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Corrie Tan
Wednesday, Oct 15, 2014

Showbiz

Award-winning one-man show returns

The Straits Times | Corrie Tan | Wednesday, Oct 15, 2014

Theatre artist Oliver Chong.

Only one production has been able to send a spurt of nervousness coursing through Oliver Chong's veins.

"I don't remember ever being nervous on stage," the 37-year-old theatre practitioner declares. "Never... until Roots."

The intimate one-man show premiered in 2012 and proved that something small in scale could be epic in scope. Chong transported audiences on a deeply personal journey, to China and back, to address a muffled scandal in his family history.

Roots, which featured Chong playing a dazzling array of characters, went on to clinch Production of the Year and Best Original Script at last year's Life! Theatre Awards.

Terms such as "virtuosic", "exceptional" and "remarkable" were slipped into enthusiastic reviews.

It will be returning to the stage on Thursday as part of puppet theatre group The Finger Players' 15th anniversary season, as one of the company's Greatest Hits.

And Chong is still nervous. He fidgets in his chair, a lustrous rattan spiral, one of an impressive array of vintage acquisitions in his breezy Toa Payoh flat.

He says: "Even before I started rehearsing, I began feeling very nervous and scared. It was strange. I didn't know why. Perhaps it meant so much to me. I've always felt that the play was not mine.

It's my late great-grandfather's and my grandfather's. So if I were to fail or do it badly, I might disgrace them."

Chong has traditionally kept two seats empty in the theatre for his late great grandfather and grandfather.

He frets over his chameleonic abilities: "The character is myself, which is the scariest. I guess nobody is completely comfortable with himself? And I feel so vulnerable and naked in front of the audience.

I cannot even put up a character to shield myself. It's me. Come, look, Oliver Chong!"

He makes a gargled "wahhh" sound, adding: "It's scary."

But while he has demonstrated an uncanny knack for reproducing a multitude of voices on stage, whether in conjuring up a lively gathering of villagers (Roots) or convincingly channelling a disgruntled and prophetic pet cat (The Book Of Living And Dying, 2012), he has struggled with some inner voices of his own.

He was nine years old when it happened for the first time. It was as if someone had inverted a fish bowl over his head. He could hear the chaotic chatter of voices and the clang of pots and pans, almost as if he were in a noisy kitchen.

Everything slowed to a crawl. He waved his hand furiously in front of his face, but it looked like he was dragging it through thick sludge.

Terrified, he told his mother, who told him to get some rest. Perhaps he was just stressed out from school, they thought.

But the voices kept coming back.

Initially they would pipe up when he was by himself, in a quiet space. He would put himself in a noisy environment to avoid them. But the pattern would change and the voices would haunt him in loud situations instead.

He thought they emerged only when he was stressed. But then they started occurring when he was completely calm.

He saw a psychiatrist while doing his national service, who diagnosed him with mild schizophrenia and obsessive- compulsive disorder.

He also wrestles with depression. But with an almost superhuman sense of control, Chong has taught himself to confront these episodes and then learn to ignore them. It now happens about four times a year.

"It could be happening right now and you wouldn't even notice the difference," Chong says, grinning slightly. "I know how to adjust my speaking and I know that everything is actually moving at the correct pace."

Chong's wife of 10 years, Ms Wai Pei Ceiy, 39, who works in service operations in a bank here, says that he usually knows how to deal with these moments.

But she helps out: "I'll take him out. We'll go out for a good dinner, go for a movie, and sometimes I'll say, let's go overseas for a short trip - we like to travel."

The couple have no children.

Ms Wai is one of his staunchest supporters, giving him feedback on his work and sometimes helping out with the front-of-house for his productions.

She adds: "Over the years, you get to know his pattern and you work around it. It's not a big problem. He just needs someone to support him and be beside him. He'll work it out - you just have to be there with him."

None of this has stopped him from honing his skills as a deeply gifted theatre artist.

Chong, who started out as a designer, later began to add every possible theatre trade to his resume.

He can act, direct, write, design sets, design publicity materials, make puppets - possibly the very definition of a multi-hyphenate, and these hyphens continue to multiply with every project he takes on.

The "educator" hyphen comes next, it seems, with a seven-week acting masterclass he will conduct next month for The Finger Players, where he is a resident artist-director.

Its company director Chong Tze Chien, 39, declares his younger colleague an all-rounded "consummate artist".

He says: "He's a natural actor for the theatre. It's very rare. I think a person like him comes round only every 10 to 20 years.

"He's one of those meticulous artists who really zoom in on things that people usually wouldn't think about.

"When he writes a script, he'll be obsessed about how he opens the play. Sometimes he will spend months just working on that. He plans out every single thing, and his notes are an encyclopaedia of everything that goes on in his head. He is able to find the beauty in all the details."

As a student at St Andrew's Secondary School, Chong showed early promise in the Chinese art of crosstalk, high-speed banter that requires excellent rhythm, reflexes and a certain charisma.

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