Remembering William Teo and his Theatre

by Wong Kwang Han


            I remember in the final rehearsals of Conference of the Birds (1991) an actor quitted and there was a mad scramble to replace him after nearly six months of rehearsals.  I never did know why he left the production but what I do remember was that while the production was enjoying a successful run, he dropped in one night and William said to him, “You never quit on Theatre.”  And that was what I remember.  That for me, represented what theatre meant to William, I didn’t necessarily agree all the time with what he was doing, but one thing I admire him about and took from him, was an unwavering commitment to the theatrical entreprise.  This was is the nineteen nineties, the Golden Age of Singapore theatre, though we didn’t know that, this was before actors expected to be paid “professionally” for their work, when all the actors on the cast had day jobs, and theatre companies were springing up like wild mushrooms after a rain.  For me, William represented much that was good about that period.  Artistically, he contributed much to the development of theatre in Singapore, but what I always found most remarkable about him was that naïve desire that theatre was one big family.  This was something I did not encounter when I participated in the productions of the many other groups.


            Theatrically, perhaps the most enduring thing that William did in Singapore was to introduce the working methods of Peter Brooks and Arian Mounchkine.  I never really did find out much about William’s personal life but I do remember him telling us that he learnt hair dressing in Paris.  He used to tell us that the apprentices used to spy on the owner of the hair dressing salon as he was masturbating in the cellar.  He spoke fluent French, and was obviously exposed to the works of Brooks and Mounchkine in during his time there. 


            In 1992 he mounted the production of Brook’s Conference of the Birds.  Brook and his collaborators had adapted the legendary Persian Sufi epic poem into a two hour play.  William took this play and staged it at an abandoned warehouse in Boat Quay.  He filled half of the warehouse with sand and built a gallery of seats out of wooden planks, part of the audience could also sit on carpets and cushions in front .  Taking inspiration from Chinese opera, the audience was able to look at the actors putting on make up and warming up before the commencement of the performance.  The musicians used two huge oil drums for main percussion in addition to other instruments.  The warehouse was one amongst many others in at the riverside and on some nights, dock laborers and workers would join us and listen to William while he debriefed us on the night’s performance.  On one night, which was attended by my then French language lecturer at the university, there was a thunderstorm and the water entered the warehouse at a particular place resulting in a propitious cascade of water falling from the roof as we made our entrance in one scene.  The said lecturer remarked afterward that even the elements helped us in a fine performance, one of the kinder remarks he made to me considering my tardy efforts in his class.   After the show, the cast was encouraged to mix and interact with the audience. It was a memorable production, and probably one of his best.  William had limitations as a director (as do all directors) and Conference with its succinct text, rich images, and range for theatrical invention allowed the best use of his talents.  At some level the obvious spirituality of Conference appealed to William as well, though he was explore this side of himself much more after the death of his mother, and (in my opinion) not as well as when he did explore it subconsciously with Conference. 


            In the play, thirty birds embarked on a journey to search for their King, a hoopoe bird leads them.  The party of birds comprised of all kinds including parrots, owls, nightingales, eagles, peacocks, exotic birds etc.  As in any Sufi story, it was an allegory of man’s search for truth, for God, or in Sufic termininology, what is known as fana (annihilation).  The birds go through severe hardships, going through the seven valleys, many of them drop out, for varying reasons, but a group at last find their King, through the help of the hoopoe bird.  As in a Sherazade, (A Thousand and One Arabian Nights), Conference was in fact a bunch of stories set within a story, because as the journey proceeds, the hoopoe bird would tell different stories to the birds that followed him when they were experiencing moments of doubts, hardship or did not want to continue for whatever reasons.  It was in these stories within stories that William showed his ability to bring out true theatricality.  Perhaps some of these were based on or even directly taken from Brooks’ production, it did not matter, the play brought out the best in his method.  William has been criticized for replicating aspects of Brook’s production but I really see no harm in that because he infused it with his own spirit and belief.  And he infused that belief in us.  We used puppets, cloths, umbrellas, and all manner of props to tell the story.  But one of the most important factors, which brought the production together, was the whole rehearsal process.


