Fellow Journals – Jun and the Octopus: Entry #1

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.

CONTEXT & BACKGROUND

About Jun and the Octopus
Jun and the Octopus (JATO) is a children’s book, written by Ekkers and illustrated by Lim An-ling, that deals with the very difficult topic of child sexual abuse. The book was launched by the Singapore Children’s Society (SCS) in 2019, in response to increasing numbers of sexual abuse cases, to assist parents and other caregivers in talking about the topic with children.

Image credit: Epigram Books

As part of the Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) series, The Finger Players will be doing a theatrical adaptation of the book for 11-14-year-olds in July 2021. The production is directed by Myra Loke and includes Ian Loy, 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 in the lead up to the final production in July. Phase 1 culminates in an open rehearsal of selected scenes at the Esplanade. Phase 2 culminates in a showing of selected scenes to a wider school audience. And Phase 3 culminates in the official production of the show as part of the F.Y.I series at the Esplanade.

ABOUT ME, THIS JOURNAL AND DRAMATURGY

I am Sindhura Kalidas, currently a fellow with The Finger Players. As part of my fellowship, I have been given the opportunity to be involved in different TFP projects, in various capacities. This is my first time embarking on a dramaturgical project and so I will be using this journal to not only document my process, but also think about key questions that have come up along the way. My only dramaturgical experience thus far has been an introductory workshop conducted by Centre 42 entitled “Dramaturgs’ Practice Development: An Introduction to the Dramaturg’s Work”, from which I was able to learn some basic dramaturgical principles, understand the nature and scope of a dramaturg’s work and why such work is important. This is my first time putting the principles into practice.

In the first edition of this journal, I will be sharing my thoughts on the Phase 1 journey for JATO. A lot has happened, and there are many thoughts simmering in my mind; not all clearly defined or fully formed just yet. I have tried my best to refine these thoughts based on what I think might be useful for aspiring dramaturgs, or for anyone who may be interested in this aspect of the performing arts. This brings me to my first question . . . what / who is a dramaturg?

Dramaturgy is a concept / process that has been gaining much traction locally in the last decade or so. Essentially, a dramaturg is a swiss army knife-type figure, and depending on the project, can be required to hold a range of responsibilities. Because of this, it is crucial that dramaturgs / aspiring dramaturgs are able to speak with members of the creative team openly and honestly about what is expected of them. For this particular project, my duties have been quite varied and have included the following:

  • Working with the playwright Ellison to evaluate the pitching of language in the adapted script.
  • Being privy to design meetings between the director Myra, as well as the design team (puppet, sound and set designers) to get a sense of the staging and overall conceptual vision.
  • Being involved in meetings with Clinical Psychology consultant Dr Lin Hong Hui to ensure that:
    (1) the themes / key issues in the script reflect real-life concerns and relationships
    (2) the post-show facilitation is conducted in a manner that is sensitive and informed by psychological principles.
  • Being involved in meetings with the SCS to ascertain their objectives and to ensure that the objectives of the production align with the former.
  • Being present at rehearsals to act as the “first audience”.
  • Developing dramaturgical exercises to assist actors in realising their characters (this was not part of the original expectations of the job but kind of surfaced organically and Myra was very kind to allow me to lead this activity. More on this later!).

You will see that the following sections of my journal deal with different areas of focus for JATO. Each one is prefaced by a series of two to three critical questions I posed to myself and / or the creative team when embarking on each area of focus. As a dramaturg, it is my duty to ask questions of myself and of others, to gain clarity on the process and on the objectives of the production. These questions help me to focus my thoughts which then allowed me to offer more targeted recommendations and suggestions to the team, with the intent of ensuring that TFP and SCS’s objectives are met as effectively as possible.

THE OPEN REHEARSAL

  1. Why puppetry?
  2. What are the key objectives of the open rehearsal?
  1. Why puppetry?

    I know from my conversations with Ellison and Myra, that it was very important to them to stage this work. As practitioners, they care deeply about children’s development and they see the value of using puppetry to discuss important issues with children. And personally, I can see why TFP was approached to take on this project.
The puppet that represented the character Jun.

