28 Sep 2018:
“I’ve been getting goosebumps a lot,” says Soultari Amin Farid, the co-artistic director of young theatre group Bhumi Collective. For the past four months, he and his team have been developing a new work called Sau(dara), which will be presented under Centre 42’s Vault programme on 5 and 6 October 2018. It is a contemporary response to Three Children, a landmark play by Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin that was staged in Singapore 30 years ago. That production was co-directed by Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director of TheatreWorks, and Krishen Jit, the late founder of Malaysia’s Five Arts Centre. And the reason Amin is getting goosebumps is that he has been learning about some unintended parallels between Sau(dara) and the original productions of Three Children.
“I had very little to work with in the beginning except the script,” explains Amin. “But then I had an unarranged meeting with Puay Tin at a conference recently, then I read the programme booklet of the 1992 production just two weeks ago, and then I watched the video of the 1988 production a few days ago, and I saw that I have incorporated quite a bit of the original staging into the piece. It’s like fate!”
Three Children is a play about childhood and memories. Through a series of disjointed vignettes, two sisters and a brother revisit their childhood home on Kappan Road in Malacca, recalling the games and incidents that they experienced as kids. In his director’s message for the 1992 production of the play, Keng Sen mentioned how important it was for his cast to draw from their personal experiences for their roles.
“One thing we were very clear of: the final production of 3 Children would spring from the imagination of the actors,” he wrote. “They would build the world of the children, viewed through children’s eyes. The directors would act as catalysts, pushing them to explore and confront themselves. The process was built on experience, memories; felt by the body rather than rationalised by the mind.”
Similarly, Sau(dara) is created based on the team’s own childhood memories. The title of the piece is a play on the Malay words “saudara”, meaning siblings or relatives; “sau”, which is the sound of wind; and “dara”, which refers to young women or virgins. It is collectively devised by an all-female cast – dancers Lyn Hanis Rezuan and Syafiqah Shaharuddin (Syafiq), singer and actor Suryana Norddin (Sue), and musician Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin (Syaf) – with Amin facilitating the process.
To get them started, Amin encouraged everyone to draw objects and memories from their childhood, which led to some very frank – and at times painful – discussions as they slowly opened up to each other. The team is honest in admitting that this was initially a challenge, as none of the cast members knew each other prior to this project, and none of them had ever devised a work from scratch before. Lyn, for example, struggled with the exercise because all she could recall was the verbal abuse that her mother hurled at her when she was young.
“At the time [of the exercise] I was like, hey what the heck, it’s not like they’re all gonna know how negative my earlier years were!” she says. “But then when Amin presented his stories first, I guess it helped that he was so sincere and honest about it. Which gave me the courage to open up a bit. And I’m glad we all did, because all our different memories helped to create genuine content for this piece.”
Each of the actors then went on to build their own monologues around particular themes or topics that they would like to explore. Lyn bravely followed through by delving into her difficult relationship with her mother, Sue questioned what it means to be a good friend, Syaf explored feelings of not being good enough, while Syafiq examined what it’s like to appear invisible to those she cares about. These are difficult things to work through, but Amin is grateful that everyone has embraced each other’s experiences with open hearts and minds.
“I remembered how we all felt that day listening to each other’s stories,” says Amin. “And in one of our recent runs, Lyn broke down whilst dancing to her voiceover and the others came to comfort her. That for me meant a lot more than focusing on a perfect product.”
Another parallel between the TheatreWorks production of Three Children and Bhumi Collective’s Sau(dara) is that both companies decided to incorporate traditional art forms into their performances. In the case of Three Children, the cast took lessons in voice, Chinese opera, and tai chi, as Krishen was a firm believer that mastering these techniques is crucial to good acting. For the Sau(dara) team, they became fascinated with the idea of wind and how it can sweep one’s troubles away, so Lyn suggested infusing elements of an Indonesian dance called Pakarena into the piece. She had learnt the dance when she was studying in Jakarta from a teacher who came from Sulawesi, the island that Pakarena originated from.
“The philosophy of the Pakarena dance is about hollowness and emptiness. It contrasts drastically with the traditional music that accompanies it, which shows that no matter how violent life can be, the wind is always there to guide you,” Lyn explains. “It’s hard to learn as it is mainly about patience and maintaining composure for the duration of the dance. But I’m trying my best to share my experience and knowledge with the girls in Sau(dara).”
The Pakarena dance in Sau(dara) will not be accompanied by drums and flutes like traditional performances, however. Neither will there be “an orchestra of percussions, flute, guitar and gu-zheng” like the 1988 production of Three Children. Instead, Syafiqah will be playing her accordion, which is, fittingly, a wind instrument.
To bring things full circle, there are also plans for the creative team to further develop this iteration of Sau(dara). In March 2019, Centre 42 and Bhumi Collective are hoping to bring the work across the Causeway to none other than Five Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur, for yet another cross-cultural exchange between the two countries. Just like the good ol’ days back in 1988.
“I feel like we are reliving history by partaking in this cross-border collaboration, especially since Three Children also was part of a transnational endeavour by two prolific figures, Ong Keng Sen and the late Krishen Jit,” says Amin. “My hope is that we continue to remember our history and the links we share between the two countries. I think cross-border exchanges will continue to influence our performance practice and I think that’s really wonderful, because it keeps us dynamic and quite attuned regionally and globally. I’m excited for the conversations and future aspirations!”
In the meantime, as part of Centre 42’s commemorative activities for the 30th anniversary of Three Children, we will also be holding a Living Room event here on 7 October. Audiences can hear from playwright Leow Puay Tin, actors Claire Wong (from the 1988 and 1992 productions) and Loong Seng Onn (from the 1992 production), who will reminisce about their experiences working on the play with theatre academic Robin Loon.