City News Weekly goes behind the scenes to find out the intricate off-stage elements that go into putting up a successful live production.
Every year end, City Harvest Church members look forward to the visual spectacle that is the Christmas drama, put together by the Drama Ministry (DM) which involves some 100 volunteers.
In past productions, be it for Christmas or Easter weekend, the audience has been treated to “stunts” such as magic tricks (involving fire and smoke), angels on flying foxes, Jesus “ascending into heaven” and once, a special guest appearance by a boa constrictor.
However, the heart of each production remains the script. While inspiration is sometimes derived from contemporary works—2011’s Home For Christmas, for example, was inspired by the musical A Toymaker’s Dream and 2012’s Because It’s Christmas (2012) by the movie Love Actually—CHC’s dramas are original works that seek to tell the story of Christmas in a way that identifies with the yearnings, conundrums and pressures of the modern-day urbanite.
In order to cater to a wide-reaching demographic comprising both church members and first-time visitors, the scriptwriter thus has a tall order. The storyline needs to weave in the overarching theme of Christmas—hope, faith and reconciliation through the birth of Jesus Christ, while providing strong entertainment values, straddling both humorous and heart-warming.
This year’s Christmas production sees the addition of long-time DM member Lingual Tan to the director’s chair, alongside fulltime drama directors Sandy Yeo and Jaslynn Khoo, who have been heading the Ministry for the past 10 years.
While the team is tight-lipped about details of the Christmas drama you are about to watch this weekend, this much is known: the protagonist, Samantha, is a beautiful, highly driven, go-getter type whose faith is firmly rooted in herself; things start to get interesting when she loses control of her life. What happens when our own abilities fail us?
Tan is also the scriptwriter for this year’s show. The Night I Met The Watchmaker marks Tan’s first foray into scriptwriting and co-directing for the English service; she has previously written scripts for HarvestKidz, CHC’s Children’s Church service. In fleshing out the characters, Tan, who works as a business development manager at a digital film laboratory during the day, conducted intensive research on screen characters and archetypes.
In between the initial conceptualization and finalization of the storyline are months of brainstorming, constructive discussions and reaching a consensus on plot development. “It has to be entertaining, heart-warming and family-friendly, with that magical touch to give a ‘feel of the season’,” says Khoo. The hardest part of being drama directors? “Outdoing ourselves every year,” quips Yeo.
The Nuts and Bolts
Narrative coherence aside, the process of preparing for the production is not without technical challenges. Lacking components that exist in a normal performing arts theater such as wings, fly bars, a side-stage and stage lighting, CHC’s main worship auditorium at Suntec Singapore is not tailored for theater productions.
With creativity and no small amount of innovation, set designer Nicholas Goh and his team try to infuse more dramatic effect into the show through multi-media elements or real-life constructs. Because It’s Christmas featured a whole hotel set constructed from scratch; platforms for the stage had to be reconfigured and artificial walls erected to provide the partitions separating the different rooms and scenes. In 2010’s Heroes Of Faith Academy, Goh and his team rigged frames and lights in mid-air for the scene of the great hall—reminiscent of the Harry Potter movies— which rendered an enchanting, memorable set. While aesthetic value is important, one key factor Goh has to take into consideration is the “feasibility and ease” for actors to move in and out of a scene.
CHC’s larger-than-life LED screen, on the other hand, is the turf of the Visual Communications team. On a typical weekend, the screen serves to “communicate visuals or multimedia elements to complement the praise and worship as well as the preaching of the sermon,” explains visual effects editor Jeffrey Choong.
Come Christmas weekend, the LED screen adds an additional touch of drama by juxtaposing “mood boards” with the scene unfolding on stage. The creation of these digital boards starts with a brief from the directors, followed by the selection of themes and images to complement each scene. One stunning example was a 3D recreation of Pontius Pilate’s palace in the Easter drama The Third Day earlier this year. While the screen—and especially one of this size—is somewhat uncharacteristic of a theatre production, it has proven to be a highly useful addition to the set design. “Compared to a still frame, the LED helps to create a more immersive, visually stimulating experience for the audience,” adds Choong.
Taking care of the aural landscape is local film composer and CHC member Alex Oh, who has scored 16 features to date, including local movies such as the 2005 hollow flick The Maid and Singaporean-Australian shark thriller Bait 3D. According to Oh, writing a score for a stage drama poses a different kind of challenge, given the live component.
While the script does not change unless the actor chooses to improvise on the spot, the timing will often vary from show to show—a scene may be slightly longer or shorter each time it is performed. The score, therefore, has to be written not in a linear manner but in layers, to accommodate timing changes. In line with the fantastical setting of The Night I Met The Watchmaker, this year’s music score takes a leaf out of movies including the Harry Potter instalments and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
THE WATCHMAKER AWAITS
Rehearsals start up to two months before the performance weekend; most sessions are held in the evenings (which run late into the night) to accommodate the working schedules of the cast members, who are almost all volunteers. Being firm believers of the notion that “90 percent of directing is done in the casting”, Yeo and Khoo are adamant that the actors selected are able to carry the weight of the character; in addition to a strong script, the ability to elicit a high level of emotional investment from the audience—feeling and rooting for the protagonist—is a key factor for success.
Getting everybody together on the same page is the stage manager Elizabeth Wong, who has the unenviable task of “show-calling”—ensuring the smooth execution of the production, from the timing technical aspects such as lighting and sound to calling the entries and exits of all backstage crew. In order to avoid missing a single cue—which could spell disaster for a live show—Wong has to know the whole production like the back of her hand.
“As the show unfolds, my thoughts are both on what’s happening on stage and the next cues I need to call. As a stage manager, I need to be a few scenes ahead of what’s happening at the moment.” In order to do this, Wong attends every rehearsal after work, troubleshooting issues together with the directors through multiple discussions, even into the wee hours of the night.
So what can audiences expect from The Night I Met The Watchmaker? “Prepare to be drawn into a whole new world, where you will experience an emotional roller-coaster taking you through the many human struggles we face in our daily lives. I hope that through the drama you will find renewed hope, and perhaps get to meet the Watchmaker too,” says Tan.