Puppets have long been used in drama therapy and other applied theatre contexts because of their affordances for symbolic play. Puppets are not necessarily imitations of real people but rather symbolic representations of their traits. For this reason, puppets incorporate a sense of distance that is particularly significant for young audiences, especially when dealing with sensitive themes. This gives them room to use their imagination to understand that while the puppet is a stand-in for a human, it is not a human. The puppet mimics human behaviour and psychology but lacks the agency (in that it requires a human puppeteer to animate it) that human beings possess.

In JATO, the characters of Jun (the victim) and Uncle Mok (the perpetrator) are played by puppets. As a result, any empathy or resentment the audience may feel towards these characters is experienced at a remove. This is useful in ensuring that young audience members are able to process the key themes in the show without transferring or mapping them onto their real lives too closely. While JATO’s aim is to cultivate an awareness of body safety, we do not want our audience to be so scarred such that every adult male figure in their lives begins to look like a threat to them.

The puppet that represented the character Uncle Mok.

This is exactly why the symbolic properties of puppets can be simultaneously freeing and restricting. Freeing because they give room for interpretation, and every audience member may have a different one. That is the beauty of symbols after all. Restricting because the symbol itself needs to be crystal clear – which traits or aspects of the character do we wish to highlight and codify?

2. What are the key objectives of the open rehearsal?

The purpose of the open rehearsal, broadly speaking, at this stage is to gather the audience’s feedback on the content and creative elements (aspects of staging) of the show. To this end, the open rehearsal will be broken up into two main segments: the presentation of selected scenes and the post-show facilitation. And more specifically, the team is hoping to gain feedback on the following key points:

  • The audience members’ interpretations of the selected scenes (to ensure that the narrative was conveyed clearly)
  • Scenes or moments that evoked unforeseen responses
  • The efficacy of the metaphorical representation of the Octopus 
  • How effective the narrative is in introducing the topics of body safety and child sexual abuse to the audience

The team was particularly interested to test the audience’s response to the octopus. The design of the puppet is currently such that the head of the Uncle Mok puppet can be detached and re-attached onto the octopus puppet. Conceptually, this is effective in signalling to the audience that these characters are the same. The fact that Uncle Mok transforms into an octopus (in Jun’s mind) indicates something about the way in which children process trauma.

The key thing to determine during the post-show facilitation is if the audience members were able to articulate why Uncle Mok transformed into the octopus and if they were able to discern that the nature of Uncle Mok and Jun’s relationship had transformed as well.

The octopus puppet which is used to allude to Uncle Mok’s abuse of Jun.

In the case of JATO, the post show elements are crucial to the success of the production as a whole. From the outset, the creative team was insistent about embarking on the journey as responsibly as possible. This involved informing parents and caregivers about the themes that are likely to be raised in the test showing so that they could make an informed decision about whether they wanted their children / charges to be a part of the test showing. Similarly, we created (in conjunction with the SCS) a comprehensive resource pack for facilitators to ensure that all facilitators felt equipped to elicit responses from audience members (that address the key objectives of the test showing) in a sensitive and ethical manner.


DRAMATURGICAL INTERVENTION

  1. What is my role in the rehearsal room?
  2. How do I communicate my thoughts and suggestions to the creative team?
  3. What kinds of contributions can I make and when do I make them?
  1. What is my role in the rehearsal room?

    As soon as the rehearsal phase started for JATO, I started getting a lot more anxious about how my presence might affect rehearsal room dynamics. The first question that popped into my head, which I understand is something many other dramaturgs also grapple with, was “Where do I sit???” I wanted to be inconspicuous, but I also wanted to have a good vantage point. “Should I sit on the floor? Would it be weird if I set up a table and chair for myself in the corner? Should I take notes by hand or should I use my laptop? If I type, will the sound of my fingers banging away on the keyboard be distracting to the actors?” I was a bundle of nerves just trying to figure out my literal position in the rehearsal room.

    As it turns out, I did not always sit in the same place during every rehearsal. I often sat close to Myra, so that I could see everything she saw, but would sometimes move around just to see how things looked from different angles.

    I also did not really know how to communicate what my role in the rehearsal room (especially in the early stages) was going to be to other members of the team. “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just be a fly on the wall!” or “I’m just an extra pair of eyes / ears for Myra,” were my standard responses for how I would be contributing during the rehearsal stage.  And yes, I was, primarily, an observer. I would furiously take notes about every instruction Myra gave, games / exercises she played with the cast, my initial impressions of characters and scenes.

