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.
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!
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.
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.