Part 2: The Training
This Digital Resource is a repository that accompanies the Turn By Turn We Turn audio theatre, holding together the stories of traditional Chinese hand puppetry and how it has touched the different artists in The Finger Players. This segment follows Myra Loke and Ellison Tan, Co-Artistic Directors of the Finger Players, in their journey from being audiences, to apprentices and performers in the staging of Turn By Turn We Turn.
这份网络资源是一个陪同《掌中》有声剧场的资料库，把传统布袋偶的故事以及它对十指帮艺术家的种种感触系在一起。这个章节记载着十指帮现任联合艺术总监骆丽诗和陈宇泱以及他们的旅程 – 从起先的观众，晋升到学徒，到最后成为《掌中》演出的表演者。
“Rehearsal, Pack, Travel, Lights, Percussion, Curtain, Show, Applause, Dismantle, Travel, Again, Train, Laugh, Aches, Again, Rehearsal, Pack, Travel, Lights, Percussion, Curtain, Show, Applause, Dismantle, Travel, Again, Train, Laugh, Aches, Live.”
Did both of you watch the initial version of Turn by Turn We Turn staged in 2011? What was that experience like?
Ellison [E]: The first TFP play I watched was Turn By Turn We Turn (TBTWT). Before that, I had never heard of The Finger Players, but the pamphlet magically landed in my letterbox. At that time I was nearing graduation, and feeling very bleak about my future, and questions like “how to make this a career”, “how to be on stage”, “how to do what I love” were at the core of my existence. Because the story of TBTWT was about this master who is trying to keep his troupe alive during tumultuous times, and on a personal level I wanted to keep my art alive… I just felt like, “Wow, this is fate lah.”
Myra [M]: For me, it’s the opposite. It wasn’t something that I felt strongly for. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was young, I was naive, I didn’t think that the idea of this art form (traditional or contemporary) was important to me then. But when we did it again for the 2014 staging, I recalled thinking, “Oh, I actually watched it, and now I feel so strongly about it.”
Tell us about the process of staging the 2014 version of TBTWT. How did you experience the training and rehearsals?
E: The training was very tough for me at that time. Two to six would be training with Shifu, then at night is the rehearsal. The training was not just physical, but also mental, because you had to remain in certain positions for a long period of time, like you hold your hand up here for 30 minutes, and you cannot do anything. You just have to hold it there.
M: The training is strenuous because of the strength we need to put into every muscle in our fingers, hands, wrists, arms, and then it links to the shoulder, back, knees, toes because of the posture. For me, because my hands are smaller than the rest, and I’m so much shorter, I am actually at a disadvantage. Some moves I can’t do as well as those with big hands or just because I’m not tall enough. We wear platform shoes to perform to elevate us more. But somehow, I tend to overcompensate. I made sure I could do the moves as best as everyone. Sometimes I’d be spending more time to modify my puppet or to find ways to create the same effect but not using the same methods — which actually in turn made it quite exciting because I’m not just following a set of routine, I’m trying to make it my own.
Also, through TBTWT and the other traditional Chinese hand puppet training, I learnt how to tip-toe and perform the scenes at the same time. Because sometimes even with the platform shoes, I’m not tall enough so I would just tip-toe throughout the scenes. At first, it was difficult but after a while it didn’t bother me anymore because I kept looking up at the puppet, which actually helps for balance because there is this fixed point.
After each day, our bodies will ache even more because the strain accumulates. I actually had medicated patches on my arms or shoulders or fingers sometimes during training, just so that I can still move. I remember we were exchanging tips for which brand of koyok was better, and I remember Wan Sze gave me a full-on tutorial on how to cut mini strips of the patch so I can go round each knuckle joint. Yeah, that was also part of the “suan-ness” and the rehearsal process.
But I didn’t really dare to whine too much too, firstly because all the veteran puppeteers in TBTWT were also in this with me and every rehearsal/training, they just looked so fresh. Secondly, I guess it’s part of the process, and Shifu had definitely been through so much more pain. Plus, it’s because we don’t train as often – because after 2 months of training, we go into show and then after that we go on to do something else again and the cycle repeats. The pain is a reminder to me that I don’t train enough. And of course, a reminder that I have to work extra hard because of my body and its limitations.
What was your first encounter with Yi Hsin shifu like?
E: In my head, Yi Hsin shifu, before I met him, would be those very typical Chinese men types – you know, almost like the Huang Ah Ma in Huang Zhu Ge Ge type. But then when I met him, I was like, “Orh this man so cute” – so kindly, a bit mousy. But then when he comes to pry your fingers apart, then you will know like, yeah, he means business.
