Coffee-Shop Talk: An Interview with Hazel Ho

Meet director Hazel Ho, who shares what she’s learnt as a part of Wild Rice’s Directing Residency programme, and explains why she took this opportunity to direct Café, Joel Tan’s darkly funny psychological thriller with a conscience.

What inspired you to apply for Wild Rice’s Directors’ Residency Programme?

For one, the timing of it was perfect – I’d been wanting to get back into directing theatre this year if I could get the opportunity to do so, and I saw the notice for the open call during Circuit Breaker, when I’d been stuck at home reflecting on what I wanted to do with my year, and my life. So I thought, “Well, there’s no harm in trying out for this!”… without really expecting to get it. And, strangely enough, here I am.

Something that also really appealed to me about the open call was that it was asking directors to propose a play of their choosing, based on what they thought spoke to the contemporary moment. “Wow,” I thought, “To be able to choose any play I wanted to work on?” I just had to be sure it said something about the times we’re living in? How freeing and challenging and exciting!

Tell us about the experiences you’ve had in making theatre. How did you start directing theatre?

I first fell in love with theatre as an avid theatre-goer in my teens, and I always knew I wanted to be a part of creating the magic I saw on stage. But I only started actively pursuing that passion in university by reading Theatre Studies at NUS, which is also where I got many hands-on opportunities to direct theatre, in school productions and as a member of NUS Stage (then under Huzir Sulaiman). These amateur productions were a great environment for me to try out my ideas, fail, and learn in a relatively safe environment where fellow students had an abundance of time and patience.

After graduating from university, I’ve directed the odd production here and there but I mainly took a detour from directing theatre to set up my own company with my partner. The company specialises in teaching and performing improvised theatre, and is called The Improv Company. So I focused on helping to build that up for seven years before I decided, “Okay, it’s been long enough; the company’s stable enough now for me to leave its day-to-day operations to my partner, and focus on what I really want to do” – which is to go back to directing theatre.

What draws you to this particular storytelling medium?

I think what draws me to the particular storytelling medium of theatre is the ephemeral liveness of it. It’s all these people in a room together – performers and audience members and crew alike – in communion for that moment, that hour, that evening. And that is so unbelievably special when we choose to do this, especially in this digital era where you can so much more easily and conveniently watch something online alone at home.

Also, theatre is special, but it’s fleeting, and I think that’s important too. Its ephemerality forces one to really be present, really be in the moment while it’s going on, because you know that, at some point, it’s going to be over and you can never get the same thing back. To me, there’s nothing else quite like the theatre.

What have been some of your key takeaways from working with Wild Rice and Ivan Heng under this initiative? What have you learnt as an artist and a director?

The Wild Rice team and Ivan are all very, very experienced and knowledgeable in what they do, so being part of this residency has given me the invaluable opportunity to learn from them by osmosis. With Ivan in particular (since he’s my mentor and I’ve had the most interaction with him), I’m inspired by how very familiar he is with all aspects of production and directing, and how he always seems to know what he’s doing and what he wants. He’s a very hands-on mentor and really makes the time and effort to give me advice and feedback on almost everything, from how I start analysing a script to how I might choose to run auditions or a production meeting. And he doesn’t hold back on questioning and challenging me either, which is often stressful and fantastic at the same time, and I know it’s making me grow rapidly as an artist.

Something else I appreciate about Ivan, and am trying to pick up from him, is how he’s able to read the room and take care of the people he’s working with. Whether it’s one person whose mood he senses is a little off and whom he then checks in with via a text or call; or opening a meeting in such a way that everyone present feels comfortable and ready to work with one another. He’s very aware of these things, and knows just how to create a collaborative mood for everyone. That’s definitely something I want to take away from working with him, so that I can become a more professional, warm, approachable and sensitive director than before.

Tell us about Café, the show you’ll be directing. Why did you want to direct it?

I’m directing Café by Joel Tan, which I first caught at The Twenty-Something Festival in 2016. It really appealed to me when I caught it. I liked its brand of dark, absurd humour. I found it unsettling, which is great, because that meant that it made me feel things. But, most importantly, I thought it had something extremely profound to say about how we live in Singapore. So, when I was brainstorming plays to propose for the residency that I thought would speak to the contemporary moment, it was almost a no-brainer for me to pick. I thought that this would be a really good time to stage Café again – it’s a Joel Tan play so it’s very Singaporean; it’s full of local flavour and immensely relatable.

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching it?

The questions Café raises, while timeless, will have many additional layers to them now because of the state of Singapore and the world in 2020, right smack in the middle of a raging pandemic. So it’s those questions that I hope audiences will take away from watching it – I hope they leave at least slightly shaken, and questioning, and looking hard at their own kneejerk responses to the questions they’re now asking themselves.

In these pandemic times, it’s more important than ever to to uplift and highlight artists and the work they do. Who is one theatre-maker you admire?

I’m going to cop out and not name just one single theatre-maker and also put in a disclaimer that, of course, every single member of a team, from cast member to designer to backstage crew, is integral to a production, but I do hold stage managers in particularly high regard (with a shout-out to my own stage manager for Café, Marilyn Chew). They put in so much graft, without expectation of the glamour or public recognition that can be more readily associated with some other roles in the theatre, and I really take my hat off to them and also wonder, “Why on earth would you do this?!” But there they are: first one in the rehearsal room and last to leave, and taking care of everything else in between to boot – generally just being the all-round steady, dependable, indispensable cornerstones of any production they are. Eleven times out of ten as a director, I would flounder in an ocean of despair without my stage manager.

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