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The Page on Stage: An Interview with Lee Thean-Jeen, Lim Yu-Beng and Janice Koh (Seven Views of Redhill)

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Following their last edition of The Page on Stage in July, this October, The Arts House continues their streak of successful stage adaptations of local literary short stories with their third and final instalment for the year – Dora Tan’s Seven Views of Redhill.

Once again pairing a television director with prominent local actors, this time around, Seven Views of Redhill is helmed by director Lee Thean-jeen, in his first stage work. Already known for his screen adaptations such as award-winning television series, AlterAsians and The Singapore Short Story Project, as well as the telemovie Gone Case and his feature film Bring Back The Dead, Lee will be working with cast members Janice Koh and Lim Yu-Beng in this bittersweet trip down memory lane.

Speaking to co-producer Tan Kheng Hua, we learnt that while this is the final edition of The Page on Stage for 2019, it certainly won’t be the last we’ve seen of it. “I’ve spoken to The Arts House, and we’re currently putting something together for the near future,” says Kheng. “I’ve always loved SingLit, and always thought that we should support it not because it’s Singaporean, but simply because it’s good.  I wanted to marry my love for it with my love for theatre, and doing things on this scale, it takes the pressure off you and you can get really creative and experimental with these spaces.”

“Because of the success of the first edition, that’s how we ended up with the additional 3 productions this year,” Kheng continues. “I knew I wanted writer-directors, of which there are so few in theatre but so many in TV. So I approached Raihan, Rajagopal and now Thean-jeen, and each of their experience brings such interesting perspectives to the work. For Thean-jeen in particular, I picked him in part because he’s adapted from page to screen. Plus, I once starred in one of his adaptations of a Simon Tay work, so it’s ended up coming full circle!”

We spoke to Thean-jeen, Janice and Yu-beng (also co-producer with Tan Kheng Hua) to find out a little more about the work before it premieres this week:

Bakchormeeboy: TJ, out of all the Balik Kampung stories, why was Seven Views of Redhill the one that stood out most for you?

Thean-jeen (TJ): This was the story that resonated most for me. I grew up in a small town in Malaysia, and while obviously I wasn’t around in the 1950s to experience the exact period when this story happens, I sort of related to that sense of moving fro ma small kampung to a slightly bigger kampung. There was that similar sense in Seven Views where you knew your neighbours a little too well, and everyone had their fingers in everybody else’s business. Over time, I’ve mingled with people from all walks of life, and the anecdotes and stories in Seven Views all felt so real to me, and that was my entry point.

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve mostly been working behind the camera for film and television, but this time really marks the first time you’re directing doing a theatre production.

TJ: It’s the first time doing a theatre production since…shoulder pads were in. The biggest difference is that while on film, you’re looking to capture specific moments and brief spurts of energy, on stage you’re really plotting and piecing together a performance from all these little moments.

Janice: But do you ever feel like you have no control compared to film? Like you want to reach out and touch and change something, but you don’t have that? After all, it’s not like you can fix it in post – it’s not like you can yell ‘cut!’ and try again during the show itself.

TJ: Well, they say 70% of directing is finding good actors, so since I have that, sometimes I  think can just fob off my responsibility and go about my day instead! (laughs) Honestly though, I think that we have a very good team working on this. With Kheng Hua and Yu-beng producing, and Yu-beng and Janice acting, I just felt this sense of comfort despite not having touched theatre in so many years.

Bakchormeeboy: What was the script adaptation process like, going from page to stage?

TJ: As much as I’m credited as scriptwriter, all three of us actually ended up working on it together. The original short story was essentially seven monologues, each one written in the first person and a distinct voice. When we adapted it, we were focusing on how we could distinguish the characters a lot better onstage.

Janice: Out of the 7 characters, 5 happen to be women, all played by me. I didn’t see the play before agreeing, and I was assured by TJ that it was just going to be a small, 40-minute play at the back of the chamber! I ended up grabbing the laptop and cutting lines here and there to help myself as well.

Bakchormeeboy: How did you guys (Yu-beng and Janice) feel when you guys first read the short story then?

Yu-beng: When I first read the short story, there was this almost metallic taste I suddenly got in my mouth. It’s definitely not just some warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned nostalgia story about what life was like back then, and really, it’s seven points of view of an incident that makes it a little Rashomon-like, that made it all very interesting.

Janice: The two things that jumped out at me were that one, I personally felt that we don’t treasure our heritage neighbourhoods enough, and stories like this one are quite important to the history of a neighbourhood, no matter how specific or personal they may be. A work of this kind helps to make concrete and flesh out these memories of these places.

Secondly, hearing some of these stories makes me go back to think about my own family gatherings, where in the old days, my extended family would regale us with stories of their own childhood and past, and I just liked being a part of that atmosphere, something which i think this show will end up recreating. The storytelling mode is attractive to me – it’s simple, yet it brings me such joy to bring it to life.

