2023 Fellow Journals #2 – Directing

by fingerplayers

This journal entry is part of a series of journals penned by Liew Jia Yi, a Fellow under The Finger Players Fellowship Programme, a year-long leadership development programme for theatre practitioners who have a keen interest in deepening their understanding about the craft of puppetry.

Hello again! I am Jia Yi, Fellow of the The Finger Players (TFP) Fellowship Programme for cycle 2022-2023. 

After accepting the fellowship last year, Ellison and Myra had generously shared with me the upcoming TFP programmes that I might be able to get involved in. I was able to attach myself to some of them, where I got to observe three Directors* (Myra Loke, Tan Beng Tian, and Oliver Chong) at work. Each director has their own style of directing, and I was very glad to be able to learn vicariously through their experiences. 

In this journal, I would be sharing my directing journey, where I began with the following questions:

• What does an artistic direction consist of? 

• How do you decide your artistic direction? 

• What is your directing style? Is there a methodology? 

• What is the preparation work involved in being a Director?

• How do you work with actors? 

• How do you work with puppeteers? 

• How do you plan your rehearsal plan?

As I learnt by observing different directors at TFP, as well as directing two new works myself, I managed to find some answers to these questions, and discovered more than what I set out with. 

Vicarious Learning through Observation

For Jun and the Octopus (directed by Myra), I was able to get a glimpse of the tail end of the rehearsal process (June-July 2022), where she was refining the blocking and doing detailing with the cast. Myra’s understanding of how puppetry works (being a Puppeteer and Puppet Maker herself) gave her the vocabulary to communicate with the cast specifically on how to move the puppets, so that actions became clearer. 

For Scam on You (directed by Beng Tian), I had the privilege of shadowing her from the beginning of the production process (July-September 2022). Sitting in for the creative meetings, production meetings, and rehearsals definitely prepared me mentally, and helped me understand better what a director might need to consider for the performance, and sometimes beyond. For instance, Singapore was still on the way out of the pandemic last year, and hence there was a need to have a back-up plan. The company decided to prepare a film version of Scam on You, and Beng Tian needed to have separate meetings with the videographer to discuss the storyboard, in order to translate this theatre performance into a palatable film version. Extra rehearsals were also arranged to tweak some blocking in order to align better with the filmed version of Scam on You. This observation process was really helpful for me as I was slated to direct a community performance the following year.

Lastly, I also had the chance of sitting in for the Acting Masterclass (conducted by Oliver), where I got to see how he facilitated the sessions to train actors. He did give a disclaimer, that his facilitation during the Masterclass would be different from how he usually directs a play. However, I was still able learn a lot from these sessions, where I witnessed how his understanding of an actor’s process and his selection of words helped the participants find their own strengths and weaknesses, and how they can work on them constructively. 

First Directorial Project: The Puppets Are Alright (My Father the AI Machine

The Puppets Are Alright (TPAA) featured a triple bill of puppetry-led works, and I was honoured to be able to direct one of the pieces titled “My Father the AI Machine” (Written by Chong Tze Chien, TFP Core Team Member). The process began with the first meeting with Myra and Ellison, where they shared the concept behind The Maker’s Lab and the parameters that I could work with for TPAA, which included the puppet, the number of cast members, the space, and time (duration of performance and time period of entire production). 

Puppet Chiam, built in 2020, first featured in the 2021 production of Little Mournings

Chiam was a puppet designed and made by Sim Xin Feng, the maker of TFP’s inaugural The Maker’s Lab as part of an ongoing 9-month experimental laboratory. I allowed myself to be affected by Chiam (the way it looks, how it moves etc), and came up with an initial concept for the story. Tze Chien then continued to write the piece, keeping in mind that it would have been my first time directing and that I hoped to focus on directing actors instead of puppeteers. After “My Father the AI Machine” was written, Tze Chien kindly took on another role as my Directing Mentor and guided me on the different milestones on this directing journey:

  • Initial creative meeting 
  • Thoughts on working with the designs after the designers present their preliminary designs
  • Planning the rehearsals 
  • Receiving feedback from the creative team after first full run 
  • Questions regarding script along the way that affect the direction 
  • Tweaking the piece up till the last full dress rehearsal 
  • Bumping into the theatre and the things to look out for 
  • Post-mortem meeting and reflections 

