A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Interactive Murder Mystery ‘The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets’19 min readReading Time: 13 minutes
With its combination of digital theatre, live online interrogations and on-site crime scene investigations, describing and defining The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets can be challenging. Yet, as with all the genre-defying works The Theatre Practice has presented in recent years, it’s a welcome challenge — perhaps even a necessary one in redefining the limits of storytelling.
The latest from Singapore’s longest-standing professional bilingual theatre is inspired by the universe of its 2013 production The Bride Always Knocks Twice, with the interactive murder mystery taking place eight years after the events of the play. Seven women from different eras have gathered in a mysterious house outside time and space. All seems well until one of them is found murdered. It is up to participants to find out who did it.
The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets will unfold in four parts from 31 May to 6 June 2021. Chapter 1 will be an online performance revisiting the night of the murder, followed by a live online interrogation of two suspects in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 brings participants to the crime scene hosted at Hotel Soloha. The week-long experience caps off in Chapter 4 with the killer’s unmasking held online.
Update (14 May 2021): Due to heightened COVID-19 safety regulations, Chapter 3 will now be held online. The other chapters will go ahead as planned. Some ticket holders of Chapter 3 will be contacted shortly. For ticketing enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tasked with realising this ambitious production is an all-star team across Singapore’s creative space. At the helm is Practice’s Artistic Director, acclaimed theatre director and independent filmmaker Kuo Jian Hong. From theatre, she is joined by veteran playwrights Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiaoyi. From film, filmmaker Kat Goh, art director James Page, and film score producer Joe Ng. The theme song for the production, “Sister, The Moon”, features lyrics and performance by Sing! China finalist and jazz vocalist Joanna Dong.
Similar to its characters, The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets ventures into a largely unmapped realm. The production both highlights the different approaches to film and theatre while showcasing the depth of possibilities that could co-exist between the two artistic disciplines.
Sinema.SG spoke with Kuo Jian Hong, James Page, Joe Ng, Kat Goh and actress Isabella Chiam (in the role of “POLICE”) for a behind-the-scenes look at The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets, and to gather their thoughts on how the multi-platform production has presented unique challenges for their craft.
How was The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets conceptualised? What were some of the immediate challenges after the concept was settled upon?
Kuo Jian Hong, Director: It started as an invitation from Hotel Soloha to use their space during the Circuit Breaker and we had a conversation about what we can do. The hotel is situated in the Keong Saik area, a historical location with lots of good stories. I remembered eight years ago when we did The Bride Always Knocks Twice, I thought that was a wonderful starting point to build this experience. So I pitched the idea to Hotel Soloha and they thought it was very interesting. It went from there to recruiting the original play’s two playwrights, Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiaoyi. to get on board.
I think the murder mystery and puzzle-solving genre has been explored online by a lot of people this past year. Amongst us, we have seen, experienced and played quite a few different versions. We wanted to gather what we have learned from our own research and experiences to create something new.
I think the immediate challenge was to find the funding, as well as finding out how we can leverage what we know well, which is live theatre — whether, as playwrights, as directors, as a company or the talented actors that we have access to. We looked to find out how to make good use of these abilities while creating something for a digital/hybrid platform. I think that was one of the main agendas that we set out for ourselves. And also, to find out how to make good use of the video and film production talent in Singapore to help us realise this vision.
What drew you to The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets?
Kat Goh, Producer and Co-Director: I’ve always been very interested in theatre and I’ve been trying to get involved sporadically. This project allows me to BE part of it as well as contribute to it by doing what I do for a living.
Isabella Chiam, Cast, Role of “POLICE”: I was actually part of the cast of the original play eight years ago, so it really was a reunion of sorts with the cast and creative team. And such a great team! A local play co-written by two very talented playwrights, Jon and Xiaoyi, headed by Jian Hong and a beautiful, strong cast of seven women. And this time, it is no different, so why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?
This “sequel” actually delves deeper into the mysteries that brought those characters to the house, and it was going to be done as a hybrid theatrical experience, so that really got me intrigued. The fact that I get to play POLICE as well is really, really exciting for me. She is not just the person that brings the audience into the story, but she is complicated and messed up and fleshed out, with her own set of problems and secrets, and that really makes it fun for any actor to take on.
James Page, Production Designer: I was contacted by Kat Goh, who I was fortunate to work with on Meng Ong’s feature A Fantastic Ghost Wedding back in 2013, about the prospect of a theatre/film murder mystery production. I am always interested in crossovers between theatre and film and thought the incorporation of Hotel Soloha, the all-female cast and the script were really intriguing.
Joe Ng, Music Composer: Whodunits are always fun to work on. Added to that, Director Kuo Jian Hong’s approach to how that universe could be is just too cool.
What were your initial responses to the project? What were the immediate challenges that came to mind?
