The Studios is Esplanade’s developmental theatre platform. Having presented works over the span of 15 years, The Studios is back this year with four new works and one reworked production as part of the festivities. As a performer in Singapore, one can get a bit lost as to how to develop your own original works and who to approach to go about pursuing such an endeavour. It is great that a space like Esplanade has been investing resources into an initiative that contributes to building the creative culture here.
And by extension, allowing these artists to boldly pursue topics that are more hush-hush and seldom addressed publicly.
The season will kick off with playwright Faith Ng‘s A Good Death, following the journey of a palliative care doctor walking her patients through their final days. Then In The Silence of Your Heart is an in-ear theatrical experience that leads you through the memories of a paralysed man.
I am Trying To Say Something True by Michelle Tan explores about the liminal spaces in every day life – what is felt, what is known and all the in betweens brought about by time. About trauma and speaking up for survivors, Edith Podesta‘s Leda And The Rage is an invitation to embark on the healing of a single woman through daily struggles. Closing the season, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid‘s How Did The Cat Get So Fat? will be presented once again – relooking at our national pledge and what it actually means beyond recited words.
It is a fantastic line up and a whole spectrum of work by capable women artists. Some shows are already completely sold out, and while nervous on missing out on even more tickets, I am curious about the creative process and how some works are derived from the theme of Between Living And Dying. How do you define the act of living and dying? How does it relate to us in today’s world and how can performance provoke our thoughts in this direction?
Popspoken speaks to independent artists Kaylene Tan and Edith Podesta to find out more about their respective works for this anniversary season.
Popspoken: Immersive theatre has been explored By Andsoforth and more recently Attempts:Singapore. As an artist yourself, what is your own interpretation and exploration of immersive theatre?
Kaylene: I began exploring the idea of immersing the audience in an experience since spell#7’s audio walk of Little India, Desire Paths in 2004. In Desire Paths, audiences wore headphones and listened to a soundtrack and stories while exploring the neighbourhood. We worked with binaural recordings (3D sound), music and text to magnify and amplify the already vibrant environments of Little India. So it began from there really. We were interested in using sound to immerse the audience in the ‘live’ experience of being in sites. spell#7 has also done numerous site specific works over the years – at Zouk, Chijmes, Sculpture Square, Singapore Flyer, Chinatown, Shenton Way and I’ve also worked in numerous historical houses in Singapore (Baba House) and Malaysia (Cheong Fatt Tze, Penang) using audio and performance to take audiences out of conventional theatre spaces and to immerse them in other types of living and storied spaces.
Working with sound, I am interested in the theatre that happens between your ears, you have a captive audience and an opportunity to take them to ‘places’ – and challenge what they see, hear and feel. Building on this, In the Silence of Your Heart not only uses sound, but also ignites the other senses. For the creative team, this production has been a collaborative effort to create an enveloping sensorial landscape in the theatre that activates hearing, smell, sight and even touch. We are creating a palpable and throbbing world that the audience comes into momentarily.
And this is a world of the character, Thian, who is trapped in his own body and thoughts, audiences see what he sees and smells. And they hear his thoughts between their ears. There is no escape – this is the kind of immersion that we are working with. I hope it will be an intimate, intense and bodily experience for audiences.
PS: What is a challenge you faced writing and directing your own work?
K: Trusting my own words, my instincts and vision. Being responsible for more than just writing the words but to make it happen through actions, visuals and relating it to a larger picture.
The character is also based on family members, so while it is close to my heart, it has been about finding a distance between the personal and fictional and the theatrical. Part of the challenge has also been about developing the world in which the two other characters inhabit, the woman (Jalyn Han) and the girl (Tan Hui Er), as they do not speak. It has been a journey of creating a physical language for them, what I call everyday choreographies, as the setting is domestic (it is set in a kitchen).
It is a physical language that moves between the mundane and the abstract and fantastical. The two performers have been a joy to work with as they have been fearless in their experimentations! So I hope their world would be just as strong as the sound world of the man.
PS: Share with us how you came about to this character of Man and his circumstances.
K: The character is inspired by my maternal grandfather who lived in Kuching, Sarawak. He was a politician, journalist, teacher and an altogether larger than life character who loved to drink, smoke and eat. He had a stroke and was bedridden for 13 years, unable to speak or move. My only memories are of him in bed, so I never knew the man he was before the stroke. I was fascinated by the stories I had heard about him and always wondered what he was thinking in all the years of silence as he seemed very alert. This is not a biography, it is based on some family events but it is largely fictional. The character has also been inspired by other family members who have been physically unwell and the stress that pulls at family members in caring for them.
PS: How did the theme of Between Living and Dying inform your work?
K: The daily existence of the man, Thian is between living and dying. His thoughts and memories are very much in the world of the living, his body too is alive but beyond his control, it is a body that is decaying and he is each day, each moment, closer to death. In response to the Esplanade Studio Season’s idea of the season being a series of monologues, this is my attempt at challenging and experimenting with the traditional form of the monologue, which usually relies on one virtuosic actor on stage playing many roles while the audience watches a character unfold before them. In this piece, the character is absent – heard only through headphones. Lim Kay Tong who voices Thian plays only one character and the audience in some ways become him through the wearing of the headphones and immerse themselves in his world.
Popspoken: Having written and directed a number of women-centric productions, how did you come to this exploration of Leda?
Edith: Rape effects everyone, not just the female half of the population. According to one study of over 16,000 Americans, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men report having been victims of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives, with 80% of female victims experienced their first or only rape before the age of 25.
