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More about the making of A GRAND DESIGN 1 - 12 july 2020

Writer-Performer Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips

Director and Dramaturg Chen Yingxuan

Producers and Dramaturgs Huzir Sulaiman and Faith Ng

Sound Designer Shah Tahir

Production Stage Manager Chermaine Cham

Presented by Checkpoint Theatre

The audio experience of A Grand Design is produced and presented by Checkpoint Theatre. Look out for the live staging of the work in the coming months, in Checkpoint Theatre's collaboration with NUS Centre for the Arts and Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT AND DIRECTOR

Cheyenne, what inspired you to write A Grand Design?

Cheyenne: I have been looking for ways to introduce the technicalities of Science into Creative Writing for a long time – all the experiences that fed into A Grand Design have happened over the course of eight years. It condenses my degree in Environmental Studies and my experiences as an educator down to an hour.

When I first approached Checkpoint Theatre with the idea for an environment-themed play, I knew I wanted to write a piece that explained Science in a way that was meaningful. I wanted the writing to be technical enough to make a point but not too technical that it alienated audiences. It’s also very different delving into prose, as I’m more used to writing poetry. The result looked like an essay or an opinion column, but it worked, birthing this form of a lecture-performance.

The play has evolved since then. Part of the starting point was talking it out with the team, finding out what stories people enjoyed, what resonated, and then using that as a launchpad for other ideas. There are stories I’ve repeated casually but never wrote down before. Having access to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum gallery, I spoke to the curators there and did more research to highlight certain exhibits. Early rehearsals with Yingxuan found new moments to keep the piece fun and exciting while retaining its depth. All these experiences came together to help develop this audio experience that I am excited to present.

Where it started: Cheyenne's wildlife escapades as an environmentalist

Tell us more about the title A Grand Design.

Cheyenne: A Grand Design can be considered a controversial title for a play that relies heavily on evolutionary and environmental science, since the phrase is often associated with creationism. That being said, I don't think evolutionary biologists would be too upset after they listen to the audio experience! The title has come to encapsulate a lot of what I try to say. In fact, the concept itself is deconstructed, reconstructed, and reframed all at once in this piece. I’d like to think that the title would have a different meaning for the audience by the end of the experience too.

The COVID-19 outbreak resulted in the postponement of the live work-in-progress showcase of A Grand Design in March 2020, initially set out to be part of the NUS Arts Festival organised by the NUS Centre for the Arts. Checkpoint Theatre and the team quickly acted together to record it as an audio experience, days before Circuit Breaker measures were implemented. What was that like for both of you?

Yingxuan: I suppose it’s something many artists can identify with in this time – attending rehearsals with increasing uncertainty until it was finally announced that the show would be postponed, while trying to understand this pandemic that was spreading over the world and grasp the suffering it caused, and worrying about loved ones and how to protect them. When Checkpoint Theatre first suggested adapting this into an audio experience, I was still trying to process everything, and there was a real fear of investing further in what may turn out to be abortive work. They were patient and genuine in listening to our concerns, and we found a way to move forward. Once the plans were in place, things moved very quickly. Magically, it felt, our sound designer Shah Tahir came onboard. Next thing I know, we were in a studio recording the read the night before Circuit Breaker!

The development process: Cheyenne and Yingxuan at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Jan 2020)

Cheyenne: It was like being on a bullet train, where everything happened in quick succession. The festival was cancelled right after DORSCON Orange was announced. We had just started rehearsals at the time, and were very excited about staging a play in a museum, so the decision was disappointing. Yingxuan and I continued rehearsals online to explore other parts of the text we did not get the chance to, all while wondering if and how the work could exist on an online platform. We had a digital meeting with Huzir Sulaiman and Faith Ng of Checkpoint Theatre on a Tuesday morning, a week before the start of Circuit Breaker, where it was decided that we would do an audio experience. Just six days later, I found myself recording in a studio on a Monday night.

I wanted to retain the live engagement with the audience as much as possible, and though the audio experience is a different type of interaction, there is a distinct intimacy one forms with the words elevated by Shah Tahir’s immaculate sound design.

