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

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 2021and 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.

Reflections on My Fellowship Journey

2020 was a year of many ups and downs for so many of us in the arts industry, and for the industry as a whole.  As a practitioner, I feel that there is so much to take stock of and reflect on: how do I find ways to generate opportunities for myself? How can I be more adaptable? How willing am I to work on my gaps/weaknesses?

To that end, I’ll be reflecting upon my fellowship journey with TFP over the past year: what projects I got to work on, and what I’ve learnt along the way.  I hope that what I share will be useful to those who wish to understand TFP’s Fellowship Programme a little better, and to those who may be keen to apply in the future!

My fellowship journey was certainly a unique one. As soon as I received the good news about my acceptance, Myra, Ellison and I took some time to chart out what my fellowship would look like. Most of my contributions were originally meant to be performance-based. However, almost as soon as we had finished finalising the milestones in my fellowship, the circuit breaker measures were implemented and all planning came to a standstill.

Needless to say, there was a lot of uncertainty about which productions could and couldn’t proceed and for quite a while I wasn’t able to work on much. Myra, Ellison and I had a second meeting to re-conceptualise my fellowship journey, this time taking into consideration the limitations brought about by the pandemic. We decided that I could take on more writing assignments: these could be done remotely, and if I did need to collaborate with others, I could do so online.

Writing projects

I developed three different edukits for TFP at the start of my fellowship:

A.I.D. (Angels in Disguise), a school assembly programme offered by TFP, with an accompanying Educational Resource Kit created by Sindhura.
  1. Edukit for the Workshop/Performance “See, Hear, Touch” (originally part of FYI 2020 but was unfortunately cancelled)
  2. Digital education resource for the digital performance “Angels in Disguise” (digital Arts Education Programme [AEP] production)
  3. Digital education resource for the digital performance “My Friend, A Japanese Soldier” (digital AEP production)
My Friend, a Japanese Soldier, a school assembly programme offered by TFP, with an accompanying Educational Resource Kit created by Sindhura.

Even though I have been a teacher and curriculum writer for the past eight years at a private enrichment centre, I had never written educational resources for theatre performances before. So I really had to think about how to emphasise the themes / issues raised in the performance while getting students to reflect on the form of puppetry as well.

I also co-wrote a script with Ellison (an adaptation of  Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” ) for one of TFP’s community projects with Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled. TFP instructors were leading a series of puppetry workshops that would culminate in a presentation by the residents of the home. Because I could not be a part of the workshops that were being held at the home, I had to rely on information given to us by the workshop instructors as well as videos the instructors took of the participants, to determine their interests and capabilities. This was my first time writing something to be performed by participants with diverse needs and so I learnt a lot about incorporating visual / sound cues into the script to direct the performers instead of verbal / gestural cues (which are harder for them to process and follow).

Masterclasses and workshops

As the restrictions slowly lifted, TFP was able to reschedule the masterclasses and workshops that were meant to run earlier in the year.

I attended the following three:

Sindhura participating in Oliver Chong’s Masterclass (2019).
  1. Oliver Chong’s Puppetry in Performance Masterclass

    This was a really intensive three-week masterclass that drew from actor training methods like Suzuki, Viewpoints and Biomechanics. Oliver spent a lot of time getting us to be more aware of our own bodies – every breath, every muscle twitch, every blink. Control over my body is something I’d struggled with for a long time as a practitioner and so I was very grateful for Oliver’s thoughtful approach. Suzuki training was perhaps the most unforgiving. I’d done Suzuki training before, but never as rigorously (or maybe I’ve gotten older and more frail!) It was through the Suzuki sessions that I realised I had to train my mental stamina alongside my physical stamina in order to be a truly compelling performer.  The masterclass culminated with us rehearsing a prepared monologue. All the physical training unlocked new possibilities for realising the performance: increased confidence for blocking, small movements to express emotion, more control over facial expressions. I’ll definitely carry the lessons learnt at Oliver’s masterclass for a very, very long time.
  2. Rene Baker’s Expressive Objects: an Introduction to Puppetry Masterclass

    In this masterclass, we examined the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet, and how puppeteers bring puppets to life. We worked with a number of everyday objects to explore the notion of symbolic communication. As someone who hadn’t had a lot of training or exposure to puppetry in the past, this was a very interesting approach to object work.
  3. Rene Baker’s Storytelling with Objects Masterclass

    We started to build on some of the concepts that had been introduced in the previous masterclass. However, in this one, we focused more on the symbolic / metaphorical properties of objects. We also spoke more about how to “get to know” objects and their inherent properties and personalities. After a period of non-verbal explorations, we attempted combining verbal and visual languages in order to weave a powerful narrative. This masterclass definitely gave me a lot to reflect on as I am interested in object work, specifically how found objects can be animated and transformed into puppets, and incorporated into site-specific performances to reorientate the way we think about places and spaces.
Sindhura participating in Rene Baker’s Masterclass (2019).

Apart from attending workshops, I also assisted to facilitate a one-day introduction to puppetry workshop at Northlight School.

Little Mournings

Apart from JATO, Little Mournings was perhaps the biggest milestone in my fellowship journey.

Firstly, I got to work with Tan Beng Tian (one of the co-founders of TFP, and its former artistic director). I learnt a great deal about puppetry just by WATCHING the way she interacted with the puppets, and listening to the kinds of questions she asked over the course of the devising and rehearsal process.

Secondly, it was an important research project conducted by TFP’s first Maker, Sim Xin Feng. In considering the evolution of puppetry, Xin Feng’s research revolved around the incorporation of technology, specifically animatronics, into puppetry. She also sought to investigate the relationship between puppeteer and puppet by (1) using a rod puppet that requires the puppeteers to animate it but also (b) building a mechanism within the puppet that puppeteers have to pay attention and respond to, thereby giving the puppet almost a kind of autonomy and agency that a conventional rod puppet does not have.

Sindhura in Little Mournings (2021). Photo credit: Tuckys Photography.

I won’t even try to go into the philosophical aspects of the piece. I shall leave that to the scholars who have far better words than I do. I urge you to read this deeply reflective and moving response to Little Mournings by Corrie Tan.

But I must say that working on this production showed me just how mentally and physically gruelling puppetry is. Puppetry is a discipline that requires a deep knowledge of, and control over, one’s own body. Puppeteers are expected to not be seen or heard (unless there’s a very good reason for them to be) and so every movement and every breath is calculated, especially when working in an ensemble.  The mechanics of every big movement and every changeover must be rehearsed to perfection: a single moment of distractedness, an unnecessarily ragged breath or a poorly timed footstep can destroy the magic.

I acknowledge that I am nowhere close to where I need to be as a puppeteer, and working on Little Mournings as my first puppetry production was truly a baptism of fire.

But I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way. The best way to learn is on the job, in a safe environment, supported by patient mentors. I guess that is true of my Little Mournings experience as well as my fellowship experience.

And for that, I will always be indebted to TFP.