Putting on a brand-new musical – especially one on the scale of Mama White Snake – is a massive undertaking. Director Pam Oei tells us why it’s one of the most challenging things she’s ever done.
Pam takes a well-deserved bow at the Mama White Snake gala!
You’ve compared directing Mama White Snake to running a circus. Why do you say that?
On top of the usual elements of a musical – acting, singing and dancing – Mama White Snake features wushu and the very unfamiliar territory of Chinese opera. So it was quite crazy putting it all together. There were so many elements to consider. We were also working out set design, lighting, multimedia, the hundreds of costumes in the show... I had honestly thought, when I directed The Emperor’s New Clothes in 2015, that it was the most technically difficult thing I would ever do as a director. After all, the cast in that show played instruments live, while on stage! But I take it all back – that was chicken feet compared to this!
What was it like for you to incorporate elements of Chinese martial arts and opera into the show?
It’s a lot of hard work. No one in the adult cast – except our fight choreographer, Gordon Choy – had learned wushu or Chinese opera to the extent that they've been performing it on stage. For them to be up there kicking spears and waving giant flags, just a couple of months after learning how to do it in the first place… it’s amazing!
One thing we’ve learnt in the days since the show has opened is that our audience is very forgiving. They know that these actors aren’t professional wushu experts or Chinese opera performers. So, even if a spear falls, as it has, they don’t hold a grudge for even a second. And if the cast do pull off their stunts, the applause is so warm and genuine!
Mama White Snake is set in ancient China, with some local influences. What should audiences watch out for on that count?
Our amazing costume designers – Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin from the award-winning Tube Gallery – gave us the initial idea of infusing a little Peranakan influence into the show. They felt that there was no way we could replicate original Chinese opera costumes; we just didn’t have that level of expertise to do so. Instead, we borrowed motifs from Peranakan culture and design. Look out for that! There’s some nice synergy there, actually, as both Glen Goei and Ivan Heng – our two snakes – are Peranakan, as is our lead actor, Andrew Marko!
The kids in the cast are one of the highlights of Mama White Snake. Do you always make it a point to give them more to do?
Yes – I was really keen on giving the kids lots of roles in Hansel & Gretel, the first pantomime I directed for W!LD RICE in 2012. There’s the crowd-pleasing element, of course: the audiences love our kids, who can do no wrong in their eyes. But I also wanted to showcase the children and their talents a lot more.
The trade-off in giving the kids more to do is that we need to really drill them until they’re as close to perfect as possible. That was especially challenging for Hansel & Gretel, since we had two rotating casts of kids for that show, and it meant that we had to rehearse everything twice. Since then, I’ve insisted on having one set of kids, with the compromise being that there be more kids in the cast.
That’s why we have 22 children in Mama White Snake. And they’re all amazing! They're doing spectacular things that are wowing the audiences non-stop. From backflips and puppeteering, to hip-hop dancing and Chinese opera fighting! One of the recurring compliments we are receiving is how wonderful the FIRST STAGE! Kids have been.
This is the first time anyone is directing Glen and Ivan in a show. What’s that been like?
In the last couple of weeks of rehearsals, it dawned on me that I’m the only person who can direct this show, with the two of them as the leads. [laughs] I think any other director might have found it intimidating to work with them, since they’re both such veteran directors themselves.
But I’m well-acquainted with their working style, having acted under their direction many, many times. So I understood that the suggestions and feedback they offered were always about improving the show and the story. In fact, there were many occasions in which they actually served as another pair of eyes for me, since so many things were going on in the rehearsal room at any given moment.
Of course, it helps, too, that our friendship of two decades is rock-solid. Any disagreements I’ve had with them in the rehearsal room – whether I was the director and they the actors or vice versa – never carry over into our personal lives.
Ultimately, I’ve come away from this experience with even more respect for them both. They worked bloody hard to prepare for this show – I’m younger than they are, and I’m not sure I could have mastered the wushu stunts they have!
How has it been working with the rest of your cast?
I was deciding between a more conventional male lead, and someone more unusual, like Andrew. I’m glad I went with Andrew, because not only is he likeable, he’s just incredibly talented, with such a good attitude. Cheryl Tan is an immense talent – her singing voice is spectacular, and she’s been very good at taking direction. We wanted Zelda Tatiana Ng, who has been working primarily in Chinese theatre, to join the cast so we could play on her strengths – like her facility with dialects – in the show. And Siti Khalijah Zainal can do anything! She’s playing an old Chinese man in Mama White Snake, with her trademark comic timing that is impeccable and impossible to teach. It’s been a real joy working with this entire cast!