Chin San Sooi has spent his entire life writing, directing and producing plays. Plus, he makes it sound simple: Surrender to the muse and go where it leads.
“I don’t consider myself a writer at all; When the ideas come, they come. I don’t really think about it. The muse captures you and you can’t help but do as she asks,” he says.
The muse has asked a lot of this 81-going-on-18 theater veteran whose credits stretch longer than his arm. He made his directorial debut A Shakespeare Feast (Excerpts) 1964 – the year he graduated in English from the University of Malaya – on the occasion of the bard’s 400th birthday.
This month Chin directs water, one of three musicals he wrote over four months during the 2020 lockdown when he did nothing but ‘eat, sleep and write’. This sudden flood of creativity also resulted in two satires, two monologues and an operetta.
waterfocuses on conservation, a topic he wanted to write about from an Orang Asli perspective many years ago after reading news about deforestation in Pahang National Park. But that idea stalled — “maybe I tried too hard” — until the muse called again.
The musical features eight compositions by Somerset Music’s Joanne Poh, who presents the show at the Damansara Performing Arts Center (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya. Through song, dance and comments to the audience, seven animal characters – two elephants, two monkeys, a mouse deer, a tiger and a wild boar – will highlight how humans are plundering the forest and the impact this is having on the environment.
Chin, who says “San Sooi” means “mountain water” in Chinese, wants to tell viewers that the negative effects are due to people wanting things they don’t need. “Man must try to live with his environment to balance the explosion of needs.”
Does his work always carry a message?
“We all have messages, one way or another. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. The plays I have written are about the individual awareness of how man can always free and heal himself. You might not understand that because it is very personal.”
The actors for water will be dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with 3D headgear designed by designer Khang Nanyao, depicting the various creatures they represent. The action takes place in broad daylight in a forest clearing – a simple staging that the director hopes will take viewers back to traditional theater that didn’t rely heavily on machines or devices.
“If someone gave me thousands of dollars, I could have those kinds of costumes The Lion King. But in the theater you don’t need costumes. The idea is to stimulate the mind to imagine,” says Chin.
He personally persuaded various people he knew to join water cast by telling them, “You only sing one song and it suits your voice.”
“He’s pretty good at ‘fishing’ people,” says Poh, a voice, choir, and piano teacher 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 doing and finally looked at his water Script.
“The next thing I knew he was like, ‘Do you think music can be inserted?’ Yes, but I never thought it would be me. Then his question: ‘Can you write the music for me?’”
Composing was a first for Poh and a double challenge: she was working with lyrics written by someone else of her grandfather’s generation!
“His feelings, his appreciation of things, his cultural background and his experience were different from mine. I had to guess certain words San Sooi used afterwards and interpret them based on my own background. Since we didn’t have a cast at the time, I kept asking myself whether I was writing for a male or female singer.”
But Chin doggedly pursued, and Poh realized that composing is similar to creative writing: “When [inspiration] comes, I have to stop what I’m doing and make a quick recording if I can’t write it. It was a great experience writing the songs for it water.”
Writing plays doesn’t put food on the table, says Chin, but teaching English and language to children and adults does. Despite this, the indefatigable octogenarian wants to produce a monologue and satire he wrote during the MCO.
Oh Kong Alvin Looi will play a retiree looking back on his past. Parliament of Covidea, based on a Greek play more than 2,000 years old, presents a parliament with certain rules: people are not allowed to use swear words, throw chairs at each other or punch each other. If you don’t do your job properly, you have to commit yourself harakiri (Suicide) because it’s honorable. When this Parliament closes, a band called Bird Brain will be invited to sing a song with the title of their name.
“I do everything for fun, but it’s very difficult to make money,” says Chin. “I already have the music for it Covideaso anyone can encourage me by sponsoring the show.”
Has he ever thought of writing about his life in the theater? “Perhaps I should write about my experiences with Emily from Emerald Hillafter 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 achieve the position she desires.
Pearlly Chua has played the titular matriarch and social economist more than 200 times. “We’ll be doing a series of shows in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Miri again next year,” says Chin. “People ask if I’m not tired Emily. The game can be made in so many ways. Every time we do it, something new emerges.”
‘Water: A Musical’ will be performed September 21-25 at the DPAC in Damansara Perdana, PJ. Maps at RM48 and RM38. To book call (03) 4065 0001/0002 or see here.
This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia on September 12, 2022.