FLOWERS: An Interview With Han Xuemei

FLOWERS is Drama Box’s upcoming experiential installation that investigates how patriarchal violence manifests itself around and within us. This installation invites us to (re)consider our lived experiences as both men and women in relation to this violence: How does it seek to control and violate, and how might we resist and hope?

Drama Box’s resident artist Han Xuemei shares her creative journey this far and tells us more about the creative process and directorial purpose of FLOWERS.

Hi Xuemei, tell us more about yourself!

Hi, I’m Xuemei. I’m currently a resident artist at Drama Box. I’ve been a resident artist here since 2012. Actually when I first started out I wasn’t a resident artist, I was a resident actor-facilitator, facilitating and acting for some of Drama Box’s forum theatre pieces. Shortly after we realised I didn’t want to do acting, so we removed ‘actor’ from the job title.

But how did you first start out in Drama Box? Were you doing acting before that?

I was initially in Drama Box’s youth wing, ARTivate. It was through that programme that we trained in acting fundamentals. It was a programme made not only to train actors but to train theatre practitioners in general. Then I went to Mediacorp to do trailer editing, but I continued to do theatre on the side. Eventually the time came when I felt like leaving Mediacorp, and it was then that Drama Box was looking at getting a full-time person to work with them. So Huiling, my mentor, asked if i wanted to join, and I said yes. Drama Box as a theatre company has been very open to shaping things and practices as we went along, and in my earlier years I was doing a lot of directing for what I call ‘conventional’ theatre plays — plays in which the audience sits down and watches a performance on stage — for secondary schools. For example, F.Y.I. for the Esplanade. I was also running the second batch of ARTivate with Huiling and continued to facilitate forum theatre plays. I guess slowly I realised that there was another kind of work I wanted to create. This was something regular theatre-goers would be unfamiliar with because it was not like conventional theatre experiences in which there is a script, then there are actors coming in to portray certain roles, and the role of the audience is to merely watch. I wanted to further explore what we can do with the audience’s role in a piece.

What inspired this?

I was very inspired by a workshop I attended in Hong Kong around the end of 2015. It was called ‘Workshopping An Automatic Workshop’. The creators wanted to create a workshop where it was automatic, so there would be no facilitators. It was here that I got exposed to things like Fluxes — an art movement heavily inspired by John Cage in which different artists came together and spoke about how at should be seen everywhere on a daily basis, and how we can use things like ‘performance scores’ to create works. These scores act as instruction templates, so every artist would be free to create something of their own with the same set of instructions, and each outcome would be different. So you would have people throwing you a score and then you can perform it however you wish. That’s the beginning of how I came to do my current things.

It takes time for me to let things sit in. I went for this workshop around the end of 2015, but it was only by mid-2016 that I decided I wanted to do a work that explores the boundaries of audience participation. That’s how MISSING came about. It was a participatory experience about lost connections, which we worked on sporadically over a year and a half. With this kind of work, the excitement and risk is what the audience is willing to do and how much they are willing to participate. If the audience refuses to participate, the experience fails. But the excitement comes with exploring what can happen on the basis of chance.

Tell us about your work with Drama Box doing FLOWERS.

FLOWERS is my second work after I stopped directing more conventional theatre plays. Compared to MISSING, FLOWERS requires a lower degree of audience participation and investment. It does not entirely require such a heavy degree of investment from the audience, rather it invites the audience to come in and the story is given to the audience to uncover as they enter the space. This is how the concept of the experiential installation came about for FLOWERS. It is not about walking into a gallery, for example, and then leaving. For me, there’s always something about entering a space and being part of the space, versus simply observing an artwork. For both MISSING and FLOWERS, regardless of the degree of audience participation required, exploring that relationship between the audience, the installation, and the space has always been a central theme.

How did FLOWERS come about? What inspired it or what sparked it?

Initially it started out with me wanting to do a project that investigates sexual assault. There is such a huge conversation around it recently, and I wanted to investigate why there is such a strong sense of emotional response from all sorts of people to it. So I started by going to talk to AWARE. I spoke to them about sexual assault and sexual violence. Then came the question: what can art do about this topic? And around that time, the #metoo movement started gaining traction, and the question developed into: how else can my project add to the existing conversation. So this took me on a journey as the concepts went from sexual assault, which is a specific kind of violence, to gender roles, and then patriarchy. I found that patriarchy is a more systemic thing, and I wanted to investigate what seems to be the overarching thing that continues to sustain this kind of violence. When it came to the existing conversation that dealt with more specific forms of sexual assault and violence, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to any new things about it. So I wanted to look at the bigger picture instead. We looked at how patriarchy is manifested in the family, and decided that it way probably something that we could contribute to the conversation. It was also something that I was very interested to explore.

I then realised I was also very interested on exploring what the cost of patriarchy was on the patriarchal figure. One of the things that I was first exposed to was Theatre of the Oppressed. And I was thinking that when we look at oppression, very often it is not black and white, and I wanted to investigate how within the oppressive system the oppressor becomes dehumanised. How does this act of oppression dehumanise both the oppressor and the oppressed? Tying this back to the content of a family, I found that it becomes a useful framing as a microcosm in society because families are complex it is hard to make judgements towards a person based on a black-and-white understanding of him. It is not as simple as looking at someone and saying, “You’re a monster.”.

