Meet Puppetmaster Bright Ong – No Strings Attached!

We pulled some strings to help you get to know Bright Ong, the puppetry and movement director for The Amazing Celestial Race! Which shows changed his life? What’s the one thing he must do before going on stage? Find out here!
Bright Ong with a bird puppet from The Amazing Celestial Race

When did you first know you wanted to be a performer?

The moment that woke me up to the performing arts came during Cirque du Soleil’s first show in Singapore – Saltimbanco – in 2000. I remember watching that on stage and going, “I don’t know what that is, but I want to do that!” To this day, the way Cirque du Soleil approach their work and create such memorable moments through movement remains a powerful inspiration to me when it comes to theatre-making in general. I would love to work with them one day!

In your career, has there been a show that changed the way you think about the work you do as a performer?

One show that really changed me as an actor is 2 Houses – a site-specific show set during World War II at a beautiful old mansion in Penang. This was part of the 2014 Georgetown Festival.

I was cast as a servant boy and had to lose ten kilogrammes of visual weight, while also learning how to speak proper old-school Penang Hokkien campur (mixed with) Bahasa Melayu. While preparing for the role, I was simultaneously clocking 10-hour shoot days for a puppet TV show. And, when we started rehearsals, they were from 6pm to 3am – because we had to work with the natural lighting state of the mansion.

Working on this show definitely changed me as an actor because it really gave me a newfound sense and level of discipline. It gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to have a larger sense of empathy for the characters you play. It wasn’t easy, but I really enjoyed it – these are the sorts of shows and experiences I live for!

What draws you to theatre as a medium?

When you tell stories, it’s all about the human condition. And there’s no other more real way of exploring the human condition than live in the theatre. Whether as actors or audience members, we are all physically in the same space. You have to be present. I also love how, when you tell a story in the theatre, you have to utilise the full image, so to speak. Unlike in TV or film, where you’re using a forced perspective, you are creating for the entire space in the theatre. The audience is given so much liberty to focus on anything and everything within view in a live performance. For me, that is what makes theatre magical and real at the same time.

Do you have a pre-show ritual?

Before I go on stage, I always do a little ritual in which I ask for the theatre’s blessing. It’s a bit like how some footballers will touch the grass before they run on the pitch for a game. I salaam (greet) the stage and say something like, “Thank you for letting us into your space; we mean you no disrespect. Please give our actors, our crew and everyone involved with this show a very fun, safe run.”

WATCH: Bright reveals some tips and tricks for bringing puppets to life on stage!

What’s your most memorable on-stage mishap?

Let me set the scene for you. In 2 Houses, my character first met audiences on the front lawn of the huge mansion we were performing in. Then, I had to really run through the side door and the hallways to get into position in the grand entrance room before our audiences made their way in from the lawn.

One fateful night, some caterers had locked the side door, and I couldn’t get into the house! The show’s photographer, who was also in character, was seated next to the side door and he thought I was just mucking about when I told him the side door was locked. He only realised that I wasn’t joking when he saw me repeatedly try to turn the doorknob to no avail!

Our lighting designer, who happened to be on standby that night, rushed from our ‘backstage’ area to open up the door from the inside. My hero! I barely made it to the grand entrance with a second to spare as the doors opened!!

What advice would you give your younger self about working in the arts?

I struggled a lot with externally inflicted insecurities when I was much younger, especially because so many directors I worked with didn’t seem to know what to do with me or my height! (I’m 183cm – 6 feet tall!) So I would tell my younger self to be okay with who you are, and to enjoy where the journey takes you.

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

In terms of inspiring and leading an arts community, I would have to say Papermoon Puppet Theatre in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I was a fan of their work after first discovering them online, and definitely after watching one of their shows when it toured here – PUNO (Letters To The Sky). I was very fortunate to be invited by Papermoon’s Co-Artistic Director, Maria Tri Sulistyani, to their puppetry festival in 2018. Getting to know the arts community there was incredible. If an artist called for help, five people would turn up. Everyone just wanted to create good art and inspire one another to keep going. That continues to inspire me to this day.

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