off his Best Actor win in the
13th Life! Theatre Awards, Nelson
Chia returns to the stage for
Alfian Sa'at's new play Cook
A Pot Of Curry. Nelson takes
us into Alfian's kitchen and
explains how he helped whip
up this super-spicy, extra-sedap docu-drama.
did you come to work with W!LD
RICE on Cook
A Pot Of Curry?
worked with W!LD RICE before on
a couple of other plays, one of
which was Alfian’s play Homesick in 2006. After that, Alfian kept
saying that we should work together
again. This time round, he called
me and asked if I was available
to do this new play he’s writing.
He told me the concept and I said,
‘Yeah, sure!’ It also worked out
nicely that I was free at this
particular time, which is not
a given since I have my own theatre
company (Nine Years Theatre).
Did you have any input into the script?
actor was asked to do three to
four interviews, either with Singaporeans
or foreigners or PRs. Then we
transcribed the interviews and
gave them to Alfian, who did twenty
or thirty interviews himself.
you given any guidelines as to
whom you should interview?
Alfian did not give specific instructions as in, ‘You must conduct the interview
in Mandarin’. I interviewed one person in both English and Mandarin, but we
decided to do that role in Mandarin onstage.
How did you find the people you interviewed?
of convenience, I started with people I know. My brother-in-law is a Canadian.
My cousin’s boyfriend is from England. Another friend, who’s a writer, is from
China. They’re all working here. They’re basically friends and relatives.
didn’t have to look very far, basically…
an interesting point. Because the fact is that it’s not difficult to find people!
I’m sure you know people who are PRs, foreigners or here on a work permit. I
have a lot of students who are from China as well. I taught in NUS many years
ago, and I graduated from NUS. Now, when I go back to teach, half my lecture
hall is filled with foreign students. I started realising it when some of my
local jokes fell flat. That’s when it hit me – just how immediate the culture
clash can be.
issue is usually discussed at a macro level – which doesn’t quite account for
the fact that these immigrants are also our friends and a part of our families.
very complex, especially emotionally. Rationally, we can talk about things like
how we’re losing out or losing jobs to the foreigners, and how they’re causing
a rise in our living costs. But emotionally, it’s so hard to handle this issue.
I have relatives and close friends working here who are foreigners and PRs.
When it’s down to this human level, you are on good terms with them; you have
nothing against these people. But it’s nevertheless true that this influx of
immigrants is causing a lot of social problems, particularly because it feels
as if it happened too fast.When we’re talking about tension, we’re talking about
emotional tension. Emotionally, we are not prepared to deal with this.
Neo Swee Lin, Rishi Budhrani, Noorlinah Mohamed, Najib Soiman, Judee Tan and
the characters you play based on the people you interviewed?
necessarily. Alfian, together with Glen, selected the interviews of interest
to them, and they came up with a structure. We were assigned our roles according
to whether we can play particular characters, of course, but the decisions also
took into account complex stage logistics like costume changes. A lot of time
was spent on dramaturgy: coming up with the structure and the script. The actors
had a lot of input in that as well, while we rehearsed.
was the rehearsal process like?
started with a lot of individual rehearsals with Glen. We were assigned a few
of the monologues, and we studied and rehearsed them. When we all came together,
we had to rehearse all the ensemble bits as well – the dance sequences, how
to move the sets. It was quite an organic process. There were times when your
monologue would be shifted somewhere else. Mine was shifted and then shifted
back again. Sometimes, if we tried something and felt it didn’t work, we would
tell Alfian and he would come back with something else. It could be inserted
in one of the runs and taken out in the next. There was a lot of this jigsaw-puzzling
thing going on, right until the last moment.
So when was the play finally locked down?
this point, yes, the play is of course locked down. But, after the runs we’ve
already had this week, we’ve been tweaking a little bit here and there just
to make it clearer. This play is special in a way, since it can be tweaked.
If you want to take out a paragraph, it’s still possible.
terms of your own characters, how did you prepare to play them?
characters like Gilbert Goh, I can actually find images and videos of him speaking
on YouTube. So I studied him. Of course, we don’t intend to mimic these people
exactly, so I just took some of the essence of him. All of us sort of exaggerated
our characters a little bit for dramatic effect. As for the characters we have
not met: the post-graduate student I play was interviewed by Alfian and Swee
Lin, but passed onto me. I’ve not met that person. I asked to listen to the
recording of his interview, so I heard him in a way.
much were the interviews changed for the play?
very little was changed – depending on how we look at ‘change’, that is! The
interviews can be very long, for instance. The only change is that we’ve taken
chunks out of the entire interview and turned them into one-minute or half-a-minute
monologues. So there are things in between that are edited out. But of the bits
we took, we tried to use the original words. We didn’t change the words they
said or the way they said it.
do you hope Singaporeans and foreigners alike will take with them when leaving
the theatre after a performance of Curry?
hope that they will start thinking about these issues, and thinking about them
from a larger perspective. In the play, we try to let people hear all the voices.
You can see a lot of Philippino maids, but you seldom hear from them. In the
play, you hear from them. You hear from a social activist. You hear from a foreigner.
You hear from a foreigner who has become a citizen, who has been here for twenty
years. You hear from new immigrants. You hear real Singapore voices. In the
space of one night, you get to hear all these voices. Even for the actors onstage,
it opens up our minds when we listen to one another’s monologues.