Experimental arts-lab programmes allow audiences to play a role in crash-testing new ideas and talents.
TEXT BY JO TAN
Published on 17 February 2015
TEXT BY JO TAN
Ever watched a show or exhibition and wished you could be a part of it? Well, you are actively playing a major role, at least at an increasing number of arts-lab programmes where the audience is a crucial part of the creative process.
Explains Liu Xiaoyi, artistic director and mentor of The Theatre Practice’s (TTP) Actors Lab, as well as its Playwrights Lab and Directors Lab, “These labs do live experiments in the sense that we take developing talents or scripts and stage a showcase which audiences watch and comment on. The audience is part of our Research & Development, which is more interesting and important than if they were just there to judge a finished product.”
Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage (TNS), agrees on the importance of arts labs. Like TTP’s pay-as-you-like Lab showcases — which are often staged in its rehearsal halls — TNS is putting up the free-with-registration The Orange Playground (TOP) Showcase 1. Held at the theatre company’s Black Box, it gives an airing to ideas ranging from classic to crazy by emerging and established theatre folk.
“When most companies produce art, they want to be safe and not experiment too much,” says Tan. “They don’t want to alienate audiences. In New York, a lot happens on the theatre fringes and off-off-Broadway, where radical ideas are produced that sometimes Broadway sees and benefits from. Our mainstream theatre is gaining traction now, but that means we also need to take more risks on the fringe so that our art scene doesn’t stagnate.”
Accordingly, while full-fledged big-budget shows might be hesitant to take a chance on them, new talents and ideas are given a shot to stretch their wings at initiatives with free/affordable performance components. Some of these initiatives include the National University of Singapore Museum’s Curating Lab, the Singapore International Film Festival’s Southeast Asian Film Lab and Phunk Studio’s Transmission: Lab. Then there’s Burn After Reading (BAR) Singapore, the local chapter of a community of young and emerging poets founded in London. Other than meeting to engage in writing-and-reading exercises and offer mutual critique and support, BAR Singapore also organises free poetry readings by participants.
“A reality of the literary scene is that one of the most accessible ways for a writer to reach out to his or her audience is at readings. For this reason, I believe all writers should learn to be confident and effective readers of their work,” says leading local poet Pooja Nansi, who co-mentors the chapter with fellow poet Joshua Ip.
“Having to deliver your work to an audience boosts confidence and forces you to build a relationship of authenticity both with yourself and with the audience, rather than trying to please the audience through hamming things up or self-censorship. Real honesty will always touch an audience. It takes a mature reader or performer to understand that, and it takes exposure to become a mature reader and performer.”
Meanwhile, Groove Works, a mentoring programme for jazz artists led by international maestro Greg Lyons, also has its participants play weekly at live entertainment hotspot Blu Jaz as part of the course. “Rehearsing and performing are polar opposites and many things can only be discovered in the act. The principle behind Groove Works is to grow into a band together,” says Lyons. This, of course, involves performing together in front of a live audience.
“Singapore has the beginnings of a jazz culture but will need to grow a lot more first. Unlike many other music genres, jazz is not written but created spontaneously in a group. So just being technically-skilled or listening to and imitating the music is not enough. Singapore can be very outcome-oriented, so all processes are guided towards a desired effect. But this is not a creative agenda, it’s a commercial one. What we need, and aim to do here, is to teach people to have confidence in something they feel really good about, so they can then communicate it to the world around them — not because they see it as a cash cow, but because it really means something.”
In these lab programmes that are all about discovery, jazz musicians aren’t the only artists who are expected to become creators. Observes Liu, “Very often in theatre, I see that roles are very, very clearly defined. Actors have their actors’ techniques, directors have directors’ techniques. They should all learn to be artists and not be part of a production line. Everybody should want to create something and want to have something to say. Some among the pioneering generation in the arts industry are concerned there aren’t enough people creating work among the younger batch. What we want in the lab programmes is to encourage leadership, initiative and creativity.”
Sharing a similar philosophy is TOP, which focuses on devising performances through collaboration between artists of various backgrounds. “In general, for theatre-makers, whatever your role is, you still need to have a knowledge of the overall so you can understand how you fit into the main performance and make things better,” says Tan. “Several participants were given a playwriting workshop to help them express their ideas better. When working in little groups, one of the actors involved, Bright Ong, was directing quite a bit. After a workshop, some people might discover their latent talent as playwrights or directors — you never know, right?”
Award-winning director-choreographer Ricky Sim, who mentors dancers from diverse backgrounds ranging from Chinese dance to hip-hop in his Raw Moves programme, also gives his squad of students the training and opportunity to choreograph pieces that are presented to audiences. “It’s helpful to see things from the perspective of a choreographer, even if you don’t continue with choreography. You relearn how to express yourself, and how to listen and feel.”
Of course, not all lab experiments are huge successes. Neither is it the audience’s job to worry about how to fix it or react in an artificially positive way. “When people give feedback, we want the artists, —naked and vulnerable as they are — to try and determine whether the feedback is a personal thing or a dramaturgical point to help them structure their work. The point of audiences in a lab is also to develop the artists’ discernment,” elaborates Tan.
And once the audience has spoken, rest assured the successful experiment results will be put to good use. Says Liu, “From the three directors in our Directors Lab last year, Isabella Chiam is assistant directing TTP’s upcoming wushu production Legends of the Southern Arch. Ric Liu is assisting me to direct a play in July while Felix Hung is acting in both productions. We always find ways to continue complementing the lab programme in developing new talents and ideas.”
Adds Tan, “We have already used ideas from TOP in our production Gitanjali, and have seen so many ideas we want to use in future scripts and productions. Even as mentors and facilitators, we are learning so much from participants and that’s why projects like these are good for the arts scene in general.”