In May 2016, the HCAC space played stage for LEAVES by Lucy Caldwell, which takes a daring look into how suicide impacts a family. We speak to director Kamil Haque and cast members Ranice Tay and Xie Shangbin on LEAVES.
LEAVES is a difficult story. It’s emotional, it deals with a topic we don’t often like to think about – the suicide of a family member. How did you prepare for your roles?
Shangbin [SB]: I am fortunate compared to the other actors as I don’t have that many lines to worry about. For me, I primarily asked myself many of the “what-ifs” questions. While the what-ifs helped to set the context, I found difficulty to be connected to David’s character. What truly helped in my performance was to let the text just speak to me and the consciousness that my lines are meant to affect my scene partner.
Ranice [R]: Embodying Poppy’s physicality was the most challenging part of the process for me. I spent a couple of weeks observing the way children behave around me. While she’s just 11, she is extremely perceptive for her age, and the last thing I want is to “act” like a kid. Poppy has so, so much heart, and it was extremely important to me, to find out her purpose and journey in the story.
The play was presented from Poppy’s point of view. As we all know, seeing through a child’s eyes is very different from seeing from an adult’s eyes. So why was it presented in that manner?
Kamil [K]: From a practical point of view, it was hard to fit twenty chairs into the audience. The one of the ways in which we could justify why people should sit on the floor, is also to see the world from Poppy’s perspective. Everything seems larger than life. The world is also a lot lonelier from down there.
From an aesthetic point of view, Poppy was the one who was always taking photographs of family members, and also to write notes in her little notebook about the things that happened at home, overhearing conversations. We wanted to tie in the front-of-house concept with our adaptation of the script, which is why the production team and I brainstormed to find as many connective tissues as possible.
LEAVES was presented in an intimate, home theatre style that is pretty unique, but it would have changed the dynamics between actor and audience. Was it difficult directing the play in such a setting?
K: Not really, because I’ve had experienced directing things like that before. However, the challenge is to communicate that same experience to actors who have never acted in their lives, or were perhaps used to ‘theatre style’ acting with great distance between audience and the stage. To create almost ‘film style’ acting in a live theatre space was challenging.
Was there anything you learnt during your experience with this play that you didn’t know about families and/or suicide?
SB: I did very much. I thank my fellow actors for being open and brave to share their personal experiences relating to this painful subject of depression and suicide. One thing that I have learnt is that depression is all in the mind originating from a specific point of view. However, as much as logic dictates, it is extremely difficult to switch the psyche to something more uplifting and optimistic.
R: To hold space is perhaps one of the most difficult and noblest thing one can do for another human being – that’s what I learnt.
What about parts that frustrate you about your characters? Would you have done anything differently if you were them?
SB: The limited lines David has is challenging because I do think that we need a super actor to be able to play David and get the audience invested in his journey. I am not a super star actor and there were more misses than hits, but on the days when I really connected with my body and my scene partners, the magic in the air was amazing. I wish I had the consciousness of “affecting my scene partners” a lot more sooner so that I could have been more consistent throughout the run.
R: Poppy’s vulnerability. She expresses herself with such honesty and shamelessness. I think I swallow my thoughts a lot more in real life, so much as I ache for Poppy, I have a lot to learn from her too.
The stage was a small space, and I liked that you maximised the space by extending the play outside the stage itself, through off-stage actions and sounds. What was the biggest difficulty you had in dealing with space constraints?
K: Creating a seamless front-of-house experience while ensuring that the actors had sufficient space and time to prep. Such limited space meant the front-of-house experience was like a show in and of itself.
What was the most rewarding moment you had in this production?
SB: That I had a breakthrough mid-way through the run in terms of being emotionally connected to my body. That showed me that I can be emotionally available in acting. Personal satisfaction aside, the most rewarding moment I have is that the audience enjoyed this production that the team spent months to work on. It is validation of our efforts. And for that I am grateful that I am part of this process.
R: Knowing that this was a story that needed to be told; a story that resonated with people who needed to hear it. When you have someone going up to you after the show to say they saw themselves on stage, and that the story was their life for three years – I think that’s all I could ask for.
Is there any specific part of the play that particularly resonates with you?
R: Building a fort and reading Peter Pan underneath it. I used to do that when I was a kid, too.