Arts Interview KC Arts Centre Singapore Singapore Arts, Theatre. SRT Theatre

SRT’s Lungs: Joshua Lim and Oon Shu An talk theatre, babies and finding space to breathe

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In a times as uncertain as today, how do you bear to bring a child into the world? That’s just one of the many questions that sparks off one couple’s deep discussion of their future, in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs.

Directed by Daniel Jenkins, and starring Joshua Lim and Oon Shu An, Lungs is an “intelligent, funny, moving and surprising” play, as it questions the idea of responsibility towards future generations, and how we live our lives.

We spoke to Joshua Lim and Oon Shu An, and found out more about their preparation in the lead-up to the production, their return to live theatre, and how they find breathing room amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Read the interview in full below:

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Bakchormeeboy: It’s been some time since we last saw either of you onstage. Thinking of the play’s title, do you think there’s enough breathing room for Singapore theatre actors to survive and co-exist with each other in our current arts climate, especially considering that we’re still seeing new graduates from arts institutions also join the scene each year? 

Joshua: I think there definitely is room for newcomers and current practitioners alike. It’s a matter of not limiting yourself to just one form of art/work. It has always been a matter of wearing many hats or having varied streams of work and income as a theatre actor. This pandemic has just made it more salient the need for that.

Shu An: What a crazy year it has been huh?? Hmm, I don’t think I can answer this question from my vantage point so I’m gonna skip it!! Haha

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a little more about your character, and whether these traits are vastly different or similar to you in real life? 

Joshua: My character is in a long-term relationship with his partner such that he has reached a point to bring up the topic of having a baby with her. He’s a musician who’s very easy-going, your regular “guy next door” kind of man. I guess his personality is pretty similar to mine in that he leaves a lot of the thinking and planning to his female partner, and quite often gets into trouble with her because of that! 

Shu An: She is a PhD student in a long term relationship and they’re deciding whether or not to have a child, both on a personal level and also, whether they “should” given the state of the world. She thinks a lot and cares very deeply about things, she loves strongly, she seeks validation, also I think that she sometimes lacks confidence in things that deep down she knows, she apologises for things she actually, really shouldn’t need to apologise for, and she thinks a lot. Haha. Oh, I’ve said that. There are definitely things about her that I resonate with. I think that’s the beauty of this script, both the characters are so human and incredibly relatable. The dialogue is witty, raw, intimate, honest, and just all round wonderful. 

Bakchormeeboy: With the various changes in rules when it comes to performances, how difficult has it been in terms of adapting to those changes and still capturing the essence of the play, especially with say social distancing onstage or wearing masks while having to build strong chemistry with each other? 

Joshua: The most difficult thing for me so far is having to rehearse with my mask on. The first couple of days, I found it so difficult to breathe! On top of that, the script’s dialogue is very quick and sharp, and on some occasions having LOTS of words strung together at a go. Shu An and I are constantly readjusting our masks because either we’re out of breath or our jaw movements make them slip off. I just hope we don’t have to perform with masks on, as is the case for the current shows. But I have to say that it has not impeded in the rehearsal and the work we’ve been putting on the floor. I’d like to say, in fact I do feel, that Shu An and I have an amazing chemistry for the play.

Shu An: We’ve been rehearsing with our masks on and actually, I quite like it, haha, I feel like it’s doing training with weights! Maybe I’m ok with it also because I’ve become so used to interacting with people with masks, and I do generally prefer having my mask on. When it comes to performance, though, that one I’m really not sure how the audience would read it. I think I would only know after watching a show like that as an audience member.

You will definitely lose a range of things, we read so much from facial cues. Social distancing I find tougher! Especially if the characters are meant to be close friends or partners. But I guess if shows are written in a world where Covid exists then all of these would make sense? But for the things that I’ve been in, the stories seem to be existing in a sort of parallel universe with no Covid, which I guess is also nice for us to escape to?

Bakchormeeboy: Knowing that the world is going through so much chaos and in the middle of a pandemic, why are people still willing to bring a child into the world to face all of that? 

Joshua: I have no idea, actually. I’d be super scared to do such a thing. Although, I have to say that my second child was born right after the Circuit Breaker last year (obviously she was conceived before the pandemic). Surprisingly, I don’t think my wife and I were particularly worried about it. I think we had a positive outlook, that the pandemic would ultimately go away. Having children perhaps gives hope.

