Fellow Journals #3 – Jun and the Octopus: Phase Three (Part 1/2)

by fingerplayers

This journal entry is part of a bi-monthly series of journals penned by Sindhura Kalidas, currently 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 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. We would love to hear your thoughts, and can be reached at admin@fingerplayers.com.

First of all, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has been reading so far! It’s been really heartening to hear your thoughts on my dramaturgical journey. However, this will be my final entry as dramaturg for Jun and the Octopus (JATO).

In this entry, I will be sharing my reflections pertaining to the entire JATO process. I shall give a quick update on what the team has been up to, despite the fact that the final production has been postponed to 2022. I’ll also do a roundup of all my duties as dramaturg on this project.

Phase 3 of JATO:

The cast and creative team have put in a lot of effort in each phase of its creation to ensure that JATO is as effective and meaningful as it possibly can be. However, due to the restrictions brought about by the surge in COVID-19 cases, JATO unfortunately had to be postponed to 2022.

An early test showing of Jun and the Octopus

Why not digitise?

In the past year or so since the pandemic has hit, we’ve seen so many companies cut their losses by producing digitised or semi-digitised performances in order to continue with their original programming. Doing an online performance of JATO was something that was considered by the teams from the Esplanade and TFP too. In fact, there were several arguments made for digitising the performance: the main one being that an online version could give participants a greater sense of privacy and would perhaps make them less self-conscious about contributing during the post-show discussion.

However, both the TFP and Esplanade teams eventually felt that JATO would be best experienced live. This is because, firstly, there are quite a few interactive elements in the post-show facilitation that might not have translated well to an online format. Secondly, an online experience might have made it harder for the creative team and teachers to pick up on students’ non-verbal cues. This would have made it more challenging for us to identify potential triggers / signs of discomfort and offer the necessary support.

Therefore, in order to ensure that the overall experience was a safe one for our target audience, the decision was made to postpone the performance to when it can be performed live, as we originally planned. This will allow for facilitators from TFP and SCS, as well as teachers, to monitor the responses from students and offer the necessary support. It will also allow the team to put up a decompression space for students who may wish to take a break from what they are watching. These important safety valves will remain intact in a live performance.

A test showing of Jun and the Octopus (Phase 2)

Work continues!

Even though the show had been postponed, work still went on to fine-tune and complete certain aspects of the JATO experience. Between phases 2 and 3 my duties have largely involved:

  1. Working with Ellison and Myra to edit the script even further (this time to address pacing / momentum issues that had arisen in Phase 2)
  2. Refining learning objectives (in consultation with Dr Lin Hong Hui)
  3. Developing our pre and post-show educators’ guides as well as post-show students’ guides

1. Script refinements

Ellison and Myra already had a clear idea of which portions they wanted to cut / shorten in order to maintain the energy and pacing of the show. My suggestions at this point were to ensure that the logic / clarity of the piece would not be lost with any cuts. So, I made suggestions to include temporal markers in some of the lines so that it would be clear to our young audience members how little / much time had passed between scenes. Similarly, I made some minor suggestions to rephrase certain lines so that it would be easier for a younger audience to understand what was going on / what a character’s motivation and priority was in that moment.

2. Learning objectives

The suggestion to refine our learning objectives (LOs) actually came from our Clinical Psychology Consultant Dr Lin Hong Hui. After watching the test shows and being a part of some of the post-show facilitation sessions, she began to think more about how the LOs were being actualised through concrete activities and discussion points. Most of her questions and suggestions were focused on clarifying terms in the original LOs. My role in this process was really to look at the revised LOs through a pedagogical lens: to ensure that each one was specific, measurable, and also achievable through the performance and facilitation process.

A Jun and the Octopus post-rehearsal team meeting with the director, dramaturg, stage manager and cast members.