He was very nice. He doesn’t focus on what you don’t have, he will just make you get to where he would like you to get to. He would compliment you to make you feel good, for example. “你的手很大很好,”（Your hands are very big, very good.) but then after he praises you, he will have a follow-up sentence, “不过你的左手比右手好，因为你右手用太多。你右手写字对不对。写字不用那么用力。” (But your left hand is better than your right hand, because you use your right hand too much. You write with your right hand right, don’t write with so much force.)
M: When we were training without Shifu, I had a very strong sense of like, “okay, these [moves] are from like these traditional Chinese hand puppetry, everything is a very fixed thing; you must learn the actual stance. You must replicate the actions to the point, and so everything is a bit more rigid and fixed. But when Yi Hsin shifu came, he was very open and flexible. I told him that I know that Beng Tian already shared with him about my hands being not big enough and me being not tall enough, of course, and these are facts. Then Yi Hsin shifu will say, “You have to find your own way.” I’m very glad that he didn’t really criticise; he just very gently said that “okay, you know, because your hands a bit smaller, this part you really got to practice more because you are at a disadvantage.” So he was a really different kind of master from what I imagined. Like in TBTWT also, the master is very strict. But he’s a bit different from TBTWT’s version of Shifu.
Once, I was drilling a hole into the hand of that puppet so that we can put in the metal rod. Shifu really stood there the whole time I was doing this. He kept muttering under this breath 丽诗小心手，不要弄到手 (“Myra, be careful of your hand, don’t hurt your hand.”). Because the hand puppet fist was really small, it was indeed quite risky for me to use my bare hands to hold onto it. I was young then lah. The actual way is to use a plier to kiap it first. After I’m done, Shifu told me, our hands are what we used to create and make a living, so we have to protect them. Looking at this photo now, it’s quite emotional and there’s a bit of guilt too. At that moment, I took my hands so lightly.
What was the low point for you in training for the 2014 staging of TBTWT?
E: My low point is having to “grow” the 金箍棒 (Golden Cudgel) lah. I was standing on a slope, and when you “grow” the stick, you had to “grow” it from the bottom, so it was hard to get a a good grip when you are not on flat ground, and I didn’t know how to “运”（channel） the qi to “grow” it smoothly. I remember seeing Myra do it in an earlier rehearsal, and wondering what exactly was so wrong with me that I couldn’t even grow the 金箍棒 straight? It was just super slanted the whole time. I remember always finishing dinner early and coming back to do it. Beng Tian would offer various ways to try to mitigate the problem, but I still couldn’t do it. And I just felt, again, very useless.
At that time, I was also comparing myself to the four apprentices. When I was comparing our hands, I felt that mine are big and my fingers are long, but it just felt very useless because I’ve never used them before in that very micro manner. Joshua does piano, Huilin does piano; Myra’s hands are small, but they have a lot of strength because she builds all these props and puppets. Whereas my hand is big, but it’s useless. And I just felt like my “advantage” is useless and very superficial. That was a very lousy year on a personal level, because I felt that I was the most disadvantaged of the four of us, and that this was due to my “upbringing” in some sense. They were very stupid thoughts to have but I just needed something to blame because I felt so angry and useless at my inadequacy.
M: I mean, I think the entire journey is an accumulation of mini low points. Not a lot of major low points, I mean one is me spraining my ankle. I know that I have been tiptoeing because my entire body wasn’t in a good position, so when we’re moving, it buckled. As the stubborn and prideful one, I didn’t like the fact that the entire team had to adjust one of the scenes because they didn’t want me to be stamping on the ground. I felt so bad. We practiced that scene for so long, and now they had to learn a new sequence within such a short period of time.
Were there any breakthroughs for you in the 2014 staging?
M: I always enjoy the feeling of the opening scene with the puppets. The music was really nice, everything was dark, and the scene before was the disciples witnessing Shifu leaving and calling out for Shifu. And the next moment a very beautiful light melody came up and the lights came on, we see puppeteers lined up with their puppets up, doing the same moves at the same time. That whole environment and the whole network of this ensemble coming together to exchange hands, take over certain puppets and then doing a certain dance — working together, there was a lot of exchange of puppets — there was just this whole sense of grandeur and strong partnership. I don’t know what that’s called, and it might not be considered a breakthrough, but that is always my go-to point of comfort.
