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Creating an Epic: Chatting with the Directors and Playwrights of HOTEL – By Tiara Yap

It’s hard not to marvel at the creative genius and hard work that went into constructing a five-hour epic like HOTEL. Directors Ivan Heng and Glen Goei and playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten reveal just what it takes to create a theatrical blockbuster!

Hotel Singapura

HOTEL was first conceptualised as part of the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts, in accordance with its theme of ‘Post-Empire’.

Ivan had long been toying with the idea of a hotel as a metaphor for what Singapore used to be and still is now. “We spend significant moments of our lives in a hotel,” he says. “Then we leave, the chambermaids come in, and basically remove all traces of us in preparation for the next guest to arrive. It also doubles as a metaphor for life.”

When he brought this to the table for discussion, the idea immediately appealed to his fellow collaborators.

“We also wanted to tell a different version of the SG50 story, one that delves into Singapore’s history before 1965,” Glen chimes in. “Setting the play in a grand hotel works very well, as it would have served as a witness to the different ups and downs in Singapore’s history.”

First table read of the script with cast and creative team

Journey to the Past

The show took the playwrights and directors, in collaboration with a cast of 13 actors, a year to put together.

In order to present the different characters and eras authentically, research was a critical part of the process. “I became quite an omnivorous reader,” says Alfian. “I read plays by Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward to get a sense of how the British upper crust spoke; books about the Japanese Occupation; and newspaper articles published in the week after Separation to get a sense of the public mood, which is very different from that of the political elites.”

Their research also gave both playwrights a greater appreciation for the wealth of narrative potential to be found in Singapore’s history.

“There is so much more to Singapore – so many more stories, a vast expanse of history that has been kept out of the citizenry’s imagination – that I think people ought to consider and explore,” Marcia observes. “People are made of stories, after all, and what is a nation but collective memory? Or, in Singapore’s case, a collective delusion?”

Improvisation is serious business for the cast of HOTEL!

Working It Out

Two workshops, each lasting a fortnight, were held months before rehearsals started. In the first workshop, the actors were tasked to research a decade in Singapore’s history. “Going back generations, they mined the history of Singapore and the world, as well as their own life experiences,” says Ivan.

The team then spent the second workshop generating material, with actors improvising scenes inspired by their research. Although several scenes did not make the final cut, they nonetheless inspired the stories that play out on stage.

“Some of the best ideas came from the actors,” Marcia confirms. “Even though we went away and wrote the scenes on our own, the cast had ownership, too, of some of the general ideas that went through the play.”

In fact, many characters who pop up in HOTEL grew out of particular skill sets that the actors possess.

“If an actor could sing, then I’d be inspired to write a scene where there’s singing involved,” Alfian explains. “If an actor could speak Japanese, then this allowed me to tell a story from the Japanese perspective, rather than that of those who suffered under their rule.”

The entire process has been refreshing and inspiring for Alfian. “I’d really like to continue with this kind of actor-centred playwriting in the future,” he muses, “Where I cast a play first, with only a brief outline of what it is about, and then work closely with an actor to flesh it out.”

No pain, no gain! Glen and Ivan sharing a laugh during rehearsals

The Show Must Go On!

Constructing HOTEL had its fair share of challenges and obstacles.

Writing the script was an arduous, monumental undertaking that saw Alfian and Marcia polishing and re-tooling scenes right down to the last minute. The final version of the script was completed a mere three days before bump-in. “We were just so panicky… it was crazy,” Glen admits.

Directing a five-hour play with scenes in nine different languages was no picnic either. For the first time ever, Ivan had to direct scenes in Japanese and Cantonese, languages that he and most of the actors in those scenes neither spoke nor understood.

How did he and the cast overcome this challenge? “With a great deal of perseverance, patience and hard work,” he laughs. The actors also had language coaching and learned to break down their lines “so they could say a word with meaning”.

That, however, was not the toughest problem he had to overcome. “For me, the most challenging thing was to find a narrative spine in the show that would bring the 11 scenes and decades together: to have a beginning and an end, and to ensure that what was being said in one scene would resonate in another.”

The team behind HOTEL at curtain call

It Takes A Village

Were they expecting the acclaim HOTEL received? “We had no time to think about such things,” Glen recalls. “Ivan and I watched the show in its entirety for the first time during the dress rehearsal. I think we were all terrified about just getting the show on the road.”

The only clue he got that hinted at the possibility of HOTEL becoming an instant success was the hug he received from a critic after the first show. “You never get a hug from a critic – anywhere in the world!” he exclaims. “But to get a response like that… it gave me the sense that we were on to something.”

On Monday, HOTEL won four major awards at the 2016 M1-Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, including Production of the Year, Best Director, Best Playwright and Best Ensemble.

Glen is emphatic about one thing: HOTEL would not exist without the effort, passion and talent of every single person who worked on the show. “HOTEL was a collaboration in the truest sense of the word,” he says. “It was alchemy: 30 people who really believe in the show, just working together to create something good.”

Ivan hopes HOTEL will enable audience members to take a step back and examine themselves and the world they live in. “So much of our lives are spent looking at our differences and at what divides us,” he says. “But, in HOTEL, we are doing the opposite. We have this sweeping perspective of time that allows both artists and audiences to see what it is that connects us all as human beings. Ultimately, we are all travellers that are just here for the duration.”

HOTEL, runs throughout the Singapore Theatre Festival from 30 June to 24 July 2016! Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!

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