Duration: 21 min
In our latest episode of our Fresh Blood podcast, Nabilah Said speaks to Lee Shu Yu and Eugene Koh of Spacebar Theatre about their latest production, The Utama Spaceship, which imagines what happens when Singaporeans are sent into outer space to chope, or ehem, colonise a planet in the nearest star system.
The play runs from 14 to 15 January 2020 at NAFA Studio Theatre, presented by the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets are sold out.
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ArtsEquator (AE): Hi, this is Nabilah from ArtsEquator and we’re currently doing the Fresh Blood podcast. I have with me Lee Shu Yu and Eugene Koh, who are both the conceptualisers, the writers, the performers, for an upcoming show called The Utama Spaceship, which is going to be on at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival on 14 and 15 January. Hi Shu. Hi Eugene.
Lee Shu Yu (SY)/Eugene Koh (EK): Hello.
AE: Can we start by telling us what your role in the production is?
SY: Okay. Eugene and I are both the creators as well as the performers of The Utama Spaceship.
EK: We wrote the script. We are also acting in the performance itself.
SY: We devised the sequence.
EK: We did the research behind it as well. So yeah.
AE: You guys did almost everything.
EK: The creative brains, a bit of the production brains as well. But yeah, that’s our role in this.
AE: And you both are also part of Spacebar Theatre.
AE: Which some people might not know about, right? Can you introduce what Spacebar Theatre is?
EK: Spacebar Theatre is…
SY: Spacebar Theatre is a… name that we like to call ourselves because we’ve been creating work for the past, I think two years or three years, and we were like, “Hey, this is working. So let’s put a name to it. And let’s kind of hone our angle, our direction in terms of the work that we’re putting out.”
EK: We found a common thread, some sort of a thematic thread through our three plays and we realised that we like to look at intersections between technology and legends. Yeah. Our first production that we worked on together was called Kalakuta: The Time Puzzle. And we looked at a nuclear devastation in the city. Yeah. And we paralleled it to a Hindu myth where the god Shiva drank the poison that was about to destroy all of creation. That is our first starting point. Our next production was This is Emerald Girl which was presented at Centre 42, The Vault.
AE: Last year?
EK: Last year, and the year before.
SY: Yes. And the year before. So the year before was Vault, and last year was Late-Night Texting.
EK: We looked at how the legendary text of Emily of Emerald Hill fits very well with current social media personalities. We decided to merge those two together and see what we could come up with. Yeah, and This is Emerald Girl is what we come up with.
SY: So I guess you could say that for Spacebar Theatre, the works came first. And then we decided, hey, there’s a common thread, there’s a common identity. Let’s put that to the name. Let’s figure out a name. Let’s come up with the vision. And let’s do a show called The Utama Spaceship at the start of 2019.
SY: So yeah, that’s how space by theatre came about. And also we are very interested in looking at new methods of creating work. Maybe not just starting from a writerly point of view, or starting from a dialogue or a script. But thinking about ways we can toss it up. We can start with piecing things out in a dramaturgical fashion, maybe almost starting from musical scores, in that sense.
AE: I’m a bit confused, so maybe you can clarify. I read that the starting point was, you wanted to create a performance score or a performance from a score, which is interesting.
AE: But then there’s also this comic that you both wrote. So how does that come together?
EK: So there’s this comic that Shu created, and it was a performance score. And the title of the comic was…
SY: Imagine You Are A Spaceship, basically. So I drew that comic because I was in a workshop session with Dr. Daniela Hahn. And she was doing this workshop to show us that you know, performance can start from any point. It can start with a picture. It can start with words, just stray words. A performance score can be anything that is not dialogue, because then that becomes a script. She challenged us to devise a starting point. And she said, use the everyday to inspire you. So I was thinking, what could be more different from the everyday right? I decided as a challenge to my fellow workshop participants to imagine themselves as a spaceship. Yeah.
EK: This spaceship was hurtling into space at great speed.
SY: And then it falls over.
EK: Very clumsily.
SY: As humans do, right? And then I showed this comic to Eugene, and then he responded with his own image.
EK: And I saw this and I looked at it and said, “Okay, so imagine on this distant planet, say, the sands were as white as cotton and then the door of the spaceship opens and out comes Sang Nila Utama”. Yeah. So those were the two images we had. And we had those images in 2017, I believe.
