Q&A: Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of Singapore’s The Necessary Stage, on making the most of collaboration in rehearsals
IAM: How do you engage with writers and artists at The Necessary Stage?
AT: We give artists physical and mental space to explore issues that disturb them. We encourage them to do research and to seek out evidence, different viewpoints, and perspectives about the issues they are addressing in their work.
Our general manager Melissa Lim has been the dramaturg for our recent plays (Actor, Forty and Civilised). She was the dramaturg for We Were So Hopeful Then, helping playwright Ellison Tan with her workshops and writing during Phase 1 of the process (we have three phases).
The process always begin with research, in the case of We Were So Hopeful Then this was an exploration of all the job scopes possible in theatre, categorising them between roles that are known and seen and those roles which stay behind the scenes.
Because this was a topic close to our own lived experience, it was easy to find real-life examples of people who work in the theatre but who largely remain invisible, or who are treated as such by the general public or even by the industry itself. During Phase 1, the playwright and dramaturg worked with the cast to create characters in devising workshops.
Melissa also worked with Ellison to query the genesis of her interest in this topic: why it disturbs her and how the script and final production can remain true to her intent (to give voice to those who are often forgotten or ignored).
For The Year of No Return, Melissa undertook a huge amount research to bring relevant and resonant literature to the table. She searched online to find experts in the fields to speak with us at our Phase 1 rehearsal sessions.
After the improvisation sessions forThe Year of No Return, Melissa met for discussions with Haresh and Rody (our cowriters) before and after they had written their drafts. In Phase 2, this moved onto a read through with the cast to discuss the writing again, this process took about two weeks. Following read throughs we held more improvisation workshops. this time with designers in the room so that they could respond to the text and offer new readings as well.
Again the cowriters dismantled the draft to do more rewrites, at the end they performed to a test audience of about 40 people from mixed demographics. Phase 3 began a few months later, this gave Haresh and Rody plenty of time for the rewrites. At The Necessary Stage, we have to take into consideration the time we must give for final adjustments to the script, before we submit it to the censors – after which there can be no more changes.
IAM: What drives you as an artist?
AT: The application of our beliefs is infused into the way we create theatre. How do we do things in a consultative manner at the theatre and still make a decision that means quality has not been compromised by democratic principles? I’m interested in the ways we can facilitate ideas from participants so that they become cocreators and not the director’s or playwright’s pawns. I explore how we can turn the participants’ input and responses into a dialogue with one another so that there is a collective response to the material.
We question how we facilitate the contestation of ideas alongside our very own discourse dialogue with the audience: the play unfolds on stage, there’s a dialogic of ideas going on simultaneously. I want to explore how the aesthetic and the politics of making theatre operate at an optimum level during play and how this adapts near the end of the process. For me, it is about creating an environment that draws on the imaginative strengths of our collaborators.
IAM: What can you tell us about your creative process?
AT: The important point is to listen to your actors: they are each different beings and have highly-individualised processes. I love directing actors according to their individual needs; one intuitively knows what the actor wants.
Never frown or look down on the actors’ requests, especially when they are asking questions about the character they are playing or the scene their characters are in. I take the actors’ questions seriously and respond or discuss their points by hearing their thoughts about particular characters or the relationships they have with others in the play, or their character’s motivation for a particular scene.
I trust that our actors will always do something creative with the discussion and I’m usually rewarded by seeing actors transform from scene run to scene run. When I see the difference in what they have done, I will bring it up so that they are aware that I notice that they are trying out new things. We discuss their approach. We let ideas brew. We take a break from scene work and return a day or two later. This space gives the actor time to process the ideas we’ve just discussed. Sometimes the results are not immediate.
IAM: Talk us through your process as a director in rehearsals
AT: As a director I start my process with a full read of the play and then I block the whole play as sketchily and quickly as possible. So we all, in the room, get a sense of the world of the play in about two to three days. Then we discuss that world. From there, we move to scene work on scenes we are the most confident with and we try to nail those down scene.
From there, we build on it gradually, we do more scene work before and after that scene. Then we run the whole play again, before doing scene work again. The whole process repeats in a similar manner until the epilogue and we are ready to go into a full run. After each full run, we tidy or work on the scenes that are weak, then go back to running the full play uninterrupted, with Haresh, Melissa and I giving notes only at the end of the run and not during the runs.
A full interview on The Necessary Stage appears in the July edition of IAM.