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Four Horse Road: An Interview with Kuo Jian Hong

Coming hot on the heels of their epic, multi-national production I came at last to the seas at Huayi 2018, The Theatre Practice (TTP) forges onwards with yet another ambitious production for the second show of 2018 with Four Horse Road, an epic work of immersive, experiential theatre charting the past 150 years of history along Waterloo Street.

One of the key reasons why the company was interested in working on such a project is of course, because TTP itself has been located along Waterloo Street for the past 30 years. Speaking to Four Horse Road director and TTP artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, she explains how unique the road is, a little slice of heritage nestled amidst shopping malls and developed business districts. She recalls when her father, local theatre legend Kuo Pao Kun, first moved to Waterloo Street and his fascination with the sheer diversity present: “Things have changed so much between each generation. The restaurants have shifted around, and to think that this place used to be just fields, and how the Stamford Arts Centre used to be a Japanese Primary School. With so many stories, we decided to dig deeper, and tell the stories of the inhabitants both historical and fictitious that used to roam this street.”

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Four Horse Road is co-conceptualised by Jian Hong and playwright Jonathan Lim, and will take place across The Theatre Practice, The Chinese Calligraphy Society and Centre 42, all neighbouring buildings along Waterloo Street. Says Jian Hong: “I could have put it all in a black box, but I’ve been wanting to expand and explore the way theatre continues to evolve in form and with the way audiences relate and experience it.”

She continues: “All theatre is in a sense immersive, and the presence of the audience and what kind of audience affects the way the show will play out. In the case of Four Horse Road, I wanted to give audiences a chance to experience seeing a show in a heritage building, where walking amongst this architecture allows you to simultaneously occupy both the contemporary space and the past, and think about how people in the past might have walked down these very same paths.”

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From TTP’s Instagram

Four Horse Road is a show that requires immense synchronisation and practice. Consisting of 10 segments taking place across the three buildings, audiences will be physically walking from space to space and watch history unfold before their very eyes. On their Instagram, TTP has even been working to show the changes buildings have undergone along the street by juxtaposing old photos with present day backgrounds.

Says Jian Hong: “Think of the show as a theme park, or maybe a live action museum. Each segment must end at almost precisely 10 minutes because of the time sensitive nature of the production, or else the delays will cause a domino effect. It’s a test of the actors’ skill, and there’s an art to how they’re meant to do a certain amount of improv yet not stray from the timing. You know how in dragonboating you can’t be faster or slower? It’s like that, where everyone has to move together, and there’s so many levels of understanding and coordination. Even with the show guides, they act as both usher and character, and everyone is equally important in the process to ensure the show runs smoothly.”

FHR_publicity photo (characters)

A whopping 20 cast members will be involved in the production of Four Horse Road, ranging from Frances Lee playing a Jewish nun to even Malay actor Al-Matin Yatim. Says Jian Hong: “We must have representation, but it’s not like I’m doing Chingay. It’s about having a range of content and styles, and telling interesting stories across the span of the 150 years of history. Beyond our standard Chinese Malay Indian categorisation, we have the whole range of ‘ang mohs’ from Russians to Jewish, and we’re trying to capture how as a port city, we had this diverse convergence of cultures and races.”

On the rehearsal process, Jian Hong has decided to challenge her actors and push them beyond their comfort zone. She says: “Things are only worth doing if they take effort. For example, Jo Tan and Gloria Ang are in a scene together, and Jo actually speaks Japanese while Gloria speaks Hokkien. But in the show, I swapped them around, and Jo will be speaking Hokkien while Gloria will be speaking Japanese. It’s a challenge, but at the end of the day, I asked whether they really wanted to be safe, and this was an opportunity for them to learn something completely new in the process.”

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Jo Tan

She elaborates: “There’s a lot of research that goes into this, like how even Frances’ ‘proper’ Hokkien is different from Jo’s ‘street’ Hokkien, and we do research based on oral archives and even firsthand experience. One day we met a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke coming out of the synagogue and asked if he’d heard about our show. It turns out he’s the rabbi, and he introduced us to a 100 year old Jewish grandfather. Our cast started coming up with questions like what kind of education a girl would receive in the past, to even how expressive a husband and wife would be in their relationship.”

Over 10 languages and accents will be used throughout the production, and Jian Hong has made the bold decision not to include surtitles. She explains: “There are some crazy scenes, like one where we have Hokkien, Japanese, Russian, English, Japanese accented English, Japanese accented Mandarin and Russian accented english. But even if you don’t understand everything that is being said, you can still get the gist of it. We tested audiences during rehearsal to see how much they understood, and based on their feedback, we tweaked it accordingly while still maintaining choices that remained authentic to these characters.”

Jian Hong concludes: “When my daughter came to see the rehearsal the other day, she was watching a scene set in World War II, and she asked why she couldn’t have watched it the week before, because she had a history test on the same topic! I’m not trying to invent the wheel here. What I’m doing is just experimenting with a new way of telling stories and unpacking history and shaping the way it is being done, and Four Horse Road is our way of bringing interesting characters and history itself to life..”

Photos courtesy of The Theatre Practice

Four Horse Road plays at The Theatre Practice from 4th – 28th April. Tickets available from SISTIC

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