Duration: 30 min
In this latest episode of our Fresh Blood podcast, Nabilah Said speaks to Singaporean theatremaker Rei Poh on the new collective Attempts, which focuses on creating theatrical experiences based on the principles of participatory theatre and gameplay. The new collective will be presenting its second work, Dating Sim (Beta), on 30-31 August at Late-Night Texting at Centre 42 in Singapore. Rei shares the reasons why he started the new collective, the importance of celebrating failures, and what inspires him as an artist.
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ArtsEquator (AE): Hello everyone and welcome to ArtsEquator’s Fresh Blood podcast where we spotlight new theatre groups and collectives in Singapore. My name is Nabilah Said and I’m the editor of ArtsEquator. I’m joined today by Rei Poh, an established actor, director and theatremaker in Singapore, game designer and lecturer. He’s also the founder of the brand new collective Attempts, a participatory theatre collective based in Singapore. The name “attempts” comes from their first production, titled Attempts: Singapore, staged as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018. And coming up next is their second production, Dating Sim (Beta) happening on the 30th and 31st August as part of Late-Night Texting at Centre 42 in Singapore. Hello Rei.
Rei Poh (RP): Hello. Wow that’s a lot of things. (laughs)
AE: Can you tell us about the origins story of Attempts? How did it come about? I know it started with your first show, Attempts: Singapore and the starting point for that was Martin Crimp’s play Attempts on Her Life (1997), right?
RP: That’s right.
AE: So tell us how did that come about and why that play?
RP: Okay, maybe just a little bit of background, because attempts, of course, it’s Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life. And also the word “attempts” just has a lot of meaning for me, right? I started off doing a lot of work with Drama Box who does a lot of community theatre. At the same time, they do forum theatre which was my first interaction with any kind of a participatory form of theatre or applied theatre. We started doing a lot of forum theatre, and we kind of evolved to a certain period of time where everybody in the company seemed to have departed from forum theatre and started doing other forms of interaction with the audience or the community.
When I went back to do my Masters, one of the first questions I asked myself was, what kind of work do I want to go into, right? I know I wanted to do participatory. I know I want to do interaction, but I needed to know in what way that was me. Two things came about during my study in Melbourne (Victorian College of the Arts), which is, first thing is, I came across this script called Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp. And this is such an amazing script, because it’s apparently a writing exercise that Martin Crimp started off writing.
AE: Oh I didn’t know that.
RP: Apparently. People say that, yeah. It’s a series of snippets of scenes where people attempt, or it’s like ABC, like there’s no…
AE: No character, names…
RP: There aren’t any characters at all. The lines are not assigned to anyone but these are just people talking about this woman called Anne and there are 17 scenarios and in each different scenario, they are talking about her in a very different way or they label her in a very different way. So that script itself has a lot of meaning to me. I’m going to talk about that a little bit later.
At the same time also I started looking at what kind of participatory work that I want to look into, and I started to look at video games because if I ask myself, what form of medium looks at audience and performance relationship the most, I suppose video game kind of comes up on the top or one of the few of the tops, other than board games and stuff like that, because they want to know what is your experience like, as you’re going through it. It’s all about the interaction.
I started looking at video games and board games and I looked into role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. I wanted and am interested to look at video games and what that means, right? So I started my journey there. Actually before Attempts: Singapore, there was Attempts: Melbourne.
RP: Which was my final year school production. What I did was, I looked at the script and went like what does it mean to me? And what do I want the audience to experience? And hence, Attempts: Melbourne came out along the way. It was just a long journey for me. I mean, since the start of the day when I joined Drama Box. Me trying and trying and trying… trying to find myself, I suppose, trying to find my art, trying to find my voice. And I suppose the word “attempts” pops out when I look at Attempts on Her Life. Be it somebody attempting to define who you are, or be it how you are trying to define who you are, right, through your successes or through your failures. Attempts is me knowing that I’ll just keep trying and trying and trying and to me that’s important, rather than having a lot of successful productions. To me it’s just constantly trying. I suppose I embrace that mentality.
Second of all, the script itself has a strong feminist element to it.
RP: Yes, a strong feminist element to it. And my partner, Zee (Wong) – she’s a dramaturg as well, she’s an actor and she is a feminist artist, so that influenced me a lot. Attempts felt like that point of life where I have a huge change in the direction of my art and my personality, and my person and how I view life, so that to me was significant too.
AE: That’s crazy because it’s the idea of a play changing your life, or affecting the course of your life. This is definitely an example of that. That’s really interesting. Can I just pick up on… since you’ve mentioned what “attempts” means, right, the name of your collective.
RP: That’s right.
