Heat of political excitement

Play: Cooling Off Day (August 2011)
Playwright: Conceived by Alfian Sa'at, with creative input from the cast and co-directors
What it is about: In the lead-up to the 2011 General Election and after, playwright Alfian and the cast interviewed dozens of Singaporeans, from the man in the street to prominent figures, including students, cab drivers, political figures, retirees, teachers, first-time voters and new citizens. These interviewees from across the political spectrum spoke on everything from casting their first vote to worries about the future. They form a portrait of a politically charged Singapore and its concerns, both bread-and-butter and emotional.

As history would have it, Singapore would have three elections within the span of one year, and three runs of Wild Rice's Cooling Off Day in between.

The watershed parliamentary election in May 2011 was followed by the play's premiere in August at the Man Singapore Theatre Festival, immediately after which came the time for Singaporeans to pick a President. Cooling Off Day came back to great fanfare in February 2012, and then Hougang Member of Parliament Yaw Shin Leong was booted out of the Workers' Party, which led to a by-election in the single-seat ward in May.

Just over a year later, after the country had "cooled off" from all the political excitement, Wild Rice hosted a series of free readings from Cooling Off Day as part of a retrospective of Alfian's work in July 2013. The small venue, a cafe on the premises of the Lasalle College of the Arts, was packed to the rafters each night.

It was a play of a unique resonance, pegged to a pivotal election - one where almost all constituencies were contested - and a political awakening among many Singaporeans who previously did not have a chance to vote. The wake of the election, where Aljunied GRC went to the opposition Workers' Party and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) posted its weakest performance post- independence, was described as a "new normal" in Singapore by many political observers.

Life deputy editor Clarissa Oon, who reviewed the play's debut, wrote that the "most important reason why Cooling Off Day is a must-see is that you will recognise yourself in it.

"It manages to nail the swirling mix of logic and polemic, wariness and pent-up emotion that Singaporeans brought with them to the polling booth on May 7."

While Alfian, 38, came up with the idea of putting real voices and real lives on stage, the entire creative team contributed to its birth. The play is politically as well as linguistically diverse. Alfian had his original cast of six - Peter Sau, Jo Kukathas (also co-director), Neo Swee Lin, Najib Soiman, Rodney Oliveiro and Tan Kheng Hua - conduct interviews in non-English languages. Together, they performed more than 35 different characters.

Alfian said in an e-mail interview that while he started on his interviews six months prior to the play's opening, most of the play's material came from interviews that took place after the General Election in May 2011.

"It seemed as if even up to April, the people I met didn't have much of an opinion regarding the upcoming polls, and it was only after campaigning started that certain issues (and personalities) rose to the surface and became talking points," he says.

"I could really sense that for the interviews that I conducted in May, people really wanted to talk, and when they started talking, they didn't want to stop!"

While theatre was often the realm of fiction, Cooling Off Day ventured into the territory of non-fiction. Many of Singapore's socio-political plays were previously more allegorical, such as Kuo Pao Kun's The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985) and Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (1995), or Tan Tarn How's The Lady Of Soul & Her Ultimate 'S' Machine (1993).

Cooling Off Day's co-director Ivan Heng, founder of Wild Rice, says: "The play brought out how the everyday person, the man on the street, was suddenly so articulate and so insightful and so passionate about his vote."

He adds: "A play like Cooling Off Day, which is so overtly clear as day, that talks about the relationship between the Government and citizens, took us to another level, where we didn't have to shadowbox... It was very bare-faced and bold."

Kukathas continues: "We're saying, 'This is non-fiction', and this is a very powerful thing as well. It's one thing to construct a play and another to say, you can't argue with the fact that people said that."

All that is revealed of each interviewee is his or her first name, race, age and profession, with the option of using a pseudonym. The result, Alfian felt, was that these people had an "assurance" that "encouraged them to speak more frankly and openly", and that this element of distance and some anonymity was "one advantage that verbatim theatre has over documentary film".

The interviews started with three basic questions: "Why do you vote? What issues influenced your vote? What does citizenship mean to you?" But these conversations quickly evolved into something larger and were often either deliciously funny or deeply affecting - or both.

A bit of the light-hearted east versus west rivalry in Singapore comes to light from an interviewee living in the eastern part of the island, citing it as more welcome to opposition parties: "My friend said it's because the sun rises in the east. So it's no surprise that the people living in the east get enlightened much earlier than the people living on the rest of the island."

The interviewee later adds, as an afterthought: "The westies in the audience are going to get worked up. They're probably going to say that they have Holland V or something."

Kukathas says: "One of the ways to make political theatre is to make people laugh, to make people feel it's about them. Laughter is a very important aspect of it."

Kukathas, who is from Malaysia but often works in Singapore, attended many political rallies with Alfian as part of her research. She also spent a long weekend with him looking at all the interviews and moving them around to form an arc that would hold the production together, including thought- provoking interviews with former political detainee Teo Soh Lung, who ran in the 2011 elections as an opposition candidate, and a re-enactment of popular blogger Mr Brown's satirical podcast that used hawkers and food stalls in a hawker centre as a metaphor for various politicians and political parties.

Heng says: "What the actors each tried to do was to really give a voice, without judgment, to be honest, and get under the skin of these characters."

On the one hand, they had audience members "who were critical and said the piece seemed to be more anti-PAP or more pro-opposition", says Kukathas. Then there were those who told Heng that the play "went too easy on the PAP". Along with the humour and various criticisms, the play contains moderate, reasonable voices from both sides of the political spectrum.

Kukathas cites an example in the play where a woman is pro-PAP and her sister is pro-opposition. Yet they accept each other because they are family. She says: "There's nothing wrong with disagreeing with somebody on politics - politics is not the be-all and end-all of existence. It's just part of who we are as human beings. When you stifle it, it becomes this monster. We should be able to be civil and warm and funny with each other."

Heng adds: "You can be a dissenting voice and still be patriotic and love your country."

The company had struggled to get a licence for the play from the Media Development Authority. They received it on the day the show opened, Aug 10, and it was dated Aug 8.

But the show went on. The first run of the play at the Drama Centre Theatre brought in 3,709 audience members, while the second run, at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre, drew 8,400. Both runs were sold out. The play was nominated for Production of the Year at the 2012 Life Theatre Awards.

Cooling Off Day ended with an arresting visual setpiece: cast members frantically pulling chairs onto the stage in semi-darkness against a techno remix of returning officer Yam Ah Mee announcing the results of the 2011 General Election. The lights go up to reveal 81 white chairs and six red chairs - a symbol of the six opposition seats in Parliament.

Kukathas says: "You could feel that shock in the audience, that sss," she mimics a rustle, "that surprise. Even backstage, you could hear the audience go-" she lets out a gasp. Heng and Neo both chuckle.

But while the play ends with a dramatic bang, it begins in a quiet, intriguing way, with Daphne, an 18-year-old student, who gives an eloquent speech about politics that reveals a groundedness beyond her years.

Three years later, Neo says with a grin: "I was just thinking about her. Now, Daphne can vote."

Cooling Off Day is available from Ethos Books at $18.
Go to http://str.sg/Z7xz for the complete 15-part Classic Singapore Plays series.

This article was first published on August 25, 2015.
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