The following roundtable discussion was held as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Reviewing Training Programme. Particpants Teo Dawn, Ezekiel Oliveira, Isaac Lim, Patricia Tobin, and Richard Chung discussed Displaced by Ground Cover Theatre, staged at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2018. The play examined the migrant experience through the lives of three women from different backgrounds, countries, and time periods, fleeing famine and war.
This roundtable discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lyn Gardner: Displaced is a show about three women, all immigrants to Canada, who arrive in the country between 1847 and 2007. Do you think this entwining of three disparate stories works?
Ezekiel Oliveira: These three different stories have in common a desire to move away from sad circumstances to a new but unknown future. This desire for something better [is woven] through the story from the beginning. The differences [between] the women really added to my curiosity. I wanted to find out what happened next.
Lyn: But aren’t they archetypes to a certain degree: the Irish woman fleeing the potato famine who becomes a lush, the German refugee who becomes a business woman, the Afghan woman escaping forced marriage?
Patricia Tobin: To a certain degree, yes, but I don’t think it necessarily weakened the narrative, or how we felt for the characters. Each of their historical backgrounds and contexts are familiar to us, and it allows for a window or an opportunity for us to connect with them on a very human level.
Kathy Rowland: The stories, or the staging: which aspect of the production stayed with you the most?
Teo Dawn: I will say that the staging is what impressed me, more than the stories themselves. The stories are very prevalent in the news we get every day, but the way they choreographed movements and used gestures is [what] caught my attention.
Pat: The stories stayed with me the most. To me, having a human connection across the three narrative threads was very moving. It’s effective in showing that no matter the time, it is very natural for humans to seek for a new home. Also, the staging – some of it was a bit clumsy. The number of times they rotated the table in the first five minutes!
Lyn: So do you think there was a conflict between what the text was doing and what the gestures or movement was doing?
Ezekiel: The choreography of the tables and indeed the gestures have a very different aesthetic from the [rest of the] production. It doesn’t look like they were developed for one another.
Dawn: I don’t actually feel that those points were important, but more for them to show some clarity [between] the different time periods with their prop use. So some movements were more show-and-tell than necessary. For a heavy piece of text, everything is done in a very refined and polished manner. It does not come across as raw emotion […] it comes across as more beautiful in that sense.
Lyn: To some degree, this is a show that gives a very positive spin on the immigrant experience. It reassures the audience that immigrants are either like poor Mary and will come to a bad end or like Sophia and will eventually make it good: is it realistic?
Isaac Lim: Ultimately, the three stories developed to be rather predictable, for me at least. It is structured to make you feel for the characters, and think of the ‘crisis’ in a particular way.
Ezekiel: I find it difficult to connect it to the migration that is happening today in the world. It is not realistic, in response to Lyn. It’s a story, a rather beautiful one, and I can connect to the characters on an emotional level, but they don’t make me think of current affairs as much as I thought I would. The numbers and success stories are very disproportionate to reality.
Pat: I do feel a connection too, but as Lyn mentioned, what about the current refugee crisis? The global refugee crisis is a complex myriad of problems entrenched in an outdated bureaucratic system and navigating diplomatic relations – we see it briefly when the Afghan woman has to fill in a form – it’s a system that is cold and heartless. These very human stories – how will these survive in a system that thinks nothing of them?
Richard Chung: I absolutely agree with Pat. I don’t think it exactly replicates the current crisis in the world. It’s not a very precise script in [reflecting] what is happening today, but I felt it was beautifully put together. And to have the actors evoke those emotions on stage. It’s heartwarming.
Lyn: But is it enough for a show like this to be beautifully put together? Isn’t there an argument that because it is beautifully put together, it is quite dulling? It makes us feel better watching it, and so we leave the theatre having connected with these characters and congratulating ourselves on our humanity. But it doesn’t actually change anything or make us act. What is the function of theatre and a piece like this?
Dawn: I think as audience members we sit too comfortably in the theatre with such a refined piece of work. We are not driven to discomfort or to actively think about the message they are trying to say.
Richard: Yes I agree with that. We are just too comfortable. I just think this piece is about hope, and a nice story.
Pat: So, what do you expect – for them to have a donation box outside the theatre? I don’t know, I really admire their sincere efforts in wanting this story to be told. Theatre can be effective, it can move people, but in this case, if we felt so strongly against it, maybe we should have just joined a protest, or signed up to volunteer at a refugee camp?
Lyn: Certainly one of the functions of theatre is that it makes us feel empathy and allows us to experience, if only for 90 minutes, what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. But again I wonder whether the people who go see this show are likely to be the people who feel, or can afford to feel, empathy anyway. So does it change anything, and if it doesn’t, then what is the point of theatre?
Isaac: It is then up to the individual to decide what he or she wants to take away from the show. For many of the students at the performance, hopefully the stories will supplement what they learn in their textbooks. For me, it shows me that the refugees out there I see on the news, be it the Rohingyas or otherwise, are real.
Pat: To me, the point of theatre is to develop a better understanding of the human condition. The emotional connection doesn’t make it any less effective, and I feel we can’t reprimand a piece for tackling a social issue and then deem it less effective if it doesn’t cause social change.
Dawn: I agree with you Pat. I am also curious [as to] why they didn’t cast an Afghan actress for the role of Dara.
Ezekiel: I don’t think nationality is important for the role, but the skills they have to portray exactly that.
Lyn: But it is an interesting point and does raises issues around who has the right to tell which stories.
Pat: It could be a case of colourblind casting, but that could also be a lazy excuse. To Lyn’s question, I think it could be restrictive if we insist that only certain people can tell certain stories. But do we have to draw a line somewhere?
Ezekiel: If we are also talking about social change and impact, a line can be drawn. But let us not forget this is only a piece of theatre.
Isaac: They created this performance for the community back in Canada so that it might have the effects of applied drama or playback theatre for the audience who may have similar experiences. But outside of that community, the question of who has the right to tell these stories does appear a bit murky.
Dawn: Why do you think theatre should be held to different standards in terms of representation? And is that because of the intention behind the work…?
Pat: This reminds me of a white American writer, Dave Eggers – he frequently writes in the first person [about the] first-hand experiences of a real-life Sudanese refugee or a Muslim person who was a victim of Hurricane Katrina – this, too, was seen as controversial.
Lyn: Can I ask another question around representation? These three characters are all women and the play has a highly idealised portrait of female friendship. The way Mary dies in Bridget’s arms, the way the displaced Dara makes friends with the homeless Lesley. Something else I noticed was also how these women all came with no strings attached, i.e. they were without children and families.
Richard: I think they brought with them a story rather than baggage. One was talking about her mum, one had a child die, and one whose husband is no more. In response to Isaac, yes, absolutely right. This [was first] staged in Canada, and they have many refugees or people who have moved over. I just feel that it resonates deeply in different parts of the world.
Lyn: Baggage?! But that is interesting, regarding the fact it was made for a Canadian context and a country made up of migrants. But that raises questions around context. So does the show mean something different when staged in Canada than when it parachutes into the Singapore Fringe?
Ezekiel: I think the play is limited in its context, because it looks into what happens to the three women, but we have little knowledge of the impact in the communities they visit and inhabit. I wish the context of the ‘others’ was more visible.
Pat: You could argue that Singapore is also a country that is made of migrants, but our cultural narrative is so strong that we’ve dismissed that entirely, I feel. I think it becomes a wider societal issue on how Singaporeans reflect on theatre.
Displaced by Ground Cover Theatre was conceptualised in 2015 and had its Asian premiere at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018, where it ran from 26 – 28 January at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
This roundtable was convened as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an Initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.