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Review: A Grand Design (An audio experience) by Checkpoint Theatre

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A timely lesson on conservation that takes us from the dorms of NUS to the end of the world.

Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips is a 27 year old part time poet, and educator in wildlife conservation. So what exactly is it that makes her worth listening to in A Grand Design, Checkpoint Theatre’s newest audio release?

As it turns out, some big concerns about the very fate of humanity itself.

Written and performed by Cheyenne, and directed by Chen Yingxuan, A Grand Design is a brief monologue about the ever-growing importance of environmental conservation. Originally slated to be performed during  the 2020 NUS Arts Festival, in its new form as an audio experience, Cheyenne’s commentary has been juxtaposed against a vibrant soundscape of birds, bugs and storms to take our ears to the very heart of nature. 

As much as it is about the importance of conservation, A Grand Design never comes across as a heavy-handed plea to save the world, but rather, takes the form of an almost documentary-like performance. Over the hour-long experience, Cheyenne spends the majority of her time educating us on scientific concepts such as species, evolution, and ethics, using her background in environmental studies to teach these in layman terms.

Each concept is broken down into bite-sized, easily understandable ideas, made relatable through her ability to link each one to fun anecdotes about herself. Memories of dealing with a difficult visitor at the wildlife park, or her growing up in a Catholic household and being taught the origin of the world find their way into the monologue that keeps our ears pricked and engaged throughout. One particularly fun moment even sees her ‘performing’ an academic text as a hip hop track.

With Cheyenne’s performance, it’s easy to feel like a young student again, exposed to all these scientific facts and seeing the world through her eyes – constantly curious, and deeply fascinated by all that she’s surrounded by. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the rich descriptions she employs, from turning the act of prawning into a science experiment, to tales of a melodramatic beetle that simply wants to get her attention.  Cheyenne’s enthusiasm is infectious, and we’re all too happy to join her as she shapes these realms in our mind’s eye.

There are times however, that makes it obvious A Grand Design would benefit from the live experience and performative elements. At one point, Cheyenne raises a ‘quiz’ to listeners that warrant active audience participation, something that is lost in this pre-recorded format. Throughout the experience, Cheyenne’s attempt to balance scientific lessons with her personal life also feels shaky at times, where as entertained as we are, we’re often left wanting her to link her anecdotes more strongly to the concepts. It often feels like we’re merely getting a glimpse into Cheyenne’s world, rather than being emotionally anchored to her, and leave the experience interested in science but never really getting to the heart of Cheyenne herself.

Still, by the time we reach the last five minutes, Cheyenne’s work finds its crux, delivering the performance’s key message. By showcasing how much wonder there is in the world, she makes us feel the pain of imagining losing it all if we do not learn to care more about the world around us. It is this intricate, grand design that life itself has created, delicately holding the world together that is encapsulated in Cheyenne’s simple but effective performance, that will leave you reminded to cherish the things around us while we still can.

A Grand Design was available to listen to till 12th July 2020, 11.59pm on Spotify and Soundcloud. For more information, visit their website here  Look out for the live staging of the work in the coming months, in Checkpoint Theatre’s collaboration with NUS Centre for the Arts and Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

 

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