            We rehearsed for a total of six months, three to four times a week.  Again William was taking inspiration from Brooks and Theatre du Soleil’s long rehearsal process where the actors bonded and found a deep chemistry with one another, as well as soaking themselves in the meaning of the play.  From the first rehearsals at The Substation to rehearsals in his house, at the beach in Sentosa and finally at the warehouse, the cast bonded, investigated, discussed and lived the meaning of the play.  It helped that Faridudin’s Attar’s work was truly a great work of spirituality with multi-layers.  Despite’s it’s theatrical adaptation, which greatly cut it short, the intent and genius of, the work shone through, and it affected the cast and audience.  I remember after one performance an assistant director in a previous play I had participated in, a lady who was also a deputy public prosecutor, came up to me and told me that Conference was really theatre, the kind of theatre she wanted to do (as compared to a previous production we were both involved in).  I understood what she meant.  She sensed the energy of the cast, their desire to bring the truth to the stage, the fact that the cast had soaked in the words and actions for six months before presenting it on stage.  We frequently hear about process ad nauseum.  In my experience of Conference during the rehearsals we didn’t talk about it, we just did it.


            William added his unique touches, I remember after a rehearsal he cooked dinner for us and at night we slept in tents in his garden with the stars above us.  If there was anything that I took away from William, it was that desire to create a family, a community of people in what he did.  Subconsciously I imbibed what he did and was to practice it or years to come without being consciously aware that I was influenced by him.  In one of the final rehearsals we went to Sentosa and performed the entire play on the beach in the middle of the night to the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the moonlight and nothing else.  Again this was Brook’s method at it’s best.  Brook used to take his plays on long tours in Africa to perform in the villages, just to see if an audience who did not understand English can understand what the actors were trying to convey.  William really believed in that and embodied it through that his work on Conference.  None of us were paid for what we did, none of us made any money from that production and we did not expect to either.  I was between the army and my first year at the university.   It was my third theatrical production but it was the first really ‘serious’ one.  The cast was made out of experienced as well as relatively inexperienced actors and actresses.  There were two or three lawyers, a couple of NS guys including me, a performance artist, one or two students, one accountant, a clerical officer, a housewife, a juggler among others.  Yet despite that we bonded, at least for the period of the production, and were unified by one purpose, that of bringing forth the truth of what Attar wrote.


I think theatre becomes meaningless when the idea of a community is lost.  I’ve done productions where the main focus is simply to get the blockings done, work out the actions and the text, and simply present a play.  In these plays there is nothing that holds the cast together.  Hence what comes out on stage is perhaps polished and finished but lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi.  Things like that cannot be measured surely, so when a production is evaluated in the terms of the number of people who watched it, the amount of tickets sold, things become rather silly.  William was gay and he didn’t have a family so to speak, in the sense of children, but he had a great big motherly streak in him and I think to an extent, he treated us like his family.   


Theatre is probably the most ritualistic of art forms, when a group of actors gather together and unit onto one purpose, they actually become greater than the sum of their numbers.  The revolutionary nature of many of the theatre groups in the seventies and eighties like The Living Theatre, Peter Brooks and his actors, Theatre du Soleil all shared this common factor.  The process of searching and finding meaning based on a genuine camaraderie and purpose creates something that cannot be purchased with money.


William introduced to me the idea of commitment to the theatrical art and community.      


            Conference was the only play that I worked with William, our paths diverged after that as I tried to find my own way in art, but I kept up with his work in the subsequent years.  Following the lead of Brook and Mounckhine, William tried to forge a path for himself using the indigenous art forms in Singapore.  One of the art forms he tried to adapt to his form of theatre was Chinese opera, I attended his Macbeth in 1993, and the Dragon King in 1994.  These productions used Chinese opera make up and acting styles.  The use of such make up probably originated in the 1993 workshop with Theatre du Soleil’s George Bigot.  William was present and George introduced us to the full-face make up, much similar to the kind of make up a mime actor puts on.  There were certain problems with this I feel.  The stylized and painted faces of Chinese opera area actually a way to heighten the stage experience.  The painted faces synchronized with the actions, singing and recitation of Chinese opera.  On the other hand, the stylised iambic metre of Shakespeare’s speeches and lines are themselves heightened tools.  To add the two together would be like putting char kway teow on top of Hokkien mee (to use a local analogy, putting two oily and fried dishes together you would end up having too much of a good thing). 