When Fezhah from the Esplanade approached me about this work there was a lot of talk in the media surrounding the possibility of judicial reforms as well as superior services being made available to victims of sexual assault in Singapore, which influenced my decision to write Leda and the Rage. For example one of the services being made available will be a One-Stop Abuse Forensic Examination (OneSafe) Center at the Police Cantonment Complex opening on May 1 this year (the week after Leda is performed). Minister K. Shanmugam stated the purpose of the OneSafe Center would make the recounting of sexual assault “as painless as possible” for the victims. There will be attending doctors on staff from Singapore General Hospital, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and the National University Hospital with almost round-the-clock availability. At OneSafe victims can be medically examined by a specialist, as well as interviewed by a police officer that has undergone victim-empathy training, all in a single facility.
PS: Do you think it is now less taboo to talk about PTSD and sexual assault in light of #MeToo?
E: I also believe rape is one of the most under-reported crimes partly because of the prevalence of rape myths and the way they systemically blame and shame the victim. In 2014, 500 Singaporeans 17 to 25, where surveyed, 40% of respondents aged between 18-39 agree that women who wear provocative clothing are “asking for it”. The burden to prevent rape does not lie with the victim. The responsibility of rape lies with the rapists and the society that upholds them.
I think educating people about the impact and prevalence of sexual assault will help diminish the widespread presence of rape myths as well as reduce the stigma. In America 45% of the women and 65% of men who reported having experienced a rape met the criteria for PTSD, significantly higher than the 38.8% rate of PTSD among men who had experienced combat.
PS: How did the theme of Between Living and Dying inform your work?
E: I think we all occupy a space and time that is bookended by Living and Dying. Our daily actions, and motivations for these actions, move habitually toward living – we spend a large amount of our time running away from death and dying. But death can also be our north star. It can remind us what is precious, it can point us to what will still be important in our later years.
Memento mori; we should all remember that we have to die and with that reminisce can come a great celebration of life. So although the theme of The Studios (and Leda and the Rage) may seem morbid, I tend to see it as something optimistic, a theatrical investigation of how and what we live for.
PS: What is your opinion on having performances to be sign language interpreted? Should it be compulsory in the years to come?
E: In Leda and the Rage, the interpreters have as big a job as myself and Jeremiah Choy, they will be sharing the same space us so there is a more dynamically equivalent and fluid translation made available as an alternative to captioning. I have two interpreters, making it easier for the interpreters to capture the essence of the relationships developing onstage because the translation can be watched at the same time as the actor.
Attending a shadow interpreted performance raises awareness of the challenges people who are hearing impaired face as well as opens audiences to the potentiality of inclusion. It’s a big experiment for me to see if the deaf community can have the same experience as the hearing people in the audience.
By integrating the interpreter I am also trying to highlight how hard it must be for hearing impaired sexual assault victims to report their assaults to police. I’m not aware of any Singaporean statistics, but a 2014 survey found that one out of every three Deaf women in the Philippines is sexually harassed or raped, so the issue is significant to both hearing and hearing-impaired audiences which makes having these performances interpreted all the more pertinent.
I have to say a big thank you to the Esplanade for making this possible because integrated interpreting means a lot of rehearsal, and that means more time and money. If budget permits, I would love to see all performances interpreted even dance performances; interpreting the accompanying music, the pitch of the instruments, tempo, melody and lyrics.
PS: What do you find great about a platform like The Studiosseries?
E: As an independent artist, The Studios provide an invaluable platform for me to create and perform my work. Commissions such as this have shaped my career as an artist, it affords me time to research, support myself financially, as well as supplies me with a platform to explore the type of work that may not be commercially appealing but that seeks to investigate, embody and speak to and on behalf of a specific portion of the population.
The Esplanade is organising a workshop specifically designed for professionals who deal with sexual assault survivors (counsellors, healthcare workers, law enforcement offices etc.) held in conjunction with the performance of ‘Leda and the Rage’ (26 – 29 Apr 2018) and facilitated by Rosemary McGowan. This workshop, titled “Understanding the Impact of Sexual Assault on Survivors”, will use elements from the performance ‘Leda and the Rage’, as well as dramatic role play and exercises .
 In December 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the release of the first National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted in 2010 with support from the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Defense.
The survey is based on interviews of 16,507 adults (9,086 women and 7,421 men).
 The study was carried out in 2014 by Change Makers volunteering with the We Can! campaign. They surveyed 500 respondents aged 17 to 25, who were mostly (59%) junior college students. Slightly over half (55%) of the respondents were female.
 Kessler, R.C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C.B. (1995). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 1048-1060.
 It is believed that only 5% of deaf rape survivors report their assaults to police. Sullivan, P.M., Vernon, M. & Scanlan, L. “Sexual Abuse of Deaf Youth”, American Annals of the Deaf, 1987.
 In a study in 2014 by the Philippine Deaf Resource Center (PDRC)
 Date : 26 or 27 Apr 2018 (Thursday or Friday) , Venue: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Cost: $75, Closing date for registration: 6 Apr 2018
Schedule: 2pm – 6.15pm: Workshop, 6.15pm – 7.45pm: Dinner break , 8pm – 9.30pm: Performance of ‘Leda and the Rage, 9.30pm- 10pm: Post-show dialogue
Participants will explore the following:
* Understand trauma and its impact
* Learn the sensitivities involved in working with survivors
* The importance and techniques of creating a safe space
* Methods of coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD
* Self-care techniques
To find out more about The Studios and the five shows you can grab tickets for all through the month of April, click through here.