Walking into the rehearsal space of The Finger Players, I see Oliver Chong preparing for the rehearsal of The Spirits Play, his latest directorial project. Oliver is a talented and indispensable director and actor in the local theatre scene. Be it playwriting, directing or acting, he is equally brimming with potential, more so with his compelling personal style. His notable works include Roots, I’m Just A Piano Teacher, Cat, Lost and Found, The Book of Living and Dying, Citizen Pig, and more.
Coming back to the rehearsal space, I see him crouched in one corner, holding onto his notebook. We first talk about The Spirits Play – a classic and renowned work by Mr Kuo Pao Kun. Our discussion thus starts from the topic of original creation versus reinterpretation…
Ed: What do you see as the difference between working on an original piece versus an adaptation?
Oliver: It is definitely different. If I were writing a piece myself, I would be thinking of how to direct it at the same time, it comes as a package. But if I were using an existing script, I would have to try to interpret the meaning intended by the original playwright. Although the final piece is not about realising the original conception by the author, but the initial step is indeed to understand the original work. Of course, I can only understand it from my own perspective, and it might not be accurate. On another point, if I were to use a classic text that has been performed numerous times, received acclaim, then the text will be far less questionable, as it has a strong foundation. Conversely, working with an original text means that I would be questioning it for the entire production journey. [Ed: Which is more challenging?] There’s always a challenge, they’re just different sorts of challenges.
Ed: Why do you create original works?
Oliver: Because… I have something to say, something to explore, so… I just write loh. I could of course find a script that relates to my current state of thinking. But I’m more motivated to write something rather than look for an existing script.
Ed: What prompted you to create Roots?
Oliver: Roots is my first monologue written, directed and performed by myself. It is something I have always wanted to do. When I was a child, I watched Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole. I was only about 8 or 9 years old, and couldn’t fully understand the whole thing, but it had a startling impact upon me – the stage had merely a chair and a man, and this simple setup had the whole audience enthralled with his story. How miraculous is that. This stayed in my mind, all the way till I grew older, and started to learn cross-talking, either with a partner or in a group, and I didn’t learn to do it solo, but I have watched a brilliant performer in a mandarin jacket and gown with just a table. And I thought that I would like to try it one day, which happened in Roots.
The inspiration for Roots was not planned, but arose from a workshop at La MaMa. When the four of us, all Singaporeans, returned from the workshop, we decided to create something fun for our report to NAC – a performance. At that time, something impactful happened at the workshop in Italy. Everyone else was from the West, save for us four Singaporeans. Yet, the four of us had different skin colour. When we did our self-introductions, everyone thought it strange that four people of different races were commonly Singaporeans, and we spoke Singlish among ourselves. For tourists, Singlish merely means “leh, lah, loh, meh” to them. However, Singlish goes beyond that. A single sentence encompasses a variety of languages that can be spoken very rapidly, thus stunning those Westerners. This caused us to be startlingly aware of our uniqueness, but why is this so? Perhaps we could go back to question our “roots” – why did our ancestors come from different places to settle in Singapore? And that is exactly what we did.
Firstly, we individually returned to our ancestral homes to collect material. Peter and I went to China, Fared went to Indonesia, and Samantha went to England. Thereafter, we handed our material to the next person to write a script (monologue), and then to the next person for direction, and lastly to the last person to be performed. Every story was passed on four times. We are commonly Singaporeans, yet we have different skin colours, different ancestries, so just how similar are we? And just how different are we? Such a conception relates to how we perceive one another, and it is tremendously fun. When we finally presented it to NAC, we could only complete half of the process as we only had half of the budget needed. And so we stopped after the script-reading phase.
Thereafter, I would frequently talk to friends about my trip to Taishan, and they find it very interesting and say “Why don’t you write and perform it yourself loh”. It was in year 2013 that Tze Chien suggested that I develop this script, and the others similarly encouraged me to do so as well. Hence, I inadvertently realised my childhood dream of performing a monologue.
Ed: When you were touring the show in Hong Kong, did Roots feel like it was very representative of Singapore?
