Nine Years Theatre’s Dear Elena: An Interview with Nelson Chia, Mia Chee and Timothy Wan
Near the start of 2019, local theatre company Nine Years Theatre (NYT) announced their new season, starting with FAUST/US in February, original play First Fleet in July, before rounding off with a restaging of SIFA 2017’s Art Studio in October. But midway through, due to unforeseen circumstances, Art Studio was unable to proceed as planned, and the team had to find an alternative production to round off their year.
Enter Dear Elena Sergeevna, a Soviet drama by Russian playwright Lyudmila Razumovskaya. First encountered by NYT artistic director Nelson Chia 10 years ago, he rediscovered the play once again and was intrigued by its themes, working to translate the play into Mandarin and prepare the NYT ensemble for this new production. Says Nelson: “I first encountered the script while teaching in NAFA, when students were staging it for their graduation. It was an interesting script, but I never had any plans to stage it till now. With the cancellation of Art Studio this year, we thought about a play we could do which was smaller, more manageable and still had themes we wanted to bring across.”
Retitling the play Dear Elena, the play takes place over a single night as a group of students lock themselves and their teacher in her apartment in an attempt to falsify their exam scores for a brighter future, something their teacher is less than willing to comply with. Elaborating a little more about the themes of Dear Elena, Nelson explains: “Most of the works we do are about bringing across universal themes, so maybe that’s why we stick to classic works that have withstood the test of time. And I think Dear Elena is quite simply an interesting story that deals with some familiar issues of morality and antipathy.”
“There are two sides of the story,” he adds. “The teacher may appear to have the moral high ground, and the students in the wrong, but each one has their own valid reasoning and beliefs for acting that way. We then must see things through the perspective of each character, and through our presentation of each one, must create that possibility of expressing these other facets. Especially because they make references to huge themes and topics such as morality, evilness or religion, which is something I’ve been actively trying to find new ways of bringing out even within this seemingly realistic play.”
On the accessibility of such a play, Nelson explains: “Dear Elena is the kind of play you don’t need to know the context of before coming in, mostly because it deals with fundamentally universal concepts such as respect for each other, teacher-student relationships, and student life and psychology. When doing this play, I also thought a lot about how from generation to generation, our values change so much, whether it’s between myself and my parents, or my kids and myself. In the play, the students may initially be viewed as incorrect in their approach, but even within their lines, there are certain truths that come out in light of how the world has changed so much from the teacher to the students’ lives.”
Says cast member Timothy Wan: “I play a very smart, ace student who’s supposedly quite an all-rounder. Since the initial script read, the blocking has ended up quite different from what we imagined. On paper, it’s quite linear, and there’s a lot of stage directions, but the more you do it, the more you realise there’s actually a lot of things happening at the same time, and audiences have to make their own sense of what’s going on.”
Says Mia Chee, who plays the titular teacher Elena: “Elena is someone who’s very firm about her morality, but it’s not long before we realise that there’s quite a few different facets to her actually. When you first read the script, there’s that sense that it could end up just reading as a back and forth debate from start to end, and possibly repetitive. So as a group, we needed to find the essence of what we’re arguing about, and differentiate each moment during the argument theatrically.”
On the rehearsal process, Nelson’s role is that of a leader, yet there’s a very strong back and forth dynamic between both cast and director. Says Nelson: “We also experiment over the course of rehearsals. Often I’ll end up throwing the question back at them to find out what they think it all means, exploring as much of each scene as we can on paper before we go in, and figuring out how we can best build on each scene based on our discussions. The whole idea of having an ensemble is seeing these same people over and over again as they continue to accrue experiences and slowly but sure push at their artistry together, building on all that they’ve learnt.”
NYT has certainly risen over the years to become one of the go to theatre companies to catch for assurance of a good show, with the core team growing with each performance and always delivering while maintaining true to their ethos. The biggest production set for next year would be their production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters for SIFA 2020 (in collaboration with New York’s SITI Theatre), but Mia adds a little more on what we can expect for next year – a play directed by Cherilyn Woo (FAUST/US) after SIFA, an original script by Nelson in October, and a restaging of First Fleet come February. She adds: “We wanted to give more people a chance to watch First Fleet, especially given how it’s an original script and how much effort went into the production. We’ve also got some collaborations in the works, with a Taiwanese group that we’ll be presenting in maybe 3 years time that will tour both Taiwan and Singapore.”
In terms of the company’s future plans to continue expanding and developing, Nelson explains: “In the future, we do hope that we can continue to expand the ensemble, or create a more full time format for the core members. Maybe we could create a second or associate company, so we’ll have both a core team and a secondary team who still works closely with us, and helps expand the base for our actors.”
Currently, NYT offers an attractive discount on tickets for youths, but still hopes they can do more to develop the next generation of theatre. Says Nelson: “I’m always interested to provide and figure out how we can have more opportunities to grow the theatre scene for the next generation. But we’re not a big company and have limited resources, not enough to maintain a traditional youth platform like W!ld Rice with Young & W!ld or SRT with the Young Company. Since they have the resources and are willing to do it, they should and that’s good. But for us, we can’t use that same model, and we’ve been still trying to think out of the box and come up with something unique, related to the NYT ethos and still create a good programme with our resources to grow the scene in our own way.”
Ultimately though, NYT’s way forward is clear for Nelson and the team, and with each new production, have proven that they remain one of Singapore’s mainstay companies to always look forward to each time they put up a new show. Concludes Nelson: “Every work we do, I always try to see where and how I can push the artistry further, whether it’s changing habits, direction or staging. These aren’t going to be revolutionary or mind-blowing or anything, but step by step, at our own pace, I believe that NYT is evolving with each show and always getting better.”
Dear Elena plays from 17th to 20th October 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available from SISTIC
Dear Elena can also be bought with the 9-Fan and Gen-9 membership discounts. New members will be able to purchase a single ticket of Dear Elena at $23, 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.