Nick Choo is the Malaysian songwriter who is taking Perth by storm with his musical, The Edge. I sat down on a slightly chilly afternoon with Choo and director Levon Polinelli and we discussed the challenges of presenting the show over coffee. The Edge is pretty unique, in that while it addresses issues of Depression (and suicide)* it isn’t from the point of view of the person with the illness. Rather, it’s all of the other characters and how their lives are impacted.
As much as this sounds like a heavy subject matter, Choo hopes that at the very least, people are entertained – “It is a musical, after all!” Hopefully it will make you think about how you interact with others, but it’s not a preachy show by any means. In actual fact, the words ‘depression’ and ‘suicide’ aren’t even mentioned in the entire work.
Living in Malaysia, Choo always experiments with his work there first, however he does have close ties to Murdoch University – studying a PhD in ‘mental health in the arts community’ an incredibly timely topic that ties in perfectly with The Edge.
The show was developed around ideas that had been swimming around in Choo’s head for a while. In 2006, two years before The Edge was written, Choo was chatting to a friend online who casually mentioned possibly taking his own life.
And I thought to myself, where are your friends? Where are your family. I didn’t really know him that well, so those were the first questions that were going through my head. When someone you know does something like that, you ask yourself what could I have done? That’s one of the big themes in The Edge.
This particular show has undergone several transformations since Choo began developing it in 2008. “It’s been ten years of re-working and development. There weren’t many other full scale musicals addressing mental health, especially in Malaysia.”
It seems that themes of suicide are more prevalent in theatre than ever before, so what is it about suicide that makes it such compelling material to playwrights?
For me, [Choo] there’s always a more personal reason because I deal with depression as well. There’s a lot of negativity, a lot of bad self-talk so for me it was almost cathartic. It was a way to channel all of these thoughts into something creative.
A lot of theatre covering this topic tends to reiterate the problem but not come up with a solution. Director Levon Polinelli was drawn to The Edge because it’s not like that.
When someone does attempt suicide, everyone thinks – could I have done this, or that, but theatre is always more centred around the act itself. I remember also, filming a video about suicide and we weren’t allowed to use the word. Even now, the media don’t want to have that conversation – you see an article about someone who died and at the bottom it says to call Lifeline if you’re having depressed thoughts. People refuse to talk about it and offer solutions.
In a way, The Edge isn’t about the main character because you never see him. It’s about how the people around him analyse their actions and interactions to see how they contributed to the problem.
When The Edge was first put on in Malaysia, it was a full-scale, large stage production. Polinelli happened to be scanning through Facebook one day when a post by Choo about the show caught his eye.
I was looking for a show to take on, and it was just in the last couple of weeks of FRINGEWORLD last year  when I became involved in actually preventing a suicide…I was co-coordinating between friends to find our friend and thankfully we did, but I found it interesting that saving someone kind of messes with you, mentally.
When Nick posted on Facebook a little after that, it just resonated. I noticed that The Edge had been staged quite traditionally in Malaysia, and I remember when we took [our previous production] Werewolf Priest away from The Blue Room and onto a larger stage, it lost some of its intimacy. So, I thought – that’s what it needs – this should be an intimate show.
And that intimacy is definitely part of the charm; The Edge is all about looking closely at someone’s life – sometimes from the outside in. Its power lies in seeing every emotion cross the performers’ faces. There is a more urgent immediacy in being close to the action. Polinelli loves the challenge of a small space:
A black box does throw up a few challenges, just in terms of entrances and exits, you can’t just drop the curtain and have stage Ninjas change everything for you! It’s great, though, one of the things I love about directing is that problem solving element. You know, we’ve pushed a lot of the scenes together and there’s no real barrier between the stage and the audience, which definitely changes the show.
There is a total freedom in not being weighted down by an elaborate set.
[Choo] You don’t even need a full set – everything is explained in the lyrics. For example, there’s a line ‘you can see the city lights for miles’ but you don’t really need to see the lights. It’s subtle.
The truly lamentable part about putting on a show about mental health in 2018 is the fact that many people are quite sensitive to the topic, and won’t take a chance on the subject matter. Polinelli admits that he has struggled to positively promote the show:
Look, if it was a really heavy, depressing show I wouldn’t be directing it. I’m not interested in the kind of show that makes you want to jump off a bridge!
Choo didn’t write the play to trigger people – although he does hope that they will engage with it emotionally. People see the disclaimer and shy away from it. Polinelli feels that this is to their own detriment:
If you’re not willing to push through what it is that effects you, you’re never going to understand those feelings. Obviously I don’t mean that people who are genuinely traumatised have to set themselves off, I just mean people who are usually not open to that conversation because it’s confronting.
One of the best things about working with The Blue Room is their inclusivity. The Edge has some incredibly uplifting songs, totally hilarious moments, and encourages you to engage emotionally with the people around you, yet it doesn’t weigh you down. Even if you are concerned about the content, I urge you to go and see it. Choo and Polinelli are incredibly intelligent people, and every element of the show has been fine tuned. They really are the nicest people, and the last thing they would want to do is cause anyone distress.
Interview | Laura Money
WHEN: 29 May – 9 June 2018 | 8:30pm
12 – 16 June 2018 | 7:00pm
WHERE: The Blue Room Theatre | Northbridge
INFO: Tickets $20 – $30 | Duration 2 hours | 10 minute interval | Content warning: themes of suicide and mental health | Recommended 15+
*Crisis support and suicide prevention is available. Call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.