SY: Yeah. And then we let that simmer. And then we did the work in–
EK: End of 2018 and presented in 2019.
AE: Okay. Very interesting starting points. And now, what is The Utama Spaceship?
EK: I think the first starting point with The Utama Spaceship is imagine how do you put outer space or the feeling of outer space in a black box where you’re just held by the rules of gravity, you’re held by bums on seats, you know. How do you do that? And secondly, what do you feel about having Singaporeans in space? Yeah. And that is, I think the first two questions that you simmer in your mind first, yeah, before you watch The Utama Spaceship.
SY: I guess, moving from the start of 2019 to the start of 2020 granted as a whole years’ worth of time to explore, what does it mean to be a Singaporean in space? So we actually went on certain research trips, we actually conducted a couple of workshops to get these responses from people. Some of the research trips included going to Galaxy Community Centre.
EK: In Admiralty.
AE: Is that the one with an observatory?
SY: Yes! Andromeda Observatory, it’s very fun. What was there?
EK: I think it’s just that feeling of having the second largest telescope in Singapore, but it’s on top of a community centre, you know. And sure, the largest telescopes is in the Science Centre, but it’s a feeling of “Yes, it’s a ground-up thing”. You have your average, everyday Singaporeans looking far, far into space. And I think that was really inspirational. And we met someone at the observatory who was also just popping by.
SY: He was curious. And he was with his friend, and we were like, “hey, sir, just out of curiosity, would you go on a trip into space? Maybe for 10 years?”.
AE: Who asked that?
SY: We asked him, “what brings you here?” , and he was looking at us thoughtfully for a while, and then he was like, “Yeah, I would go, if there was a spa, and a volleyball court”. So you get a sense of, okay, some people have a very different understanding of why they would go, or why they would stay. And so we took these questions with us to our workshops, where we asked the same question. During the workshop, we were interested in sharing with people and also understanding how they view the concept of Singaporeans in space. For our workshop we actually had, we talked a little bit about the first Singaporean who is aspiring to go to space, Mr. Lim Seng–
EK: –of gospace.sg.
SY: And we also invited a couple of friends from astronomy.sg. So you can start to see a tiering of these space enthusiasts. The first is someone who’s aspiring to go there. The second one is a bunch of people looking up into space and thinking about space. And then the third group, which is us, is we are imagining about bringing space into a black box. We asked our workshop participants why they would go or if they would go to outer space. And some were like, I’m afraid of death, so I won’t go. Some said I will go if I get to stay in the spaceship, and I don’t have to go anywhere else, sure I’ll go. Yeah.
AE: It’s quite interesting because I’m thinking about the eclipse – the recent one –
EK: The annular eclipse.
AE: But just the fact that so many people were engaged with it. And especially I think, in Singapore where we are closed off from a lot of things outside, or we’re very focused on what’s happening in our country. To actually look outwards is so rare.
EK: It’s very rare.
AE: And I felt like people were also united in this, I mean, this sounds a bit– but united in a bigger thing than ourselves.
EK: A thing that is way larger than ourselves, and I think that it’s something that The Utama Spaceship is trying to capture as well. How do we reach out to something that is beyond the constant narrative of, “we are small, we are vulnerable, we need to be protected, we need to look out for ourselves”, you know? How do we see ourselves as part of something – not only as a part of a global community – but part of a universal idea.
AE: Going back to kind of the idea of legends, like Sang Nila Utama, but also the idea of like space race or why people would want to go to space, there’s also the idea of colonialism or staking claim or staking space. Is that also an important part of the show?
SY: Okay, when we first came up with The Utama Spaceship, it wasn’t really about colonisation. And I feel to some extent, it still isn’t–
SY: But our present is very informed by the histories of colonisation, the power dynamics, so that’s unavoidable.
EK: Especially what we’ve learned over the past year in the Bicentennial.
SY: Yeah. And we spoke to Dr. Felipe Cervera about space. And he does study about planetary performance and things like that. He was saying that every piece, every inquiry into space is about colonisation, because the history of space is that they came up with narratives to justify the other, or to justify hostility against the other. We were like “that’s so interesting”, but that also puts us in a very difficult, almost, position because we thought we would be looking into space as space is, but then we had so many other connotations that we had to deal with. And he also said that the idea of getting lost and getting found is very much a colonial narrative, like how white tourists or backpackers, they want to find themselves in Southeast Asia. That’s also a type of neo-colonisation, what, right?
