Written by: Jason Yan, Assistant Director, Hallplay 2010/2011
Edited (though very, very sparingly) by: Jocelyn
Photos by: Kok Pun, Deborah
My director once opined, “All analogies are doomed to fail.” Yet, despite this gem of wisdom, I can think of a particularly fitting analogy when it comes to Hallplay: giving birth. And right now, I can only describe my feelings as that of a proud and exhausted mother: this baby I’m holding in my hands may not be anything to write home about, but it is, in my eyes, the most beautiful creature in the universe. Then again, judging from – dare I say it – the overwhelmingly positive reviews, it may well be a strong contender for that title!
So anyway, while (1) I clearly lack ovaries or appropriate midwifery knowledge and (2) the energies expended in producing a play is more creative than corporeal, I nonetheless assert that it really is like giving birth. Should casting be conception, rehearsing be maturation and other parallels be likewise drawn, the entire play-making/gestation process is a similarly excruciatingly long and oftentimes frustrating one, as you struggle to keep it afloat and let it take shape within six months. You will it to breathe and you will it to live with all your might. Your heart trips over for a split second whenever it stumbles, before you exhale a small sigh of relief – not too loudly, of course – when it recovers. And now, all of us are its parents reeling in the post-natal depression that is the post-Hallplay blues.
Hallplay is also a lot of other things besides childbirth. There are times when I would wonder what I’d gotten myself into, and then there are other times I would be bent over in stitches, gasping with laughter (which happens very regularly in rehearsals). It is blind faith, a mind game that shreds and masticates your ego, catharsis, a social experiment gone wrong, a concerted effort that cries for the constant attention of a hundred-odd people. It is also, above all, a vastly humbling and rewarding experience.
KEVII’s Hallplay, believe it or not, is known beyond campus. I had heard of Pygmalion, the 2008/2009 Hallplay production, even before matriculation; I knew I had to be part of the Steering Committee and be involved in this year’s production once I was admitted into KEVII hall. I recall getting to know Pearly, the Production Manager (PM), during Flag, after which she referred me on to the Director (whose name I first misheard as “Cashier”). At that time, the only opening available on the creative team was that of the Assistant Director; having come from a theatre background centered on stage design, I was hesitant, but I recall reassuring myself, “It’s a leap of faith”. I recall sitting in with my very talented Director, Asher, during auditions before he offered me the job (after I’ve made scalding remarks about pretty much everyone who auditioned), after which I ran out to hug Linus, the Assistant Production Manager. I recall laughing till I collapsed from exhaustion when I first read the script, aptly named Out of Order.
Boy, oh boy.
I was completely unaware of how emotionally scarring Hallplay would be.
My first Steering Committee (SC) meeting quickly brought me down to reality, though. It was a painful bump back to earth. The minutest details, which I thought inconsequential and premature then, were thrashed out. Schedules that ran way into the holidays by every department were flashed out for the benefit of OCD-like scrutiny. Pearly even made a timeline chart for each of us to fill in. Hallplay was kicking in proper, going into full steam.
The months that followed were a flurry of action, action and more action (inactivity was impossible with Pearly and Linus breathing down our necks). Simin, our Producer, had to iron out every single detail in the world along with her assistant, Pin Lang; Zhang Yue represented the costumes department, and spent hours and nights on end discussing with us costume and make-up ideas; Deborah, our Set Décor head and Michael, representing the muscle of the Set Builders, had to strike a delicate balance between artistic vision and practicality, and revised their ideas countless times, all of which were painstakingly pieced together on a spiffy Mac program; Mark, our Tech head, had to complete the theatrical experience visually and aurally – which translated to a heck load of complicated light and sound cues; Weisheng had to call together his tireless team of three assistant Stage Managers to juggle over 160 absurd stage cues (the hotel room the play is set in pretty much has a life of its own, you see).
Likewise, the Ops branch ran about like their hair was perpetually on fire. Mitchell provided each and every member with adequate welfare, be it supper or dinner runs, and it was more often than not a one-man show; Xiyu had to wreck her brains trying to publicize Hallplay and get the website up and working; Patrick had to handle all things ticketing- and Front of House-related with one assistant; Sophia sourced for sponsors for just about everything, from wood for the flats to the production itself; Jehni had to fend off receipts and more receipts.
With so much heart and soul invested, the onus was on Asher and me to make this production come to life. It was a logistical nightmare, simply put. The cast size for this Ray Cooney play is relatively huge, with 10 characters that constantly interact with each other. Throw in cast members who are actively involved in other hall activities and who clearly enjoy spending the bulk of their holidays overseas, and there you have it, scheduling conflicts. Farce is one of the most trying genres to work with in theatre, and guess what genre this play falls under? I recall nights where Asher nearly tore his limbs apart in a brilliant display of stress, and me berating myself for getting involved in this; at the end of a 12 hour-long rehearsal, Arun, a.k.a. George Pigden, commented that this play was really going out of order. Keen observation. The play I found hilarious once upon a time was now deeply unfunny. We had to rope in last year’s Directors, Collin and Lian Sheng to train the cast members who were new to theatre, from vocal warm-ups to working on moments.
