Fellowship: Nelson Chia

Image credit: Nine Years Theatre
FellowProjectDocumentationReciprocal Project

Fellowship Period: March 2016 to August 2017

Nelson is an actor, director and theatre educator. For more than two decades, he has been seen on the Singapore stage, taking on numerous major and leading roles in English and Mandarin productions. He is a two-time winner of the Best Actor category in The Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards for his performance in a 100-minute, one-man show White Soliloquy (Toy Factory Productions, 2010) and A Language Of Their Own (Singapore Arts Festival 2012). As a director, he has directed twenty-two major productions and is known for his translation, adaptation and direction of old and contemporary classics in Mandarin. He has been awarded Best Director for two consecutive years at the Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards for Twelve Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre, 2013) and Art (Nine Years Theatre, 2014). In 2012, Nelson co-founded Nine Years Theatre (NYT) with his wife Mia Chee.

Art Studio

Nelson’s project involves the adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s novel Art Studio into a stage play, focusing on the research into methods that may be used in adaptations crossing genres – Novels to Plays. By discovering and documenting these methods to share with the community of artmakers, Nelson hopes that this project can serve as a starting point to consider adaptation as a viable means of play-writing.

Art Studio is regarded by many in the literary circle as one of the most significant works by Yeng Pway Ngon, a Singaporean poet, novelist and critic well-known in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan. Yeng was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Literature (2003) for his contributions to the literary scene. Nelson’s interest in Art Studio lies in how its story marries the epic and intimate by having characters with complex psychological states that lived through decades of Singapore history. It is also written with a variety of perspectives and subtle shifts in styles which provide lively materials for dramatic interpretations.

Nelson’s research will comprise the following phases of exploration:

  • Understanding the Original Genre
  • Cross-examination of Genre Characteristics
  • Adaptation and Writing, followed by a Read
Development Milestones
2016 Chia spent 2016 studying the novel and breaking it down to its constituent parts (characters, plots, dialogues etc.). He also worked with the Nine Years Theatre (NYT) ensemble to workshop scenes.
Jan 2017 Chia took a writer’s retreat in Bangkok to create the first draft of the stage adaptation.
Mar 2017 Chia held a closed-door reading of the Art Studio script with the NYT ensemble at Aliwal Arts Centre.
May-Aug 2017 After further revisions to the script, NYT ensemble went into rehearsals.
17-19 Aug 2017 Art Studio was commissioned and premiered at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017, running from 17 to 19 August 2017 at Victoria Theatre. Find out more here.
20 Aug 2017                                                                                                                 . As part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts Shares programme, a separate post-show dialogue Drawing on Literature: The Process of Art Studio was held in Centre 42 on 20 August.  九年剧场 Nine Years Theatre‘s artistic director, Nelson Chia, and author Yeng Pway Ngon shared with their audience about the process of putting the epic novel on stage.

The stage adaptation of Art Studio received critical acclaim, especially for its adherence to the source material. Writer Ng Yi-Sheng wrote:

“What [Nelson has] given us instead is actually a remarkably audience-friendly version of the novel. Most of the extraneous flashbacks are spliced so that timelines are relatively linear; characters are clothed in stripped down but distinctive costumes so that it’s easy to recognise who’s who (one loses track in the novel); set designs change to reflect shifts of geography and time (the stories of Yan Pei and Si Xian’s artistic progress, so prolonged in the book, are collapsed into an exchange of letters between them: each one stands beneath an archway, and the archways move with them as the years go by). … … Thus—dare I say it?—I prefer the theatre version to the novel. Not only because it’s more compact and user-friendly, with very little of value lost. Also because it’s performative: it gathers us all into a room as it parcels out its moments of pathos.”

Read about the awards and reviews Art Studio received here.


The Vault: Dialect & Dialectics

In Dialects & Dialectic, Nelson explores the cultural sentiments and grassroot sensibilities of two of late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun’s most famous monologues. Working with actors Hang Qian Chou and Tay Kong Hui, No Parking on Odd Days and The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole were staged in Cantonese and Teochew respectively.

The Vault: Dialects & Dialectics was presented on 5 and 6 May 2017 to a public audience in Centre 42. View the recording of the presentation here.