[Review] A Conversation about Being Physically Present in #THEATRE

10 Feb 2021
Article by Cheryl Tan, Max Yam & Sam Kee
Photos by Crispian Chan

INDEX, a design collective comprising Lim Wei Ling (spatial designer), Lim Woan Wen (lighting designer) and Darren Ng (sound artist/music composer), presented #THEATRE at the Esplanade Theatre from 14 to 17 Jan 2021. An Esplanade commission and part of The Studios series, #THEATRE invited the audience to have a conversation with the theatre space as it is.

After the show, we invited Cheryl Tan, a young artist and reviewer, to have an online conversation with us, to share our observations and thoughts. We caught the preview on 13 Jan, whereas Cheryl attended the 8pm show on 17 Jan. The online conversation took place on Google Docs between 19 Jan and 10 Feb 2021.


The show seems to be such an apt piece during this period as we gradually restart our routine of going to the theatre again after a long period of closure. As I stare at every feature of the stage during the show, I wonder, “Do I really miss theatre?” 

How about you? Do you miss theatre?

Hello Max and Sam! I absolutely miss theatre. Not even a question. I need it like a fish needs water. I haven’t been to a show in ages and this was my second show since forever ago (the first being W!LD RICE’s restaging of An Actress Prepares earlier this year).

I don't miss theatre, I realise, but after the long hiatus and not enjoying all the digital presentation, I've become more precious with my time to catch the shows I really want to watch… 

Yes. I really love that we’ve all continued to make theatre digitally during the circuit breaker especially — it really speaks volumes about the tenacity of the arts scene — but the digitalisation of theatre really didn’t sit well with me either. I did try to catch panels, pre-recorded shows, live zoom performances though, but most of the time I spent entire days extremely upset with myself for not being able to adapt to the digital medium as well as everyone else seemed to be doing. Besides having to consider money and slightly raised (?) ticket prices due to the need to account for audience restrictions and fewer tickets sold, I’ve also been really precious with the shows I catch too.

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I entered #THEATRE half-guessing there might be as little movement as possible, slow induction back to theatre/performing arts/installation, I looked forward to clever light designs showing me the “backstage” of hidden crooks of the audience seats... but I didn't expect that we'd be fixed at a cushion pouf all the time (unlike the fun playground-like installation they last set up outside Centre 42...)

Oh I didn’t manage to catch that one! Can you tell us more about the Centre 42 installation? I entered not really expecting anything except that we’d be sitting on stage, but that’s information that I had already gotten from the programme booklet. Prior to this production I had only seen photos of INDEX’s installation at Centre 42 and it looked like such a beautiful experience so I had been waiting for their next collective work.

I remembered the corners and how the structures and installations were like, but barely remembered the title of the installation. (Backtracked and found: The Room That Grew Buoyant, Little By Little.) The structures kinda took over various corners in front/ inside of Centre 42. There was a total darkness room where we were led in, and had to feel our way around for bean bags on the floor to rest/lie on, and listen to soothing sounds (like a cleansing ritual). Then outside at the foyer, there were metal structures with steps to climb, woven “swings/chairs” to sit on, a bathtub with shower head and really had water coming out of it, etc. It was fun. It showed me how reflexivity could also be done in a “fun” way, in a restful way.

I have never performed on the Esplanade Theatre stage but it has always been a dream of mine to do so. I knew we would be led onstage but I think I knew it only in theory and was absolutely not prepared for the rush and overwhelm of emotion that came flooding in the moment I realised, “Oh my god, we’re in the theatre. I’m in the theatre. I’m on this stage.” So the experience for me started right there and then — I started crying just walking in. 

Also, yes. I found the cushions quite annoying, to be honest. I sat on them and before the show had started and by the time the lights dimmed I found myself having slid off the cushions onto the floor hoping it would be okay and not a serious breach of social distancing measures. I came fairly early to the show and planted myself centrestage, and looking around at the vastitude of the theatre space around me it simply didn’t feel right to sit on a cushion. In rehearsals we sit on blackbox floors, have script-reads and discussions and feedback on that black dance floor, tracing the floor with our fingers and bare feet, sometimes sitting on the uncushioned floor until our butts hurt. And I wanted to experience all that again. So I secretly sat on the floor for the entirety of the performance. Which was actually a brilliant thing because that meant I could turn around and look at the changing lights and space without the disturbance of velcro noises on the underside of the cushions.