Oliver: Originally, I never thought of it as being representative of Singapore…… its Singapore flavour is ostensibly due to the languages used. While writing pieces such as I’m Just A Piano Teacher, Cat, Lost and Found, Pinocchio’s Complex, and up to Roots, I would not write them solely in English. Even when I used English, I would make it more colloquial. It is not necessarily “broken” English, just that the sentence structures are not quite the same. I would naturally mix in other languages or dialects as well. For example, Cat, Lost and Found has quite a lot of Malay parts, which I asked my friend to translate into after I finished writing it. After I complete a show, it is essentially produced for my own enjoyment. I have to like it, and I especially like how the language would instantly touch me with its ordinary way of speaking – just like typical Singaporeans.
My way of writing Roots was as if I were telling the story to friends. It was a lengthy writing process – I would first record my storytelling, then pen it down, and then edit. Citizen Pig was also written in the same fashion – telling the story as if sharing with friends, recording it down, and then editing. The entire performing format felt like a sharing, and simply incorporates theatre elements. It is like “performing, not performing”, which is extremely difficult to do. Once we enter the theatre space, we are already there to perform, so how can we say that we are not performing? Hence, this “performing, not performing” style is something that we continually adjust.
And the part about it being representative of Singapore was not something that was obvious to me at first, although I knew it was so. When Hong Kong Repertory Theatre invited Roots to be performed, they asked if the entire show could be spoken in Cantonese? This would alleviate worries that audiences might not understand the show. My first thought was that it would be convenient to not have to worry about surtitles in such a case. But when I looked at the script again, I realised that the unique style of language is precisely the most important and necessary element of Roots. Language embodies our identity and the origin of our roots. Hence I replied: As the script is a story about the separation from my ancestry over two generations, we may look alike and speak similar languages, but we have in fact become quite different. Thus we retained the original language format. After the performance, the audience told me: “It is so interesting! You mix in so many languages in a single sentence without missing a beat. Do Singaporeans really talk in this manner?” It was at that moment that I had a revelation. We have always thought of Singapore as a cultural desert, where the government knows not what culture is, nor of its importance or the need for its existence. Recent efforts to attract more tourists have even led to Singlish being appropriated as a commercial tactic, even though they once tried to extinguish Singlish all together. In fact, the Singaporean language is put together through years and generations, and across races, arising from our daily life. It has become part of our daily rhythm, without any dictation from higher powers. This is not a question of language ability, Singlish is our very own culture!
Ed: If you were not in theatre, would you still search for your “roots”?
Oliver: I probably would. When I was young, our ancestry was only mentioned in broad terms. When I grew older, I would hear of people searching for their “roots”, but what difference does it make to our lives even if we find our “roots”? Why do we need to search for our “roots”? I have to at least know the rationale for it. Perhaps I would chance upon an inspiring quote to get me going. I searched online and came across this: “Every tree stems from its roots; every river flows from its origin. I understood its meaning, and so? Of course there are roots and origins. Another quote also said: “Know the past, and you will understand the present, and have the future in your grasp.” This sounds all too obvious…… Thereafter, I went on my journey, I returned, I finished Roots, and does this mean that everything has been sorted out? In fact, I struggle to make sense of it, and fail to find the right words to explain it, but I have a sense that it is more complete. So would I embark on such a project if I were not in theatre? Perhaps so, out of pure fun.
Ed: Our 11 young actors from The Practice Lab would be presenting their own monologues (during the time of this interview). What suggestions do you have for them?
Oliver: The challenge for this year’s presentation by The Practice Lab lies in that the actors have to write, direct and perform by themselves. These tap on vastly different skills, and based on their own personal stories, they have to endeavour a script that is not for venting or self-pity, lest it becomes self-indulgent. They have to consider the bigger perspective beyond the story, and the triggers to invite the audience to reflect upon and continue watching. They are fortunate that Xiaoyi would curate it from an external perspective, and they ought to trust him, especially in view of the challenges they would face as new actors. I’m not trying to dampen their spirits, I just feel that this would be an excellent training opportunity for them, and with someone spotting them from the side, it becomes the optimal chance for such an experimental showcase.
 La MaMa Umbria International is a non-profit cultural center situated in the countryside surrounding the town of Spoleto in central Italy. It is a 700 year-old convent that has been transformed into a work center and residence for artists. Workshops and residencies in acting, writing and directing are held there every summer.
 Taishan: Situated within Guangdong Province in China, it is the ancestral home of Oliver Chong.
 Chong Tze Chien: Artistic Director of The Finger Players.
Continue reading on Issue 8 / December 2015:The Courage To Go Against The Current