Walkabout Art

Published on 13 September 2016

With an increasing focus on experimentation and immersion, more art productions in Singapore have audiences walking the walk instead of just watching the talk.


The first time co-directors Danny Yeo and Li Xie staged the murder mystery Body X, they were worried audiences would want their money back. The 2014 Singapore Writer’s Festival commission would be one of the few local theatre experiences where literal legwork was required of audiences. To solve a staged crime, members of the audience had to follow characters around the crannies of The Arts House, exploring chambers along the way. However, the duo ended up being surprised.


“Not a single audience member rejected the requirement of depositing their mobile phones with us,” says Yeo. “To our relief, they were all ready to be on their feet and walk about. We even saw friends planning strategies; strangers disputing one another’s conclusions with incredible excitement and energy. The general impression we got from The Arts House was that they had never seen audiences so involved in the entire production.”


Says playwright Marcia Vanderstraaten (who co-wrote Hotel with Alfian Sa’at), “Sometimes getting up and being almost physically involved in the action can be far more effective than sitting back and receiving something almost passively, especially now when people can be less patient, with shorter attention spans.”

THE X FACTOR Co-directors Danny Yeo and Li Xie will present a different edition of the site-specific murder-mystery series Body X (top) after the first instalment in 2014 turned out to be a massive hit with audiences.


Accordingly, Singapore’s seen increasing performances like Drama Box’s IgnorLAND series, which takes audiences on performative, experiential rambles round Geylang, Bukit Ho Swee and most recently, Dakota Crescent; as well as Andsoforth’s dinner theatre offerings which has audiences travel through different rooms dressed up to look like a kopitiam in 1970s Singapore, or gambling dens.


Continuing the trend, these coming months see a slew of arty offerings that seek to involve audiences within the work: Yeo brings Body X back to The Arts House with a brand-new mystery for the audience to solve. After an actress dies in the final scene of the play, audiences have to tap on their powers of deduction and play sleuth. Vanderstraaten’s Micromanage Overwork Exasperate will treat its audience as trainee educators on an official briefing and take them through different spaces in the Centre 42 compound to witness various scenes from the Singapore education system. Meanwhile, actress/director Jalyn Han heads Pop-Up Noise, an installation that will span Kreta Ayer Square, inviting visitors to personally discover surprising offerings by different creatives.

PHOTO Tan Ngiap Heng

Says Han, “It started off with the Kwek Clan in Singapore having some wonderful artefacts and antiques that they hoped to get young people interested in. At first, they just wanted an exhibition, but I felt that would be a very passive experience.” In fact, her plan to properly immerse the uninitiated into the topic of heritage in Singapore begins long before the installation is even complete. She has selected 30 artists aged 35 and under as collaborators, and will require them to speak to Kwek Clan member — artefact collector Kwek Cheng Fa — to examine his collection and hear his stories, and to take time out to do physical explorations into the Chinatown area, relishing textures and smells, watching elderly residents play chess, engaging in conversation with shopkeepers and devotees visiting the nearby temple.


“Art is about life, so it has to come from life. Personal experience is very important, more than doing research on the internet. I feel it’s crucial for artists to go out and expose their senses because it’s through the senses that audiences will experience your work. I hope this art-making process will make the young artists connected to and touched by real stories and experiences, rather than just thinking of ‘heritage’ as a kueh-kueh cushion or a Merlion statue.”


Of course, allowing physical involvement in events means audiences are no longer ‘captive’, and that it’s harder to control their experience because you can’t be sure they will be following a set narrative from point A to B to C. Says Yeo, “For the first Body X, we made sure we didn’t develop any story until we went to The Arts House to explore it, and then our set up took a week because everything needs to be so precise. You can’t map out various sequences until you’re there and have completed all your rehearsals. It’s to make sure the audience can follow the story no matter which path they choose to take.”


A properly immersive experience is also all about location, location, location. “The Arts House is great, not just because the architecture is very interesting and it does look like a mansion, which is where the plot will unfold. There’s also a certain spookiness — it did use to be the Parliament House, where some prisoners were tried, or locked up. In fact, for the first edition of Body X, we had the murder take place in the room where prisoners were executed,” says Yeo. “Each space lives and breathes stories, and people can feel it. We’re very excited this time because The Arts House is going to let us use even more of its spaces, many of which have never been opened to the public.”


Adds Vanderstraaten, “Our local theatre scene is evolving to include the use of non-traditional spaces to tell stories, partly out of experimentation and partly out of necessity because of the lack of affordable performance venues to rent. But the danger of performing in a non-dedicated performance space is the cast thinking, ‘Let’s just still perform the work like we’re in a black box.’ The space must be part of your direction.

ART STAGE Pop-Up Noise will transform Kreta Ayer Square into an installation space filled with different artworks and intimate performances.

NOT A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE Micromanage Overwork Exasperate will take audiences through different areas of Centre 42.

Centre 42 has outdoor areas, with a carpeted rehearsal studio that evokes primary-school music rooms, it has a meeting room that could be like a classroom, and also various spaces that the audience might split up into because we are talking about stratification in the education system.”


Not surprisingly, Han has the sights and sounds of Chinatown as a significant part of her installation. She says, “I once performed in IgnorLAND at Bukit Ho Swee. Sometimes bicycles would pass, people would be yelling on the phone… I drew these things into the performance because what I was talking about was Bukit Ho Swee, and these people are part of Bukit Ho Swee.”


Han’s Pop-Up Noise will take a different approach from Yeo’s Body X. “I don’t think I need to manage the experience so that people will peruse the work of all the 30 young artists. I believe if people only stay for three minutes, that’s fine, but let’s make it a valuable three minutes by making sure everything is heartfelt and committed. Also, they will already have been part of the experience within those three minutes: the installation has an upper level from which people can look down on the square and also observe the visitors below, whether reacting to the artwork, or not reacting at all and going about their day in Chinatown. For this type of work, I always believe in the people on site being melded into part of the installation… people are a very interesting, important part of our heritage and stories.”


Micromanage Overwork Exasperate opens 27 September. Pop-Up Noise runs from 21-30 October; Body X is on from 23-27 November.

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