It was quite a solid piece. It was used on various angles and they wereon it and under it ... pretty standard stuff in that respect. But what we were told is that they handn't seen a show like it and it was great to hear that. Some people felt that we had entered into the Singaporean mind set in the construction of the play - and, in fact, we had. We just hung totally with these cool Singaporeans.
What did you and Denise feel that you took away from the experience?
One was just to come into contact with a culture that I hadn't known much about. You hear the standard things about Singapore. "It's a clean place." "It's very sterile." "It's very consumeristic." "You just go there on your way to other places to do banking, make phone calls, shop ..." But we met many intelligent and curious people. And we felt that in many respects we were very familiar with it because Singapore is an immigrant society. It started with colonial masters as a centre for trading - the spice trade. What we took away from it is that it is a strange sister culture, in a sense. For example, it looks like Calgary on the outside - notwithstanding the tropical plants. The architecture, the malls, the stores, the streets, the office buildings ... any city of a decent size would have these towers and bank buildings. And after awhile, the people looked the same - you think you're one of them or something. Then you look in the mirror and you say, "No, I'm not Asian." (laughs) We found cultured, curious, creative, and passionate people who were pursuing their lives in the performing arts not unlike our own country. That was neat. And it's growing. Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director, has set himself, as a young visionary (I think he's about thirty - two years old), the task of developing a modern theatrical scene that will be as vibrant and as interesting and as skilled as any other. That's how he sees his task. He's leaning toward the modern. He's more contemporary and creative. He's not going to the classics because not all the classics apply. He wants to create his own classics. He is informed by a modern sensibility. And all you can say is that he's succeeding at it. Some of his shows are put in a thousand - seat theatre and play three weeks to a month.
They did a musical called Beauty World - I think it was a Singlish musical. They have a language there they call Singlish - for Singapore and English. And it has cadences and a style about it... So they're premiering the use of Singlish, which is a form of English ... and that's the English they should use.
It was fun hanging out with the people who were speaking Singlish. It's the combination of - the melting pot of that culture: the Malay aspects, some Chinese expressions, a few Indian expressions, some Japanese expressions - I think there's the odd Dutch expression. It's all their own and it's a new thing. Their whole culture is being built right now. It's right on the edge. That's what we took away from it. An appreciation.
Are you interested in going back again?
Oh, definitely. I've been back already. The last time, when we took Ilsa to the Perth Festival, the airline stopped in Singapore. I had a conversation with Tai Ton, the general manager. We discussed bringing a show from our company. Also, we talked about doing something together, to combine the two companies. I don't know how it could happen. It would be something like - they would develop a piece of it - we would develop several pieces -
And you'd meet half way? (laughs)
We'd present the work here and then there and possibly some place else.
Edinburgh knows both your companies.
They might be open to that. It could be interesting because of what's happening in Hong Kong right now. And certainly ethnically, the Chinese and the English have been wrapped up together for years. And our exploding Asian component in Canada ... well, not exploding but growing ... it's a nice mix. Hopefully we might do something like that in the future.
- Excerpt from Two Rabbits on the Rim An Interview with Blake Brooker, University of Toronto Press Winter, 1995
|1993||(Co-Produced with TheatreWorks) Drama Centre, Singapore|