Kat: The initial response for me was to think of how to make the budget work. Production value is very important but we are working with theatre and the budget is usually moderate. So my immediate challenges were to find creatives that are drawn to theatre as well, who will find this concept interesting enough for them to take a lower fee for the project.
Isabella: I was very excited to hear about this project because it really was a great opportunity to do things differently, to break out of the mould and just experiment. It’s a very exciting time, actually, because we get to explore new ways of telling stories and making work that we wouldn’t have otherwise even ventured into.
But of course with that definitely comes new challenges, and as an actor, it did challenge my sensitivity to my audience, and who I was playing to. My mentor once said, “A great actor is someone who knows who he is playing to.” So it really was about understanding and creating that connection with the camera, rather than to a live audience. For most of us, we were definitely more accustomed to that, so it took a bit of adjustment from everyone.
We also had very little time to sink our teeth into the character, as it was a much shorter rehearsal period compared to the usual process for a play. We also had to piece together the entire timeline of the play, and try to get all the facts right, so that we could correctly portray the motivations and actions of the characters. We even had a table of information, and timelines because there was so much information to digest! By the time we got our lines down for the show, we had to shoot! We really had to be very intensely and quickly in order to find nuance and detail in performance, and also quickly establish rapport amongst the cast so that we could create this world together.
James: I was initially really impressed with the script and the concept of this timeless place, where strong female characters from all time periods in the history of Singapore appear in. I think the immediate challenge came from the need to blend the contemporary interior design of Hotel Soloha to The Theatre Practice’s rehearsal room and how to relate that to the story and the characters present in the space.
Joe: Tight dateline. For a featurette or feature film length running time, usually, we would require five weeks for audio and music post. This time we have only three weeks.
Share with us your approach for The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets
Kat: I see the shoot as the same as any normal short film shoot. The only problem is that we had to shoot a 70 minutes film in six days for this project. Whereas for a film shoot, it would have taken at least 15 – 18 days. So we are trying to achieve a lot for each day. We need to be very certain of what we need to cover each day. And if we are running out of time, we need to know what we can cut and still have a coherent film. Luckily, we have a group of very talented and professional actresses and we need not worry too much about performances. We just need to worry about how best to capture them on screen.
James: I always like to have a strong foundation of research into the characters as a starting point, from that you can always expand and develop but at least you know the roots from where the characters come from. In the case of this project, unlike film where we location hunt and choose places during the design stage, this was unusual in that the two locations, Hotel Soloha and The Theatre Practice Rehearsal Studio were secured beforehand. So we knew early on what the possibilities and restrictions were, in a way this helped focus the design process and reduce any time wasted. After about a week of drawings and 3D design, I would share the look with Jian Hong and the team before commencing in the transformation of the rehearsal space about 10 days before the shoot started. It was fortunate to have easy access and a good amount of time to work as with filming we quite often have to rush in and out in a very short period.
Joe: The approach is always to press hard on the music to go off-kilter. See how far it can go. One eye always on the music, the other on the story plot and spirit of the universe the characters inhabit. Then when it’s gone too off, let go a bit.
Kat, tell us more about your role as co-director for The Bride Always Knocks Twice — Killer Secrets
I see myself as more of a sounding board for Director Jian Hong. She had done film shoots before so she knows how it works. I think what I bring to the table is that I am more familiar with film crew and creatives and I hoped I had brought together a team that suits the project. It was a great accomplishment to have finished the shoot within the six shoot days without too much ‘damages’. We all had fun.
James, you mentioned in an interview with SINdie in 2019 that sets are rarely super realistic in theatre. With the digital theatre format in mind, did you feel that you had to lean more towards designing for film rather than for theatre?
I think with this project there were a few variables. The hotel rooms were quite constrained, as they will be visited by the audience, and the camera would be very close to the characters. We went into quite a lot of detail in the props and dressing present. There is definitely a sense of realism within the rooms, whether it be the authentic Samsui buckets, and period-correct basket, or the Student’s anti-colonial banners and photographs. These were designed to be both shot close up but also for a live audience to explore and see.
For the communal room, which was designed and filmed at the rehearsal room in The Theatre Practice, I definitely embraced a more theatrical approach, metaphorical dressing, hanging clothes, collections of lights from all periods, the idea there was a warping of time and space with a hint to all the other visitors who had come stayed in the past. I also wanted that room to correlate to the design of Hotel Soloha, so the visual language of the colour palette, wall patterns, LEDs, etc, will feel connected when an audience member visits Hotel Soloha and then sees the filming.
While designing the sets, did you ever feel limited by the digital theatre format?
No, I think the theatre format actually expands the ability of what can be done with the design. In a way, there is a greater freedom and forgiveness to break some filmic rules as well as scope, in terms of design, to be bolder with decisions.
Joe, how did you look to capture the timelessness of the setting and story?
