Twelve years ago, The Optic Trilogy made its Singapore premiere in a tiny venue and played for a just a few nights. It was, almost literally, a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ affair.
In the intervening decade, Alfian’s play has travelled the world. Audiences in Zurich, Berlin, Munich and Stockholm were given a perspective of Alfian’s Singapore.
In July, The Optic Trilogy will finally return home to Singapore as part of the In The Spotlight season.
We spoke to Janice Koh and Brendon Fernandez about their own longstanding connections to The Optic Trilogy and the challenges they expect to face in playing multiple characters every night.
How did you first become aware of this play?
BRENDON: I was in the first production of The Optic Trilogy twelve years ago – it was part of The Second 42 Theatre Festival, and played for a single weekend.
JANICE: A number of years ago, Alfian raised with me the idea of working on a film version of Optic Trilogy. It was the first time I had heard of the play. Whilst the script never made it to screen in the end, there is a filmic quality to the way it is written, and the tone and ambience in all the three sketches is not unlike an art film. I find that interesting.
What appealed to you most about this particular piece?
JANICE: I like that the piece is set up like a little triptych of sorts. The three sketches are different and very much stand-alone in terms of story and character. Yet they are intertwined and related through themes, visual images, mood and the two actors who play all the parts. The writing is very lyrical and the text reads more like poetry than a playscript sometimes. It is an ode to love, to seeing yet not seeing, and to invisibility.
BRENDON: The themes and relationships developed in the play are very intriguing. The word ‘optic’ is right there in the title of the play – it’s all about seeing, it’s about points of view. Every character that we meet is not as he or she seems. The person we see may not be who they are. It’s a question of identity – which, of course, can be fluid as well. All of these stories are also about coping: whether it’s coping with the need to find something out, or to cope with something that has happened to them. For lack of a better word, these characters are damaged, in a way, and they find the other person, and they have a journey with that other person. I don’t know if they’re fixed by the end of it, but they definitely find something out about themselves and each other.
Alfian mentioned that Optic Trilogy is very much a character-driven piece, and you each play three characters in the play. Do you identify with any of the characters in particular?
JANICE: I admit it has been a challenge trying to find an entry point for the three different characters I play. These are not stereotypical Singaporeans. Alfian has painted complex individuals who have made strong, unusual choices in their lives, and who are at a turning point in their journeys. But the characters are drawn with such emotional depth, especially in terms of their need to connect with another human being, and their longing to find a way out of their own darkness or isolation – that resonates with me.
BRENDON: I don’t identify with any one character over the others, as they’re all quite unique and rather unlike me. But I do see parts of myself in them. They are all very human characters, ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances – and the play is about how they cope with that.
What’s the greatest challenge for you in performing in this play?
JANICE: I think the challenge has been in sketching, colouring and detailing three totally different individuals on stage and being able to capture the truth and the essence of them in a short span of time. Oh, wait a minute. I think they call it ‘acting’ – yeah, that’s it.
BRENDON: The challenge for me is to remind myself to keep listening, to Janice and to the words, because Alfian’s writing is so beautiful, so poetic. I have to be careful not to gloss over it – these are very human characters, they have to be played very truthfully. Don’t just be in your own world. Listen, and be present, and speak truthfully.
Brendon, how does it feel to be revisiting the play after so many years?
BRENDON: To be very honest, twelve years is a very long time. I remember some things about the production, but I don’t remember everything about how we played the different characters. I remember that we chose to play more the textual as opposed to the subtextual elements of the play last time – or maybe we were only capable of that at that age and at that time. It was the first staging of one of 42 pieces, all going up in three weeks – it was very rushed.
This time round, I think it’s much more rich. It’s a lot meatier. We’re really getting to the real sense of what The Optic Trilogy is. I’m really glad to have a second chance to illuminate this text. I don’t think I’ve decided to play the parts differently just to be different, but I know it’s different because I’m seeing things I didn’t see before. I’m understanding the text in a way I didn’t understand it before. Also, the landscape has changed – Singapore has changed in twelve years. The issues are relevant in a different way. The relationships are still interesting, but the climate that they’re in has changed.
What do you hope audiences take with them when leaving the theatre?
JANICE: Perhaps a little nugget of understanding and empathy for the six characters they’ve just met in the theatre? These characters could be any six Singaporeans whom we might squeeze next to on the MRT, work alongside at the office, or even our next door neighbour. We are all not who we seem to be on the outside. It’ll be nice to come out of the theatre with a fresh pair of eyes.
BRENDON: This is a play that is very much about people, but it’s also very close to me because it’s close to home. It’s set in Singapore. One of the stories is very much about the idea of Singapore – all of them are, but one in particular. This is work that has come from here; this is what Alfian has written in Singapore, for a Singapore audience, and it’s being produced by W!LD RICE, a Singaporean theatre company. I would love for people to come and just be in the audience and celebrate that with us – the fact that this very special work came from us. The actors can own it, but the audience should own it as well.