Arts Preview Theatre

Doubt – A Parable: An Interview with director Timothy Koh and the cast of Pangdemonium’s newest show

Is the strength of one’s faith reliant on the absence of doubt? In their second production of 2023, local theatre company Pangdemonium will be staging American playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, following a stunning production of People, Places and Things in March.

Directed by Timothy Koh (Muswell Hill), the award-winning play examines a small religious community in The Bronx in 1964, where the parish is shaken when rumours and suspicion fly about, leading to a conflict of conviction, credibility, and culture. We spoke to Timothy, as well as the cast comprising Jason Godfrey, Neo Swee Lin, Ching Shu Yi and Sharon Frese, to hear their thoughts about faith, religion, and truth in their own lives.

“This is a play that’s been close to my heart for a long time, watching the film as a teenager and reading the play a few years after. I thought it was a complex and rich piece of writing and honestly has some of the most iconic final lines in American theatre,” says director Timothy, on Pangdemonium’s decision to stage Doubt: A Parable. “The opportunity to programme it for the season came up, and both Adrian and Tracie decided it ultimately did fit in with the broader themes of the 2023 season and let me direct it. To me, it’s a great play because I have this deep love of the language and questions raised, it’s both thrilling to watch and intellectually rigorous, which are both important elements for me when watching a show.”

Speaking of the larger themes, where Doubt: A Parable is sandwiched between People, Places and Things and the forthcoming Into the Woods, Timothy explains how it fits into the season. “Adrian said it best, where the larger theme of this year is about being lost, whether it’s the woods or one’s addiction, and how it’s a form of being uncertain and in doubt. It’s a season of questions, and season for grappling with tough topics that don’t have easy answers,” he says. “Certainly that’s the case for this piece, where the characters are searching for meaning within structure, where this doctrine they’ve all been taught their entire life is called into question when they find others with opposing interpretations and viewpoints.”

“Interestingly, while Pangdemonium tends to do ‘darker’ work, this piece in particular seems like one of the less heavy productions in a while. Yes, it deals with big ideas and issues, but we don’t come out of rehearsals feeling drained. I think that’s because we’ve been approaching it from a perspective of joy. It deals with issues of gender, Catholicism, and accusation, but at the end of the day, it really is about four people who profess to believe in the same god and adhere to the same creed and all intents and purposes, largely agreeing philosophically on things but disagreeing on the way to handle a tough situation due to their differing moral compasses. How then do you do the ‘right’ thing? I grew up in a mostly Methodist environment in my schooling, and these days, when thinking about religion, I also think about how when playwright Lucas Hnath wrote The Christians and got a lot of questions about his own beliefs, he didn’t want to answer or explain his beliefs just yet.”

In selecting his cast, Timothy and Pangdemonium went through a lengthy audition process, without any pre-selections. Even veteran actress Neo Swee Lin had to attend a formal audition, and all of them had to do a chemistry check to ensure they could work well together, and making sure they were the best fit. But eventually, this was the best of the best they selected, and together, are set to put on a great show. But how different are the cast’s experience of religion, especially going into a play that’s so focused on Catholicism and its presentation?

“My mother is Filipino, so I was born a Catholic and had heavy Catholic influences as a child, going to church almost every week all the way till I was maybe 18 or 19,” says Jason Godfrey, who will be playing the charismatic Father Flynn. “These days, I’m not as religious as before.”

“I was also born a Catholic, and attended Catholic schools throughout my life, from Katong Convent to Catholic Junior College,” says Neo Swee Lin, who plays the imperious school principal Sister Aloysius. “I do recognise there’s quite a huge community of kids who went to convent schools, and that’s why the play’s context is quite understandable for me.”

“I’m the only one of the cast who didn’t grow up religious, though my grandparents were Buddhist and Taoist, so we ended up going a lot to temples and drinking the burnt joss paper in water when sick,” says Shuyi, who plays Sister James, a young enthusiastic nun. “My first experience with Christianity was probably when a friend brought me to Sunday School, when I was about 14. I ended up developing a crush on this guy in church!”

