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story | Lian Szu-Jin, Contributing Reporter
photo | Couch Theatre
Here at Yale-NUS College, many students do more than just college. From starting their own social work organizations, to being national sports players, or having beautiful pieces of artwork secretly filed away in their rooms, many students here have a talent or passion to share. Armed with a can-do spirit that never seems to fizzle out despite academic pressure, these students paint a picture of an awe-inspiring student body.
To inspire you this week, The Octant interviews Yee Jia Rong ’18—a Law major with a minor in Global Affairs, also a touch rugby player, badminton player, RC^3 enthusiast and the managing director/one of the founders of Couch Theatre. Couch Theatre is a four-year-old start-up theatre group that has been touted as “impressive” by Popspoken.com and featured twice on The Business Times. We find out more about the formation of Couch Theatre and how Jia Rong juggles being a spectacular university student with running the company.
Couch Theatre was officially founded by Jia Rong, Ziyad Bin Ahmad Bagharib ’18 (who has recently left the company) and four of their Raffles Institution (RI) friends in March 2013, just two years after graduating from RI in 2011. “I was the odd one out,” Jia Rong laughs, commenting on how he was the only non-theatre kid in the group. His story began with a simple joke he played on one of the club members. “The production needed a cellist and my friend asked if I could play the cello so I fooled around with him and said that I could. They had no idea. And then I disappeared for a while because I had to go for [a] National Service training exercise,” he said. When he returned, he found his inbox flooded with emails from the production team, all set on him playing the cello. Amused and slightly guilty, Jia Rong offered to find a real cellist for the production, and took up the role of directing the music, thus becoming part of Couch’s first unofficial production.
The group then got serious and staged their first, yet sold-out production, Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl, announcing their arrival onto the Singapore theatre scene in 2013. Since then, Couch Theatre has put up a play every year without fail: The Pillowman, The Effect and most recently, Eurydice.
“The Pillowman is my favourite,” said Jia Rong, “[it had] a very powerful script and an enjoyable bunch of actors. Everything just came together so nicely.” He added that the Singapore Repertory Theatre also put together renowned local talents like Tracie Pang and Adrian Pang to do the same play in 2007. “Of course we cannot be compared to them but this goes to show that you don’t have to be a very established company with years of experience to do a decent enough job!” said Jia Rong.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is a dark, twisted play of childhood trauma and political tyranny, where a writer’s gruesome child murder stories mysteriously come to life. It poses questions about censorship, the responsibility of the artist, and the power of art. Couch Theatre’s staging of The Pillowman coincided nicely with the controversial news over the National Library Board’s (NLB) initial decision to pulp three titles in July 2014 that promoted same-sex parentage: And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan as well as Who’s In My Family?. After fierce debate, NLB decided to keep the titles but reallocate them from the children’s section to the adults’ section instead.
“Our production was a creative twist to daily affairs,” said Jia Rong. He explained that the main aim of Couch Theatre is to speak to the Singaporean consciousness. The company chooses plays that strike a chord within their core team of people, and have the flexibility for artistic input. Staying away from cliché and commonly rehashed themes, the company often finds itself producing absurdist works that have fewer stage directions and a more offbeat tone, which allows for greater creative improvisation.
When asked about how he juggles being a university student with being the managing director of Couch Theatre , Jia Rong admits that he has had to make certain sacrifices. He has not gone for any summer abroad or semester abroad programs due to his commitment to Couch. The production thought process begins as early as February, with half his summer taken up by rehearsals and the first half of every semester spent on preparing for their annual play in September. However, he has few reservations about his choices. “It is very fulfilling and I do not regret these sacrifices. If I can achieve the same effect [as summer programs] here, back at home with my group without having to pay so much, why not? We have all committed to it [Couch Theatre].”
Whether or not Jia Rong continues to pursue theater would depend very much on what happens after he (“hopefully”, he jokes) becomes a lawyer in the future. “There will always be that dilemma of whether to sacrifice [his law] career to pursue an artistic path. That’s the sad reality of pursuing creative jobs in Singapore,” Jia Rong admits. “But it really heartens me to know that a lot of employed lawyers out there still find time for their artistic endeavors out of their job.” Jia Rong hopes to find sufficient time out of the office in the future for Couch, or even to commit to Couch full-time if it manages to make enough headway to become a successful full-time profession.
Thankfully, Jia Rong’s family has always supported his passion for theater and would not mind him giving up law for theater if he chooses to do so. “I am very grateful. They’re not the typical Asian family who wants their kids to either be doctors or lawyers.”
Lastly, Jia Rong expresses concern over how there is “only so much room in the artistic consciousness of Singapore”, and there might not be enough demand for new theater companies like Couch Theatre. However, he remains optimistic. “The art scene is, however, picking up, so maybe things will change in the years to come.”