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I did enjoy the lighting up of the red pipelines that helped to guide our viewing from the left to right, clockwise round the stage to appreciate the depth and industrial design but I was sad that the experience seemed a bit slighted by some noisy seasoned performers before the show began... so I think a little meditative magic was dispelled.

The same thing happened in my show! There were seasoned performers I must admit I was a little *too* excited to have seen, but there was also a lot of chatter and glare of mobile phone lights and I just wanted to sit in silence in the space and emotionally and mentally prepare myself to receive whatever the piece and the space had to give to me. Having also watched the artist talk by the members of INDEX — Woan Wen, Wei Ling, and Darren (all practitioners and artists whose works I absolutely admire to no fathomable end) — I realise they spoke at length about their creation process too and how they simply saw themselves as mediums for the space. In conceptualising and realising this production they had to allow themselves to receive “messages”, abstractions, or possibilities that the space was offering them. Like all art installations or exhibition experiences, I think this piece also really needed its audiences to clear their mental slates in order to receive. As actors we’re always told to “leave our egos outside the door” in order to bring our best to the table when we’re in rehearsals. In the same vein I believe that sometimes we simply have to clear our mental slates and leave everything outside to let ourselves receive what theatre and/or art has to offer us. The former is about what we as practitioners and artists can offer Art, and the latter — well, I think it’s definitely worth remembering that Art itself, in its various forms and disciplines, often has a lot more to give us than we to it, if only we’re willing and open enough to receive.

How did you find the production, Sam?

Although we were “slapped” with a lot of rules (Was there 8 no-no's?? Except that you can lie down. Haha.) by the usher the moment we sat down on our own pouf, it kinda paid off eventually (luckily). I think the descending flybars must be an easy favourite for everyone? I was awed by the lines of shadows that danced the vertical height before the flybars came in my face. I liked that the precision of the machinery is accentuated by how close the bars could be, forming a roof(?)/blanket(?) above. (Strangely I did not feel claustrophobic.) The bars felt firm but also felt light (hmm why ah?). I also noticed the importance of the lack of wind (or any other disturbance factors) that was necessary to make sure everything run like clockwork. The sound of the bars descending worked like a lull, and I only really enjoyed the experience from that point. But it was already ending. Haha.

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And I guess I'm still allergic to instructions like “You are allowed to take pictures at the end” that made me quite averse to actually taking any nice photos (sigh). Made worse by everyone whipping out their phones at the same time and sounds of DSLRs clicking away... I just wanted to sit there in silence for 10 minutes and stare at the red seat for a while... you know like the last shivasana you do at the end of a yoga routine… but I was quickly ushered away. Haha.

Ya, I was kind of put-off by the “rules” too. Or by the way they were conveyed to the audience. But, perhaps, rules are things that construct the theatre too? Then I think I don’t miss this part of theatre - the hard rules!

The “hardness” of the rules leads me to think about the “hardness” of the structure and machinery of the stage. There is a certain beauty in this hardness. Perhaps it triggered me to think about or imagine all the “softness” it has created and will be creating in the future.

I don’t remember receiving any rules, actually. I think I must have, but I was probably tuning everything out trying to dry my whole face of tears when I had entered the space hahaha. I agree that the descending flybars part was probably everyone’s favourite. It was honestly visually stunning and I kept lying down and sitting up and lying down and sitting up to see how that would change my experience and how it would make me feel. Sitting up I wanted to reach up and touch them, hang on, and then ascend with them (I love heights and dangerous situations okay stop judging), and while lying down I wondered what would happen if I got squished by a falling flybar and died. I panicked a little then concluded that I would be okay because at least I’d die in the theatre. That would be ideal for me but rather messy for the crew, methinks.

