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The Theatre Practice’s year of change and convergence: An Interview with Artistic Director Kuo Jian Hong

The Theatre Practice (Practice) may have originally been known as a Mandarin theatre company, but thanks to the team’s efforts over the years, the company has continually changed and evolved in its identity. No longer simply producing ‘Mandarin’ works, the company has included and involved artists of all ethnicities in their productions (such as Four Horse Road). Even with a pandemic, Practice adapted to the restrictions, and began taking their works online with a digital version of their annual Patch! Theatre Festival of Play.

Now, they’re back for a brand new, digital adaptation of their 2013 work The Bride Always Knocks Twice. Previously a live stage performance, the work has now been rebranded with the subtitle Killer Secrets, and takes the form of a participatory murder investigation. As investigators, audience members enter a house outside time and space and get to meet seven women from different eras. When one of them gets murdered, it’s up to us to figure out who exactly is guilty among them.

Chapter 3: Crime Scene 第三章:犯罪现场

To find out more about the production and how Practice has been doing over the past year, we spoke to Practice artistic director Kuo Jian Hong. “We were originally meant to do a restaging of Four Horse Road in August, but with all the uncertainty still in the air, we knew we couldn’t take a second hit if we had to shut it down again, not just from a financial level, but also from a morale level as well,”” says Jian Hong.

“For Killer Secrets, we constructed it fully aware that live theatre might face a full shutdown again, especially with how much the pandemic situation has fluctuated,” she continues. “Even with the vaccine, you’re only as good as your weakest link. In 2020, it was unthinkable that we would probably only be able to travel in 2022, but now, I’ve prepared myself that it may last till 2025.”

“In my mind, I’ve been thinking about how we can approach those limitations as a company, and what we can still control. So that’s why programmes like Patch! went digital, and the physical, on-site elements of Killer Secrets became optional, knowing that maybe two-thirds of our audience wouldn’t be coming to the physical space.”

This has been a trying time for the arts scene in general, and we wondered how Practice was keeping up the good spirits and pressing on to make work in spite of all the difficulties. “I don’t think artists have to be optimistic about it. In fact, a lot of artists actually have depression,” says Jian Hong. “But I think we do work to find optimism, and in finding work, we find possibilities in making things, and I personally find the process of making something very empowering.”

“Through the pandemic, our means and meaning for existence as artists were taken away from us, in this forced ‘break’ we’re facing. Throughout this time, we’ve missed having that live element,” she continues. “When we did something as simple as Zoom shows and workshops for kids, seeing them and hearing them was so emotional, and you could see everyone was trying to hold back our tears. We crave that human connection more than anything else.”

Practice has never purely been about churning out shows; the work always has to mean something, not just for the company, but also for the audience and other stakeholders involved. “For me, I think I’m more pragmatic than pessimistic,” says, Jian Hong, regarding the survival of the company. “Sure, if I’m alone I’d just draw or sing or whatever, but there’s a lot of people involved with Practice; not just our staff, but even our freelancers and partners.”

“When we closed Four Horse Road, there was an outpouring of emotional support from everywhere. So many of them may be invisible when things are going smoothly, but these are people rooting for us no matter what, and we do carry the emotions and the expectations of people who care. It takes a village, even beyond the people in the company, from the freelancers to the parents who send their kids to our classes. We see messages coming in to text us when they walk by and see that our doors are closed.”

Still, these are considered early days for digital theatre, and many audience members who still have yet to get used to the idea of watching a show online. “Some people may not like it, but they’re always very transparent about it. Some of them will even tell us that they’ve bought tickets for friends, or people they do think will appreciate it,” says Jian Hong.

“I do think that what we’re trying to do is find the convergence between scenes; you can see how hawkers have been mobilising group buying and support through social media. And similarly, the theatre scene has gone from working with architects to working with coders.”

“So with Killer Secrets, we were figuring out what aspects of the digital we needed to adapt, and what we needed to keep from physical shows,” she continues. “Live elements are our strength, so we had to maintain that in say, the interrogation segment. Our actresses became superwomen; it’s not often an actor gets to straddle filming, improv and live acting all in the same project. And essentially, we’re created an exciting sandbox to invite all these friends I don’t usually get to work with to create a work together.”

In creating the work, Jian Hong worked alongside longtime collaborators Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiaoyi. But in terms of the actual collaboration, Jian Hong reveals that, for the most part, they’ve actually been sharing Google Docs with each other and working remotely. “Years ago I brought both of them onboard for the original script, and honestly we work well together,” says Jian Hong.

“They’re both very blunt and have healthy egos, and all three of us don’t pull any punches when it comes to work. Yes, there are times the debate gets nasty, but none of it is ever personal, and always related to the work. They’re solid sparring partners, and after those times, we do chill out, talk to each other about our process, and all of that helped build up the foundation of our working relationship.”