But it is Sharon who has the most complex and storied journey with religion. “I was raised on the Anglican Church of England, which is an offshoot of the Catholic church, but it’s quite different from what I experienced from Catholic service in Singapore, where there would be no communion, for example,” says Sharon, who rounds off the cast as Mrs Muller. “When my father died in 2016, I was in Singapore, and felt I needed to have the Black experience of death and death rituals. I ended up at a Pentecostal church here run by Africans, and was able to mourn the way Jamaicans mourn and surrounded myself with Black Culture, screaming and shouting and talking about the death. But eventually I moved on to the Free Community Church, and I love worshipping there, to come come as you are, and feel accepted with all this love tolerance and care. That in essence, is my journey with faith.”

As mentioned, Doubt: A Parable isn’t a searing criticism of religion, or even with its discussion on potential child abuse, not about accusations or blame. Instead, it well and truly is about exploration and religious philosophy. “This isn’t about attacking the Catholic Church, unlike say a movie like Spotlight, which was about exposing crimes and scandal,” says Timothy. “It really is about using symbols and metaphors to ask certain philosophical questions, and the Catholics I spoke to about this are excited about catching the show.”

Adds Jason: “I don’t think people would be offended if we introduce the ideas of doubt to them – it’s ok to doubt, even though there are some churches that always tell you not to doubt because God is there, and you just have to believe. The message isn’t too heavy handed, and champions the idea of personal thinking.”

“The play is more about how people handle their own doubts, not so much the church’s perspective on doubt itself,” says Shuyi. “Everyone who comes in to the play is likely to have some kind of doubts, and will takeaway something to do with how to handle it.”

On the cultural perspectives and whether audiences would be able to connect with it, especially considering how it’s set 60 years ago in America, Timothy and the cast believe that the messages will shine through. “If Singaporeans can watch five Marvel movies a year, then they can definitely understand this. I don’t see a sense of alienation just because it’s an American text, and the thing about theatre is that the aim is to present a work that provokes questions, with characters that don’t necessarily relate to but you have pathos for. That’s what I look for in theatre at least.”

“From my perspective at least, I was actually born in the year the play was set, in 1964. And because I am Black, I think a lot about what was happening in America at the point in time, with racism and equality, so it was a stark reminder of the lengths that Black people at the time had to get out of a bad situation,” says Sharon. “When my parents left the Caribbean, they were invited to help rebuild post-war England, leaving their own beautiful country to be in the cold, met with hostility, but persevered just to make sure their kids would do well. Mrs Muller is in the same boat, where she went through so much and made so many sacrifices for her son, and that to me is quite understandable.”

To help the cast get into the right mindset and understand the context themselves, Timothy also ensured that the cast were informed with resources about the Catholic church, the Reformation, and civil society at the time to help them get into character. “It’s easy to have such discussions now, but you come to realise that all these things the characters are saying in that period, it would all have been really forward thinking. We’ve even come a long way since the play was written, and that to me is impressive.”

“I’m a big proponent of doing enough table work at the start of process, so I come in with that research on Catholicism, New York in the ’60s and how it dealt with belief systems and race relations,” says Timothy. “Especially as someone who didn’t grow up in the Catholic church, we did interview and talk to Catholics to find out more about practices like weekly mass, and as a cast, collectively talk through the issues, creating backstories for the characters, and constantly asking each other if this sounds right. Something as simple as whether nuns are allowed to physically touch each other’s shoulders were things we questioned, and it’s these small things we don’t even think about as laypeople, whether it’s transgressive or appropriate for the time.”

This research even extended to the seemingly simple costumes, which were designed by Leonard Augustine Choo. “We did our fitting recently, and Leonard was talking about his research, where he found out that Sister Aloysius and Sister James were likely from the Sisters of Charity, and that they would have made their own vestments and habits, each one with a slightly different bonnet,” says Swee Lin. “You become much more cognizant of entering a different era, where even ballpoint pens were seen as a modern invention, which Sister Aloysius despises.”

“It was a very meticulous process, where Leonard was even telling us how to drape the habit,” says Shuyi. “It can’t be ‘sexy’, but we needed it to look unique and have its own flair. And while they sewed their own habits, they also did it for other nuns as well as a pastime or for bonding, where some bonnets would be made of cardboard or paper.”

