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Arts & Culture

Partners in Art-making and Life: Claire Wong interviews Huzir Sulaiman

B-Side had our first conversation with Huzir Sulaiman in February 2020, where we talked about his new play, The Nuclear Family.

Originally scheduled for 12 – 22 March 2020, this long-awaited follow-up to Atomic Jaya has been postponed due to Covid-19. B-Side had a second chat with co-founders and Joint Artistic Directors Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman in March 2020. This was before social distancing measures were enhanced, along with the subsequent announcement of the Circuit Breaker.

Words by
Dawn
Location
Singapore

“She already knows everything. So she has little incentive to ask me anything.” Huzir Sulaiman waved his hands in explanation while seated on a warm-coloured couch next to Claire Wong, the other creative powerhouse of Checkpoint Theatre. 

He was dressed in his signature attire—an immaculate suit and tie combination. Folding one leg over the other, he was seated comfortably with a gentle gaze resting on Claire. She, on the other hand, looked radiant in her sunflower yellow top with an arm draped across the couch. 

Together, they filled the space with lightness and laughter. It was no surprise how comfortable they were with one another. When seated together, they transform any place into their home. Huzir went on, “You have to realise that we have been together for 19 years, and for about 17 or 18 of those years, we spent about 24 hours a day an arm’s length apart from each other. There is very little she doesn’t know about me. I’m quite happy to answer these questions…”

Partnered for more than a decade in life and in art-making, their individual and joint endeavours are familiar to all in Singapore’s theatre industry. Other than founding Checkpoint Theatre, a champion for Singapore writing and playwrights, Huzir is a Yale World Fellow and his collection of plays have been translated into five languages. Claire is no stranger to the scene either, with capabilities ranging from acting, playwriting and directing. In light of Huzir’s new production *The Nuclear Family for the Checkpoint Theatre, B-Side invites Claire to interview the playwright about theatre-making and life.

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Claire Wong (CW): I notice that you go into a very different space during different points of the writing process. For example, you embark on a lot of research and then you read and read and let things percolate. Then you do a mixture of writing and a mixture of dictation. You kind of build from small to big or big to small. How do you decide which way to go in a newer piece?

Huzir Sulaiman (HS): I think I’ve come to trust my unconscious. Trusting it used to be something that gave me a lot of anxiety. I would say to myself, ‘Why do I not have a clear path for this? Why am I not making an outline and you know, sitting down to write the scenes? The plot point, situations, and the entire premise of the play seem to emerge in weird fits from my subconscious. It’s something that I used to judge myself for and then I eventually realised that this is not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s not a problem that I have. It’s actually one of the hallmarks, or one of the distinctive strengths of my [writing] process. 

I learnt that the important thing for me was to just relax and accept that different ways of working will emerge. I’ve learnt to get better at listening to [myself], where there are gaps to be filled. A research-based process often starts from that. It starts from a part of me going, ‘I do not know enough about this. I do not feel comfortable creating in this level of vacuum so I need to learn a lot about it.’ 

Then I can be creative. On top of that, there is that kind of discipline that asserts itself. I’ve spoken of the formula of preparation, plus procrastination, plus pressure equals artistic production. P plus P plus P equals P. 

You do all the reading or thinking, and then there’s the staring at the window time, and then there’s the deadline, which is very helpfully imposed by my colleagues like we need to submit a draft to IMDA; we need to start marketing the piece, so the pressure comes that way. All three things have to happen together so I can get something out. 

But I guess I’ve learnt to trust the variation that will occur naturally depending on the type of material.

AJ production 1 (Photo by Zakaria Zainal)
Atomic Jaya (2013) production featuring Claire Wong and Karen Tan. Photograph by Zakaria Zainal.

CW: How about developing the specificity of a character’s voice? When I first accounted Atomic Jaya as an actor playing 16 characters, I remembered how it was one of the most difficult scripts to learn because you managed to give each character such a distinct way of speaking, cadence and word choice. How is that something you managed? Is that something you grew up with, just being with the pleasure of listening to different voices and the way different people speak? Like sometimes when we’re watching television together, you speak at the television.

HS: It’s a common middle-aged male trait. 

CW: What’s all that about?

HS: Listening, it’s listening…

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CW: You’re very responsive to word choices. I think that’s where I’m coming from. You have a very visceral reaction.

HS: Yes, I am very responsive to word choices. I am very upset whenever there is a grammatical error and it is an advertisement or a television [show]. I do think that precision and accuracy are important. I mean there’s the sense of okay correctness but, there’s also a sense of appreciating idiosyncrasies. I celebrate that in the dialogue of my characters’ many many ways in which English is spoken in Malaysia and Singapore that are not, strictly speaking, correct. I’m not a stickler for correct language outside situations where it’s supposed to be.

I celebrate the diversity of speech and I enjoy all kinds of slang and dialect—the organic nature of language. I really believe that the many ways that English is being spoken in Singapore represent enormous literary opportunities. It’s not just a battle of casual, organic, populist sentiment versus the prescriptive dictates of an institution. I think it’s also really mining it for its highest artistic potential. For a lot of works in Checkpoint Theatre, we’ve been fortunate enough to develop and stage works that also reach for that standard. We have managed to claim the many varieties of Singlish as a literary language.