“It’s important to have that balance of cheerleaders and people who can be critical of each other, otherwise you’d become an echo chamber. We need people to criticise us lovingly, and to identify what doesn’t work, especially when we work on it for so long, there’s always blindspots.”

That sense of balance extends to Practice, as a company, as well. “Everyone in the company has different support systems. Some people are more comfortable talking, some people aren’t, and over time, we learn about who we can go to for support, depending on what exactly we need help with. Someone with a more nurturing approach may not always be the right person for every single issue after all,” she says.

“Art making requires different skill sets – some people move fast, some people move slow, and you need both of these types of people. And when it comes to a show, it’s never left purely up to the artistic director’s decision. We talk about it a lot as a team, and that includes our partners and stakeholders as well,” adds Jian Hong.

“Practice’s work is never just work that I want to do, but to think about what other people want as well, such as how Xiaoting and FERRY made POPPY and how we had It’s Not About The Numbers involving associate artists. It’s all about being there to create a platform responding to the needs on the ground, and project into the future regarding the relationship between audiences and live work and digital work.”

When it comes to getting work off the ground in Singapore, companies are often reliant on government grants from the National Arts Council (NAC) to fund the project, something Jian Hong has actively been moving away from, and widening her reach of sources instead.

“We have to develop the muscle not to constantly rely on government grants. Of course, some companies will be at different stages from us, and it’ll be more critical to them, but the issue isn’t so much the actual support so much as the way it is developed,” she says. “Killer Secrets, for example, is a Singapore Tourism Board (STB) project, and we got the support of Hotel Soloha as well, so rather than the ‘arts’ we’re looking at tourism and hospitality as a ‘sideways’ means of producing the work.”

“I do think that NAC is working hard and that they care deeply to help the arts sector. But perhaps the process of developing that support framework isn’t rigorous enough, because it’s not a case of one size fits all,” she adds. “It’s important to listen to what’s happening on the ground, and how to cater to different needs.”

“Sometimes having the best intentions alone does not lead to the best solutions. In the pandemic, companies and artists and industries have grown closer, leveraging on each other’s resources and crossing into each other’s zones to use each other’s talent better. Perhaps then, policies can also involve more industries and stat boards rather than just NAC alone.”

It is with this mindset that Practice has therefore moved boldly into the digital sphere, experimenting with the form and becoming more sure of it the more they used it. “We do lose money from the project, but we have so many people working together on it, and we’ve learnt how to do so much from it. These are people who I’m excited to work with, so when the opportunities present themselves, we jump at it.”

“There’s still plenty to be optimistic about, and we’ve seen how people have been supporting us – a colleague in Taiwan helped us sell 63 tickets for this show, where she collated the orders herself,” she adds. “A digital work has so much space to extend itself, and use the creative process to keep evolving from one draft to another. It’s just about taking the chance to create these platforms and opportunities for ourselves.”

“Look at the gaming industry – last time it was just buying a cartridge and playing individually, but years ago, they already moved into MMOs, and how even within this virtual world, they have limited time events, so they’re already way ahead of us when it comes to ‘live theatre’ in the virtual world.”

With the pandemic in place, everything Practice has been planning for has been redone, and the idea of a ‘season’ no longer as stable as before. “The pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t plan, it just means we have to change the way we do it,” says Jian Hong. “Let’s say someone is buying food, some people plan a whole week of groceries, and buy exactly what they need. But then you have a zhichar store, where they always hang up all the green onions and ingredients, and you don’t know what else is inside but they can somehow cook a lot of things. It’s the same with planning. This period has helped us train the different kinds of ‘muscles’ we have, and we’re now planning for possibilities over the next five years.”

As such, Practice has long shed its label of being a Mandarin theatre company, instead adopting an almost fluid state of adaptability and change. “We can’t stop people from putting labels on us. But I suppose if we want to get labelled, we want to be known as a company that’s always evolving and changing,” says Jian Hong. “That’s a crucial part of our identity. If you’re constantly listening to the ground, to the artists and audiences and the world, then wouldn’t you change?”

“Every time you put on a show, you’re aware that the process never stops, whether it’s the same show or taking on a different forms. Like even Four Horse Road, which you initially saw in 2018, and how it was revamped and changed for 2020. In repetition comes the growth we look for for ourselves.”

“I saw a friend’s social media post which said that it’s easy to stand out – all you have to do is do something controversial. But do you really want to stand out that way?” Jian Hong muses. “For Practice, it was never about standing out. We just happened to stay around long enough and kept at what we did. We don’t need everyone to support our work, just enough people to believe and to want it.”

“Not everything we put out is about reaching the masses, and I tell myself that as long as we change the mind of at least one person, then we’ve done something that matters.

Photos Courtesy of The Theatre Practice

The Bride Always Knocks Twice – Killer Secrets runs online from 31st May to 6th June 2021. More information available here, tickets available from BookMyShow

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