Nelson Chia’s Recipe for Great Curry

Fresh 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.

How did you come to work with W!LD RICE on Cook A Pot Of Curry?

I’ve 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?

Each 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.

Were you given any guidelines as to whom you should interview?

No, 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?

Out 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.

You didn’t have to look very far, basically…

That’s 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.

The 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.

It’s 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.

Nelson Chia
(L-R) Neo Swee Lin, Rishi Budhrani, Noorlinah Mohamed, Najib Soiman, Judee Tan and Nelson Chia

Are the characters you play based on the people you interviewed?

Not 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.

What was the rehearsal process like?

We 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?

By 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.

In terms of your own characters, how did you prepare to play them?

For 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.

How much were the interviews changed for the play?

Actually, 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.

What do you hope Singaporeans and foreigners alike will take with them when leaving the theatre after a performance of Curry?

I 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.

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