Time Out Singapore: ‘The Book of Living and Dying’ Preview

With the story of The Book of Living and Dying involving a New York transvestite, a dark secret and a cat that apparently holds the key to their destinies, Gwen Pew catches up with the playwright, Chong Tze Chien, to find out more about how this bizarre plot came about.

Scene from 'The Book of Living and Dying'. Image courtesy of Esplanade Theatre.

Scene from ‘The Book of Living and Dying’. Image courtesy of Esplanade Theatre.

3 May 2013:

The plot of The Book of Living and Dying is pretty wacky – how did the idea first come about?
We spent ten days at a Tibetan monastery in China for research before embarking on the writing process. Each playwright had to write a 15-minute playlet that consolidated and encapsulated their ideas, thoughts and impressions on reincarnation and karma. We convened in Singapore a few months later for a three-week writing workshop based on the playlets and the story of Martina, his adopted daughter and her cat emerged from this process.

The play itself was written by you and three others; how did the four of you divvy up the writing?
Right after we came up with the story of Martina and his daughter, I gave each playwright specific scenes/episodes in the characters’ lives (and past lives) to write. I consolidated all the scenes and used them as a narrative template for the play. Many of the playwrights’ ideas and words were either reinterpreted or recontextualised in new scenes written by me.

What was the research process like?
It was a fruitful and eventful ten days spent at the monastery. We had a monk as our teacher and guide throughout our stay. We would wake up in the wee hours of the day for morning rituals, followed by scriptures class where we had to chant in Tibetan and study Tibetan Buddhism after lunch. It was an immersive experience, both spiritually and mentally. Each night the entire company of actors, playwrights and designers would convene in my hotel room where we would share our thoughts and personal stories in writing and design exercises to help us articulate and process what we had experienced every day. Those ten days spent with our monk/teacher not only helped clarify concepts and questions we had about Tibetan Buddhism, but it also gave us much fuel and inspiration for the writing and designing process thanks to the rich source material and sights in the monastery, some of which were out of bounds to tourists – but we had private access thanks to our monk/teacher.

The last time you staged the show, tickets allegedly sold out within 30 minutes; why do you think it’s so popular?
It could be attributed to the fact that the company has a loyal following; our fans know us for our imaginative staging and powerful stories. We usually sell out our week-long runs in our normal season. Many fans knew with only two shows for our arts festival premier, tickets would be snapped up quickly; many were on standby to reserve tickets on that morning the arts festival ticket site opened for registration. The site couldn’t handle the orders that came pouring in at one point.

There’s an element of shadow play in this – can you tell us a bit more about it?
As the play traces the bond between mother and child since the beginning of time, the script calls for fantastical images such as the birth of the universe. To recreate this, we redesigned our puppet lights apparatus so that it could project revolving shadow images in 360 degrees, much like an explosion of stars and galaxies. This apparatus is used to project revolving shadow images on the walls, creating an experience that is not unlike sitting inside an Omnimax theatre where images wrap around you and your peripheral vision.

Will you be doing anything different with this production?
Last year, we didn’t have enough technical equipment for the production as we had a makeshift blackbox for the Singapore Arts Festival premiere. We hope to realise the full design flourishes as originally intended with this second staging.

What are the most challenging aspects of putting the show together?
The source material is rich and complex. It has been a long and tedious process trying to convey the ideas and philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism in an accessible but thought provoking way in just under 90mins. The play is not a religious treatise, but a spiritual one that speaks to everyone about the connections and emotional ties we have with one another. As such, the biggest challenge has been trying to make the play as universal as it can be even though the source material is specific to a religion.

What should the audience expect from this performance?
Expect an emotional and visual roller coaster ride that takes you to the beginning and end of time, quite literally.

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