I suppose in general I do love the sound of language. I love words. I love listening to people speak. I love accents. One interesting thing I noticed is that when we travel together, I am often able to understand somebody speaking English with a strange foreign accent in a way that you have to turn to me to interpret the English into English. I can figure out what people are trying to say. 

CW: There’s also the aspect of speaking in the voice of your characters to a tape recorder. 

HS: Mm! Yes.

CW: Was it a way you used to entertain yourself, as an only child?

HS: Probably. I don’t know. I never consciously walked around doing plays out loud but I do think as an only child, you create narratives in the world around you. Of course, the dark side of that is if you see yourself as the centre of the world’s narrative, which you eventually discover is not the case for other people.

But this also allows me to be an actor. I don’t get the chance to do that professionally and to be honest, I don’t necessarily have the drive or discipline to pursue that as a profession. In the process of writing, it allows me to slip into the skin of different characters. Try and take on their worldview, their voice, their goals in life and get them out into a voice recorder. I started writing Atomic Jaya back in 1997 with a tape recorder, my Walkman, and did the show in 1998. Now I use the voice recorder app on my phone. It’s a full technological journey as well. 

AJ rehearsal 1 (Photo by Zakaria Zainal)
Atomic Jaya rehearsal shot. Photograph by Zakaria Zainal.

CW: When you write a play, you meet your characters as a playwright. What happens when you direct an actor who has to encounter your characters on the page? Do you put on a different hat? 

HS: I do try. I enjoy directing as a thing in and of itself. I enjoy separating my role as a writer from my role as a director. And I sort of enter into the fiction that the play I’m directing was not written by me, to the point where if somebody asks about a line, I kind of jokingly say, ‘Well let me talk to the playwright.’ 

However, I do try to turn off that option. I disable the option of behaving like a playwright immediately. I don’t say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to change a line.’ Because frequently, a lot of so-called issues in the text can be solved in the directing. This is precisely the strengths of the director allied to the weaknesses or idiosyncrasies of the text that allow for very interesting theatre. Because if the script was predictably perfect and easy to do, then there are no problems for the director to solve and therefore, no possibility of something really unusual or interesting. Kind of like a no pain, no gain situation. 

If you don’t have to stretch your directing muscle a little bit, feel the soreness because it’s a heavyweight to stage this particular scene, then you don’t get better at [directing]. I think that’s why people see directing Shakespeare as such an important thing because they’re such problematic plays. I mean, a lot of it is really very problematic writing. And so, it’s a director’s medium, right? 

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CW: There’s also your personal passion for fabric and craftsmanship of dressing, in terms of the visuals of things. I know you spend a lot of time thinking about that…

HS: Yeah, I think things like making sure the character is wearing the right shoes is important. The little details of what human beings wear give you so much information about them in real life and that translates into the world of the play as well. Even if the costumes are non-naturalist, there’s a lot of details that you have to think about. That extends also to the space, lighting and sound. I’m also particularly interested in music and sound. I think that the whole idea of the complete work of art that theatre is able to provide, and the immersive aesthetic experience, are important to me.

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CW: From the time we met–the time in the career span of being artistic partners and then partners, how do you think we have grown? Individually, and together, I suppose, as artists. You can also speak for me.

HS: Well I think the challenge that we have both been addressing ourselves is how do we not let the daily stresses of running an organisation, of its commercial interests, of trying to meet high artistic standards, of trying to create the best environment possible for our colleagues… How do we not let those stressors affect our life partnership together? How do we set boundaries in a way, how do we relax? How do we learn to enjoy ourselves and to borrow a phrase that you taught me: how do we choose to be happy?

I think that is a challenge that we constantly address. We’ve learnt a lot along the way and we’ve also had to take stock and readjust our approach because the demands of the work have changed. The scale at which we’re creating has changed, the particular issues that we encounter and have to face have changed. 

Also, balancing the other stuff in our life like, well, the toilet doesn’t flush…

CW: Oh, is it?

(laughter)

HS: And you know… the cabinet is creaky and why is this light tripping and dealing with aging parents and bereavement and stuff like that. So I think it’s been a process. There are times at which it seems to be smoother sailing but I guess I am always very heartened by the fact that we both really care about doing better and focusing on what is joyful. Because there is really so much to be joyful in the life that we have. We’re surrounded by really lovely and talented people, and our job is to create works of art that inspire, that uplift, that challenge, that educate, that entertain. It’s a great job. I am very grateful for the life that we have. I am very proud, you know, of how much work we’ve done to get to this point. I am just looking forward to getting better at it. 

Photography credit: Juliana Tan

*Although theatres are closed and the live performances of The Nuclear Family are postponed, Checkpoint Theatre is determined to continue presenting original Singapore stories from diverse voices, no matter where this crisis takes us as a society. Watch Claire and Huzir’s personal message here.

Follow Checkpoint Theatre on social media for updates, including announcements about their upcoming online productions and events.

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