An interview with Claire Wong: the director bringing parental woes to the forefront in theatre production The Fourth Trimester
Is there a formula to adulthood? And, are we better off if we follow it?
The Fourth Trimester by Checkpoint Theatre explores these very questions as it brings the chaos of parenthood and family life to audiences. The play’s title is a nudge to the three months following childbirth, when parents are adjusting to a new normal and feeling like most, if not all, things are out of their control.
At the story’s centre are new parents, Samantha and Aaron, who find themselves out of energy and overwhelmed. Their support system consists of the seemingly happily-married Lisa and Daniel, independent career woman Ann, and their affable next-door neighbours, Sofia and Johan. But not everything is as it seems as tensions overflow and each character is forced to confront their own stressors and uncertainties.
Directed by Claire Wong, playwright Faith Ng’s latest work puts a spotlight on the uncomfortable reality of adulthood and what it means to be happy in modern Singapore. The play recently ended its run to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
The A list spoke Wong to learn more about her creative process and the message behind The Fourth Trimester.
Do you think The Fourth Trimester is a story that only parents – either new or mature – can relate to?
I think (The Fourth Trimester) is such a lovely insight and a mosaic of what it means to be an adult – in your 30s especially. The age where you’ve got responsibilities to your parents, your career, and yourself – whether you want to be in a relationship and start your own family, or not. So, what does it mean to you to have a family? What does love mean? It really resonates with everybody because the issues that are talked about are so recognisable.
We always say in Checkpoint: “The more specific you play a character or the details of a relationship or a story, the more universal it becomes.” It’s a human condition, you know? We all struggle with what it means to love, to make our way through life, and the milestones that one is expected to follow. Then you start to ask ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ‘Who you are living for?’.
I think the reality of social media, where societal pressures (on top of parental pressures) are just fed into you through all these channels, is also one of the very real issues that are touched upon in the play here.
How do you bring such complex characters to life on stage?
I am invested in the process because for me it’s very important to inspire my actors and journey with them to make them curious about the characters. I devise exercises and develop a process where we spend a lot of time analysing the script as well as creating what I call ‘imagined memories’.
Life is like a river. The river comes from somewhere and is going to go on somewhere, and the play is about a moment in that river. So what I call ‘imagined memories’ is what had happened earlier in the river to the character in the play. I invest a lot of time in exploring these backstories through improvisation. By tapping the imagination of the actors, I can create a very rich interior landscape.
It’s not just the physicality and the void, but the interiority. Theatre is ultimately the power and the pleasure of the imagination, which is what makes us human.
Do you have a favourite character from this play?
I think that one of the joys of being a director is that I get to craft many characters through different actors, while as an actor, you’re just dealing with your character. So that’s a very long way to say that I don’t have a favourite character, because I thoroughly enjoyed that journey with each actor, where we tapped into the complexities and the histories of each character. People are very, very complex and that’s part of the joy that I find. To develop characters on stage that tell the story is to be able to be surprised.
You’ve worked with the playwright Faith Ng before on Normal and For Better or Worse. How did your collaboration begin?
We actually have a long history with Faith. Huzir (the play’s dramaturge) and I first met her when she was an undergraduate at National University of Singapore (NUS), when she took Huzir’s playwriting module. Before that, she hadn’t really ventured into playwriting but Huzir basically talent-spotted her and realised she had a very special voice. Her first full-length play was written as an undergraduate, and we selected it to be staged as part of the NUS Arts Festival. I think that that changed Faith’s life – I don’t think she ever thought she would become a full-time writer or playwright. So seeing how that debut play impacted and resonated with people was a very important experience for her.
I directed another play of hers, For Better or Worse, and then another play, Normal. We have had a lovely long relationship as she made her way from university to her Master’s to an arts administrator at Checkpoint, where she has now become an associate artistic director. It’s been a blossoming relationship both as theatre-maker peers and as friends. We’ve really seen her grow and mature.
What is it about her work that drew you in?
Faith has an observational ability that’s very special; she (notices) these little things in life and is able to capture them in very authentic voice. I think her plays use Singlish in a very literary way to express the way Singaporeans use it – to show that this is a language that is not just a gimmick or for fun and laughs.
Huzir invests a lot of time keeping in touch with the different playwrights we nurture and work with. We knew that The Fourth Trimester was something Faith wanted to write, and it’s taken a long time. It’s been two-plus years in the making. It wasn’t an easy play to write – not just from her own experience, but her experiences with her friends, what she’s observed, and what she’s learned. When we started seeing drafts of it, we just knew that it will be another important Singapore play the way Normal was.
If you managed to catch the production, you can share your thoughts on the play with Checkpoint Theatre here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Photos: Checkpoint Theatre)
Follow The A List on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to get updates on local arts and culture happenings on the go.