This journal entry is part of a bi-monthly series of journals penned by Sindhura Kalidas, 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.
Sindhu is the dramaturg for Jun and the Octopus (JATO) under Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) series 2021, and these entries are part of her efforts to document her process, raise critical questions, and through this, gain some clarity about the role of the dramaturg within the production process. This documentation is intended to be an open resource to encourage dialogue and discussion about the process of dramaturgy within the theatre community.
Editor’s note: JATO has since been postponed to 2022.
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Recap of Jun and the Octopus and the Journey So Far
As mentioned in Entry #1, The Finger Players (TFP) will be doing a theatrical adaptation of the book, Jun and the Octopus (JATO), for 11-14-year-olds in July 2021 as part of the Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) series. The show deals with the important but difficult topic of child sexual abuse. The production is directed by Myra Loke and includes Ian Loy, Jyanne Palaruan (who replaces Farez Najid), Vanessa Toh and Metta Kusalena as cast members. The book was adapted for theatre by Ellison Tan.
TFP’s JATO journey can be broken up into three phases that lead up to the final production in July. Phases 1 and 2 are now over. Phase 1 culminated in an open rehearsal of selected scenes at the Esplanade. Phase 2 culminated in two test showings: one to a small group of invited guests at the Drama Centre and another to a group of 20 Primary 5 students at Admiralty Primary School. TFP will use the feedback gathered in Phases 1 and 2 to refine the end product which will be performed at the Esplanade’s Theatre Studio as part of the F.Y.I series.
In this journal entry, I will be commenting on the process between Phases 1 and 2. Specifically, I will be outlining the following:
- Why a phase-based approach is valuable for this performance
- The challenges that surfaced after Phase 1 that required remediation
- Overall reflections on Phase 2
Why a phase-based approach?
Phase-based approaches are typically common in theatrical productions that have a devising component. Devising, simply put, is a collaborative approach to theatre making. There is no fixed text at the start of the process, and the text (in whatever form) is generated through improvisations with members of the creative team. In JATO, however, we had a text at the start of the process: the adapted script. However, it is my belief that a phase-based approach was implemented for two main reasons:
a) The presence of multiple stakeholders
- The Singapore Children’s Society (SCS): Jun and the Octopus is, in its original form, a storybook commissioned by the SCS. Their intent behind publishing the book was to give parents a resource to begin a conversation with their children about sexual abuse. Therefore, it would be safe to say that their primary concern is ensuring that at the end of the theatrical adaptation, children have a clear sense of what abuse may look like (the difference between a “good” touch and a “bad” touch) and know what steps they can take to address / disclose the abuse and its resultant traumas.
- The Esplanade: The Esplanade is essentially producing the show by giving TFP and the SCS a platform to realise JATO on stage. Clearly, they too see the value in the story seeing as they have carved a space for the production in their F.Y.I programming. Given that the F.Y.I series is targeted at local schools, there is, understandably, amongst many other considerations, a need to ensure the topics covered should be preferably aligned with school curricula as well as the Ministry of Education’s 21st Century Competencies to increase buy-in from schools.
- Clinical Psychology Consultant, Dr Lin Hong Hui: Hong Hui was brought on board by TFP to ensure that the subject matter is conveyed realistically and sensitively. Hong Hui’s expertise is key in pre-empting audience responses and ensuring that a safe space is created for all audience members – before, during and after the performance.
- The Finger Players: Needless to say, TFP’s concerns and objectives are an amalgamation of all the above stakeholders’ but with an additional responsibility to ensure that the creative elements of the show are effectively harnessed to achieve all the objectives listed above.
The phase-based approach is therefore crucial for a performance of this ilk because it gives the creative team opportunities to clarify, refine and balance the needs and expectations of the various stakeholders. This may seem like a fairly obvious thing to say but my intent in drawing attention to the mechanics of the phase-based approach is to highlight the role that a dramaturg can play in facilitating meaningful interactions between the various stakeholders. The experience of having to balance the needs of various stakeholders has allowed me to gain clarity on my own processes and has urged me to centre my practice around: active listening, open communication and empathy.
b) Ethical considerations due to subject matter
Because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, the potential psychological / emotional risk to audience members is high. We may not know the backgrounds and personal histories of the audience members who attend, and so there may be a possibility that audience members disclose past abuse (either their own experiences or those of people close to them) during the show, particularly in the post-show facilitation segment.
The phase-based approach is therefore important in gauging and analysing audience reception to the piece. Specifically, all stakeholders found it essential to discern the following:
- sources of confusion / misunderstanding
- potential trigger points / sources of distress (particularly in emotionally charged scenes)
- efficacy of redressive strategies (particularly post-show facilitation segment and decompression space)
Since a large part of the dramaturg’s work is centered around audience reception, I consider the dramaturg to be the conscience of a work (a term used by more than one theatre scholar to describe the role of the dramaturg), particularly in productions such as JATO which deal with complex and contentious themes. To me, this involves internalising stakeholders’ concerns and needs, and constantly engaging with the work from the perspective of an audience member. The idea is to bear the audience member’s well-being in mind from start to end. In order to help myself do this, in phase 2, I would take notes for each run by responding to the following questions:
1) How do I feel after watching this performance?
2) What have I learnt after watching this performance?
3) What were the most/least engaging parts of the performance?
I am, of course, still refining my process and these questions but my intent is to organise my feedback to the creative team by using the lens and voice of an audience member. In order to refine my own understanding of the target audience, I hope to compare my answers to the above questions with the feedback gained from our actual target audience (which we are still in the process of consolidating while I write this!)
In Phase 2, we made tweaks to the script, performance delivery and post-show structure of JATO based on feedback gathered after the open rehearsal in Phase 1.
Summary of challenges surfaced after phase 1:
- Audience members had trouble registering that something inappropriate had happened during the shower scene between Uncle Mok (the perpetrator of the abuse) and Jun (titular character).
- Audience members had trouble understanding why Uncle Mok transformed into the octopus and the symbolism of the octopus in general (Uncle Mok appears as an octopus to Jun in the nightmares that commence after the abuse)
- Post-show facilitation was more issue-based and there was insufficient time and space spent on unpacking relevant production / creative elements
As we are still in the process of collating and consolidating feedback from Phase 2, I cannot say for sure how effective our tweaks were in addressing the challenges that surfaced in Phase 1. What has been clear to me so far, though, is that these tweaks made have been generally well-received by the SCS, the Esplanade, Dr Lin Hong Hui, all of whom have been extremely generous in terms of offering advice and expertise on how to improve the JATO experience for our audience members. This, to me, has been the most gratifying aspect of being a part of JATO: seeing first-hand how a phase-based approach allows various stakeholders to be actively involved in the creation process. Tapping on their various pools of expertise is what enhances the robustness of the end product. I am eager to see how these relationships evolve and contribute to the final version of JATO which will be presented at the Esplanade, officially, as part of the F.Y.I 2021 series.