DAWN CHEONG

Dancing Lights In Bowls of Water…

Some learnings come consciously and most, subconsciously. For me the creative process is pretty much that kind of game, knowing and feeling the measurements you need to create a kind of balance, a skill in knowing when to hold tight and when to let it loose, and along the same vein, this can also be said about memory, the strongest weapon an actor has.  As an actor either building scenes or a character, if the rehearsal room or the stage is my playground, then my memories are the shoes that I wear, to run. 

Race back 2017. Got an email from Tawata. I was in between acting gigs. Two choices one decision. Cancelled one job. Booked my tickets. Arrived in Wellington. It was a no brainer; this was where my heart was and still is. Everyone I loved was in Wellington. 

Viveks Studio. Webb Street. The Night Mechanics. Mīria’s New Zealand, a barren land, cold and dry, the pollution colours everything. I loved this world and how it’s not far from the imagination because of our own realities of unchecked power, how it comes slowly and suddenly. Water is the new currency and Darren is power. Stage right is the safe space of the Pa, a space which holds Zelda a woman with no land and Hine our hopeless protagonist, who later finds her courage. Her dialogue is a mixture of poetry where she falls into moments of dreams reminiscing of times before, of her father and of her water. Mīria breaks Hine’s poeticism when she’s brought into the present, her words cutting and cold, much like her land.

Stage left, the big smoke. Darren.  A woman whose family had abandoned her, she is a lone wolf disguised as a man and hungry for profits. Darren’s only sidekick Father Teal, a man of this land which he abandons for his own survival. Their dialogue almost an exaggerated quality, almost not human, the lights were white with strong blue and green hues, stark, sterile, and cold. How could power be portrayed with so little humanity, it’s almost unbelievable, almost.

Quarantine. Malaysia. 2020. As I sit here reflecting on a time long past, the echoes of The Night Mechanics and my outside world seem very intertwined. The government we fought tooth and nail for with years of protests, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, the oldest living prime minister had resigned. Less than 48 hours later a new government snuck into the realities of the people, an unelected government hellbent on revenge and a thirst to reclaim old power. Unbeknownst to us at the time, in less than a week these pirates are going to string us along through the biggest global pandemic our generation has ever seen. 

The country was hijacked.  It was a fuckin’ zoo. 

2017. Mudra Studio. It was very early on, that Mīria had drawn lines where the two worlds of the Pa and the Big Smoke never meet. Darren and Father Teal walked in straight lines, sharp almost always on a grid, with that in mind Darren’s physicality too must echo that same world, a long-lined insect with spurs of interrupted and repetitive movements to mirror the worlds dysfunction. If Hine’s words broke the world of dream and reality, the antagonist too needed the same trauma, not in written text but in text delivery. Darren had hiccups with certain words that triggered her desire or fear, this broke the flow of the text.  In The Night Mechanics, the actors were always on stage, always active and the lights were always on. Nothing was hidden and everything was heard. 

Fight back to 2011. Bersih Protest for fair elections. Malaysia.  Human rights activists had 2 to 5 phones to communicate, jump into different cars to travel , thousands came out, arrests, threats, tear gas, water cannons, road blocks, sit-ins’, helicopters above, police, pro bono lawyers on call, video recording as evidence and a government to challenge. When tears gas hits you, not one but a dozen, the moment the smoke touches your skin, it’s like a million tiny needles poking right though, you can’t open your eyes so you run in the dark, you can’t breath as it makes you choke, the more you choke the more you breathe, the more you breathe the more you choke. Your face is filled with tears from smoke, your heart beating out of your chest, as you try to breath and run at the same time. We crawled under the fence to Tung Shin Hospital when the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) closed in on us blocking the entrance and exit. 

 ‘There’s babies and pregnant women, you need to leave’ the doctor pleaded with us. We left running, going over pipes, climbing over fences and a dozen more cannisters filled with tear gas were fired at us. The government denied they took any action against us. They published that lie.

2017. Te Haukāinga. Taranaki Street. The space was bright, high ceilings, big windows that the sun shined through every single day, we could see Wellington going about its normal life. This was the perfect place to play with water. Mīria brought in bowls and containers of all kinds, in different shapes and depth, in different materials and told us to play. There was a glass fruit bowl sitting on the wooden floor, the decorative edges of the bowl had caught the sun which illuminated itself and spilled over creating light and making light bounce off whatever that was close to it. Mīria had asked for water to be put inside all the bowls. 

Like children, her actors went off to play experimenting with sound, body, and music, over time the water went still, almost forgotten. Later, she brought our attention back to it, it was hard to differentiate the light from the water, and the light from the bowl but she had only touched the surface of the water and that had made all the difference, she made the light dance. This effect was simple, obvious but profound, it had brought a quality that was gentle, reflective and quiet, the water could be seen dancing in the light or the light dancing in the water, this effect echoed and moved on everything, even on us and all it took was someone to disturb the water.

2012. Bersih protest. The government had planted fake protesters all over the city to cause violence, which would allow unwarranted arrests, thousands still defied. A loud crash a few meters away from me caused the crowds to stop. A car had struck something or someone, people suddenly bolted in different directions, yelling, and screaming. “The car is hitting protesters!” I saw a man standing on top of the car smashing the car windows and maybe 2 or 3 more others following along. I don’t know if they were real or fake protesters, but I remembered thinking these men must have been paid.

“He wants to set it on fire!” “Stop him” Stop! Run! I froze. I didn’t know what to do, but I remembered feeling this protest was hijacked, fights erupted, and these men were trying to flip the car. I just turned around and began to cry as I pushed my way through the crowds looking for a way home.

“You shouldn’t be joining this, now you see”. The taxi driver reprimanded me as I sat behind quietly crying. I don’t remember most of what he said I just looked out the window watching my empty city go by. My ride was 27 ringgit, I gave him a 50 and told him to keep the change, because he was working, I could go home, I apologized for disrupting his business. The effects of the Bersih protests could only be seen years later, of course with more arrests, more threats, cheating and corruption. But still, the people continued, in 2018 Malaysia had won the election to overthrow a government that was in power for 61 years. And for that taxi driver, whoever he was, whoever he voted for, his vote was finally counted. We made history.

As I sit here in Malaysia in 2020, living under a hijacked government and a pandemic, Mīria’s words echo “Is this a protest play or a cautionary tale?” I know there’s work to be done in this world, as artists, as humans, fighting for arts in schools, a living wage, fighting for justice. I know we must take it to the streets, but we cannot leave the house. Perhaps all we can do is keep speaking truth to power, keep writing, sharing. 

In The Night Mechanics, the bad guys didn’t die, and the good guys didn’t win. All stories end but a good one always continues, in ours, it was Hine standing in front of her people, reminding them to stand again, to face a fight that hasn’t been won.

We may not always win, but it is good to remember that the fight is always on our side.

Filmed & Edited by Maarire Brunning-Kouka & Kahu Kutia | Image Credit Rath Prak


The Night Mechanics by Mīria George, World Premiere Season 30 August 2017, BATS Theatre, Wellington.

Dawn Cheong is graduate of Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School and she has been working as an actor in Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand. she primarily works on stage and screen and has recently started writing as part of her repertoire.