“You’re the mother. The two of you are sisters, and this is the first time you’re meeting your mother in fifteen years. You’re the aunt, and you’re the housekeeper. Go.”
HOTEL co-director Ivan Heng watches intently as the actors scramble into place. None of them knows precisely how the story will unfold, but that’s the beauty – and horror – of improvisation.
45 harrowing minutes later, the scene is drawing to a close. Mother and daughters have fought fiercely, love warring with hate. Pam Oei, who was assigned to play the aunt, finds her cheeks streaked with tears.
“And… scene,” announces Ivan.
Everyone lets out the breaths they didn’t know they’d been holding. Pam hastily wipes her face, sniffs extra hard, and prepares herself for the next round of improvisations.
Just another day in the HOTEL workshopping process!
Improve Through Improv
This reunion between a mother and her estranged daughters is just one of many that never made it into the play.
In the year-long run-up to HOTEL’s premiere at the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), workshops were held in which each actor had to research a particular decade in Singapore’s history.
Then came the improvisations, which formed the building blocks for the final scenes that were written and refined by co-playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten.
Throughout the process, the actors contributed characters, scenes, ideas and personal histories that eventually found their way into the script. Dwayne Lau devised a minor character that pops up in different scenes across time. Pam came up with the idea for a key scene that plays out in 1985.
At times, these fictional stories that sprang seemingly out of nowhere wind up striking a very real chord with other cast members.
In the scene in question, Sharda Harrison plays a character who, having suffered through the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, bears a deep hatred for the Japanese.
Sharda’s own grandmother was married off to a Japanese man, who left her and their child when the war broke out.
“Being that character was a reminder of my own past,” Sharda reveals. “I couldn’t even say a word like ‘sushi’ in front of my grandmother, because if I said anything in Japanese, I’d be in trouble.”
There’s no denying that every member of the cast helped to make HOTEL the epic that it is. “There is a sense of ownership because we all kind of created it,” says Dwayne. “It’s pretty much our play, as it is the writers and directors.”
We’re All In This Together
Throwing together an ensemble cast of 14 opinionated actors – comprising different nationalities, ethnicities, ages, and working styles – might have been a recipe for disaster. Indeed, there were moments when tempers flew and arguments raged.
But, ultimately, the entire process taught the cast how to respect and complement one another in the rehearsal room and on stage.
“At the end of the day, it was about finding that balance – knowing when to give your opinions, and when to hold back and just trust one another,” Dwayne recalls.
“It’s about trust and teamwork, basically,” adds Siti Khalijah Zainal. “You need to know when to give the scene to your fellow actors. In this show, we are all equals and we share the stage.”
It’s evident that, after all the hard, occasionally soul-baring work they did together, a strong camaraderie has developed amongst the actors. Most of them highlight the deep friendships they have made as their favourite part of working on the show.
“When you have osmosis-ed your cast members’ sweat, something grows,” Pam says with a laugh. “It’s a very special bond.”
There’s Always A First Time For Everything
Even for a cast that contains several veteran actors, HOTEL has proved to be a production of many firsts.
“I’ve played multiple characters in previous shows, but not at this rate,” Sharda admits. “Certainly not with this number of transitions and multiple character switching!”
“Every time I start a new scene, I have to make sure I completely let go of my previous character’s emotional state,” Siti adds.
Some of the actors had to learn lines in languages that they either did not speak at all or did not use on a daily basis.
“I speak Cantonese in a very street-market kind of way,” confesses Pam, who plays a character in 1925 that converses in period Cantonese. “And I discovered that there were some words I’ve mispronounced all my life. I had to unlearn them – it really messed with my brain!”
Brendon Fernandez had a more daunting challenge to face: HOTEL required him to play a character with a gender identity he does not share.
“Physically, it’s very different from my own physicality,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s also difficult because I feel a great responsibility to portray this character accurately and sensitively.”
As if multiple characters, languages and identities weren’t enough, HOTEL also involves all the actors in every single scene transition. This requires them to sing, dance, or do both – while moving set pieces on and off stage.
“We really bao ka liao for this show!” exclaims Siti.
“It’s a very physical play in which the entire company is continually involved,” agrees Brendon.
The myriad demands and high expectations that come with performing in HOTEL have challenged the cast members to rise to the occasion – surprising themselves with what they can do when put to the test.
“I like how Ivan holds the bar for every one of his actors this high,” Sharda says, raising her hand high above her head to illustrate her point. “That’s a bar I sometimes don’t even realise I can set for myself. It’s really because we have two directors who have complete faith in the cast that we can do things we thought were impossible.”
Second Time’s The Charm
When HOTEL premiered at SIFA 2015, it played for just three performances, over four days.
“Sayang lah – there were so many things we had to deal with when we got into the theatre that, just when we were able to breathe easier, the show ended,” Siti recalls. “We didn’t get to settle in fully or feel like we owned it completely.”
“But now, because we’ve already done it before, we have a bit more breathing space,” adds Dwayne.
There’s little doubt that the actors in HOTEL have been profoundly affected by their own experiences of working on the show. Every one of them is keen to share everything they have learnt with audiences, including some alternative accounts of Singapore’s past that never made it into our history books.
“Whenever we paint history, we paint it in broad strokes, so it becomes very impersonal,” observes Sharda. “But, in HOTEL, history is painted for you so intimately.”
“We learned that we have a lot of stories in Singapore,” says Brendon. “It’s just that we’ve suppressed them, or forgotten about them. We haven’t taken care of these stories. We have so much in our history that just isn’t being used. We are more than the Merlion and the Marina Bay Sands.”