3. Educator and student guides

I worked very closely with Myra as well as the members of the Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) team to develop the pre and post-show educators’ guides as well as the post-show students’ guide. Before I started to conceptualise any activities in the guides, I first had a conversation with Myra about what function she envisioned these guides to serve. Because of the show’s subject matter, she was keen to provide teachers with as much support as possible to a) prime their students adequately for the show and b) provide as much follow-up support as needed to continue having meaningful discussions in the classroom even after the JATO experience. For the students’ guide, she wanted to ensure that the activities would not just mirror the discussions that would take place during the post-show facilitation. She wanted the activities to extend their learning and cover points that might not have been covered during the facilitation. As a dramaturg, it is my duty to evaluate the entire production as a whole. This means I have to consider the pre- and post-show experiences as well. All the elements have to come together synergistically and meet the lesson objectives that were originally planned out.

When crafting the pre-show educators’ guide, my aim was to provide as much context for the educators as possible: what the show was about, why the show was being staged now, and how they can meaningfully prepare their students for the show. So, some of the resources that were included for this purpose were:

  • Synopsis of the show + Key themes and issues
  • Learning objectives
  • Structure of the show + post-show facilitation
  • Character Guide
  • Links to articles and videos that contextualise the issue of child sexual abuse in Singapore
  • Some suggested pre-show activities that revolve around the concept of safe and unsafe spaces and situations.
A test showing of Jun and the Octopus (Phase 2)

When crafting the post-show students and educators’ guide, my aim was really to ensure that both teachers and students understood the complexities / nuances of the plot and also to make links to other subjects they may encounter in school (e.g. English Language and CCE) to highlight the transferability of skills. I also wanted to include activities that would focus more on helping students build self-awareness and emotional resilience. These points are briefly touched on during the post-show facilitation but require follow-up to be truly meaningful.

Some of the exercises in the post-show educators’ and students’ guides included the following:

  • Analysing the open-ended conclusion of JATO
  • Charting Jun’s emotional journey / character development
  • Identifying the complex emotions experienced by Jun, specifically the difficult ones
  • Making sense of difficult emotions and understanding the functions they serve
  • Understanding the importance of having a support system

Between now and when the final performance will take place, there will certainly be additional tweaks that are made to these guides, as well as the performance and post-show facilitation. However, the team has a much clearer idea of the shape the final production will take and how all the elements of the production come together to express a tale not just of abuse, but of empowerment and hope as well.

In the rehearsal room for Jun and the Octopus (Phase 2)

Final reflections

JATO is my first dramaturgical project and thus will always hold a very special place in my heart. I am extremely grateful to TFP for taking a chance on me and for being receptive to my ideas and suggestions. A good working relationship with the creative team definitely makes a dramaturg’s job much easier.  If I had to summarise a list of all my duties as dramaturg for JATO, from phase 1 to phase 3, I would say it involved the following:

1) Meetings with creative team (mainly the playwright and director) to understand the background / context of the production, and their vision for the production

2) Research on child sexual abuse (both in Singapore and abroad re: risk factors for abuse, the grooming process, how / when disclosure happens, long-term emotional and psychological effects). I was lucky enough to receive resources through a close friend of mind who used to prosecute sex crimes at the AGC.

3) Feedback on script (on pitching, clarity, coherence, flow). This is usually done in collaboration with Dr Lin Hong Hui, our Clinical Psychology Consultant to ensure that the themes and key issues in the script reflect real-life concerns and relationships.

4) Rehearsal observations (followed by feedback)

5) Development of a dramaturgical exercise to help the actors contextualise and ground their performances

6) Development of resource kit for SCS and TFP facilitators (in collaboration with Myra)

7) Development of pre- and post-show educators’ guides and post-show students’ guides

8) Periodical meetings with SCS and Esplanade team members to clarify concerns

The JATO experience has been an extremely fulfilling one for me. It is such a brave and necessary piece of theatre for our youths: it gets them to confront a very real issue in our society, and it also allows them to sit with and work through uncomfortable feelings. It’s heartening to know that it was included as part of the Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) programming this year and I hope to see more of such performances in the future. I’ve used some of the resources gathered through JATO to have some important conversations with my almost-four-year-old niece and nephew about their physical and emotional boundaries.  We have started talking more about safe and unsafe touches in our household, and we’ve also been asking my niece and nephew to articulate who the trusted adults in their lives are. I’m grateful that my experience working on JATO has resulted in takeaways that I’ve been able to apply to my own life, with my own family. I hope that other families will similarly benefit from the JATO experience.