Shu An: As someone who has never had the desire to have a child even during “regular” times, I don’t really know how to answer this question! Haha but this came up in rehearsals the other day, and one of the possibilities that came up was that perhaps having a child also represents hope? 

Bakchormeeboy: In Singapore, many people see the family as the final goal to work towards, where they get married and have a child in their 20s, and spend all their time and energy on child rearing. Should contributing to the birth rate and populating the earth be such a priority, or is there more leeway to say no to becoming a parent these days? 

Joshua: Is that so??? I thought our birth rates were plunging! I do think there is plenty of leeway these days for couples to say no to having children, judging from what I’ve seen with some of my friends. Although, yes there are also the friends who WANT to have children and have seen themselves as parents ever since they were young.

I don’t think such people just “spend all their time and energy on child rearing” though. I think they strive to have a balance between that and also having their own lives (although the reality is very much skewed towards child rearing). I don’t think contributing to the birth rate is a priority. I think it should be up to the couple to decide if they want to have children or not.

Shu An: Again, I have to caveat this by saying that that desire is completely foreign to me hahaha. Yes to the second part; if people don’t want to have children, they definitely should not have children and as a society we certainly should not be forcing them to have them! If contributing to the birth rate and all that is a concern as a society, and if society wants people to make it a priority, then maybe as a society we need to support parents better?

I’ve heard so many conversations about how difficult and expensive it is to raise children, parents face a lot of stress also because the infrastructure to support modern day parenting seems lacking. For those who are full time caregivers, a lot of them risk things like retirement security and get no recognition and remuneration for their work.  For those who work, well, a lot of companies view workers just as workers, but all workers are people. We are people first before whatever job it is that we have. So for people who also have childcare responsibilities and/or caregiving responsibilities, if they are expected to work and are also left to fend for themselves without things like affordable childcare, flexibility with work schedules, things like nursing suites, a childcare corner at work, etc, it just feels like it’s a big ask? And most of the time, undeniably, it’s the women who unfairly end up picking up the slack on this.

Bakchormeeboy: Child rearing is immensely different from one parent to another. What kind of parent do you think you’d be, and why? 

Joshua: I would like to think I’m the kind who raises sensible human beings who will contribute to society when they grow up! :p  But really I think I’m just a flawed human being who, like every one else, has his own baggage and trigger points. I can only do the best I can with the given knowledge and resources.

Shu An: Hahaha I don’t think I’ll be a very good parent!!

Bakchormeeboy: Looking ahead, do you think live theatre will continue to be as common as it was prior to the pandemic? Or will we see a shift in dynamics, where most theatre companies will continue to pivot towards digital work, or produce more shows with a smaller, more intimate cast such as Lungs? 

Joshua: As long as COVID is around, it’ll never be like the pre-pandemic days. And I think this may endure for another year or so. I can’t say what WILL happen but I do think that theatre companies will learn from this and adjust. Yes, I think we will be able to see more works in the digital space. I think there’s a realisation for the need for good videography of theatre work not just for archival but also for Video-On-Demand as an alternate source of revenue. Perhaps there’ll be a slew of small and intimate productions for a while, but I think we’ve also seen larger productions being put up and I’m sure more will happen in time to come.

Shu An: I don’t know 😦 I don’t know the ins and outs of what it takes to put on a show during these times and the considerable risks that the companies have to factor in! Things change so quickly. I do think the pressure placed on theatre companies to go digital like it’s a “solution” is a little bit strange? They’re just totally different mediums. I’m not saying that they can’t do it, or won’t, I also understand that as the world changes we must adapt, and people will, and have! It just feels like… I don’t know. Weird. Haha wow, I’m being so eloquent. 

Bakchormeeboy: As an artist in the midst of a pandemic, how do you find the space to breathe and not let the stress get to you? 

Joshua: I’m someone who generally doesn’t stress over things unless it’s right in my face (not necessarily a good thing!), so I guess I have been taking it quite well? Actually, doing work makes me less stressed!

Shu An: I generally allow stress in general get to me to and then process it, but I do work on not letting it overwhelm me to the point of being immobilised by it. Therapy helps tremendously, seeing what is within my power to do, learning, resting, finding joy, connecting deeper with friends and family, learning more about systemic issues, learning to not taking on individual blame for systemic problems and at the same time trying to understand what needs to be done.

Lungs plays from 19th June 2021 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from SRT

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