Bakchormeeboy: If the play is seven monologues, is it just going to be a case where Janice and Yu-beng each perform their segments one by one, or is there going to be some kind of interaction and theatrical element to it? 

TJ: One of the things we ended up developing for the stage was to input character interactions. We were always aware that we couldn’t completely stick to the original story wholesale, otherwise it’d just be Yu-beng for the first 5 minutes and Janice for the remainder of the show!

Janice: There are definitely challenges to adapting, especially for me with how to give each character a distinct voice. Dora wrote all these characters, but each one still speaks in her writing voice, and we need to figure out how to differentiate them with certain words or physicality.

TJ: In the original short story, there were all these markers she had in-between as well, indicating their name and age, and I didn’t want that – I wanted the whole experience to be a little more seamless.

Janice: So that boils down to a matter of helping audiences figure out which character I am at any one point. Heck, sometimes I don’t even know who I am at one point, and I’ll literally be going like whose text is this ah? Is it Dora’s? Is it ours? Have I made it up in my mind?! Those are all challenges that’ve been quite fun to iron out in the rehearsal room.

Yu-beng: TJ told me he just kept seeing me in this role onstage, and I’d never actually imagined I’d be wearing both my producer and actor hats at the same time. I’d forgotten that it’s not just a case of me walking in and delivering lines, and when I got back into the rehearsal space I realise there’ve been a lot of things I’ve taken for granted, such as my own entrenched styles that I’ve been taking the opportunity to re-examine. It’s been good and humbling and important to me as an artist. The Page on Stage does this cross-disciplinary thing so well, and we may think we’re great in our own fields already, but coming together and genuinely encountering each other and new texts, and making that text new again, demands a kind of openness from us all.

Janice: Honestly, I love it. That’s why I also do A Novel Idea for the Arts House with Daniel Jenkins. I love literature, and the idea of looking at a writer’s work closely. Giving it the respect it deserves and adapting it for a different medium is exciting and challenging and rewarding simply because it demands you look at things with a fresh pair of eyes.

I love that we have so much debate over what we should put in or shouldn’t put in, and working within those parameters. We’re not trying to rewrite Dora’s story, but do it justice onstage, this is what we have and we’re going to have some fun with it.

TJ: At the end of the day it’s still a huge transformation since you’re going from one medium to another. I’ve done adaptations for the screen before, and it’s all too easy to think ‘oh, my work is cut out for me. All I have to do is put character names and arrange the story in a script format.’ But the thing is, when the project starts, it dawns on you that there’s so much to think about to go from one medium to another. The process of transformation comes about because of that change in medium, while you’re still hoping you can maintain the essence of that work, the essence of what excited you about that story in the first place and not make it completely different, otherwise you might as well write an original script. For a lot of people, it’s never simple. Adaptation is a journey, where we transform the text while retaining a part of it.

Janice: Actually TJ, what’s the difference between adapting short stories for stage and screen?

TJ: With screenwriting, you’re really throwing the writer’s imagination into a world that’s real and very visual. So you might want to set this story in a real flat for example, but bring out the essence through the details, like the texture of the walls and the furniture that’s there, and the location. You’re basically applying what’s in the writer’s imagination and trying to see what you can pull off in the real world. In theatre however, you’re looking at things from a far more abstract perspective, with narrative, characters and the emotional arc all confined to a single room with the audience, versus the screen where you literally flesh out everything.

The interesting thing about an intimate space like this is that unlike film, where to an extent you can ignore the audience and figure out who to pitch it to after, you can’t ignore how there’s gonna be 50 people here watching the actors walk about. As they recollect their thoughts, they’re going to be speaking directly to audience members, and there’s an immediacy to live theatre. That’s why this space is perfect for Seven Views. You come in and it feels like you’re being invited into the home of this family, where the space itself has ended up becoming a physical representation of that, and a great platform overall to just pull audiences in and tell the story. 

Bakchormeeboy: Speaking of adaptations, how much leeway did Dora give in terms of adaptation?

Yu-beng: Generally, we like to give our writer-director as much freedom as possible to adapt each story, and we explain this to the writer that it’s a new process, we’re creating a new artwork. We do ask them for clearance though, like how for Missing,  Rajagopal wanted to do some things that Swee San went ‘no lah’, and they understand because they’re friends in real life anyway. But for the most part, there’s a lot of freedom.

Bakchormeeboy: What do you hope audiences get out of this?

TJ: Seven Views of Redhill is a story that’s locked into a specific place and time, but at its heart, it’s a story about a family comprising a mother, 2 sons and 4 daughters, and their experiences living in one flat in Redhill in the late 50s. And whether or not you lived in that time or a flat like that, you’re still either a mother a son or a daughter. The story still resonates, and it’s not a story about a flat or a place. It’s a story about people. There’ll be moments you see these characters and know that you’ve met and known them before in some form, and there’ll be familiar emotions and experiences. That’s the journey I hope to take audiences on.

Seven Views Of Redhill plays from 10th to 13th October 2019 at The Arts House. Tickets available from Peatix

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