Chin San Sooi has spent a lifetime writing, directing and producing plays. What’s more, he makes it sound easy: Surrender to the muse and go where it leads.
“I don’t consider myself a writer at all; if the ideas come, they come. I don’t think about it really. The muse captures you and you can’t help but do what it asks,” he says.
The muse has asked a lot of this “81-going-on-18” theatre veteran whose credits run longer than his arm. He made his directorial debut with A Shakespearean Feast (Excerpts) in 1964 — the year he graduated in English from University of Malaya — to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s birth.
This month, Chin is staging Water, one of three musicals he wrote over four months during the 2020 lockdowns, when he did nothing but “eat, sleep and write”. That sudden flood of creativity also resulted in two satires, two monologues and an operetta.
Water’s focus is conservation, a topic he had thought of writing about, from the Orang Asli viewpoint, many years ago after reading news on deforestation at the Pahang National Park. But that idea remained stagnant — “maybe I was trying too hard” — until the muse came a-calling again.
The musical has eight compositions by Joanne Poh of Somerset Music, which is presenting the show at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya. Through song, dance and asides to the audience, seven animal characters — two elephants, two monkeys, a mousedeer, tiger and wild boar — will highlight how humans plunder the forest and the effects of that on the environment.
Chin, who says “San Sooi” means “mountain water” in Chinese, wants to tell viewers the negative impact is a result of people wanting things they do not need. “Man must try to live with his environment, to balance the explosion of wants.”
Do his works always carry a message?
“We all have messages, one way or another. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. The plays I’ve written are about individual awareness, how man can always free and heal himself. That may not be understood because it’s very personal.”
The actors for Water will be clad in jeans and T-shirts, with 3D headwear by designer Khang Nanyao representing the different creatures they portray. The action takes place in broad daylight in a forest clearing — a simple staging this director hopes will take viewers back to traditional theatre, which did not rely heavily on machinery or devices.
“If someone gave me thousands of dollars, I could have the kind of costumes from The Lion King. But you don’t need costumes in theatre. The idea is to excite the mind to imagine,” Chin says.
He personally cajoled various people he knew into joining the Water cast by telling them: “You only sing one song and it suits your voice.”
“He’s quite good at ‘fishing’ people,” says vocal, choir and piano tutor Poh, who knew Chin from singing with The Canticle Singers, of which he has been artistic director since 2002. She visited him during the Movement Control Order (MCO) to see how he was and ended up taking a look at his Water script.
“The next thing I knew, he asked: ‘Do you think music can be put in?’ Yes, but I never thought it would be by me. Then his question: ‘Can you write me the music?’”
Composing was a first for Poh, and challenging on two counts: She was working with lyrics written by someone else, who is from her grandfather’s generation!
“His sentiments, appreciation of things, cultural background and experience differed from mine. I had to second-guess certain words San Sooi used and interpret them based on my own background. As we had no cast yet then, I kept wondering whether I was writing for a female or male singer.’’
But Chin was tenacious in following up and Poh realised composing is similar to creative writing: “When [inspiration] comes, I have to stop what I’m doing and do a quick recording if I can’t pen it down. It was a great experience writing the songs for Water.”
Playwriting does not put food on the table, says Chin, but teaching English and speech to children and adults does. Even so, the tireless octogenarian wants to produce a monologue and a satire he wrote during the MCO.
Ah Kong will see Alvin Looi playing a retiree looking back on his past. Parliament of Covidea, based on a Greek play dating from more than 2,000 years ago, presents a parliament with certain rules: People must not use foul language, hurl chairs at each other or have fisticuffs. Those who do not do their job properly must commit hara-kiri (suicide) because it is the honourable thing to do. When this parliament closes, a band called Bird Brain will be invited to sing a song titled after its name.
“I’ll do anything for fun but it’s very hard to get money,” Chin says. “I already have the music for Covidea, so anybody can encourage me by sponsoring the show.”
Has he ever thought of writing about his life in theatre? “Maybe I should write about my experiences with Emily of Emerald Hill, after working on it for so long.”
Since 1984, he has directed various actresses in the Stella Kon monologue about a poor girl who marries into a wealthy Straits Chinese family and works hard to please her in-laws and attain the position she covets.
Pearlly Chua has played the titular matriarch and society hostess more than 200 times. “We’ll be doing a series of shows again next year, in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Miri,” says Chin. “People ask if I’m not tired of Emily. The play can be done in so many ways. Every time we do it, something new comes up.”
'Water: A Musical' will be staged from Sept 21 to 25 at DPAC in Damansara Perdana, PJ. Tickets at RM48 and RM38. To book, call (03) 4065 0001/0002 or see here.
This article first appeared on Sept 12, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.