What is it like to lose your freedom? Do you know what your friends and family really think of you? How do you know who is right and who is wrong?
Big questions like these are tackled in the small-scale, intimate works produced by this year's four nominees in the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards Best Original Script category.
Edith Podesta's Dark Room x8 gives the audience a glimpse of what may be an alien world to many - prison - while Oon Shu An's one-woman show #UnicornMoment sees the actressplaywright take an honest, hard look at herself and her past.
Liu Xiaoyi's self-aware, meta-theatre piece Fluid questions the art of the stage itself, while Haresh Sharma's Poor Thing takes a 360-degree view of a spat between strangers sparked by a traffic accident.
This year's quartet are a multitalented bunch. While Oon and Podesta are first-time nominees in the Best Original Script category, they are no strangers to the stage. Oon has showed off her acting chops both on television and in the theatre, while Podesta is a veteran director and actor.
Liu has racked up two Best Director nominations before and a joint Best Original Script nomination last year. The veteran in the race is Sharma, who has been nominated in this category four times. He has won three times - the most recent was in 2009 for Gemuk Girls.
The 15th Life! Theatre Awards ceremony will be held on April 20 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. It is an invite-only event.
Nominated for: Fluid (The Theatre Practice)
Previous nominations: Best Director for 11: Kuo Pao Kun Devised (The Theatre Practice, 2012), Best Director for Citizen Pig (The Finger Players, 2013), Best Original Script for Citizen Pig (The Finger Players, 2013)
Previous wins: None
To a non-artist, art can sometimes seem a little odd. Strange rehearsal techniques, bizarre creative processes and obsessions with odd topics can all seem a bit kooky when viewed from the other side. Fluid, written and directed by The Theatre Practice's Liu (right), acknowledges all these and then poses the question: What is theatre?
Crafted as a Chinese-language radio play, the show is narrated by Old Wong, an elderly cashier, who hovers over the stage not as a physical presence, but just as a voice emanating from a scratchy vinyl record.
After coming across a group of children singing and dancing, he signs up for a six-day performance masterclass on a whim. As someone uninitiated in the ways of art, his confusion and shock at meeting artists involved in an experimental theatre production will be a familiar feeling to anyone who has viewed a piece of art and failed to understand the artists' intentions.
Mr Sam Kee, reviewer for the website Arts Republic, noted that "the questions plaguing the director - regarding what theatre is, why a theatre needs audience, why actors need to be watched" were similarly posed to the audience.
Life! theatre critic Corrie Tan praised the play's "bird's-eye view, so to speak, of what regular theatregoers may take for granted".
She also wrote that Fluid is a "poetic production that playfully interrogates the nature of art with judicious restraint".
Oon Shu An
Nominated for: #UnicornMoment (Checkpoint Theatre)
Previous nominations: None
Even if you have never seen a unicorn, you cannot prove that it does not exist, says playwright and actress Oon.
That idea, the notion of something which cannot be disproved, was the seed of #UnicornMoment, a one-woman show presented by Checkpoint Theatre.
"Growing up, people would say, you're special, you're important, tell me what you think, but when you enter the working world, immediately people are like, don't talk too much, what makes you important, why are you special?" says Oon, 28.
"So I needed to believe in something, this special thing that is inside all of us, that makes us believe in who we are. We can't see it and one day if we find it, we'll prove that it exists, but until then, no one can tell us that it doesn't."
The show is a collection of sketches about her life, from confrontations with former boyfriends to her first brush with theatre.
To piece the work together, she interviewed more than 30 people who have had an impact on her life through the years, from her colleagues to her teachers to her family.
She says some of the scariest people to speak to were her ex-boyfriends and her family members.
"I was really scared to interview my family because we're so close and we usually operate on a level that is comfortable. Rarely do we ask questions that bug us, we kind of accept that this is the way it is. It was lovely, it was kind of like I got to meet them again as people instead of mum, dad and sister."
After conducting the interviews, she discussed what she gathered with the Checkpoint Theatre team, then wrote a draft and they all went through the script together.
"Even though the nomination says I'm the writer, I feel like it was a very devised process," she says.
Although she was apprehensive about the process at first, she says that after the legwork was done, "the past became a little less scary than I had thought and I got to know the people in my life a lot better".
