By Vithya Subramaniam
(915 words, 4-minute read)
It begins with a provocation, asking if we can ‘change the way we make theatre in the future’. The concern here is in the way theatre is made, the process. While raising these questions might seem to suggest upending theatre as we know it, Offstage 3.0 presents a piece of theatre that still very much looks like theatre. Therein lies its efficacy.
Offstage 3.0 is the third in this long-term research and experimental project by Emergency Shelter—Emergency Stairs’ training and research platform. Led by director Liu Xiaoyi, this longue durée exploration seeks to understand and challenge the systems under which we make art. Reflecting those overarching systems, each step in the series progressively expands the scope of research. Offstage 1.0 (2018) questioned the demarcation of roles between those on and off stage. Offstage 2.0 (2019) continued the experiment with role-playing and role-changing, this time to question the distinction of process from product. Offstage 3.0 extends both these previous experiments to now question where value is placed in a performance. Eschewing the typical quantifiable measures, the production calls for centring value in the process of artistic development. But, whose artistic development?
As the piece unfolds, we hear iterations of ‘This is my choice’. ‘My’ is then replaced with various production roles and named state agencies, funders, theatre companies, etc. These proclamations lay bare the multiple hands behind each production. Similarly, each scene forefronts one of the various agents around a production—the producer; the artist; the audience; the state; the reviewer; the offstage. Each agent makes a choice. A choice to be involved, a choice that moves the piece, a choice to put up walls, a choice to circumvent. We hear an email from an IMDA officer read out from behind the curtains. The questions raised here, the clarifications requested, the expression of unhappiness, sound at first like niggling chokes on creativity, but these restrictions too create the product we see. Perhaps, the IMDA officer too develops their artistry with each email.
And yet at times, as the piece also repeats, ‘This is not my choice’. Funders’ requirements; bureaucratic boxes; floor markings; the literal rope holding back performer Sabrina Sng each time she sprints out—the piece reminds us that each agent, necessarily, erects their boundaries, while negotiating those put up by others. The stage manager–performer (Doreen Toh Kwee Kee) marks a box on the floor while working with the flowy fabric of another performer’s (Grace Lee Khoo) dress that keeps sticking to the tape. It is here, at the walls, where there is creation.
Boundaries limit, but they also make ways. When some members of the audience start applauding and cheering a latecomer, they find this liberty ultimately at the boundaries of ‘theatre’—the literal walls that enclose the NAFA Theatre Studio, and the temporal boundaries of the stage manager-performer’s audible “latecomers’ call” and the applause that first comes from the onstage performers. That the otherwise polite audience was so quick to transgress the constraints of theatre (and arguably, social) etiquette suggests that this agent too is bursting to co-create.
It is the theatrical form that best reveals itself, as this experiment well understands. From ticketing, to (distanced) seating in the audience seats; from its inclusion in a theatre festival, to the request to fill in feedback forms after; everything about this looks, feels, and ultimately is typical theatre. “Let’s question Stage on the stage, and provoke Theatre in the theatre” the experiment declares, and in so doing, cleverly recognises that the ‘lab’ itself lends best to the plain demonstration of its workings.
We see the creation of a performance space when the stage manager-performer goes through the motions of laying down tape and removing the larger rectangle of tape to mark out a smaller space. We see the greater space of the theatre, when the online ‘audience member’ (Chanel Chan, who remains engaging though she was mostly seen on screen) moves between the dressing room and the stage, and we see her surroundings through the open laptop left downstage. We hear about critique and frameworks from the ‘reviewer’ (Jasmine Xie) who delivers a monologue about not knowing how one writes a review. We see a performer (Chong Woon Yong) in an absurd fish mask knock up against the ‘walls’ of an imagined fish tank.
While fish may not break the walls of their tanks, it is precisely those walls that allow us to watch their performance. As the piece shows, it is precisely when they come up against those walls that the fish are most exciting to watch. The walls that make theatre are more giving, and may be breached by any of the multiple agents—like the few audience members who promptly exited at the announcement of ‘house doors open’ about 55 minutes in, and those who didn’t, each making their choice, developing their artistry, up against this ‘wall’. Those who stay on hear more about whose choice this is: This is Singapore’s choice. This is tomorrow’s choice. I question if staying is really my choice.
Offstage 3.0, the latest step in this longer experiment, does not yet give us a conclusion to whether we can ‘change the way we make theatre in the future’, but it does effectively put theatre on display through the staged format to demonstrate that much of the artistic process is offstage, shaped by multiple agents offstage and outside the theatre, who collectively set limits and raise the walls that make a stage Stage, and the theatre Theatre.
Offstage 3.0 by Emergency Shelter (Research and Training wing of Emergency Stairs) was presented as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021. It ran from 29-30 Jan at NAFA Studio Theatre, and is available on VOD from 1-7 Feb 2021.
Vithya Subramaniam is an anthropologist and playwright interested in the agency of objects and the materialities of being. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, UK, and member of Brown Voices, a collective of Singapore Indian playwrights.