"I hope that A GRAND DESIGN demonstrates how we are part of a connected ecosystem and the big role we play in its health." - Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips

Yingxuan, as the director and dramaturg, what were the challenges you faced when shifting gears from a live performance to an audio experience?

Yingxuan: It’s not easy to keep someone’s attention for a full hour through audio alone with a text that is quite heavy on scientific concepts and ruminations. In a live performance, the performer’s presence would be a large part of the magnetism. Cheyenne has an infectious energy as a guide – it is an experience to walk around the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum with her, and watch her eyes light up as she rattles off facts and anecdotes and gives (sometimes hilariously snarky) commentary about the exhibits and the scientific concepts they remind her of. For the audio, we worked this energy into the sound design – different medium but the same spirit.

I also didn’t have the usual tools at my disposal, and explored new tools instead. In the theatre, every movement, physical expression, lighting decision, set, prop, and costume piece is packed with detail. Here, we focused solely on designing an aural experience for the audience. We explored simulating movement of sound through headphones and other enhancements in post-production, as well as the idea of listening as a form of pleasure – from Shah’s beautiful compositions to sprinkling ASMR into the sound design. Given the focus of the text, I also wanted us to hear the animals that are mentioned. It would be silly of us to talk about toxic human-centricity and only include the voice of a human being. Searching for the sounds of these animals has been a real eye opener – I could never have guessed how a giraffe, rhinoceros, or strawberry blue jean frog sound like. I can’t wait for you to hear it!

Diving deeper into the text: Rehearsals at Goodman Arts Centre (Feb 2020)

What do you hope the audience will take away from this audio experience?

Yingxuan: Through A Grand Design, I’ve learned way more than I ever did about animals and biological concepts, and where we fall short in environmental protection. But mostly, it sunk in that we, humans, are part of the natural world.

I remember asking Cheyenne if humans were at the top of the food chain. Her reply was that we’d taken ourselves out of it, and that’s how powerful we are. Perhaps we’ve also sealed ourselves off mentally as “humans, wholly separate from animals”, rather than seeing ourselves as part of the continuum. This sets us up for an often toxic relationship with the natural world. As some have pointed out, the pandemic makes us acutely aware that despite our technological advancements, we are still biological beings in a physical world. But where the pandemic reminds us of our vulnerability, the audio play reminds us of our biological kinship with other living things and the exciting diversity in nature.

Cheyenne: A Grand Design is being presented in a time where wildlife trade and consumption is under spotlight, as COVID-19 is said to originate from a wildlife market in Wuhan. Before that, Australia's wildfires were in the news. Before that, there were floods in Indonesia. The Amazon, on top of being heavily deforested, was also on fire. Typhoon Lekima hit China in August. Cyclone Fani hit India and Bangladesh in May. Europe saw record-breaking heat waves last summer. USA experienced some of its lowest temperatures because of the polar vortex in January. Back home in Singapore, 2019 was the hottest year on record. The government announced that the Public Utilities Board (PUB) would helm the defence of our shorelines against rising sea levels because as an island nation, we are at risk.

I could list so much more, but that's not the point. Pulling out scary facts to try and shock people into feeling something has been done before and I don't think it is very effective. Instead, I hope A Grand Design demonstrates how we are part of a connected ecosystem and the big role we play in its health. I hope audiences will come to see that we are not separate, by reflecting on how Science works with Society and Policy and People to build systems, and how capable we are in creating and changing these systems. It's not all doom and gloom if we don't want it to be. We just have to want it bad enough.

"Where the pandemic reminds us of our vulnerability, the audio play reminds us of our biological kinship with other living things and the exciting diversity in nature." - Chen Yingxuan

ABOUT THE CREATIVE & PRODUCTION TEAM

Writer-Performer

Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips is a writer and performer based in Singapore. Her writing revolves around the environment, culture and identity. She has co-written and performed in two plays focusing on Eurasian narratives and personal history: In The Twine (commissioned for Singapore Writer's Festival 2018) and For The Record (Centre 42's Basement Workshop Residency 2017). She has also hosted eco-literary walks around MacRitchie Reservoir as part of Singapore Water Month 2018 in collaboration with Public Utilities Board. Cheyenne’s published works can be found in Contour: A Lyrical Cartography of Singapore (2019) and Who are you my country? (2018). She is also a licensed Tourist Guide.

