Issue 121 | Apr-Jun 2020

Beyond the Bright Lights

A curiosity about the human condition and a passion for storytelling are the driving factors behind multi-hyphenate theatre practitioner Ms Claire Wong’s (Law ’88) pursuit of this performance art form.

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WHO IS SHE?

A three-time Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards nominee, Ms Claire Wong is a Singapore-Malaysian actor, director, producer and filmmaker. She is the co-founder and Joint Artistic Director and Producer of Checkpoint Theatre. 

The co-founder and joint Artistic Director-Producer of Checkpoint Theatre, Ms Claire Wong, was passionate about theatre long before her professional stage debut in 1988 as Ivy, a small-town girl from Malaysia, in Michael Chiang and Dick Lee’s Beauty World — now regarded as a quintessential Singaporean musical. “I always knew that theatre would be an important part of my life,” says the NUS alumnus, who graduated with a Law degree. “From the time I was in primary school, I was involved in drama.”

In her time at NUS, the Penang-born Singapore Permanent Resident counted directors Mr Ong Keng Sen  (Law ’88) and Mr Ivan Heng (Law ’88); and Members of Parliament Ms Sylvia Lim (Law ’88) and Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Law ’88) among her classmates. “I had a great time in Law school. Our class was very close and we even created a show to have fun and mark the end of our time together,” says the 56-year-old. “We started a tradition and since then; every graduating Law IV class creates and performs a production.”

While Ms Wong has never lost her love for the law — she even went on to successfully practise it — she could not stay away from theatre, and pursued a Master’s of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts at Columbia University in New York City. Since graduating from the prestigious programme in 2001, she has acted in a slew of productions on both sides of the Causeway. Her performances in works by playwright Huzir Sulaiman — her husband, with whom she runs Checkpoint Theatre — such as Occupation and Atomic Jaya, has earned her nominations for Best Actress at the Life! Theatre Awards. Ms Wong has also directed and produced numerous well-received plays. “There is something very special about being in a live performance, where the performers and audience breathe the same air, where the words of the play arc through space, igniting emotions and ideas, and connect everyone in the room through our shared humanity,” she says. “Theatre as an art form has the unique power to bring people together and make us feel a little less alone.”

Theatre connects us on a primal level. Humans make sense of life and find meaning through storytelling. Theatre and theatre-making can change hearts and minds, rich or poor.

How did you become interested in theatre? 

My elder sister June likes to take credit for introducing me to the magic of theatre when she took me to watch her act in a play. So I certainly give credit to her, together with the several others I have met in my journey as a theatre-maker — from the inspiring drama teachers to the wonderful people who make productions possible today. Because of them, I have been able to witness how great theatre has the power to imprint itself permanently within people. 

When I act onstage, the connection with the audience is palpable — there is an understanding, and we entrust our imagination and our potential to each other. I have had strangers come up to me to talk about a performance of mine that they saw more than 20 years ago, which is a very humbling experience. As a director, it is wonderful to be able to sit in the audience and to feel them being transported and moved deeply.  

How does Checkpoint Theatre seek to distinguish itself from other theatre companies in Singapore?

Checkpoint Theatre is home to new Singapore playwriting and our vision is to craft and nurture original stories for the stage. We are about championing a diversity of voices and nurturing the next generation of theatre-makers. We also invest an inordinate amount of care in every part of the process — and as a result of this meticulous commitment, we are known and respected for our intensive script development and dramaturgy. 

Checkpoint Theatre has always strived to be an open and generous space for collaboration.Collaboration matters greatly to us because we want everyone we work with to be challenged, to deepen their practice, and to surprise themselves and each other. Through this process, we hope to uncover new depths, textures and nuances in our plays, and to create a work of art that resonates with our audience.  

UPCOMING: AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE

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Checkpoint Theatre’s upcoming play The Heart Comes to Mind, directed by Ms Wong, will be performed at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 23 to 26 April. This poignant and poetic piece explores the relationship between an ageing father and his daughter, following the passing of his wife. The production aims to fully immerse the audience through a combination of multisensory elements such as original live music. For more information, go to checkpoint-theatre.org.

What’s the biggest difference between the theatre scene in Singapore and Malaysia?

One big difference is the infrastructural support that Singapore has built up over the last several decades. Apart from physical facilities, fiscal incentives such as the Cultural Matching Fund and tax rebates for donors have helped the development of the theatre industry. In Malaysia, such support is not as widespread or consistent, and theatre groups rely more on private arts patrons or the public. This means, as well, that the theatre landscape in Malaysia is less manicured and there are more organic, ground-up initiatives.

What, in your view, is the biggest challenge the Singapore theatre scene currently faces?

The high cost of theatre-making is one of our biggest challenges. There is a need for a wider and more affordable range of small- and medium-sized performance venues. The steep costs mean that theatre-makers have to spend a disproportionate amount of time managing the financial risks of a project, which may mean making safer — and possibly less interesting — artistic choices. This encourages formulaic theatre-making with productions that are predictably popular, which is not necessarily a bad thing provided that we also safeguard the space for artistic risk-taking. Ultimately, we want room for nuanced and exquisite theatre, and to nurture original and innovative processes that deepen the art and craft of theatre-making. 

Which is the production you are most proud of? 

There are so many that are very special to me. One example is Normal by Faith Ng, which I directed and produced. It examines the streaming system in our schools, and the play’s 2017 staging involved post-show discussions with more than 3,000 audience members, including teachers, students and parents. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung was one of the four Cabinet ministers present as well. In the years since the performance, Minister Ong announced the abolishment of the very academic streaming system that Normal shed light on. To see the play possibly having an impact on national policy change has been monumental. Checkpoint Theatre continues to present the play at schools through dramatised readings, followed by dialogues with the artists. It has become a modern Singapore classic and we’re excited to bring it to even more people with our upcoming production of the play in October 2020.  

Do you reckon being a student at NUS has benefited you in your career today? 

I lived on campus throughout my four years at NUS. As such, I made lifelong friends from “hall life”, as well as from Law school. I was very active and represented my hall — not just in drama but also in several sporting activities. I often juggled school assignments and deadlines with my drama rehearsals, sports training and other responsibilities. After I graduated, I went on to practise law while also embarking on my creative journey as an actress, and later as a director. Looking back, my time at NUS showed me that I could pursue my many interests, and live life as fully as possible.

What do you say to the notion that theatre is only for the privileged to practise and consume? 

This is an understandable perception as theatre-making is an expensive endeavour. Artists and arts administrators often help to sponsor the costs by being underpaid. A theatre ticket also typically costs more than, say, a movie ticket. Hence, only the privileged can afford to be a patron while artists and administrators find other ways to support themselves. That said, theatre connects us on a primal level. Humans make sense of life and find meaning through storytelling. Theatre and theatre-making can change hearts and minds, rich or poor. We should therefore make it accessible to everyone. Checkpoint Theatre does this by working with educators to offer dramatised readings of our plays at schools, as well as providing internship opportunities to students. We also offer student discounts to our shows and regularly host free public talks and programmes. 


Text by Min Ee Mao. Main Photo by Kelvin Chia 

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