Arts Pangdemonium Preview Singapore

The Art of Conversation: An Interview with Timothy Koh, Nikki Muller and Jason Godfrey of Pangdemonium’s ‘Muswell Hill’

Ever since Pangdemonium was born over a decade ago, co-founder and co-artistic director Tracie Pang has helmed every show. At least, until now, as Muswell Hill premieres next week. For the first time in the company’s history, Tracie Pang will not be directing, and instead, be handing the reins to Associate Director Timothy Koh.

Trained in New York, and having already been working with Pangdemonium as assistant director on several productions, along with heading their Very Youthful Company programme for teens, Timothy is full of youthful energy and optimism as we speak to him over Zoom. Joining him are the poster girl and boy of Muswell Hill, cast members Nikki Muller and Jason Godfrey, who star as the play’s central couple hosting a classy dinner party, before it quickly goes downhill over the course of the evening.

“I came back from America during the pandemic when everything was breaking down. Previously, I had worked with Tracie and Adrian (Pang) on several shows between my National Service obligations and university days, so it’s almost like a homecoming to return to Pangdemonium,” says Timothy. “It’s grown a lot since I was there in 2015, whether it’s the office or expanding the audience base, but seeing some familiar faces and sliding back into the culture, it’s been really good to be back.”

“As for now, I’m just trying to remain open to whatever work comes my way. I love Singapore, and coming back after 5 years away, it was a bit of a shock coming back, seeing as so much of my network and life had been established in New York,” says Timothy, on his plans for the future, after Muswell Hill. “But ever since I started creating and doing work again, I’ve been learning non-stop about the local scene, watched as much as I can, and I hope that there’s space for me here. It’s ultimately still home for me, and being where I grew up, there’s the sense of familiarity, and no matter where I am, the goal is to keep making theatre.”

Timothy’s other credits include being Assistant Director of “Golden Shield” by Anchuli Felicia King, the final play of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2021-2022 season. Timothy was also the Assistant Director on the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “Greater Clements” at Lincoln Center and held a Fellowship at Playwrights Horizons for the 2019-2020 season.

“There’s a little pressure in directing this play, considering how Tracie’s leadership has been so strong that you can’t imagine a show she’s not directing. But I’m not nervous about it – I’ve been involved in theatre my whole life, ever since I was a seven-year old in the after school drama club,” says Timothy, on whether helming this play is a daunting prospect. “While I haven’t been in the director’s chair for a while, I’ve gotten plenty of chances to do that in college, and I’ve worked alongside plenty of good directors. My training is American and there are certain practices I bring with me, such as having structured breaks, or finding time to decompress and talk to the stage manager. I know the kind of room I want to run, I know how I want to interact with my designers and managers, and it’s about creating a fun atmosphere, ensuring everyone in the room is gelling well, and there’s really nothing much to be worried about or have anxiety over.”

In a similar vein, Timothy may not have lived in the UK before, but has complete confidence in how he and the team have interpreted Torben Betts’ play, teasing out the nuances and layers to the British script.”While I haven’t lived in the UK, I do have a lot of friends and family who did, and listening to them, Muswell Hill the location feels like a kind of neighbourhood I would be familiar with – this upper middle class neighbourhood, and the kind of place that’s less accessible by train. Therefore people living there would need to drive and own a car,” says Timothy. “In terms of the play itself, I used to be an English major and specialised in Milton, so I’m actually quite familiar with certain aspects of Britishness. It’s almost Jacobean in nature, and more than cultural reference points, which I hope I don’t miss, I focused a lot on the diction used.”

Beyond the foreign setting, Muswell Hill might, in this day and age, even be considered a kind of period piece. Set in January 2010, an entire decade before the world could even fathom a global pandemic where dinner parties would be non-existent for two years, the play sees young couple Mat and Jess (Jason Godfrey and Nikki Muller) planning a high-end, cosy gathering, with free-flow drinks and expensive food. But things get ugly and the dirty laundry emerges as the drinks flow. As these privileged guests and hosts bicker and banter, somewhere on the other side of the world, completely unbeknownst to them, disaster falls.

“Even thinking about my character, she seems like a person I would never be in real life. These characters own a home, something I can’t quite fathom. Heck, they have their own kitchen and all I have is a hallway!” says Nikki Muller. “And as you watch, there’s so much coveting and desires going on, where you wish your lives are a little more like theirs. It’s human nature to want more than what we have, and there’s this constant restlessness of never having enough but having to keep it in check because of social mores.”

That impenetrable barrier of want is reflected in Muswell Hill’s poster, where Nikki and Jason are featured, a couple dressed in expensive clothing, together yet apart, as they turn their gaze towards the pale glow of their phones, constantly drawing their attention in spite of all they have. “We were trying to encapsulate the idea that these characters in modern society are constantly attached to their phone, and because of that, aren’t entirely aware of all that’s happening around them,” says Jason.

That therein leads to the age-old question that pervades our social media-obsessed world: how much of who we are online is real? “It’s interesting how Torben Betts really captured and predicted how big social media would get when he wrote this, almost prescient of how it would develop in the years to come,” adds Jason. “For me though, I’ve decided not to post a lot, and social media in general is stressful, because you’re compelled to keep checking it. Considering how in the public sphere I am, the online community has been surprisingly kind to me, and I’ve always felt more or less there’s a nice energy to my interactions, and when you post stuff, people do appreciate it.”

“This play aged well, written even before Instagram got big, and it’s eerie how relevant it still is today,” says Nikki. “You see how social media has developed – it’s a heightened version of real life, avoiding the terrible parts and just showing the good parts, and it makes people envious. And really, social media is crazy, from the negative comments I get that I try my best to respond to, and even how I once googled myself and found pictures of my feet on a site called wikiFeet.”

“Compared to the actors, I don’t have as much pressure to post as often, since my face isn’t on the poster, and I just spread news via word of mouth to friends,” says Timothy. “In fact, I’m pretty private in general, including my Instagram, because I find it’s important to have this online space that’s primarily just for myself, close friends and people I actually know. I keep my posting to a minimum, because it doesn’t represent most of my real life, and thinking about that, it’s led to a lot of talk in the play about ‘real life’ and how it’s been mediated through tech.”

With years since they’ve hosted or prepared a proper dinner party (owing to the pandemic), Nikki, Jason and Timothy bring us to the topic of gatherings and dinner conversation. “My mom is the ultimate host, and what I’ve missed most are our Thanksgiving dinners, where we always have turkey. And I’m really looking forward to Christmas parties as well, where everyone comes over,” says Nikki. “And that leads us to the topic of dinner conversations; I prefer one on one, intimate conversations, and try to stay away from three topics – politics, religion and football.”

“My mom lives in England, and we’ve been to some very fascinating parties, and when Brexit comes up as a topic, well, we look at each other and think ‘we’re never getting out of here alive’. Sure, it’s important to have an opinion, but it’s more important to know the boundaries of the people you’re talking to, because if you don’t respect or know them, then things can go south very fast.”

– Nikki Muller

“And you see that a lot in this play, where you can see there are certain characters who do know more about history and politics, and then opinions and interests begin to diverge,” adds Nikki. “There are usually several conversations happening at the same time on different levels, and a lot of this play is about that disconnect, and this longing for connection in a time where everyone is alone in their own way, caught in a sea of voices. The funny thing is, initially I thought all of these characters are insufferable and I’d never invite any of them to a dinner party in real life, but over time, you realise they’re all endearing in their own quirky way, and it’s fascinating to observe these dinner party dynamics and the individual baggage they bring.”

“I still think it’s important to have opinions, but at the same time, you need to learn how to pick your battles, no matter how strong you feel about issues,” says Jason. “At the end of the day, it’s just a dinner party, and there’s no point in getting angry, because that’s not how change happens and nothing happens putting energy into that.”

“It actually took me a long time to learn that. Thankfully I didn’t burn any bridges because of that, but there were a few times both sides pushed pretty hard, and the next morning you wake up hungover and go ‘why did I say all that?” he continues. “Some people just cope with how hard life is by showing off how intellectually superior they are. And it’s just unfortunate that these coping mechanisms sometimes manifest as something ‘bad’.”

“But that’s with strangers. If friends come over and give a strong opinion about, say, politics, you might want to just sit down and listen to what they have to say,” continues Jason. “It doesn’t do any harm, it’s not like what we say will change certain policies in place, and by engaging in thoughtful discussion, you realise that it’s never a case where it’s just black or white, but somewhere in the middle. And you can only find that middle ground if you try to understand why people think a certain way, and try to have a proper dialogue. But are we even having those conversations, and can we find people who are able to have such conversations with us? That is the question.”