Did you guys like the “theatre silence” that started the experience? In real life, I am ever rarely comfortable with silences, especially if those silences are ones that I find myself encountering alone. Shared silence is okay for me, ironically. But I am still learning to be comfortable with silences I experience alone. I am so used to the hustle and the hurry and the moment there is silence or lack of noise — emotionally, mentally, aurally — I begin to panic and fear that it’s my mind descending into a dark place again. I really appreciated how the show started with a moment of darkness, and we were all enveloped in Darren’s “theatre silence”. There’s something I absolutely love about silence that someone makes for you. It does not occur naturally. It comes from one of the many artists you entrust your heart and soul to for the duration of the show. It wrapped me like a blanket, and I felt safe. I must admit though, that when I attend shows the first thing I notice are the sounds of the performance space — whether it’s a shuffling noisy audience, a specially curated playlist for house music, or a composition made by the sound artist or designer. I love that this show plunged us into darkness right at the start, and, with all visual capabilities wrested from us, offered us all a moment to just listen and just Be.

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Thanks for bringing up the issue of “silence”, as the aural experience is another significant part of this work. I feel the “silence” in the beginning created the moment when the theatre “just opens her eyes when she wakes up in the morning”. Coupled with the slow fading-in-and-out of the lights, the theatre was “waking up and beginning to make sense of the surrounding (including us)”. The theatre was “warming up”. I think what the work did was giving “life” to the lifeless structure of the theatre or stage. The lighting and the movement of the machinery was the theatre “flexing her muscles and joints”. The faint sound was the sound of “breathing” and “blood flowing through the veins”. The theatre became a being that breathed and moved. And, as she woke up, and opened the curtain, she was trying to tell us that she was ready for action.

Actually! I took a very different approach to it. I saw it the other way round — the work not having given life to the theatre but the theatre having given life to the work. The theatre gives, the artists receive and channel that to audiences. I think sometimes spaces like these awaken way before we do, and we must do our best to meet them on their level.

When I recall my experience at The Room That Grew Buoyant, Little By Little, which both of you mentioned earlier on, I realise that the blue house was brought to life too. The installation transformed the building and the compound into another being, one that existed harmoniously with the natural environment - plants, wind, water, light… Or, was it the nature that created this being?

I am also reminded by the synopsis of #THEATRE that this work is a conversation between INDEX and the Esplanade Theatre. I wonder, how would the conversation between the theatre and myself be? What would I want to say to the theatre? What would you want to say to the theatre?

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What would it be, for the both of you?

I don’t think I have much to say to the theatre except thank you. Thank you for holding me all these years, for saving me in more ways anyone would ever understand. I don’t have enough to say to the theatre I think, because I have much to learn yet and my journey has been a wonderful one but I still feel like it has only just begun. I’m at a point in my life in which I am instead desperate to know what the theatre has to say to me. What does it ask of me? And what am I able to offer it, and to my audiences? Will it be enough? Will it ever be enough? That’s what this show was about for me — to stop trying to put my voice and assumptions about what the theatre asks of me and instead pause and listen. I am beginning to realise the spaces and the art I love speaks in ways sometimes language fails to articulate. Language cannot do everything. And it is in these silences and the moments between that art and theatre communicate to me.

I think instead of saying something to theatre, I'd say to myself to be patient for beautiful things to happen. Maybe, and hopefully, the magic doesn't go away so soon.

I thought very hard about this question, and I really couldn’t find an answer. I feel I have not understood enough to begin a conversation with the theatre. The 45-minute experience was merely a start. I hope I’ll have another chance in the near future to be with the theatre again to know her more.

Or perhaps it’s not about a conversation with the theatre. Maybe it’s about one with myself. What do I want to say to the “theatregoer me”? What do I want to say to the “reviewer me”? And I probably will say that we are still living in uncertain times, and I must keep an open mind for what constitutes a theatrical experience which we all love and care so much about. As I “return” to the theatre, I should not pretend that nothing has happened, or things are back to normal, and there must be something that the hiatus, or the “emptiness”, is telling us. I’m ready to go on a search for that.



Date: 14 - 17 Jan 2021
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Stage
More about the show →


    Theatre 14 - 17 Jan 2021 The Esplanade Theatre, as it is. A room on its own. A room of its own. #THEATRE is a site-specific...
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