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Nine Years Theatre’s First Fleet (第一舰队): An Interview with Director Nelson Chia


Following FAUST/US earlier this year, Nine Years Theatre returns this week for their second production of the year – an original work about the first British fleet to step foot onto what would eventually become Australia, aptly titled First Fleet. Written and directed by Nelson Chia, we posed a number of questions to the Nine Years Theatre Artistic Director to find out a little more about what we can expect from this play when it premieres. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: What was the inspiration behind First Fleet and why is now an opportune time to adapt it for the stage?

Nelson: I’ve always been interested in colonialism in general. Last year, I came across Australia’s history of convict transportation and found out about how officer Ralph Clark of the First Fleet rehearsed a play with a group of convicts. I went on to read Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s stage adaptation of the novel, Our Country’s Good, and other records on the subject. Taking inspiration from these materials, I then created First Fleet

In this play, the character of Lieutenant Ralph Clark said, “Performing someone else’s story is an empathetic practice; learning to appreciate other people’s stories is a practice of being inclusive.” Other people’s stories can also be our stories, and through this play, I am more concerned and interested about exploring the human condition.

Bakchormeeboy: This is the first time NYT will be performing a main stage work at the SCCC, with audiences seated on the stage. Could you tell us more about this collaboration?

Nelson: The seating arrangement was an attempt to find new ways to use the SCCC auditorium, and also an attempt to bring the performance closer to the audience.

One of SCCC’s aim is to promote local Chinese culture. With NYT as one of the important Mandarin theatre companies in Singapore, it was quite natural that we came together to find ways to build our relationship. In addition, SCCC has also assisted in providing rehearsal venues and publicity resources. But fundamentally, I think they have confidence and interest in the high quality work that NYT has been producing (if I may say that myself).

Bakchormeeboy: Following Lear is Dead, why did you decide to bring back both Jodi Chan and Shu Yi Ching for this production as guest performers, and what is it about them that makes their presence resonate so well with the NYT ensemble? Are there any plans of adding them to the core ensemble?

Nelson: Both of them trained pretty regularly with NYT in our fundamental training systems which include the Suzuki Method and Viewpoints. More importantly, they had been introduced to parts of the approach to performance that the NYT Ensemble has been developing with me – The Paradoxical Body: The NYT Actors’ Work – during Lear Is Dead. I wanted to deepen that relationship. NYT has always been on the lookout for potential ensemble members, but it is not easy. The demands made on the actors are actually high and requires some adjustment and maturity on the actors’ parts. 

Screenshot 2019-07-08 at 4.40.23 PM

Bakchormeeboy:  Much like Lear is Dead, First Fleet adopts a play within a play format at the ship’s crew work together to put on a play. Why has NYT decided to continue pursuing such a theatrical style?

Nelson: This is a style that was more challenging because of the actor-character-audience relationship I am exploring. As I mentioned in the house programme of our last play Lear Is Dead, I like to open up the framing device of a theatre. I think the central idea of featuring the meta-theatricality is to offer the possibility of seeing ourselves with-in the play, and our lives with-out the play. In Lear is Dead, actors and characters are clearly separated.

When we were rehearsing First Fleet, the actors asked, “In this scene, are we the actor or are we portraying the character?” I answered, “you only have one identity this time, that is – “actor/character”, or as I call it, “char-actor”. This is how I explained to them: I’m pushing the “a-play-within-a-play” to another level this time, which is mainly reflected in the overlap and coexistence between the two spaces of the “actual theatre” and the “fictional world”. The “actual theatre” is bearing the “fictional world”; the “fictional world” in turn, reference back to the “actual theatre”.

More importantly, the demarcation between the two spaces is “fluid”. Through the performance of the actors, the ratio of the spaces between “actual” and “fictional” rendered at any time changes. The distinction between actors and characters also flows and changes; in other words, they can be the actors and the characters at the same time. In regards to this, I am being influenced by the Quantum Theory. But that’s another topic for another time. 

Bakchormeeboy: Due to its content, First Fleet naturally invites comparisons to ideas of colonialism and Singapore’s own colonial past. What are your own thoughts on colonialism, and how we, now being in a post colonial world, should treat our history? 

Nelson: We all already know what colonialism is, but what I’m more interested in are the post-colonial sentiments. We are sort of in a different phase of the post-colonial era – we are over going in and taking over what the other come to think of as theirs, instead we are very fixated about closing ourselves up and protecting what we come to think of as ours.

First Fleet plays from 18th to 21st July 2019 at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (Level 9). Tickets available from SISTIC

Members of the 9-fans club will be able to purchase a single ticket of First Fleet at $28, with a 15% discount applied for subsequent ticket purchases. Audience aged between 16 to 25 years old will be able to purchase a single ticket at $18 under the Gen-9 club initiative.


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