But then, somehow, everything started falling into place. It was indiscernible at first, but something was undoubtedly happening. Between Asher’s constant feedback, my nitpicking and the support of last year’s Directors, the play was actually taking form.
Hard work. That’s what makes magic happen.
I had never worked with a cast with next to no experience before. I felt lost. That was not to say I didn’t enjoy rehearsals or working with them, though. On the contrary, these sessions were fun and hilarious, but one could not help but feel a sort of escalating panic. And then I realized – I have also never worked with a cast so diligent and initiative before either. They would spend hours on their own just getting their lines down, remembering their blocking and writing down notes as we debriefed them. The sense of ownership was singularly heartening.
The week before, runs were conducted with the cast still holding on to and reading from their scripts. The week after, they could be confidently off-script. The week before, runs were greeted with stony silence, no one could pick up on the jokes abound in the play. The week after, everyone present was uninhibitedly roaring with laughter from start to end – and even after. (The only thing that didn’t transform was – no surprises there – Aunty Pearly’s nagging. But a little breathing space is always needed for artistic temperament, of course.)
Yes, magic was happening. After an arduous half-year of entertaining suicidal thoughts, we were, broadly speaking, finally ready.
Nevertheless, bump-in day can never be smooth, however ready one is. It is never the uneasy calm before the storm; bump-in day is always 23,312,650,679 natural disasters rolled into one. For one, tensions, expectations and excitement run high and amok, and throw in the fact that you have to face the same people for more than 12 hours at a stretch, disorder is inexorably inevitable.
Lights had to be rigged, the set had to be set in place, the cast had to be abused (think inches of make-up and hair stiffened beyond recognition) and the list went on and on… I’ll spare the grisly details – the word ‘chaos’ itself is a sufficient summary.
But by the end of the day (i.e. 9:00pm), our game face was more or less on: we were ready for war.
These two days were a complete blur. Asher and I pretty much went through these two days in a light-headed, barely lucid state. Moments and acting had to be reworked, and warm-ups and acting exercises had to be conducted right to the last second allowed, before frantically ushering the cast back to the dressing rooms for make-up and costume, before finally ushering them backstage to a makeshift green room.
Then the audience filled the house. The curtains were raised. The lights came on. Adriel started the show with his phone monologue, one we’ve seen and heard countless times.
I believe neither Asher nor I breathed at all for what was at once the longest and shortest two hours of my life. I felt frozen in time. My knees were locked, my breath was bated, the balls of my feet were clenched, my palms were cold as blood drew away from my skin – I was sitting on the very edge of my seat (we snuck into the house, shhh). Every mistake felt magnified: I started clutching Asher’s knee while he bumped my shoulder in sheer terror. I recall moments that were singularly frightening: Richard (Adriel) ordering George (Joel Arun) to come to his suite on the phone (WHAT?!), and a stray hat lying on stage conspicuously. Thank heavens the cast recovered brilliantly, after which both of us allowed ourselves the luxury of a small sigh of relief and a tiny clap on the shoulder.
The audience detected nothing, absolutely nothing. They were roaring with laughter and in wild abandon, some of them in tears and shrieks. Every joke and punch-line, however obscure, was caught. The audience loved it. I received comments, both on and off Facebook, that ranged from “absolutely brilliant” (from a student of the Other School That Shall Not Be Named, no less) to “I can’t get enough of it – I could watch it ten times again” (from a resident of Another Hall that Shall Not Be Named, no less).
But I couldn’t laugh along with them. I was choking back tears right to the end of the curtain call when the curtain closed the stage for the final time, and the cast laid the characters they had come to know so well to rest. I felt proud and grateful: proud of the cast who I’ve worked with, proud of the director whom I’ve seen gave his heart and soul to bring the script to life, and grateful for the opportunity to witness the fruition of our efforts.
Admittedly, there were times when I felt despondent and frustrated beyond words; theatre, in the words of my director again, is a “soul-sucking business” that mercilessly makes the self feel inadequate again and again. But that is exactly where the draw of drama lies in. One person is inadequate. It takes a group of committed people to breathe life into it, and that is what Hall is about. Trying out new things, working together under the most absurd situations to find new and lasting relationships (cough), and create success.
So, to those who are new to Hall or contemplating coming to Hall, I implore you: take a chance, make that leap of faith.