    I did this with the intention of seeing how Myra chose to develop the chemistry of the ensemble, how she chose to do character work and then later scene work. The job of a dramaturg is never to evaluate or judge or be didactic, but rather to support the directorial vision and approach.  

  2. How do I communicate my thoughts and suggestions to the creative team?

    Fortunately for me, I had collaborated with Myra in the past and that certainly set the tone for our working relationship for JATO. I felt most comfortable offering feedback and suggestions in person to her after each rehearsal session. She was open to this arrangement. In-person discussions gave me the chance to offer feedback and seek clarifications while things were still fresh in my mind. It also allowed me to ask follow-up questions on the spot. In a way, this helped to keep each rehearsal session discrete in that queries or concerns I had were addressed immediately, even if they could not be resolved there and then.   

  3. What kinds of contributions can I make and when do I make them?

    We had a fairly short runway from the start of the rehearsal process to the dates of the test showing. This means that priority was, understandably, given to the more technical aspects of the show: blocking, manipulation of puppets, responding to sound cues. While Myra did do some fantastic scene work with the actors (in terms of establishing the characters’ realities), I wondered if that was something that I could help to facilitate as well.

    I thought dramaturgical intervention at this stage might be useful seeing as how the audience was going to receive a selection of scenes and not the entire narrative. This meant that the individual scenes needed to be grounded in reality in order to be understood best. If audience members began to question the characters’ motivations and intentions, unpacking the scenes and achieving the objectives of the test showing would prove to be difficult.

    Therefore, I approached Myra after a particularly intense rehearsal session that had focused on character and scene work and asked if she would be interested in me leading the actors in a dramaturgical exercise. I wanted to do some research on the three main perspectives that we see in JATO: that of the perpetrator of the abuse, the victim of the abuse as well as the parents of the abused. I particularly wanted to gather evidence in the form of real-life accounts, from each of these stakeholders so that we could all understand their inner worlds a little better.

    The dramaturgical exercise comprised two stages.

    Stage One: Understanding Characters

    After some research, I put together three short excerpts – an account from a convicted pedophile, a victim of child sexual abuse and the mother of a victim of child sexual abuse. I then asked the actors to read these accounts and share if they had made any new discoveries about their own characters. They were to do this by identifying any words in the accounts that stood out to them. They also had to verbalise the dominant emotions that were being expressed in each excerpt.

    Stage Two: Making Links to the Script

    I figured that this exercise, in isolation, might be useful in understanding the characters in JATO in general terms but I wanted a more specific use for it – to offer the actors more options in terms of line delivery. In this second stage, I asked the actors to talk about which aspects of the accounts reminded them of / could be relevant to their own characters that they might wish to explore further. Then, they were to review their scripts and identify specific lines that they might want to deliver differently in order to convey the emotion / trait that had resonated with them in the real-life accounts they had read.

    I must say that the actors were so generous and took the time to think through this exercise so genuinely. Thank you Ian, Farez, Vanessa and Metta! We had a short sharing session afterwards, during which they presented the specific lines / portions of the text that they wanted to attempt differently. The run that followed immediately after this exercise was surprisingly moving to me. I felt that the actors had truly imbibed the spirit of the people whose accounts we had discussed earlier in the rehearsal. Not all the suggestions worked on stage and Myra definitely had to edit some of the characters afterwards, but this is perhaps one way in which a dramaturg can help to support the director in a rehearsal room.

    I have not yet had a full discussion with Myra about what worked about this exercise and what could have been done better, but when I do, I would like to re-visit this exercise and perhaps do a more in-depth version for Phases 2 and 3.
Ian manipulating the Octopus puppet with Uncle Mok’s head attached to it.

FINAL REFLECTIONS

As I write this journal, we have not yet presented the open rehearsal of JATO. So, I am excited and slightly nervous (as the rest of the team is, I am sure) to see how the selected scenes will be received. My role after the open rehearsal will be to, firstly, gather and collate the feedback received. I will then work with the creative team to determine which aspects of the feedback will be acted on and how these aspects will feed into future iterations of the show in Phase 2 and Phase 3. It has been an incredibly fulfilling journey so far and I am so glad to have been given this opportunity. I hope to refine and adapt my involvement in this project and see how else I may be able to contribute in the lead up to Phase 2!