You know that the actions someone has taken are wrong but I feel that in the context of a family it is not as easy to approach it in such a simplistic manner without understanding the values and background of the person being talked about.

How did you get the team onboard?

When I was working on MISSING, I knew that I wanted to try working with people to different sensitivities. Sensitivities to sound, to light — what you see and what you don’t see, and someone who is good with words. I guess it’s somewhat similar to how you would put a theatre show together. The difference is that the form for FLOWERS in particular is not familiar with these people, who are used to working within the framework of putting up a conventional theatre play. How my process works is that I bring them in earlier as core designers. This means that their input can shape the final product of the work, and they can contribute ideas as much as they want as long as it satisfies the overarching directorial vision of the piece.

What is your rehearsal or creative process for FLOWERS?

Usually I bring them together and I will help to set the overarching direction. For example, I have certain things I want them to think about and certain things I wanted them to look into.  In this instance, I knew the key question that I wanted FLOWERS to deal with: what is the cost of patriarchy? In FLOWERS, I did not even set out with the intention to have this in a family setting. I just knew we had the venue — the house, and then during one of our meetings someone said, why don’t we try to set it in a familial context? This is how we integrated certain ideas into the conceptualisation of ideas and the story as well. And here my role is to set clear directions as everyone was free to contribute ideas. Since all ideas were open to negotiation, I would also be there to make the final call in terms of the direction we were going to take. That’s the first phase, the conceptualisation of the story. Then came the next phase, which is the installation direction. This included thinking about how installation-y our piece was going to be, how much of an installation would it look like? It took us a few meetings to finally settle on something that we thinks works for the space.

Because FLOWERS is an interactive installation, tell us about what the required level of audience participation or interaction looks like for FLOWERS at the moment.

For this experience, the audience arrives at the front-of-house and receives a walkman and a journal. These items contain narratives belonging to certain people whose stories the audience will hear and read about as they enter and experience the space. The key thing about this experience is that it is heavily reliant on objects. For example when you enter the space, what do you see around you, and how do the two narratives inform your perception of these objects? I hope that these mundane, every day objects can be imbued with a certain meaning that show audiences how the concept of patriarchy might be found in our daily lives. The audience may respond in several ways. The first is a personal response, in which the audience member sees an object and forms a response towards it based on her or his personal experiences. The second way may be when an audience member responds to a fellow audience member interacting with an object. In this way, the piece itself allows for the generation of different meanings that each audience member can formulate based on their own experience in the space. For me, it is important that the experience itself affords space for chance and openness. Outside of this space however, we have something called a ‘Decompression Space’, in which audience members are invited, if they want, to start a conversation or share their experience. This will help us gauge how the audience can react and have reacted to my piece. This is also where I hope to provide a timeline that documents what certain individuals and organisations like AWARE have done to deal with these issues. In this way, the theme of patriarchy is extended from being manifest in a family unit, from where it may stem, to the larger society. Our piece carries no specific prescribed message, it just posits a question of how patriarchy has affected us in our every day lives, and what it has costed both the oppressor and the oppressed.

I find it interesting that your piece does not prescribe a certain answer to this question, because this is a question that cannot be answered in any specific way since experiences centered around the patriarchy manifests itself in so many different ways with different people. It’s great that your piece just puts the question out there and asks the audience to come and find what it means for them, or find the answers themselves.

Yes. And because of this, the one thing I have realised is the need for us to be as open and accessible as possible. I realised this especially from the conversation surrounding the #metoo movement — while there appears to be a lot of support for it, there is also a lot of rejection against it especially from people who identify as anti-feminists. We started to question ourselves: how do make sure that this thing encompasses rather than alienate? For example, in our team Darren is the only guy, so it has always been interesting for me to understand how these movements might look from a male perspective. My stand on the issue is that I do have a problem with the system, but I would also like to hear opinions of people who support this system or who do not have issues with it. It it the openness of dialogue that we are looking for. In this regard, we also asked ourselves if our work would merely be a case of us preaching to the choir. Are we opening up the conversation to people who actually really need to be part of it? These questions very heavily informed the decisions that we made in conceptualising the piece. how it relate to as many people as possible

Did anything impact you the most or surprise you as you did your research?

One thing that impacted me the most came from the conversations that I had with people about the topic. The different conversations I had dealt with different levels of severity of the trauma undergone by these people. These stories are important, but what moved me the most was how the people I spoke to shared how they tried to overcome their experiences and how they tried to overcome an and deal with it, that strength and resilience in people was very moving for me. They are trying to understand their experiences while trying dealing with it. I guess maybe that is why I always feel that in highlighting a certain issue, it is always important to think about how we can understand it while dealing with it. Most of the time we want to solve issues, but how much of the issue itself do we understand? What I’ve gathered is that a lot of the times people deal with both, concurrently. So maybe that ongoing struggle that we have is also part of going somewhere, of making some sort of progress. Maybe it’s always a continuous process.

FLOWERS is conceptualised and led by Drama Box’s Resident Artist Han Xuemei, and developed in collaboration with Jean Tay, Darren Ng and Lim Woan Wen.


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