Q&A with Wong Yunjie

13 October 2017 | Journal

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Yunjie’s interest in in theatre performance stems from his curiosity in questions surrounding human truth, transformation and justice. Before joining ITI in 2015, Yunjie spent three years serving as a volunteer with Thailand’s Makhampom (theatre group) in rural Chiangmai. There, he worked with the group to help improve the living conditions of several ethnic minority groups across Chiangmai through theatre and its process.

Later, applying Makhampom’s methods, Yunjie developed an English-language teaching-through-drama curriculum at the local high school.

Yunjie holds a degree in political science from the National University of Singapore, where he was on the University Scholars Programme.

Where were you before coming to ITI?

I was living in Chiang Dao, a rural town an hour and a half away from Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, I was volunteering with Makhampom, a theatre company best known internationally for its community-based work through theatre, while supporting myself by teaching in the local high school.

What led you from Thailand back to training at ITI?

I had been following developments concerning TTRP [editor’s note: ITI was formerly known as Theatre Training & Research Programme (TTRP) until 2011] since 2004, when I was researching Singapore theatre while at university. At that time, I was not thinking of practising theatre at all. But even so, the programme, its high aspirations, the intensity of the training, and the diverse traditional forms it offered remained in my mind.

While in Makhampom, I found myself craving more and more theatre workshops. I got to perform in Chiang Mai once, but I wanted more performance opportunities. I was hungry for any form of training. It seemed then that this hunger could only be sated through an intense training experience.

I was also very interested in continuing the intercultural trajectory which I was already on. Working cross-culturally in Thailand made me understand that it would be meaningful for me to continue learning to negotiate differences, and exploring the ethics in these negotiations. I needed more lessons in order to become the artist and person I wanted to become.

I recognised my ideal in the person of the late William Teo, and in Richard Barber, my mentor and friend in Makhampom.

In 2011, before joining Makhampom, I was working at the Little Arts Academy, and was caught up with the question of how theatre and the arts can change lives, whether rich or poor. That was when an irrepressible enthusiasm for theatre hit me, and I became involved in Jeremiah Choy’s production of The Conference of the Birds. Then I began to read about William Teo and became very inspired by him and his theatre practice. I thought then that theatre’s power to change lives stood somewhere in the magnetism, drive, creative nous and pragmatism (particularly in transforming spaces to make theatre) that William Teo possessed.

I joined Makhampom to cultivate the qualities I saw in William Teo. But in Richard Barber, I found even more. His ethics and deep well of compassion in the art of human relationships, community-based theatre-making, and cross-cultural negotiation continue to be an impossibly high bar which I set for myself, and fail to meet.

I continue to work hard to cultivate those qualities. Believe it or not, the programme in ITI serves my purpose exactly.

What is it like to study here in ITI?

It is the hardest thing I have ever put myself through. 

What’s something you’ve learnt from working with your international cohort of classmates?

That my understanding of life and its qualities is limited - what it means to be patient, what it means to love, what it means to show compassion… Amongst my classmates I always feel humbled and limited, in this sense. And I always feel I need to be extra sensitive.

Your most memorable class at ITI?

The 12-hour body pilgrimage exercise with [Wayang Wong teacher] Besur stands as the most powerful experience I have had. I still go back to it and refer to it, as a meditator.

How have these three years’ training shaped you as an actor?

I recognise the place of the spiritual in the work of the actor. A lot of ITI’s training results in spiritual development. The work of the actor is at least in part to do with conjuring. Its success has to do with being able to call on the spirit world.

Thinking back to your initial expectations, how has your ITI experience turned out?

I expected it to be easier than it turned out to be. At this moment I am safe in the knowledge that theatre-making is difficult; far more difficult than I first imagined it to be.

"I recognise the place of the spiritual in the work of the actor. A lot of ITI’s training results in spiritual development. The work of the actor is at least in part to do with conjuring."

What are your post-graduation plans?

I look forward to develop projects working with the downtrodden, marginalised and disadvantaged communities in society through theatre. Through theatre, I want to help empower lives and create hope.

Any advice for someone who may be considering making the same decision you made three years ago, to embark on training?

Bravery will be your biggest asset: the daring to face up to the idea of knowing nothing, and doing nothing.

Also, this quote from Robert Wilson, another figure who inspires me in theatre: "Sometimes you say to yourself: what should I do next?... You are trying to think of the right thing to do but quite often you should think: what's the wrong thing to do? What should I not do?... and then do that.”

Any special words of thanks?

On the artistic front, I owe a debt to all the teachers who have taught me in ITI. All our teachers taught us with a generosity that I admire, without any exception.

But above all I would like to thank my family. I exploited their unwavering support, afforded to me even though they do not understand what I do.

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