Chris Lee is a full-time lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic (TP), a TTRP alumni and was a recipient of the Tina Sergeant Professional Development Initiative 2015. Thanks to the initiative, he was able to attend the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2015 where he learnt from the experiences of theatre practitioners and scholars from various parts of the world. He described the experience as invaluable.
Two years on, SDEA caught up with Chris to find out about his practice and his latest applied theatre project with Temasek Polytechnic’s special interest group ArCH (Arts, Culture and Heritage) – ‘Dreams and Freedom’ which is a Malay Playback Theatre project performed to 77 students from Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. To Chris, language and gender was never something that got in the way of theatre-making.
1. What did you discover at the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2015 that helped your practice?
Firstly, I am very honoured and appreciative of the support rendered by SDEA through this initiative. Tina was my teacher so I am very honoured to be given that kind of support to attend the conference. I learnt a lot from the life and experiences of the theatre practitioners and scholars from various parts of the world and to interact with them.
I would love to have John Britton, the artistic director of DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre return because his approaches are so organic. When something is organic, it integrates easily among the actors and the community. Something less organic may require the recipient to have preexisting aptitudes or talents in order for them to benefit from the method. John does it from the ground up and we can sense that the whole thing works. He makes physical theatre easy to learn and as someone who is teaching physical theatre I can understand how challenging it is for anyone to pick it up as a language.
2. You have managed to use the arts in your work in different departments from Gerontology to Early Childhood in Temasek Polytechnic. How do you manage to stay relevant and be flexible enough to apply approaches to different contexts?
The basis of my training at TTRP, currently known as ITI, and my studies under Phillip Zarilli (UK) helped me recognize that the basis of theatre training is contextual application. I don’t see myself as someone who is locked in a particular genre or approach, I would subscribe to something Stanislavsky would say, ‘to not be dogmatic in the learning of any particular artform’ but to understand that life is so rich. It is so multicultural that what one group of people say is wrong in one part of the world totally works in another part of the world. The key is to be open, to allow possibilities to happen in your life and to not preempt, to breathe, to listen. The answers will actually come to you.
3. How did you start on the journey to create the Malay Playback Theatre project?
The team for the project consisted 9 Temasek Polytechnic graduates well-versed in the Malay language and resident artist/SDEA member Tan Yin Wei who were part of the TP special interest group ArCH (Arts, Culture and Heritage). The group is under the Centre for TransCultural Studies (CTS) and its success is closely supported by the Arts and Culture Team under CTS, and especially by Mrs Sally Chew (Former Director) and Mr Teo Sze Cheng (Current Director for International Relationship, and Head for CTS).
The notion of serving the community through the arts inspired me to start the project. I wanted to bring theatre to the communities that have been marginalized or forgotten and the partnership with Muhammadiyah Welfare Home provided that opportunity to reach out to Malay youths who have never seen theatre. My hopes were that we would share a performance and they would get to know theatre through a theme they are comfortable with and maybe students would love it.
4. How was the response like?
The best gauge was the feedback from the audience themselves. During the course of the performance, the actors and audience fell in love with each other. Unlike most other forms of theatre we see today in Singapore, Playback Theatre is audience led and highly interactive and through this dialogue facilitated between communities, within the communities, among the communities: a relationship is formed. After the whole performance, there was a fantastic reception and one student even broke into an impromptu thank you speech, speaking on behalf of the entire cohort.
We understand then that we have been successful in getting them to talk about their dreams and to remind them of it. For some of them, their life’s journey have not been easy, they get rejections from people, and they go through very oppressive experiences. They struggle and I think a lot of the youths really feel that. So this Playback Theatre allows them to come to terms with some of the problems they had or are currently facing outside the school, between themselves, between the staff and them. It was such a candid environment that issues between the teachers and them surfaced and that was in the presence of the teachers themselves. But everybody was laughing and they were able to see both people’s perspectives and it was amazing. It was a very safe space.
5. What were some of the learning points from the project?
The language of the piece is in pure Malay and we were looking at serving the Malay community. Along the way, it was a journey of discovery, we realized that we could have integrated more English words in the language. For example one of the youths asked the actor seated next to him, what the other Malay word which is part of the title of the show. The actor had to translate for him, explaining that it means dreams. Even after that, we had to further explain the meaning and context behind dreams for the youth to fully grasp the concept.
Also, Yin Wei was our musician. In our practice, we developed strategies to help Yin Wei follow the stories, and perform alongside accordingly.
6. Recently, there was a panel about what constitutes Malay theatre. In your point of view, what categorizes the project as Malay Playback Theatre?
For me, Malay refers to a culture. My director from TTRP, Sasi would say that Kuo Pao Kun, when he went to India was more Indian than him. He ate with his hands, Sasi ate with a spoon and fork. So what does it mean to be Indian? For me I look at it from a broader, looser framework, I do not fix it to a specific criteria because those criteria for me today no longer means anything.
To me, language has never been an issue. Gender, language was never something that got in the way of our theatre making at TTRP. My classmate might be speaking in Malayalam, my Japanese classmate speaking in Japanese and I in Mandarin and we can all be in the same skit. It is not an issue. In fact, it is not unique to my school, some of the best feedback I’ve gotten were from people who did not understand a single word of my show. I was with The Finger Players in 2001 and we did a puppetry show. Noor Effendi wrote in the feedback – ‘this is the best show I’ve seen this whole year, though I didn’t understand a single word, I understood it perfectly’. And that was 16 years ago. For me I can appreciate that the general population may have an issue watching theatre across different languages but for me it has not been an issue that I considered.
7. For the group, what is the future? What are the other theatre forms you are interested in currently?
I’d like to further the group’s development from the student’s perspective and areas of interest. We have many teams under this group that serve other charity organisations with projects happening throughout the entire year. And drama is one third of the whole thing.
Read more about the Tina Sergeant Professional Development Initiative here. In 2017, SDEA will be awarding five complimentary passes to the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2017 to successful applicants. Applications to the initiative will open in January.