In fact that was what happened in his Macbeth.   The text and the faces and the gestures worked against each other rather than in support of each other.  Furthermore, William’s ability to bring out the psychological nuances of text was actually quite limited.  Shakespeare’s text contains layers and layers of meaning which an actor has to uncover gradually through mincing the sound and meanings of the words, the rhythm and movement of the verse.  By contrast the text of Conference was far more succinct.  William himself was also not an actor, and Shakespeare is a very actor based playwright, unless of course one already has a cast of actors already experienced in Shakespeare’s blank verse.  In order to bring out the meaning of the words in Shakespeare’s text one has not only be willing to spend the time, one has to be able to make the mechanics of his blank verse work, and at least to an extent, be able to bring out the meaning oneself.  Loon Seng Ong, who play the lead in Macbeth said afterwards when I visited him backstage, that the words of the play basically overwhelmed them, it was too much for them to handle.  And I would agree with him.


I venture to say that for Theatre du Soleil, the make up and text worked because the majority of their work were not Shakspeare.  The Greek tragedies and other work that Mounchkhine and her collaborators worked because the nature of text of the Greek tragedies and the other texts are very different from Shakespeare, they may be verbose as well but it was a different kind of verbosity.  Further, Mounchkhine has a facility for the written word unlike William.  William’s Macbeth exposed his limitations as a director.   The play was staged in the same venue as Conference but it would seem that the magic was gone when the actors were overcome by the text.  This phenomenon with Shakespeare is not uncommon.  I remember watching the BBC’s broadcasts of British Shakespeare productions which were terribly boring because the actors were just saying the lines, and in local productions one frequently sees that too.  By contrast at least William was trying something different and bring out and authentic texture to the play.  In one of the scene with the three witches, instead of using the usual cauldrons and fire a European mind associates with witchcraft William had the three actresses use Chinese incense and objects generally associated with the occult in this culture.  He also used Asian costumes as opposed to European ones.


In the Dragon King/Register of Ghosts, William erected a stage at Fort Canning like one of those Chinese opera wooden stages.  He also incorporated the use of Chinese opera gestures and the script itself was a Chinese opera play.  I do not remember much about this production except that the play was not exceptional; the acting was based on the stylistic gestures of Chinese opera.  The problem with Chinese opera is that the plays themselves are frequently not the best thing about the art form, Chinese operas scripts are for the most part historical stories that can be either romances, or war dramas or comedies.  For the most part the essence of the art can be found in the singing, hence art form is as the name implies, primarily a singing art.  Gestures and movement are very important but are actually secondary to the process.  Thus Chinese operas are frequently not strong on plot and story.  I felt that this particular production suffered from a lackluster script and there were certain issues with the casting as well.  Some of the acting was outright bad.


His subsequent productions fell into two phases.  There was the previous emphasis on Asian theatre with the Brooksian and Mouchkhine influence with Mahabharrata – a game of dice, an epic on the Cambodian tragedy.  Phase II started his preoccupation with works that dealt with death including The Gateless Gate and The Painted House.  This was after the death of his mother, and was probably heightened when he knew about his condition.  This was the time when he attempted to fuse a degree of religion into his works.  More specifically it was a Zen connection.  In his rehearsals he would talk endlessly about the Gateless Gate and entering it.  As an actor these were extremely vague instructions.  And therein lied the weakness of the attempt.  He had never been an actor before and any attempts to create an entire methology from one’s imagination and reading was doomed to fail.


His attempt to integrate the actual content of the Asian religious ceremonies which he was so fascinated with into his work was, in this writer’s opinion, not successful as the two are inherently of a different nature.  This was the case with Grotowski in his latter years when his theatre became more of an indulgence in the pseudeu religious babble.  This is not to say that theatre and religion can never appear on the same stage (here we’re not talking about church plays or plays about religion).  What William and Grotowski were attempting to get at was what Brook called the ‘sacred theatre’, and the sacred theatre was something that was part of our society for many thousands of years.  The European Passion plays for example that went on for days and days, in which the entire town participated in.  Noh theatre with it’s roots in animanism and worship of the spirit world, and Chinese Nuo drama which was basically Taoist influenced rituals derived from an agro centric society.


However such theatre is the product of societies that lived and breathed religion as a particular way of life.  In the twenthieh century religion has long been sidelined and compartmentalized and William’s attempt to hearken back to an ancient tradition would have been limited given the short time he had to explore in this area.  However one can say that in Singapore, he was and probably is the only one who ever really attempted to break into the realm of ‘sacred theatre’.  Unfortunately he never got to continue his explorations.