AE: It seems like you’ve put a lot of thought into the name of it. I like what you said about failures because I know that you, when you talk about your CV recently or maybe in recent years, you have been talking about your CV in terms of a list of key… maybe key failures, instead of key achievements or successes. Which is very interesting. People don’t usually do that. People don’t highlight their failures. Why have you done that and has there been a shift in the way you think about failing and succeeding and how that ties in with Attempts?
RP: I think (there are) a couple of things here. First of all, the idea of a video game is this, right. Video games (are) based on failing, you know games are never based on… oh let’s try to get this, there’s an objective… but if you look at like, say, for example, very simply, Super Mario. Super Mario is based on where you fail, and learning from that experience of where you fail, like, you know, you run and then you jump and then all of a sudden there is this invisible block that appears and you’re like, oh now I hit that block. And then when you do it again, you know not to hit that block. So essentially a lot of video games – a lot of very good video games – is about giving you a very meaningful failure and learning from it.
My mentor – I have a mentor called Tassos (Stevens), and he’s from Coney HQ from UK London. He once told me that it’s okay to let your audience fail in doing what they are trying to do it within your game, but it needs to be meaningful. It needs to be like, oh my God, I failed but I learn so much more by failing that succeeding. Yes. To me, I think that’s interesting because theatre is like that, what? The whole idea of tragedy or the whole idea of not being able to have that happy ending right here.
AE: Achieve your goals…
RP: Yeah, that you learn something through it. To me, I think that’s interesting. Second of all, it’s also like, you know, me trying to be a little bit more kind and generous to myself, which I kind of find, as a Singaporean Chinese especially, you know, you’re very hard on yourself. You know, you have to be perfect. You have to be like… achieving something by what age.
AE: The model citizen, student, worker…
RP: I just realised that I just don’t have that many things to grab on and go like “I’m really good at this”, but I’m very good at looking at myself and go like “I failed at this”, right, and go like “hey look, I tried this and this and this and I just didn’t make it”. Which I’m kind of embracing right now. Sometimes there’s just a better story to tell at failing, then at succeeding.
AE: I like that because especially as a collective based in Singapore – in Singapore, success is so much, you know, very prized. So turning the conversation around to focus on failing and learning from failures, I feel is very meaningful and it makes sense why you would be doing this kind of work here. Can you tell us about your first production Attempts: Singapore? What was that experience like, putting that show together?
RP: As you know, I mentioned that I did Attempts: Melbourne before and I got a bunch of actors and they came in and it was just me in the dark trying to figure out what happens, right. And I had a lot of anxiety while doing the Melbourne one. But at the end of the day, it was kind of a success because audience came in, they were like oh my God, this is so interesting. This is not something that (people) generally have been to, especially in a smaller scale in Melbourne. Because every show had only 20 to 22 people. It’s easier to have a very good response from a small group of people than to have like 200 and there’s someone who doesn’t like your play.
AE: Can you first tell us about Attempts, the show, what was it about?
RP: Yeah. So Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life is the whole idea of (people) trying to define who this person Anne is, and so I was really interested in how we look at this woman, and we attempt to label this woman. Basically the show is a little bit more about the male gaze right, be it what gender you have. What kind of gaze are you applying on this person? How do you define this person? It was my quest to defeat the patriarchy, whatever that means, because I realised it resides in me. At the same time it was my artistic value, my personal value, at the same time it is also me exploring my own patriarchy that resides in me. You know, how I look at women. How I (as a theatremaker) go like, oh, I want to put this underwear as an art to, you know, comment about sex.
AE: And questioning that. Why do you think in that way.
RP: And artists do that. And I realise, I do that too, right? “Oh, I’m going to have this man stab this woman, so it creates an image in theatre”. But you know essentially what you’re doing is you’re objectifying women and I (used to) do that a lot in my past.
AE: Without realising.
RP: Without realising. I think it was my conquest to kind of look at it and go “no”. What we got the audience to do, is to go through a narrative that they… there’s this huge company, a conglomerate called ARC, and they have an AI, which is a combination of algorithms and data and this AI is called J.O.A.N. It’s a little bit of play on Joan of Arc, right? Okay. So this AI…
AE: Oh, Joan of Arc. I just got it. (laughs)
RP: Yeah (laughs). Okay. So J.O.A.N. is an AI that serves the company but all of a sudden they find that there is this mysterious database, bank, in this AI system and they don’t know what it is. They only know that it contains memories about this woman called Anne. We built two rooms where each room consists of three different identities of Anne, and then the audience is supposed to come in and try to figure out, looking at environmental storytelling – which are the items in the environment that tells a story of this singular identity – to try to attempt to profile who she is.
So the experience is trying to guess who she is. Do you look at a bookshelf filled with philosophical books and identify her as a philosopher? Or do you look at her… like a camera with her dildos on the bed and you identify her as a cam sex worker? Obviously most people chose the latter, right? It’s much easier. Because then we realise that the male gaze resides in storytelling as well. What we perceive to be an exciting story versus how we identify this person. To me, I think that was interesting.