Nominated for: Poor Thing (The Necessary Stage)
Previous nominations:Best Original script for Model Citizens (The Necessary Stage, 2010)
Previous wins: Best Original Script for Fundamentally Happy (The Necessary Stage, 2006), Best Original Script for Good People (The Necessary Stage, 2007), Best Original Script for Gemuk Girls (The Necessary Stage, 2008)
The shouting match may have started over something petty such as a seat on the train, but as it escalated, it was filmed surreptitiously and put online. Or perhaps it was road rage, one driver cutting another off, the incident caught on a dashboard camera and uploaded for all to see.
When watching such clips, which are increasingly common in the age of social media, it is easy to form an opinion on who is right and who is wrong.
But does the video really tell the whole story?
Playwright Sharma says Poor Thing was a response to the increasing number of Singaporeans losing their temper over seemingly small issues.
"I think that because everyone is so busy trying to get from point A to point B, trying to fulfil their many roles as a husband, wife, child, parent, worker or boss, we start to have less tolerance of others, especially strangers."
The Necessary Stage decided to create its own video of a car accident, which was then uploaded to one of the characters' Facebook page.
Audience members were told to befriend him before the production.
Sharma says that when crafting the play, "we didn't want to have any clear villains or victims".
He adds: "At one point, you may be rooting for somebody because the other person is bullying him, but at another point, he might say something so horrible that you think, 'oh my god, I hate him'."
In the heated quarrel that ensues, the characters pull no punches and even drag factors such as race, accent, education and class into the fray.
In order to get the antics of the characters just right, Sharma watched many videos of such altercations, from high-profile viral clips such as those of Singaporean Quek Zhen Hao's rash driving - dubbed the Honda Civic bully, he was convicted in May last year of rash driving and behaving in a threatening manner - to clips of anonymous couples breaking up.
Sharma says with a laugh: "In the angry clips, when people get angry, they tend to repeat themselves and to scold Hokkien bad words."
As social media is such an integral aspect in the spread of these video clips, the team wanted to bring that aspect into the theatre as well.
During the show, audience members were encouraged to take out their mobile phones, take pictures, comment on Facebook and walk around the set.
However, Sharma says that on most nights, out of 60 or 70 people, only a handful of theatregoers would move around the set. "We asked at the talkback session, why didn't anybody want to get involved? And they said, 'Can ah?' Singapore audiences are very well behaved."
Nominated for: Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta)
Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Home Boxes (Paper Monkey Theatre, 2010)
Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2013)
Imagine being trapped in a cell for 23 hours a day with seven strangers. Everywhere you turn is a solid wall and privacy is a precious commodity. The penal population in Singapore is not insignificant - government statistics put it at close to 10,000 inmates at the end of last year - but it is not often that their stories are told.
With Dark Room x8, director and playwright Podesta was hoping to shed light on what happens in some of those dark cells.
She says that a long time ago, she had met people in a social setting who had experience with the Singapore prison system. She says: "Their stories and the way that they talked about it affecting their lives in both positive and negative ways really struck me. It's a story not often told on a Singapore stage, so I wanted to bring their stories to life in the most non-judgmental, objective way."
To contact former prisoners, she approached the Yellow Ribbon Project and it put her in touch with several rehabilitation centres. However, it was not easy to find former prisoners who were willing to talk about their experience on the inside.
Podesta says: "There is still a lot of stigma attached. It seems to follow them for a long time and it's not just when applying for a job or a bank loan, but also, will people accept them if they know they've spent time in jail?"
After she interviewed the ex-inmates, she pieced their stories together by looking at the differences and similarities among the experiences, crafting the script out of verbatim quotes.
However, she was careful to strip their stories of any identifying information, such as the crimes they were imprisoned for and the length of their sentences.
"That was important to me because I wanted to focus on the experience and to give everyone a level playing field."
She reveals how some of the interviewees told her that after sleeping on a hard floor in jail, they had trouble getting used to a soft bed after their release. Others would just stand outside shopping centres not going in, not knowing what to do with their new-found freedom.
For Podesta, though, what left the greatest impact on her was their loss of personal space. "It was really surprising and I found it very difficult to put myself in that situation, being in a room with seven other people for 23 hours a day and having only one hour to go to the day room or yard. To me, that was shocking."
This article was first published on Apr 11, 2015.
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