“When I drink at parties, I end up asking much more personal questions and dig deeper into people, because at the heart of it all, I’m fascinated by people and want to learn more about these people I’m having a conversation with,” says Timothy. “And as for having an opinion, it’s best to have one – if you’re not absorbing or reacting to things in the world, then that’s just boring. But disagreeing with people whose beliefs go against yours, well, they’re not going to change their opinion anytime soon. Which is why I ask what I do – why is it that they think that way. You may disagree with their answer, but at least, you can understand how they came to get there.”

“This play then, is about living in that grey space, where you learn to accept that there are no easy answers to anything, and everyone has their own belief system. So many of these eccentric characters are set in their ways and their quirks, and the challenge of staging it and the fun in watching it is figuring out what makes these eccentric people tick,” adds Timothy. “No one is a ‘villain’ in this play, it all comes down to fundamentally understanding them as human beings that allows us to bring them to life. It’s a play that asks tough questions, rather than saying a simple blanket statement like ‘oh social media is bad, delete your Instagram.’ It’s about the reality of living in this world, and navigating our relationships with each other, and with technology too.”

Under Timothy’s direction, it seems that not only have the cast been able to get to the heart of their characters, but even the crew and design team have been able to engage in dialogue to best bring out the essence of Muswell Hill. “Conversation is so important for me as a theatremaker, and part of the joy of theatre is in having production meetings where I can talk to the designers and everyone in the room. Theatre itself is a conversation, and so much of its success hinges on how fruitful a process it is, and how well we communicate as collaborators.”

“Having Timothy on board has been very refreshing,” says Nikki. “Tim has awesome instincts, and gives us a lot of room to play. He opens up conversations, and makes us feel comfortable going through this entire process. It’s really not an easy piece to put together, what with all our personalities being so different and I’ve learnt so much contemporary vernacular from him that I’m googling what they mean half the time! I think a lot of that comes from his having just come back from New York, and how quick they are to develop and pick up new lingo. He brings a fresh, light, vivacious energy to the room and he’s very open to new ways of doing things, and gives us that room to play and have fun. It’s hard to find yourself with that sense of ease, especially in a production where time is always of the essence.”

“Timothy has made the rehearsal process feel very comfortable and he knows what he wants out of this play. That takes a lot of confidence,” adds Jason. “Honestly I’m not theatre trained, and coming back here, it’s been a huge learning process for me compared to TV. It’s been a lot of getting the lines down, and playing with it, refining it over and over again, compared to film where rehearsals are much faster. There’s a lot of changes too, like if the scene is blocked a certain way, sometimes I’d think ‘well, my character doesn’t seem like he would do it this way’, and we improvise from there. It’s a lot, but it’s been very comfortable working together with the team and picking up on things from week to week.”

At the end of the day, what Muswell Hill seems to espouse goes beyond the arguments and the drama, beyond the frivolity of parties and beyond the restrictions of class. Instead, it harks back to basic human kindness and empathy, to understand our universal fallibility, and to just take things one step at a time, take a step back and see the big picture for what it is.

“You know, I think talking about all this, I realise we’ve become more selective about the friendships we keep and maintain, especially after this pandemic. With isolation, we’ve been connecting so much online, but also so much more protective of our energy and space, because we no longer have as much bandwidth for socialising as before,” comments Nikki. “I want to protect the ability to have authentic human connection and conversations, and to learn how not to be so socially awkward when meeting new people. You want to focus on what’s important, and going through this pandemic as a nation, a planet, and humanity, you just learn to become more conscious of conversations and friendships.”

“Both Nikki and Jason have really touched on the play’s themes and message, and I hope that when people watch it, audience members can see a little of themselves in it,” concludes Timothy. “Perhaps Singaporeans can learn to move on from focusing solely on themselves, and consider the plight of other countries not doing as well as we are, whether economically or with regards to war and peace. If they could just see how they relate to the outside world through this play, that would make me really happy.”

Photo Credits: Pangdemonium

Muswell Hill runs from 24th June to 10th July 2022 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available here

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