Along the way, halfway through, the AI, through your information that you’re giving about this person, starts to come alive. At the end of the day, the audiences got to choose whether they want to shut down the AI and let the conglomerate continue running, or they want to let the AI take over. So kind of like that choice. It’s also my way of – do we want to hand over our power… for a better future, whatever that means.
AE: Definitely the audience were architects of what happens in the end, or what happens in the story. Is that something that you are trying to do with your work – like putting the audience’s experience front and centre and giving them power – is that a thing that you’re focusing on?
RP: I think what I’m doing is I’m providing them with an experience where they can kind of choose, right? Okay. So agency is a very funny thing, because agency… there’s no true agency in life.
AE: Okay… (laughs)
RP: At least in a video game. There’s no true agency, right? There’s no true freedom. So what we perceive as freedom is often false and to me it’s to curate that experience where you can have your own individual unique experience that’s something that you come up with. But also at the same time understand that it is still a piece of theatre that you watch right? It’s not like, I put a sand in a box and you build whatever you want with the sand. By putting sand in a box, you’re already determining what this person is building, at least with the materials.
RP: I think that’s what I’m trying to get at. Which is to tell a story in a different way and a way that you will learn and perceive by yourself.
AE: Okay, it’s interesting that you said there’s no true agency in terms of things like in a game because when I was thinking about game design – not that I’m very conversant with game culture or writing for games – but I was thinking of the idea of the grand designer designing the game. And I didn’t think about it in that respect where there are already these limitations in place, conditions in place. And you are in a way free to do some things but yes, they’ve been preset – how you do it might be preset by someone, something. So that’s very interesting in terms of power structures, dynamics.
RP: Yeah, isn’t it?
AE: So, do you play a lot of games?
RP: The bad thing about doing full-time work now – because I’m full-time teaching – is that you have less time for games. And people when they look at games, they think like, oh you’re just having fun, you’re not doing real work, right. But I used to game a lot. I’m trying to game more. I’m also a little bit going away from video games and little bit more to board games. I mean, they are correlated, but it’s also me just trying to see what other things I can learn.
AE: Right, okay. Let’s move on to your second production that’s coming up very soon. It is called Dating Sim (Beta). Dating Sim (Beta) is a 30-minute participatory theatrical experience that takes the form of an interactive dating simulation game come to life, allowing the audience a closer examination of their agency – which we just talked about – and prejudices in modern dating and relationships. Already I’m seeing some common threads between what you’ve talked about with your first production as well. Maybe let’s start with why dating and dating simulation.
RP: I mean, it’s always personal at first. It’s always me trying to break down whatever is inside me. And also I think this is one of the responses I had to what happened to Monica Baey (and the Peeping Tom case in NUS). It started a little bit more with the #MeToo movement. But then the Monica Baey thing kind of propelled it in that sense, because I’ve always felt like I had a very toxic way of looking at dating and relationships. So a very good example, is this right – when you are first dating someone, what needs to happen in order for a kiss to happen, right? Do you asked for it? Do you just go for it? Do you… what are clues or signs or gestures that you can tell from whether a kiss is allowed or not. Right? I asked this question to a lot to men and women and all of them, surprisingly, sometimes even from women, “oh don’t ask, you’ll just spoil the mood”.
AE: “Go for it”.
RP: “Just go for it”, right? I’m like, oh my God, that’s problematic to me because how then do you tell if this person wants it or not? Because you’re relying on something so unreliable such as tells. I always thought that if someone is… if you’re talking to someone and you’re very close to that person and if that girl, especially, is looking at your lips while they are talking to you…
AE: Oh yah, that’s what they say, to look for.
RP: Then you’re like, oh she wants to kiss you. And I think that’s really, really dangerous too. So perhaps it’s my way of re-examining how I see and perceive relationships and how toxic masculinity or the patriarchy or how we view gender roles affect in our way of “I need to sweep you off your feet”, while dating.
AE: In terms of Dating Sim, is that what the audience is doing? Have you broken down these very classic elements of dating and things that happen in a date and then get the audience to decide “is this the right time to kiss”? Have you broken it down into almost like micro decisions that we may not think about? How have you structured the whole thing?
RP: First of all, it’s just a disclaimer for everyone, it is not going to be 30 minutes (long). And I’ll explain why. Dating Sim actually is a genre of game that started in Japan, and essentially the storyline of a dating simulation is often about one guy trying to date a collection of women.
AE: That’s already problematic.
RP: Yeah in itself it’s very problematic and you do realise that parents will tell boys, sons, “hey keep your options open, date more girls and then you will know how it is”. But when (it’s) a girl, you’ll go like “keep your virginity, and don’t go around dating so many people because you will seem like a…
AE: “A loose… woman”.
