Artist Spotlight: Jonathan Lim and Elaine Chan, Creative Forces Behind Diva To The Death
Think fancy dinners out are getting boring? Think again. Diva to the Death marks the latest immersive dining experience to hit Singaporean shores, and is the debut production of new company Bite Me Productions. Each night, the Fullerton’s Monti restaurant will be transformed into a bloody battleground as jazz extraordinaire Desiree de Souza (Candice de Rozario) and Getai queen Mong Cha Cha (Audrey Luo) interrupt diners with a diva to the death – vying for the prestigious titles of Queen of Monti!
Behind Diva to the Death lies an impressive creative team, with none other than Chestnuts mastermind Jonathan Lim spearheading the script and acclaimed composer/music director Elaine Chan taking charge of music arrangement. We spoke to both Jonathan and Elaine about just how they came to get involved with this outrageously fun production, and play devil’s advocate as we ask them which celebrities they’d love to see diva to the death in real life. Read the full interview below!
Bakchormeeboy: How were you brought onto the project, and where did the idea for Diva to the Death first stem from?
JONATHAN: Charles Pan (half of Bite Me) introduced me to Celeste Chong (other half of Bite Me) as the kind of person crazy enough to tackle something site-specific in a crowded restaurant. So we set out to find a venue that would become a playground for a 100% immersive and interactive experience. We agreed that we would let the venue define the show, and when we saw Monti and felt its jazzy elegance, I knew we had to play with that, and if possible, clash with it comedically. And thus, the Jazz begot the Getai, which begot the duelling divas.
ELAINE: Jon brought me in and intrigued me with the concept of bringing musical theatre to a dining experience. I have done similar shows before but the difference in this production lie in that the characters and plot is SET in the restaurant, as opposed to just performing a non-restaurant themed story.
Bakchormeeboy: Jonathan, how has navigating the unique, non-traditional performance space of Monti been both a challenge and inspiration for Diva to the Death?
JONATHAN: Site-specific work has been my passion since I started creating my own shows 20 years ago. I’m always thrilled to craft drama to wrap around a space and fill all its books and crannies – and a space like Monti is perfect – it’s an arena in itself, with its own performance dynamics, yet is full of charming surprises like rooftops and balconies and corridors – so we’re gonna play with all of them!
As a jazz venue, Monti has an ongoing music performance vibe that we are embracing and building on – this allows the whole Diva experience to grow organically out of the space rather than be something tacked onto a rented venue. And the drama revolves around the struggle for power in the restaurant, so the dramatic reality really soaks into the spatial reality to a delightful degree. Sometimes you really can’t tell where the performance begins or ends!
And that view. And being by the bay. Gosh. What an inspiring place to perform.
Bakchormeeboy: Elaine, will we be seeing any original songs being composed for Diva to the Death? Which artists did you turn to for inspiration for the songs that represent each character?
ELAINE: Not as far as I know. As it caters mainly to a non-theatrical audience, we both concurred that it’ll be easier for audience to engage with familiar tunes. The twist will lie in how we infuse and mash up different tunes within specific styles. We talked and workshopped various songs and styles that must fit in with Jon’s storyline. For example, for Candice’s character Desiree, we naturally thought of either Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra for the Swing songs of the 1940s-60s to open the show. Later, we thought of Adele tied to Joan Jett’s for a contemporary, darker, emotive sound for the character. For Audrey’s Mong Cha Cha, it was fun because it was in Getai Land so we could use Ge Lan’s Wo Yao Ni De Ai (我要你的爱) for a playful and sassy performative moment.
Bakchormeeboy: Jonathan, you’ve worked with both actresses Candice de Rozario and Audrey Luo before, how different has the rehearsal process been from, say a Chestnuts show, and were there any actual diva moments that ensued in the leadup to the show?
JONATHAN: Haha we know each other too well and been through too much together to be divas around each other!
Chestnuts is so much about speed and versatility and being transformers, whereas these characters need to be so much more solid – solid enough to interact with for real.
It’s a very challenging style of performance, requiring a tightly-disciplined sense of comedy woven with a flair for comedic improv. To make it tougher, the subtle massaging of OTT (over the top) characters in a totally naturalistic setting requires a cast capable of both great harmony and counterpoint. So it wouldn’t have been possible without them!
Bakchormeeboy: Elaine, how does working on Diva to the Death differ from your work on more traditional, non-immersive theatre shows?
ELAINE: I usually work and perform with a live band for most theatre shows. The smaller physical limits (i.e. little space for a band) may seem daunting but at the same time, challenging. Without a live band, it still has to come across to the audience very “live”, so we’ll have to plan and rehearse well to ensure that the delivery of both punch lines and singing moments are spot on.
Bakchormeeboy: Immersive dining experiences are still a relatively new concept in Singapore. How can one make the most of their experience during this show? Should they come in with any expectations, or be ready to get involved with the ensuing catfight?
JONATHAN: Expect a shiok night out. It’s not a gala, it’s not an arts fest – so just let your hair down and relax! Come with friends and just party, and expect the unexpected. Whatever happens, roll with it. It’s like Inception – we can only bend buildings if you surrender yourself fully to the inception! So buy into everything – switch off the skepticism and the suspicion and the second-guessing, and let yourself believe…
But at the same time, be respectful! In this ‘real’ social space, real social rules apply – so treat the divas as you would want to be treated if you were a diva!
ELAINE: I think they should just be prepared to relax, enjoy and participate in the show. And yes, if need be, be ready to respond to the ensuing catfight, it’ll then be a true immersive experience!
Bakchormeeboy: We all love a good celebrity feud. Which two real life divas would you like to see battle it out?
JONATHAN: RuPaul versus Kumar.
ELAINE: Lady Gaga versus Beyonce.
Bakchormeeboy: Finally, Team Mong Cha Cha, or Team Desiree de Souza?
JONATHAN: Not fair to ask me! I wrote both. I’m on everybody’s side. In a pinch, I’d say Team Leung Tai Lup – that’s my character, the boss.
ELAINE: I’ll leave this decision to the audience to decide. After all, I should stay impartial (especially if I have to work through the rehearsal process!)
Diva to the Death plays at Monti at The Fullerton Pavilion, 82 Collyer Quay, Singapore 049213 from 2nd February – 2nd March. Each ticket includes supper and 2 cocktails (or 2 non-alcoholic mocktails for non-drinkers), and are available from Peatix. On Fridays and Saturdays, guests can stay on after the show to continue partying as Monti transforms into The Hendricks, a 1920s-themed Jazz & Hip-hop club.