E: There was a moment where I was like, “Oh, okay, my sense of purpose was quite great.” We were doing the curtain call, and that was the show after Myra had sprained her ankle, and she was in a lot of pain. I don’t know why, but that show we cried until very cham. It was the last scene when we were all crying out, “Shifu, shifu!” I looked to my side, and I saw a friend from school. He was a very stoic queen, don’t-show-emotions kind of person. But that was the first time I saw him crying – and not just tearing, but full-on sobbing. Then after the show I met him, and I asked him “Wah why you cry until like that?” And he said, he was in his final year in NUS. And he felt very lost, like he had no purpose, and what was he going to do with his life with a theatre degree? So he really felt for the story. And so, seeing just a meter away was a friend who was so affected by the show, I felt like there’s a bit of purpose in what I’m doing. And I felt really thankful that I got to witness that.
Things have changed a lot since 2014, and this time Covid-19 restrictions have affected how theatre productions are made. This 2020 staging is an audio play, and your voices are in it as well. Was there anything that jumped out to you in the process of recording it?
E: I mean the first thing is that Kian Sin had to call us from his hotel room because of Stay-Home Notice. When you walk into the space, you see that this is the usual setting that you are used to as an actor who always goes for playreads – like table, director, side by side; but now you see table, chair, one meter, person, one meter, person. Then you turn, and you see a laptop, then you see Kian Sin waving at you from the laptop, and you just feel like, “Oh my god, this is such a strange time to be in.”
首先是因为建松必须从酒店房间和我们通过视频进行导读，因为他在遵守居家隔离。我们一踏入场地，就看到演员去参与导读会所熟悉的 – 一张桌子，导演并排；不过现在看到的是桌子，椅子，一米距离，人，一米距离，人。转头一看，有掌上型电脑，电脑屏幕看到建松跟你挥手，就觉得“天啊，我们现在处于这种时代。”
And after that we start to read, and then you can tell that everybody has missed it, right? Like, there was a moment where Yue Juan and Beng Tian were rehearsing the part of the turtle (of 龟丞相 Turtle General and 龙王 Dragon King), and they were rehearsing a laugh. It was a very simple thing, and they were like, “Okay, 你: ‘哈哈’, then 我: ‘呵呵’，然后我们一二三 ‘哈哈哈哈哈’”. (You go “haha”, and I will say “hehe”, and then one two three we will go “hahahahaha”) It was very cute lah, they were enjoying doing just a laugh. That was I think in August, and it had been six months since anybody had even touched a script. So that was just very moving.
M: I think Ellison pretty much said everything. But what I remember very strongly is also because with audio theatre, the performance will have to be very different, because you don’t have the puppets to take over the storytelling. It’s really just your voice. So I remember during the rehearsal, Tze Chien was saying that now, instead of “opening up” your presentation, you must really focus on the nuances and the performance of the voice. I think we were all like, “Okay, this version when we [should] try to be very “真听真看真感受” (to really listen, see, and feel).” And in that delicate emotional state – and also with the context of everybody coming together, once again to read the piece – suddenly it became a very surreal experience for me. I could truly feel everyone in another way again. And of course, I think the recording itself – this whole sense of creating the thing together again – was very poignant, especially during this time where we are not really sure of the future of theatre making.
What do you hope for the future of TBTWT?
E: Some plays, you know that they can go to rest. But I think this is one of those that I think we can always turn back to, not just because of how important it has been for us on a personal capacity, but also as a bigger industry sort of meaning.
M: I think when we were deciding which play to do this year, we wanted to do an audio theatre, and we pitched to Darren and Tze Chien that we wanted to do TBTWT. Initially, they were a bit hesitant, because for TBTWT, in some ways, the focus is on the art form. So then, when you cut away the visuals, what is left? But all of us took a step back and imagined how we could reimagine this piece, we collectively took a leap of faith. I feel like it’s also about that transmission of knowledge, of skills, of history. And especially now when we are thinking about moving forward, how do we improve the way we make art? We use technology to help us, we change a certain working system, everything is developing; but the history to me is always very important, because that informs how we ended up here, and it informs how people of that generation created the art that we grew up with. And that forms the context for everyone to move forward.
So when I think about the future, the story of TBTWT, the Shifu character will always stay with me constantly as a reminder of the dedication that I should also embody, because it’s not a really smooth sailing journey for them. We have a lot more resources now. We should constantly be appreciative of what we have, and the environment that they built for us.
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