Director and Dramaturg

Chen Yingxuan is a theatre director, described by The Business Times as one of the most exciting of her generation. Her directing credits include Mergers and Accusations (Esplanade’s The Studios 2019), which was nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress (Life Theatre Awards 2020); A Good Death (Esplanade’s The Studios 2018); as well as Cafe (Twenty Something Festival 2016), which was nominated for Best Original Script and Best Ensemble (M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2017), and listed as one of the favourite plays of 2016 (The Business Times). You can find out more about her work at chenyingxuan.com.

Producer and Dramaturg

Huzir Sulaiman is the co-founder and Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre.

A critically acclaimed and award winning playwright, his Collected Plays 1998-2012 was published in 2013. His plays have been translated into German, Japanese, Polish, Indonesian and Mandarin. His essays and commentary pieces have appeared in The Star, The Straits Times, and The Huffington Post.

Recent directing includes Thick Beats for Good Girls (2018), FRAGO (2017), The Good, the Bad and the Sholay (2015), Interrogating the Interrogators: Selected Plays of Chong Tze Chien (2015), #UnicornMoment (2014), the 15th anniversary production of Atomic Jaya (2013), City Night Songs (2012), and The Good, the Bad and the Sholay (2011).

Currently an Adjunct Associate Professor with the National University of Singapore’s University Scholars Programme, Huzir has taught playwriting at the NUS English Department; the School of the Arts; New York University Tisch Asia; and Nanyang Technological University. He also heads Studio Wong Huzir, a creative consultancy. Huzir was educated at Princeton University, where he won the Bain-Swiggett Poetry Prize, and is a Yale World Fellow.

Producer and Dramaturg

Faith Ng is the Associate Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre.

Her plays include A Good Death (2018), Normal (2015, 2017), For Better or for Worse (2013), and wo(men) (2010). She holds a Master of Arts with Distinction in Creative Writing (Scriptwriting) from the University of East Anglia, under the National Arts Council Postgraduate Scholarship. She was conferred NAC’s Young Artist Award in 2018.

Cheyenne was Faith's former playwriting student at the National University of Singapore, and she is proud to call Cheyenne a fellow colleague and friend. She can't wait for audiences to immerse themselves in Cheyenne's words and stories.

Sound Designer

Shah Tahir has been involved in various aspects of the audio and music industry for over 20 years. He has also arranged and composed for Mediacorp Channel 8 television series. Shah currently serves as the Audio Consultant and Sound Designer for the National Day Parade (2009-2020), corporate events and ‘live’ television broadcasts. His passion has led him to work on numerous theatrical productions with theatre companies such as Checkpoint Theatre, Dream Academy, Toy Factory, and Wild Rice.

Production Stage Manager

Chermaine Cham is an actor and stage manager. A graduate of NUS (Theatre Studies), she was the Stage Manager of In The Twine (Singapore Writer’s Festival 2018) and Assistant Stage Manager of Checkpoint Theatre's Eat Duck (2019) and FRAGO (2017). She recently read as Fiona for How the Millennials Killed the X in Checkpoint Theatre’s Works In Development 2019 and previously performed in U.N.I.T.S (2016), directed by Natalie Hennedige.

The recent stay-home period has made her realise how important and intertwined nature is in our lives. She is privileged to embark on this journey with the team to explore what evolution, death and life means to us.

ABOUT CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Checkpoint Theatre is a company of multi-disciplinary storytellers. We focus on creating and presenting original Singapore content with strong writing, performance and direction, across different media, disciplines and platforms.

With honesty and humour, head and heart, we produce and develop vibrant and important contemporary Asian stories that connect with, challenge, and inspire both local and international audiences. We are the home of new Singapore playwriting and we nurture the next generation of Singapore theatre-makers and creatives.

Checkpoint Theatre: Making original Singapore stories since 2002