By Lee Jia Ping
At the “Party With 12 Local Theatre Directors” which closed the PingStage Theatre Carnival (3 Sep – 3 Oct, 2005), lots of wine and insufficient finger food were served, perhaps to enable partygoers to appreciate what it feels like to be an artist: starving and delirious. All around the room in the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, blown up photos of the 12 directors, enlarged from the stylishly designed invitation cards, decorated the walls. As directors and theatre-goers take turns at the microphone to ponder on the future of Chinese-language theatre, an age old debate emerged: realism theatre vs abstract theatre.
Given the dwindling audience, the proliferation of plays deemed inaccessible is perceived to be a problem, especially when the plays focused on issues and subject matters that seem relevant and at times comprehensible only to the directors and playwrights. PingStage producer Goh You Ping, a tall man with a disarming grimace, having been inundated by such plays earlier in his youth, says he has a preference for theatre that is easier to understand. But he is also quick to point that many of the more experimental plays have a more polished execution.
A good theatre producer has the ability to balance creativity and commerce – to uphold the artistic integrity of the production within the parameters of budget and time. But perhaps the most crucial of all is having a vision beyond the present moment; to strive for the continuity and sustainability of the company and the craft. To celebrate the 11th anniversary of his company, known for its more mainstream theatre offerings, Goh You Ping, or Ping as he is commonly known, wanted the festival to “provide opportunities for new talents,” but perhaps also, judging from the type of plays featured, to provide theatre that is accessible to all. It is this premise that I feel dominated the whole carnival.
Too much fun
The four plays featured were: 1] A Young’s Heart, 2] Stop 1.5; 3] The Black And White Executioners: The Never Ending Ghost Stories; and 4] Missing Cherry. It is interesting to note that the stronger works were directed by Ho Shih Pin who said that, despite having a wife and a child to feed, he finds it hard to tear himself away from theatre as it is just too much fun. And sure enough, from the moment the audience stepped into his plays, fun was the order of the day, from hands that appeared out of nowhere handing out brochures to the other-worldly pre-show announcement.
Ho is definitely an actor’s director, able to bring out the best in his actors, which is evident from the first scene in Stop 1.5, in which a mother (Grace Looi) is sending her son (Coby Cheong) off to study. The interplay between the heartbreak and the attempts to make light of the situation by both mother and son was great theatre. It was moving and believable. Ho also brought incredible range out of Chin Lee Ling in Stop and B&W Executioners. As a diva fending of a wannabe diva in the former, she was able to spoof the new generation of ‘la la mui’s, better known as the Sungai Wang girls – the ones that appear in broad daylight dressed for work in voluminous frocks better suited for a grand ball. Loaded to her gills in Japanese and Chinese kitsch, complete with that touch of the giu-giu (coyness), Chin’s physical and over-the-top portrayal was delightful.
Ho’s treatment of The Black and White Executioner also used comedy to counterpoint with deeper, sadder emotions. The comedic moments were supplied by the titular characters played by Gordon Tan and Coby Cheong. They were supposed to monitor the Bridge of No Avail, where spirits cross over to be reincarnated, but were instead caught up trying to entertain their audience of newly dead (in other words, us). This metafictive element was interesting, though it did go on a bit. At this bridge, an ancient, cranky hag prepares the Soul’s Soup for everyone who comes by. The soup erases one’s memories, but the hag herself has a memory as unerasable as her love, and it is her pining for her long lost lover, even these many centuries later, that becomes the point of the play. Chin Lee Ling, carrying the character’s epic anguish as well as her disdain for humanity, displays a knack both for the preposterous and the restrained that contributed greatly to the enjoyment of the play. Even though she was painted as a villain, it was her character’s plight that we sympathised with the most.
Ungrateful off-springs, fidgety children
While Ho was able to achieve resonance with a series of short emotional moments, Sunny Ng was highly proficient at drowning his play in bathos. A Young’s Heart was a double-bill that started well. The story of a boy torn between his dreams of becoming a dancer and pleasing his traditionally-minded father is not new. Where this play departed from most is an attempt by Ng at least to infuse a Malaysian context into the storyline. Traditional Malay dance movements were used to depict the cultural gap between a father still holding on to the ideals of the motherland while his son adapts into his environment. But the director could have explored the conflict much further, rather than opting for a predictable, happy ending.
The next play fared even worse. It had too many repeated scenes of mothers with their ungrateful off-springs too busy to spend quality time with their parents. Together with the rudimentary set and schmaltzy canned music, I felt I was experiencing three hours worth of Hong Kong Black and White tragedies of the Nam Hong or Siew Fong Fong variety. The play left me rather angry in fact for having been preached at like a naughty child.
Thankfully, A Young’s Heart was all but a distant memory by the time Missing Cherry rolled in. Produced by Tea Theatre and directed by Rorn Lew, the children’s play was filled with fantasy and highly likeable characters. The play started well, as the theatre overflowed with energy from the excited audience consisting of 3 to 8 year olds. Kudos must go to the set designer for the bright colours, playful hanging lights and a series of imaginative props and set trucks. Despite the total failure of the lighting system at MCPA, the colours were so brilliant that even the fluorescent lighting could not dull them. The costumes were also well designed and highly imaginative – the Centaur, the Hen and the Clock are my firm favourites. But in spite of these, there was not enough interaction with the children to sustain the energy. It also did not help that the running time was too long and the storyline too convoluted with sub plots. And then there was the obligatory moral message about friendship bla bla bla. Toward the end, the children became fidgety and restless which changed the whole energy of the space and impacted on the actors.
Attending Moral Classes
Nevertheless, when I asked director Rorn about his fantastic set, he said it was entirely made out of papier mache, because there wasn’t enough money for better materials. Others would do well to emulate such creativity on a small budget. Ping himself was impressed that many of the participants in his festival worked with a spirit of independence, seriousness and self-sacrifice, since sponsorship in Chinese language theatre is almost non-existent. But he says, for now, money is not as important as securing a better venue, somewhere they can use for months and rehearse in.
As a whole, the PingStage Theatre Carnival was more like a month-long Empat Sekawan marathon. The experience was akin to attending Moral Classes, where we were spoon fed with enough good values to turn us all into stellar citizens – hopefully. In playing the realism card, the company has played it too safe, failing to challenge the playwrights and directors to push their boundaries, from the mediocre scripts that should have been workshopped, critiqued and edited, to the mediocre directions that patronised audiences by telling us what to think and feel. This fear of veering into the abstract is unfounded and can severely impinge on the growth and development of theatre. It also seems a shame to me that the artists have divided themselves into two camps – realism vs abstract – when theatre itself is a form of abstraction that reveals the real. True creativity is such that it allows a combination or a negotiation of the two.
So in the final analysis, perhaps it is not the abstract that Ping should denounce but rather the formulaic, where imagination and wonderment are kept within set rules and criteria – in a Pandora’s Box never to be let out for the good of mankind. When we start eschewing one form for another without true comprehension, we are in danger of becoming cultural policemen. When that happens, theatre becomes your worst Reality TV nightmare.
But I also believe that, as witnessed at this festival, there are many talents waiting to be pushed and developed, in order that they may grow. In this growth, a new breed of audience may be seduced, thus sparking a cycle of regeneration (or reincarnation if you prefer) which is so crucial to the survival of theatre.
Lee Jia Ping, director of Tabs Creative Projects, has worked as production manager and stage manager in local productions and did a stint at Cambridge, learning theatre management.
First Published: 13.10.2005 on Kakiseni