A war, a pandemic, 11 actors - welcome to 1918 in 2021

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 16 Mar 2021

Surviving a global pandemic, dealing with the death of loved ones and finding hope in dark times may sound all too familiar to us, especially in these Covid-19 times.

These desperate circumstances are also faced by the characters in theatre director Tung Jit Yang’s virtual play Unity (1918).

This award-winning theatre work, written by Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr in 2002, will be streamed live via digital theatre platform CloudTheatre, starting on March 18.

“I believe this play is relevant for audiences today because it’s a glimpse into our collective past, a past that we are reliving now 102 years after the events of the play, ” says Jit (as he prefers to be called), 31, in an interview surrounding this theatre production.

Unity (1918) opens – online – to coincide with the first anniversary of Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) to curb the pandemic a year ago.

Unity is also not about the pandemic. It’s a story of youth and young love; it’s about dreams of what could be, of identity, and finding one’s place and purpose, ” explains Jit.

The three-hour long play (with a short intermission), co-directed by Jit and Dawn Cheong, features an impressive cast: Aiman Aiman, Claudia Low, Cheong, Farah Rani, Ho Lee Ching, Ivan Chan, Jon Chew, Jun Vinh Teoh, Qahar Aqilah, Sukania Venugopal and Tiara Anchant.

It was recorded at KLPac’s Pentas 1 stage last August over a period of two weeks.

Unity (1918) tells the story of the residents of Unity, a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada as they try to survive, find love, and deal with death amid the 1918 flu pandemic (aka the Spanish flu).

“We wanted to tell the stories of these fictional characters living a real moment of our collected history, an historic moment that has tragically become our lived present, ” says Jit, who is also KLPac’s director-in-residence.

His directing credits include To Which My Brother Laughed (2019) and Losertown (2017).

This is not Jit’s first encounter with the play. He acted in Unity (1918) during his second year at the New York University Tisch School Of The Arts in 2014.

“I wanted to re-examine this play that I was a part of as an undergraduate, but now living through our own pandemic and attempting to rehearse and record the play from within this very pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, I was lost. I began to question the essence and essentialness of what I did.

"What good am I when the show must not go on? But this is my work. To quote a character from the play, it’s all I know and all I have, ” he admits.

Sukania Venugopal (left) and Tiara Anchant in a scene in 'Unity (1918)', a virtual show surrounding the Spanish flu. Photo: Bryan ChangSukania Venugopal (left) and Tiara Anchant in a scene in 'Unity (1918)', a virtual show surrounding the Spanish flu. Photo: Bryan Chang

This theatre show might be set in a small provincial town in Canada, but actor Teoh immediately connected with the storytelling parallels it offered when looking at the effects of social isolation on well being and life.

“What struck me about the story of Unity is the relationships between the people in this small town. There’s the young couple, the sisters, the inseparable friends, the awkward acquaintance... for me, what really resonates is how the people around you (or lack thereof) affect how you look at each day.

Unity tells the story of all these lives; the lonely ones, the happy ones, and the ones yearning for something more.

"It’s really comforting to see I’m not the only one feeling isolated, but also the many little joys you can have with the right company, ” says Teoh.

Empty theatre, bolder edge

Jit and his team met virtually last June for online readings and rehearsals began in earnest in July during the recovery MCO period.

“This project took on many different shapes before solidifying on one idea. Ideas went from live online reads, to recorded reads, to filming the rehearsals to moving into the theatre, etc, ” says Cheong.

Jit (centre) feels the play is relevant for audiences today since it presents a glimpse into our collective past. Photo: Bryan ChangJit (centre) feels the play is relevant for audiences today since it presents a glimpse into our collective past. Photo: Bryan Chang

“Personally, I became an actor because I enjoy rehearsals more than anything in this world. I believe that the rehearsal space is where we really see the essence and spirit of the characters; all the while building the world of the play together is the most exciting part, I feel it’s the rehearsal space where the actors are the most creative.

“Using the idea of the rehearsal space as part of our creative language for the recording really gave the world of Unity a lot more dimensions and it made things a lot less predictable because actors were then allowed to make very bold creative choices, ” Cheong elaborates.

Unity (1918) is a recorded performance playing with both the theatre and film medium.

The creative team, says Cheong, used the theatre space as a location because obviously the theatres were free and unused and it’s an unnatural space.

“The walls were all black, there was a massive light grid, there were random props and wires everywhere, this was a perfect place to experiment, ” she recalls.

Working with no budget

“As this project was zero budget, we leaned into the fact that we only had one basic camera that was attached to one basic mic.

“Knowing this, we researched Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier’s (and Thomas Vinterberg’s) Dogma 95 (movement).

It is specifically made for directors who have no money to make films, which was our very position.

‘This play was obviously written for the stage and not for film, which is already very hard to deal with, but Jit and I sat down for hours on end discussing and really feeling our way through the scenes,’ says Dawn Cheong. Photo: Bryan Chang‘This play was obviously written for the stage and not for film, which is already very hard to deal with, but Jit and I sat down for hours on end discussing and really feeling our way through the scenes,’ says Dawn Cheong. Photo: Bryan Chang

“We took this style in our own stride and that gave us the creative perimetres to work with, ” says Cheong.

Jit adds that he picked up many lessons from Dogma 95, with no elaborate props or sets, special effects, or technologies.

“This approach to creating – relying on what we had on hand, leaning into the location and what it provided to us, not relying on big budgets and effects – both restricted and freed us, ” says Jit.

“I hope our audience will feel that our recording of Unity is not like one thing or another thing but is several things at once, ” he adds.

The creative team also feel it is important to allow audiences to see and witness the world of a rehearsal room.

“You will get to see Qahar (who plays Stan) carrying a carpet, which is actually his dead wife... we see how actors live in this very strange place, where our make believe is so real and raw but in reality, it’s just a carpet.

“It’s a very strange place, the rehearsal room and I wish more people could see it, because it’s truly fascinating what we do, ” Cheong explains.

Jon Chew plays Hart in 'Unity (1918)'.Jon Chew plays Hart in 'Unity (1918)'.

The cast and crew also knew from the beginning that remuneration and payments would only arrive after the show series was over.

This online theatre production needed actors who knew this and were still willing and excited to bring the project up to its feet.

“Every single one of us have worked for KLPac to different degrees, done shows there, watched shows there, did workshops there, interned there, attended art events there... some were even introduced to the arts at KLPac itself, ” says Cheong.

“KLPac holds a very important space to so many of us on the team, as I am sure it holds a special place to our community at large. So doing the show Unity, to raise funds for KLPac brought a new sense of purpose for a lot of us.

"We wanted to work with people who believed in this and people who wanted to go back on the rehearsal floor, ” she adds.

On the acting front, Low reveals she was convinced from the start that she needed to be a part of this production despite the limited circumstances brought upon by the pandemic.

“I know how strongly I feel about having done this show for now, and why we chose not to strive for perfection, but to very humbly, using only what we had in that time and space, give it everything we had got, ” says Low.

“As KLPac opens its doors this week, and as the first-year anniversary of the MCO approaches to mark the premiere of our recorded performance of Unity (1918), may it serve as a vignette of a light that refused to go out in 2020, and what else might unexpectedly come in 2021, ” she concludes.

'Unity (1918)' kicks off KLPac’s 2021 season. This virtual show is a ticketed event (RM35, minimum). Show schedule: March 18 (8pm), March 20 (9am, 3pm/8pm) and March 21,27 and 28 (8pm). More info here.

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