Kicking off Checkpoint Theatre‘s 15th Anniversary is Normal by Faith Ng, a play that premiered in 2015 to a completely sold out run. Directed by Claire Wong once again, this show resonates deeply with students and teachers alike about our local education system and what it means to find yourselves beyond mere grades and CCAs.
With our recent budget announcement and an excitement of the rerun of Normal, Popspoken speaks to Claire about what we can expect from the play this time and get some advice for all teenagers out there.
Popspoken: Why the restaging of Normal?
Claire Wong: Simply put, Normal is an important play. It looks at school life through the eyes of students who struggle to transcend the burden of being labelled. And the associations and assumptions that come with such labels. The central characters in the play are people not often seen on stage, but whose voices need to be heard.
Our first staging of Faith Ng’s Normal in 2015 connected very viscerally with the audience. We received countless messages about how the play had spoken to them. I remember there was a girl who went up to Faith last November and broke down as she recounted how she had felt really alone as a Normal (Academic) student and watching the play made her realise that there were others like her. We have always wanted to bring this beautifully crafted and proudly Singaporean classic to a wider audience. It means a lot to me, therefore, that we should open Checkpoint Theatre’s 15th anniversary season with Normal.
Popspoken: Will there be anything done differently this time, compared to the previous run back in 2015?
Claire Wong: A largely new cast has given me the opportunity to revisit the ensemble work and rediscover the performance vocabulary I developed in 2015. This restaging has enabled me to dig deeper within the original 2015 frame and design that we created. I have been able to explore new nuances because the new cast members bring different dynamics to the table.
It’s a wonderful combination of new cast members who play the teachers and the ensemble, and returning cast members (Claire Chung, Audrey Teong and Lim Shi-An) who will reprise their roles as the three central student characters. Having lived with the characters longer, Claire, Audrey and Shi-An have gone deeper to further the shades and colours of the roles they created in 2015.
I have been privileged to witness moments of great openness and vulnerability on the rehearsal floor with my wonderful cast. We are reminded of how the art can lead us to a deeper understanding of human fragility, hope and courage and we are excited to bring this work to the stage.
Popspoken: Do you have any memories of your schooling days that inspire your direction of this play?
Claire Wong: Yes, very much so. All of us spend a significant part of our formative years in school. The experiences imprint themselves on both our conscious and subconscious beings. Some memories are sharp and clear; others are retained in the form of impressions and opaque sensations. I spent many hours on the sports field and at drama club and was very actively engaged in various school activities. The soundscape of school life is very evocative for me.
So, in directing this play, I worked closely with our ensemble of young women to create a nuanced performance palette of vocalised soundscapes and physical gestures. We all drew inspiration from our memories and experiences of school life in order to distil and heighten the world that these characters inhabit – from the cacophony of excited students talking before assembly and between classes, to the distant sound of the marching school band practice.
Popspoken: What advice would you give to teenagers of this day and age, to cope with life?
Claire Wong: Look up from your phones and meet someone’s eyes every day. Speak with your own voice to your friends and family. Hug your mum and dad. The hard part about coping with life’s challenges, at every age, is the feeling that we are alone. That we have to do it all on our own. But we don’t. Ask for help and, most importantly, accept help. Accept advice and lean on others when you need to.
Popspoken: With the new budget release, how do you think education is about to change in Singapore?
Claire Wong: One hopes that there will be more and more opportunities to nurture and applaud different skills and talents. I believe there is a sincere desire to be inclusive. The hard part is changing mind sets – not just of those within the education system but in society at large. So much of the pressure that bears down on young people comes from their parents, family and friends, who themselves are under tremendous pressure to succeed. The challenge is redefining not just success but ‘failure’. But I am grateful that the need for change is acknowledged and openly discussed and optimistic for our young people.
Popspoken: Also, congratulations on the 15th anniversary of Checkpoint Theatre. Share with us the journey of the past 15 years and what the company will be working towards in the future.
Claire Wong: Thank you! Checkpoint Theatre prides itself on developing, producing and promoting original Singapore works for the stage. As artists and as a company, we are tremendously passionate about telling Singapore stories as they deserve to be told as much as any Western classic and claiming our space on the international stage.
In the past 15 years, we have produced numerous original plays which have really resonated with our audiences and which have become an important part of the Singapore canon. We have proudly nurtured several upcoming, and we believe soon to be influential, theatre makers – this includes writers, directors, designers, production and arts administration talents.
Our next production will be Lucas Ho’s FRAGO, which runs from 13 to 23 July at the Drama Centre Black Box. Directed by Huzir Sulaiman, it follows a group of army mates in reservist and explores the lives of young Singaporean men in their late twenties and thirties. Tickets will be available from 17 April. Recalling Mother will be performed at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide, Australia in September. We are hatching more exciting new original works (details will be shared later!). We will also be launching a 15th anniversary publication at the start of 2018, which we hope will provide a fascinating insight into Checkpoint Theatre’s art-making processes.
Normal will run from 23rd March to 16th April 2017 at the Drama Centre Black Box. For ticketing information, click here.
Photographs courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre