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Interview with Claire Wong, Actress from Checkpoint Theatre’s Atomic Jaya

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Actress Claire Wong is set to take centre stage in Checkpoint Theatre’s latest offering, Atomic Jaya, which is to be staged at SOTA Theatre from the 24th October to the 1st November 2013.

Atomic Jaya tells the tale of physicist, Dr Mary Yuen, who is recruited to build the region’s first atomic bomb. However, as she gets drawn deeper and deeper into this ambitious scheme, she grapples with a growing moral dilemma.

We asked Wong some questions about heading Checkpoint Theatre, directing Jo Kukathas last year in Occupation to a win at this year’s Life Awards for Best Actress, and taking the actress role this time around in Atomic Jaya.

First off, let me congratulate you for directing Jo Kukathas to a well deserved win for Best Actress at this year’s Life Awards for her performance in Occupation by your very own Checkpoint Theatre. Did you feel at any point of the production that you were witnessing an award winning performance?

Thanks very much, Sharmila! I, too, want to thank you for engaging with our work and for your thoughtful and insightful reviews of our productions. Thank you for all your support – it is much needed and very much appreciated!

While we are working on a play, all I think about as a director is how to draw out the best performance from my actors, how best to serve the text and tell the story of the characters in the play and their reality, and how to do so with authenticity and honesty.

We don’t think about winning awards. But we do want to make work that resonates and connects powerfully with our audiences and winning an award is one kind of affirmation, for which we are grateful. I am proud of the fact that the actors I direct have usually received recognition for their performances and are often nominated in the Life! Theatre Awards, and I certainly was hopeful that Jo would be nominated too – especially when I watched her performances in the theatre and saw how the audiences were really drawn in and moved by her performance. As far as I was concerned, she had already won the award there and then, in the theatre!

What was the ambiance like at Checkpoint Theatre when Kukathas walked away bagging the Best Actress Award?

Of course we were very very proud and happy. Jo was very kind and generous in her acceptance speech and thanked the entire Checkpoint Theatre team. And creating a great theatrical work is indeed a team effort which requires an extraordinary amount of attention to so many details. At Checkpoint Theatre, we respect our audience and the craft of theatre-making – winning the Best Actress Award for Occupation was a wonderful affirmation of what we stand for: With rigorous technique, Checkpoint makes art with a strong sense of craft. Connecting in ways both beautiful and intellectually honest.

What were your feelings personally when she won?

I recalled clearly the time spent in workshops and on the rehearsal floor – the amount of care, thought and detail we had put into the work. And of course because it was a play about Huzir’s grandmother (my grandmother-in-law) and about a period in history that also meant a lot to me personally because of my own family’s experiences during the war and occupation, the recognition for this particular production was very meaningful not just professionally but also personally. I was very proud of Jo and I couldn’t stop smiling and grinning delightedly and cheering her on!

Checkpoint Theatre produces a lot of locally written scripts. However, most theatre observers would say local stories don’t attract theatre goers as much as popular Western productions. Being co-owner of Checkpoint Theatre, what are your thoughts about this? Has it been difficult producing localised content against financial considerations?

Unequivocally, yes, it is very difficult. One of the challenges we face is that we have tiny or next-to-nothing marketing budgets, and it is really hard publicizing and reaching out to the public.

We do have a strong Checkpoint Theatre following, who love the quality of the work and who deeply appreciate the fact that we produce original local scripts. As for those who are not generally attracted to local productions, our experience is that when they actually do come to our shows, they are “pleasantly surprised” to discover how much they enjoy the work and how much more resonant the work is because it is local, it is about them, it is their story.

We do have local plays that can stand up to the very best of those from the West. But we do not invest enough resources and time into robustly developing new work. Also, we really need to invest in and stage older local plays which deserve to become “classics”. Ours is a much younger theatre industry compared to the West; the Western productions that travel all the way here or are staged here did not start out as “hits” – it took time and many incarnations for such plays to become familiar favourites. We do not do enough of that for our own plays. That is why Checkpoint Theatre, apart from investing in and nurturing new writing, also restages older work – such as Occupation last year and Atomic Jaya this year. These are plays that deserve to be part of our own canon of classics, that deserve new generations of audiences, that can withstand fresh interpretations and which resonate deeply with both local and international audiences.

And we need theatergoers to care about and support local work. If not them, then who?

You’re both a director and an actor. Which one is your greater calling or which one do you love more? 

I think it varies at different points of my life. The challenges are very different. I can do more as the director because I am responsible for the overall vision and interpretation of the work. I am told I am an actor’s director, in that I work in great detail on the acting. Perhaps it’s because I myself have trained and performed so much as an actor. Perhaps it’s because I think a theatrical piece must work if you only had the actor in the space and nothing else. The acting, the story and characters are the heart and the centerpiece. So, I spend a lot of time devising exercises and exploring performance methodologies; I work out what it takes to fire up each individual actor’s imagination, how to stretch and expand each actor’s physical, emotional and vocal vocabularies. Different actors require different stimuli and direction. And of course there is the joy and satisfaction of imagining, envisioning and bringing together all the other elements – the staging, the set, the soundscape, the lights, etc. – and collaborating with the different artists and designers.

But having mostly directed in the last few years, I do miss acting. So, I am really pleased to be getting back on stage. It is a different sort of satisfaction and challenges – delving into the text and characters, creating the world on stage with my fellow actor, and eventually connecting directly with the audience.

I truly honestly cannot say which is a greater calling!!! I think it will vary at different times of my life. I realised a while ago that this is what I will be doing, and hope to do, the rest of my life – acting and directing, and also writing. That helps. It’s not a “job” in that sense, but a lifelong pursuit of a craft that I hope to keep honing and to keep learning from, and making work that I hope will resonate with and touch people.

You’re also a full time lawyer. Do you dream of one day being in the Arts full time instead? Or do you love straddling both occupations?

I currently have a part-time/flexi-time arrangement with my law firm, where I am not practicing law but I head the firm’s corporate communications and training. So, this gives me the time and flexibility to pursue my artistic projects. I do enjoy being in both the creative world and in the legal and corporate world. Both worlds often require very similar skill sets, while also having different perspectives and approaches. I think I am all the more effective, sometimes, because I have a sensitivity to and understanding of both worlds. Practically speaking, though, it does get a bit too hectic at times, and ideally I wish I could alternate – spend a year on my creative projects, and then spend the next year on my law office work.

Your husband Huzir Sulaiman is directing you in Atomic Jaya. Is it difficult as husband and wife to work together as director and actress respectively?

We worked out early on in our relationship how to be artistic collaborators, in addition to being life partners. He has directed me before, and likewise, I have directed him, too. We trust and have the highest respect for each other as artists – plus we share similar artistic tastes, values and sensibilities. Our working relationship as director and actress is built on a bedrock of mutual respect for each other, as well as for our other collaborators – so, in the rehearsal room, I am one of the two actresses, and not the director’s wife. We both love being in the rehearsal room and really enjoy working creatively together and with the team. We have learnt (and continue to learn how) to draw a line between the personal/private relationship and the professional/creative collaboration.

Could you tell us what drew you, both as an actress and co-founder of Checkpoint Theatre, to acting in and staging Atomic Jaya again?

Actually, Huzir and I are often asked about Atomic Jaya. People either remember it fondly and vividly from earlier productions (in which I acted) or they have heard so much about it and want to see it! We thought it would be interesting to look at the play 15 years after it was written and see what fresh interpretations we could bring to it.

The themes remain very relevant and the characters and situations which are central to the satire are still recognisable and familiar. As mentioned earlier, as local theatre practitioners, we think it is important that we acknowledge the rich body of local plays that are part of our theatrical canon which should be restaged often as well as studied and celebrated, because this is artistic work that provides an insight into ourselves and comments upon the human condition through a local lens.

What can audiences expect from watching this play?

It’s a hilarious script! The story and characters are really funny and compelling. You will meet a madcap assortment of very colourful, delightful and memorable characters – from generals to canteen ladies to politicians to madcap scientists to wheeler-dealers who will sell anything – all have a part in this laugh-a-minute comedy. It’s a sharply observed political and social satire written with razor sharp wit that makes you both laugh and think.

Checkpoint Theatre helps nurture the next generation of theatre practitioners. Have you faced any challenges in doing this? 

We wish we had far more resources (Money! Cheaper or sponsored venues! Production and administrative support! ) to be able to provide more opportunities, support and platforms to our young theatre practitioners. Two of our associate artists recently went to a playwriting workshop in Australia. There they met young Australian dramatists and they came back saying how well supported their Australian counterparts are, compared to our local writers (and young theatre practitioners). The Australian writers, though young in age seemed very matured and accomplished because of the opportunities given to them, the training they were exposed to, the platforms they had to showcase their work.

I think as a people, as a society, as a nation, it is so crucial that we value the arts and theatre in general and, specifically, the arts and theatre that we make, that are of us and this place.

It is an uphill battle changing mindsets and attitudes. We need policy makers, corporations, ordinary people to accept and know that (1) the value of the arts/theatre cannot be measured primarily in monetary terms or “returns on investment”, (2) artists and creative types do valuable work that deserve proper remuneration – they cannot “live” on passion alone and have to be paid proper or reasonable fees/wages, (3) not all foreign imports are better that local ones – we do have great local plays, which deserve to be seen, supported and loved not just by local audiences but also international audiences.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.