Arts Interview Preview Singapore

NUS Arts Festival 2023: An Interview with director Chong Tze Chien and performer Jo Tan of ‘The Future Show’

Predicting the future is all but impossible, but that’s never stopped all of humanity from speculating the infinite possibilities tomorrow might hold. It stands to reason then, that it makes for a rather exciting, experimental type of show, one that Canadian performance artist Deborah Pearson has crafted with her work The Future Show.

Adapted by director Chong Tze Chien and writer/performer Jo Tan, The Future Show makes its Singapore premiere this week at the 2023 NUS Arts Festival. The production tells the “true story” of the rest of one performer’s life, starting from the end of the performance and ending on the day they die. No two shows are the same, and performed in a secret location on campus revealed to audiences only on the day of the show, expect the unexpected, when The Future Show is revealed.

Jo Tan

Speaking to Tze Chien and Jo, both alumni of NUS (Tze Chein from the Theatre Studies programme, and Jo from Law), we find out more about their thoughts on the arts and students in the arts, especially during this period as they return to their alma mater. “It’s nostalgic coming back to NUS again – arts festivals are the main reason I come here, and I get a chance to explore old haunts, some of which haven’t changed at all since I left,” says Jo. “I wonder what my hall is like – these days the rules are a bit stricter. Perhaps having time away from school also romanticises school for me.”

“I come back every so often to teach workshops or run programmes, and I do see some areas of redevelopment and refurbishment, although like Jo says, there are several old haunts still intact amidst the increasing urbanisation,” says Tze Chien. “It’s interesting that we managed to find a great performance space fo The Future Show then, because Jo and I found a common space that means something to us, somewhere that evokes strong memories for both of us, even though we’re from different years and different faculties.”

Chong Tze Chien

Tze Chien recounts how Festival Director Jobina Tan came to him one day, and not-so-subtly sent him a video of Deborah Pearson’s performance, along with the script, nudging him towards directing it. “She was very interested in staging it, and even contemplated inviting Deborah over to perform it!” says Tze Chien. “But we ended up going for a local adaptation. I did enjoy the script, but it’s a very demanding piece that requires the performer to also write each one, and given how few writer-performers there are in Singapore, we decided to cast Jo. Jo then wrote according to Deborah’s ‘narrative score’, and made it her own, and here we are.”

The Future Show, for both Tze Chien and Jo, acts as both a time capsule and a way of seeing the world around us. “It’s seeing things through time-coloured lenses, and wondering how things change or stay the same, like even a patch of wall, or vandalism on a desk,” says Jo. “You end up exploring a lot of your own past, as you think about time between spaces, and try to isolate those moments, while considering how much they’ve evolved over time.”

“It may be called The Future Show, but so much of it deals with the past. This space we’ve found is particularly interesting, because like this year’s festival theme, it really is one of those ‘spaces between’,” says Tze Chien. “People often go straight to University Cultural Centre when they think of performance spaces, so I like that we have an opportunity to show this ‘behind-the-scenes’ place to audiences, and invite them in.”

On how the arts in NUS has changed since their time, both acknowledge that production value has certainly improved a lot. “I think it’s a good thing, and you really see quality productions, but part of me also misses the more liminal performances that acted as a bridging ground fro amateurs before entering the professional arts scene,” says Jo. “There are much clearer lines drawn nowadays that can be a barrier to entry, and there are fewer independent spaces for exploration now. That can be hard to bring back, with how commercialised the arts scene has gotten in general, so this show at least, brings back some of that independence and liminality.”

“To me, it’s important that I keep coming back, because I remember as a theatre studies student, we had practitioners from Ong Keng Sen to Robin Loon all coming back from time to time,” says Tze Chien. “For me, NUS can be a space for nurturing for anyone and everyone who’s interested in the arts. They may not become artists, but they may become regular audiences, or even future policymakers that will influence the arts. It’s an essential and important relationship I feel needs to carry on, and we all want to pay it forward one way or another, whether financially or through mentorship, which I feel NUS provides.”

That extends even to the relationship between Jo and Tze Chien, where the latter was one of her earliest mentors when it came to playwriting, perhaps some kind of proof that this belief in mentorship does work after all. “I really love coming back here, you see the original spark of why people do what they do,” says Tze Chien. “They don’t receive extra credit, but still try to balance their commitments with putting on a good show, and it reminds me of how I was back in school, and reignites that passion and understanding for what theatre means to me. It reminds me I can still have fun, and find the little sparks of excitement and joy, even in the toughest of productions. I’m very privileged and lucky to still be able to earn money from doing this, and actually be one of selected few who can do this for a living.”

“It’s true what Tze Chien says – I did go to clown school, and one thing I always try to do is to have fun onstage, because that energy can be seen and felt by the audience,” adds Jo. “I try to find the fun where I can, and seeing even young theatremakers get out there and have fun, doing what they can, it’s inspirational, and think they need as much encouragement as they can get to do what they do.”

“To add on, I remember how Kuo Pao Kun once talked about how it’s so important to have a reason for waking up in the morning. For me, theatre is that passion, because it’s allowed me to explore human emotion and strangers’ emotions in a way that keeps us alive,” says Tze Chien. “I want to keep investigating this idea of the human condition, in both ourselves and others. You find that you get so much from trying to discover spaces in between, and you stay hungry and curious for all these things you have yet to know the answer to, and discover the truth through theatre.”

As for what the future holds, who knows? “Sometimes I think about how things are over too soon, and how in theatre at least, we’re always thinking of what our next show is, and how we’re booked so far in advance,” says Jo. “I do hope that audience members coming to our show will get to experience and think about how there are so many moments that will stretch to a lifetime, and think about the time their own life lasts in relation to everything else.”

“Life will always throw you a curveball, and it’s not always smooth-sailing, sort of like a rollercoaster,” Tze Chien concludes. “But we love roller-coasters, because we know that even when we’re going down, we’ll eventually be going up again. That’s what I think of when I think of the future, and that’s what keeps me going.”

The Future Show plays from 17th to 18th March 2023, at 730pm and 9pm, at a secret location within NUS. More information available here

NUS Arts Festival 2023 – Spaces Between runs from 10th to 26th March 2023 at NUS. More information available from their website.

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