Along the way, I was also able to learn from Myra and Oliver (directors for the other two pieces in this triple bill) a little about how they crafted their pieces, based on the unifying set design by Azy. During the creative meetings, all the creatives had been very generous and honest with their thoughts on my piece and challenged me in ways that propelled me to think harder and deeper about the play. During the rehearsal process too, Tennie (an experienced and awesome Stage Manager) also helped me to make better decisions by always making the space safe and ready for me (as well as the cast) to play in. 

Set-up in Drama Centre, featuring the set designed by Azy Alias. Image provided by Liew Jia Yi

During my one of my meetings with Tze Chien, he mentioned that the first few directing pieces would usually help the director identify his/her strengths and weaknesses. True enough, I found that through this piece, my personality bled into the work, and it had real consequences on the process. For instance, my openness to ideas meant that the cast and creative team were free to explore during rehearsals. However, when this openness was coupled with a lack of assertiveness on my side, it sometimes delayed decision-making. This was not helpful especially towards the end of the rehearsal process, where things had to be finalised. Nevertheless, the team was patient and ever ready to embrace my choices, and I was very thankful for that.  

Second Directorial Project: The Ageing Artist

The Ageing Artist (Written by Ellison Tan) was a puppetry performance that weaved in elements of STEM, as we worked with a local partner called Tinkermind. The performance took place in Geylang East Public Library, where invited communities and members of the public were invited to join in the post-performance workshop as well. 

Given the community nature of project, it required me to think beyond the play itself to consider the entire audience experience, from the first touchpoint (publicity of the show) all the way to the post-show segment. During this process, I was glad to have Myra and Ellison as my sounding board, where I could check in with them whenever in doubt.

Puppet Toh Ah Where in its prototype stages, manipulated by Jo Kwek, image provided by Liew Jia Yi

The puppet (Toh Ah Where) was a larger-than-life puppet that was built from scratch, by Loo An Ni (Puppet Designer and Maker). For this to happen, both An Ni and I had several meetings to discuss about what the puppet would look like, how it would move, and it could be manipulated by the puppeteer(s). There was also a devising phase early in the process, where we tried out the puppet prototype with the cast. For instance, we originally thought Ah Where would be manipulated by two puppeteers, given its large size. However, after the devising phase, we found out that one puppeteer was enough to manipulate this lightweight puppet and the actions would look cleaner as well. This reminded me of my previous conversation with Daniel, that “if the Director does not have a clear idea at the beginning, then it would be important to have a clear process to work towards achieving what is desirable”. Hence, this devising phase proved to be important, as it allowed us to test out early enough what worked and what didn’t.

Throughout the rehearsal process, An Ni also came in regularly to do puppet-fitting with the cast, so that she could make adjustments and/or repairs accordingly. Working with an experienced Puppeteer like Jo Kwek had allowed me to try out different blocking and actions for the puppet. It was such an enjoyable experience to see how Ah Where came to life from page to stage. 

During this process, the other creatives also came in for rehearsals at different junctures to give their input, and elevated the piece to a different level. As a director, I had to remind myself to keep stepping back and see how the different elements fit into the big picture that is coherent and clear. While a play can never be perfect, I was proud of the eventual product and how far the team had come. 

Here are some of the things I still struggle with as a director:

  • How do I add to the text instead of just serving the text
  • How do I repeat the elements significantly enough so that audience can build their associations to the piece? 
  • How to design the director’s arc on top of the playwright’s arc? 

While I might know some of the answers theoretically, I would definitely need to do more, in order to know how to apply them practically in the rehearsal space. 

Company of The Ageing Artist!

Thank you TFP for this enriching experience, where I grew as an artist in a safe environment. As the fellowship comes to an end, I leave with more questions about directing, but also more confidence and desire to keep excavating in this area. 

*Myra Loke (Co-Artistic Director 2019-2023), Tan Beng Tian (Co-Founder of The Finger Players), Oliver Chong (Current Artistic Director)