Certain instruments have an inherent timestamp to an era. For example, how a harpsichord is usually associated with an earlier age. But when it is used together, sharing the same space as a modern era electronic synth, it laid the ground for the different characters who came from different points in history, to stand on.
Isabella, what were some of the unique challenges of performing digital theatre and how did you overcome them?
It really depends on what you mean by digital theatre. I think that what we understand of this concept is constantly shifting, and digital theatre itself can encompass so many different levels and kinds of interaction, which means different sets of performing challenges for the different platforms like Zoom or 360 video. I suppose for me, as a whole, performing digital theatre is like learning a new language. Film is one language, theatre is another, and this hybrid medium is really a new language in itself, with its own set of rules and vocabulary. Once we understand how to use it, and how to play with it, then we know how we can use it to perform as an actor and a storyteller.
Did you gear your performance more towards screen or stage acting?
It definitely had to be geared more for screen, as it was more filmic than theatrical with close-up shots and the like. There were some moments that were theatrical, but for the most part, it was more intense directed energy, focused towards the camera. But some things really don’t change though, it’s just about being aware of what part of your body is being used to tell your character’s story — is it only through the eyes, on camera, or through the entire body, on stage. In that sense, as an actor, the energy with which you portray a character on stage simply morphs into something different because you are channeling it to a different audience, the camera.
Isabella and Jian Hong, what are your opinions on digital theatre? Is digital theatre here to stay and could it even replace the live stage in the future?
Isabella: I definitely hope not!!! I miss theatre so very much, and would give anything to be back on stage with a live audience. The shared experience of watching life unfold before you is something that is so beautifully profound and life-affirming, and I would be very sad if we really lost that. But, I’m totally excited for digital theatre to continue as it really shakes up the status quo and injects new life into this centuries-old art form. It really forces everyone to work harder to create connections, to come out of their little bubbles to collaborate and create together. It really gives people the room to create meaningful work that isn’t lofty or stuck, and in the process, also reach out to people who usually won’t be interested in theatre.
Theatre itself has always been evolving, growing and changing with the people that it is written for and plays to, and I would expect that the two can grow and develop side by side. It is not mutually exclusive or oppositional, in fact, I see it as something that expands the possibilities of theatre and vice versa. The world is so much more interconnected than before, so why not the way we tell our stories too?
Jian Hong: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s like when television came along, everybody said it’s going to replace film. Or when digital music came along, people said it’s going to replace live concerts or vinyl. I think what digital theatre has done is to create another possibility that crosses pre-existing disciplines — the great divide between film and television, the great divide between live and pre-recorded. I think digital theatre enters into this grey zone and it is very exciting because it’s a very new art form. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops from here.
Kat, what are the differences between directing digital theatre, and film and television?
I like directing digital theatre. The actors have gone through so much rehearsals and character studies that half the work is already done when filming starts. They know the blocking by heart and there is not much issue with continuity as they know exactly where they are at which line of the script — it’s impressive!
However, what I like about film is that we do not need too much dialogue to express every emotion or reaction. Sometimes a look is good enough. Sometimes, no reaction is a good reaction.
I tend to think that theatre performance is sometimes a bit too much of a performance for me when it’s captured on screen. However, I need to remember that the audience watching this is expecting a theatre performance. So I just need to adjust my mindset.
Jian Hong, what are the differences between directing digital theatre, theatre and film?
Wow, that’s a big one. Film is often called the director’s medium where you have a lot more control in constructing the work in post-production after it is shot. So I think film has the biggest control of a vision for a director. Theatre is really about building trust with different people who are going to execute the work “in the moment”. So, when the show’s running, the director is usually the most useless person because I can only sit there and watch. Whether it goes well or whether it’s a car crash, I am usually useless to change the trajectory of that experience. What theatre does is it is a process of building that understanding, building that common vocabulary muscle to deliver that performance with consistency time after time.
As for digital theatre, it’s a totally new medium. It’s neither theatre nor film, but it does combine both where it uses the camera and it has a certain amount of edits that can be happening live or in post. The version of digital theatre that The Theatre Practice strives to do is those with a live element like theatre. Whether it is through audience participation, through dialogue, or through polling, our digital theatre has always involved the audience making a difference with their presence and participation. So, I would say our approach to digital theatre is to try to take advantage of the strengths of both theatre and film/video.
What is next for Practice in the digital space?
For us, on an infrastructural level, the system we are building is something that we are excited about, and we hope to be able to fine-tune it — not just to improve our own art-making, but also to be able to share it with other people who may be interested in exploring digital theatre. I think it is an unavoidable or even essential direction to explore. Not just for the situations forced upon us by the pandemic, but also in regards to this climate crisis that we are facing. I think digital theatre offers some alternatives in us continuing to be able to collaborate, to be able to explore past limitations of geography and, at the same time, tell the stories to many, many people. So, for us, we will continue to play in this arena.
The interview has been edited for clarity
Banner Image Credit: Courtesy of The Theatre Practice