This is also the second play that Pangdemonium will be performing at the Esplanade’s Singtel Waterfront Theatre, adopting a different layout this time – theatre in the round. “Blocking is much harder for this compared to a proscenium or thrust stage, because I have to ensure there’s a lot more movement now. The audience is looking down at the action and they’re hyperaware of everything that takes place, but it’s a fun challenge to take on,” says Timothy. “I’ve never done this myself professionally, and really dramatises the piece beyond a simple super realistic kitchen sink drama. There’s now something more immediate and tenuous about it, you’re so much closer, and there’s always something going on. It’s like a gladiator ring where each character is fighting a battle of wills.”

“A lot of tension naturally comes from the text, and you can see how the playwright really builds it up over time,” adds Jason. “You can see how they all are agreeable to a certain extent, keeping up a polite guise, and even when they disagree with each other, there’s a passive-aggressiveness to their speech and behaviour. It’s written so well, and the tension just keeps building.”

This constant buildup keeps going, to the point there’s an incredible climax featuring Mrs Muller and Sister Aloysius, and probably results in one of the most iconic showdowns in American theatre, as the emotional truths emerge. “It’s the last thing you expect, and you can see Sister Aloysius still on her high horse, and insisting on her faith rather than having doubt. It’s amazingly crafted,” says Swee Lin. “I’m also really excited because I’ve never done a play in the round in 40 years, so it’s going to be quite thrilling for the audience.”

But even with so much tension, Timothy has evidently done something right in his rehearsal process such that the cast don’t feel any weight leaving the space, and remain excited to present it. “I never feel like ‘wah that was a difficult play’ at the end of the rehearsal. It always feels like we’re engaging in exploration with the other actors,” says Shuyi. “We’re constantly figuring out the best blocking, almost playing as we discover new ways to make the scene better.”

Jason’s presence in particular is proof that Timothy works well as a director, having auditioned literally in the midst of rehearsals for their previous play together, Muswell Hill. “Everyone else has done a ton of theatre compared to me, and in Muswell Hill, I enjoyed being onstage, but felt like it was harder to get into things with my smaller role,” says Jason. “Now I have these giant speeches, and it took me a while, but with Tim around, I feel very comfortable because he’s been an open and easy guy to work with, along with this great cast who’ve made the process so fun.”

With a play titled Doubt: A Parable – how then have the cast’s perceptions of doubts changed or been affected by their involvement? “To me, doubt is very important, because if you’re so sure of everything, it means you’ve reached the end of your journey,” says Swee Lin. “It can be hard to have doubt, because we always prefer a certain amount of certainty, but it’s necessary. Everyone has doubts, and I don’t trust people who claim they have no doubts.”

“I’m at the point in my life where I do have so many doubts in my life, like my ability to do things,” says Jason. “But it’s also come to a point where I just think, that’s fine, and to get on with it even with the doubts. It’s good to question yourself, but not to the point it can be debilitating.”

“If there’s no doubt, then there is no learning process,” says Sharon. “You need to open up the possibilities of something else, of new thoughts and perspectives and ideas. That’s what it takes to be a healthy, wholesome person, to use doubt as a way to look at things from different perspectives.”

“I’m still learning how to be ok with my own doubts, and doubts about the environment around me,” says Shuyi. “Like everyone else has said, it’s important to have doubts to help you grow and challenge you so you’re not constantly stuck at one point where you can’t move on. But it’s also scary if you let it overtake your entire life, and can be detrimental. So I still need to learn how to deal with it and be ok with handling it.”

“There’s this really brilliant book called ‘A Director Prepares’ by Anne Bogart, and half of everything I know about directing comes from it. One part talks about how when you’re directing a piece and the scene’s over, and one of the greatest moments for a director is when you get up and walk towards the actor to give your notes at the end of a scene, but you don’t know what you’re going to say,” says Timothy. “I do overthink my notes sometimes, but I’m also learning not to fear that moment, to embrace the uncertainty and just let your instinct take over. And when it comes to your practice, you have to learn to be ok to live in the unknown, and to be ok to live with not being sure what comes out of your mouth. That applies and extends to the way we live as well, not knowing everything and seeing where your instinct goes.”

Photo Credit: CRISPI

Doubt plays from 2nd to 18th June 2023 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, Esplanade. Tickets available here

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