RP: “A loose woman”, whatever that means. And so the game itself does that right? What it does is that you have to remember this person’s birthday, where this person likes to hang out, and then when you talk to them, you have to choose between (options) A and B and C and then you have to choose the right thing. If you say the right things, she will be happy. And she will laugh. As if there is a formula to it. And coincidentally, even though this genre came out, I think, in the very early days of video games, which is like early ’80s, right now we still have the perception that there is a certain formula to dating – you do this, and this person will react in this way.
The game takes on this very classic way of, almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure-ish, kind of model, where you think you are choosing the right thing to say. For me it’s more of trying to have this gist of A & B – How do I choose? Am I conscious of what I’m choosing? And also the protagonist, the person that you’re playing, whatever you choose for this person, is it with the similar mindset that you have started with?
AE: So basically in Dating Sim, what is the objective of it? Is the audience helping to make the decisions for, I’m guessing, a man, is that right?
AE: What are they meant to do?
RP: Okay, so ARC is back. This is kind of like a prelude. There’s a fictional world, and it is a prelude to Attempts: Singapore, the first show that we did. ARC the conglomerate is devising an app or a system, which is part of J.O.A.N., to kind of predict and help people to date better. That means, rather than we go on embarrassing dates and stuff like that, I give you a formula and… I match you with someone that is a 100% match. Right? I mean, this is the thing that we talk about, classic Tinder, and we wish Tinder could give us 100% matches, so we know exactly who we want to date.
It’s kind of like that, and the way they collect the data… they’re trying to build this app. And in order to build this app, you need to collect that data and the way to collect the data is to get the audience to go through a simulation to understand what their choices are and what their preferences are. They will have to choose between two women. One of them is called Moon. The other is called Kaoru.
AE: Okay, what’s with these names?
RP: Kaoru is a bit of a homage to Japanese dating simulation games, you know, and there’s kind of an exoticising of these kinds of characters having that kind of names. And Moon is more of a generic kind of way to look at… basically, it’s a fantasy of this protagonist.
AE: Right. I am guessing it’ll make sense as part of the game, when people go for the show.
RP: Yah. So why it’s not 30 minutes is because there are so many segues. It’s kind of like a tree branching out. So the more I write, the more branches there are. And so, I mean I ended up writing to almost 100 pages for a 30-minute performance and sometimes it can go for 30 minutes, 35 minutes. Sometimes it goes to 45 minutes. So I will never know.
AE: You’ll never know until the audience is in the room and they make all the decisions, which they make on a collective basis?
RP: Yes, they do that by voting.
AE: Right, that’s very interesting as well. Like you said, true agency is hard to find, right?
AE: I like that dynamic as well, I’m looking forward to it. In terms of Late-Night Texting which Dating Sim is one of the programmes for, and that’s happening at Centre 42, why is it in this programme? And why do you think this platform is suitable for it?
RP: My relationship with Centre 42 has always been really good. I’m really appreciative of what they’re doing, especially when you’re trying to do work that relates to text. And of course, I have my own agenda. My agenda is to look at participatory works and go like, if I want to write a piece of text or I want to write a script for a participatory piece of theatre, how do I go into it? I suppose my aim is to really look at how to write a piece of work, or to adapt an existing piece of work of theatre, and then making it participatory. I’m still a bit interested in using existing theatre pieces and then converting it into a piece of a participatory work.
Right now Dating Sim is one of those smaller projects that I could do or not… I could work on my own, just to constantly churn up… to constantly work on something, but eventually I do want to work on things like… (Tan) Tarn How wrote a play called Undercover (1994), right? Before it was Undercover, it was a play called Acts. And I want to make it into a participatory experience. So my work also lies with trying to convert, adapt… proper plays. Proper plays?
AE: Existing plays?
RP: Existing plays into participatory work.
AE: That might give us a taste of what’s going to happen in the future with Attempts.
RP: Yes, definitely.
AE: That’s very exciting, thank you for that. Dating Sim takes place on 30th and 31st August as I mentioned as part of Late-Night Texting at Centre 42. The performance is free, which is awesome, but admission is first-come-first-served.
RP: So you have to queue.
AE: I’m guessing that it’s going to be exciting for your show, because people will really want to be part of it – it’s interactive, it’s exciting. More information can be found on Centre 42’s website. But also if you want to know more about the collective Attempts, Rei’s collective, you can go to….
AE: Thank you so much and thanks for joining us, Rei, and telling us more about your work.
RP: No problem, I had a lot of fun.
AE: Thank you.
Dating Sim (Beta) takes place as part of Late-Night Texting by Centre 42, which runs from 30-31 August 2019. Admission to all programmes is free, on a first-come-first-served basis. To find out how to skip the queue, click here.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.