EK: We’ve tried to rework our performance, so that it addresses some of these concerns, but it will not address everything. A lot of things are open-ended for the audience to kind of think about it as they walk out the theatre. And it’s already inherent in the title The Utama Spaceship, the first spaceship, the main spaceship. I mean, firstly harkens to that kiasu feeling of Singaporeans wanting to chope a seat on a distant planet, but also with that, it links to the idea of staking a claim and then it links to the idea of colonialism. You know, it’s a circle that – you never thought that you would link but actually it comes around. Yeah, so we struggle with that idea and concept once it hits us but maybe if there are other iterations, we will do it again, and maybe we will respond to it a little bit better, but as of now, yeah, we are working on it.
AE: You would be informed by the conversations that are happening currently. You can’t run away from it.
AE: But it’s interesting that you The Utama Spaceship means the first, because I totally forgot that “utama” means the first. That’s quite cool, actually.
AE: And also the idea of taking claim or chope-ing, about how Singapore reclaims land. And this is like another form of reclamation, in a very big way.
SY: Yeah, so I guess it does seem very aspirational, very lofty, almost like the pure “final frontier of human exploration”. But there is always a dark underbelly to the sort of ambition, the sort of playfulness that we might have on stage, but it actually does ring some very uncomfortable bells. The past explorations, the past ideas of stating claim.
AE: I’ve not watched a previous iteration, right, the one that was in NUS. What I know of it is what I can imagine based on descriptions that I’ve read. I definitely get a sense of the playfulness and discovery. And I don’t know whether it’s just me, but I feel it’s related to how you both are younger practitioners in the scene. There’s a youthful spirit to your work.
EK: Older practitioners can be playful in their work.
AE: Older practitioners are very playful!
SY: I think we’re taking that in our stride. The fact that we are younger, then you know what, then we fail, and then we try again.
EK: We have the time and we have the space to fail.
EK: But also because we were ambitious as well. We are ambitious with trying to bring space in the theatre because I think it’s popular because no one has really thought about space in theatre, at least having it in Singapore and in a Singaporean context. So, bringing it all together trying to figure out “okay, how do you show anti gravity in space, what are the cheats, the theatrical devices that you can play with”? And the play isn’t only happening in our acting, but it’s also happening in the devices that we use. What are some things that you can use to show that “hey look, we are in space.”
SY: I guess it’s also tying back to the whole impetus, anyway, right – the spaceship that falls over, repeatedly. I guess it’s not about whether or not we’re young or old or experienced or not. But the fact that Singaporeans, or humans, are just clumsy when it comes to the grand scheme of things, right, we’re clumsy, we need space suits to help us breathe. We need a lot of things because we are fallible and we are fragile. I think the playfulness is not just about having fun, but also falling and failing.
AE: I visualise this supreme being looking at us and laughing at our clumsiness.
SY: Exactly. We get that a lot in this piece, because it’s so existential, we’re like–
EK: (tiny voice) “God?”
AE: What has the process been like?
SY: Frustrating, definitely.
AE: What has been frustrating?
SY: How do you convey anti-gravity in gravity situations? How do you–
EK: –and drama seems to break down? Yeah, in trying to convey that existential sense that you have in space, the overview effect that astronauts may have, it’s hard to convey that in a dramatic form where you have stakes for a character, you build it up, and then you have a resolution. It’s impossible to pack it in. And we tried different ways. Previously, in a previous iteration, we wrote a script. And then we realised that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was too tragic. It didn’t seem to… Although it was a heartfelt piece, it didn’t seem to encompass a universe. So we had to backtrack, we had to U-turn, and we had to say, okay, what’s the original impetus of the playfulness and because the playfulness contrasted with some of the existential experience that you have, it actually makes it a larger experience. It was frustrating trying to find that balance.
AE: Is part of the frustration related to limitations of budget or scale?
SY: Interesting you ask that… because we can’t all be Elon Musks, here.
SY: No matter how much money we have, we cannot build a proper spaceship. But it’s not really about that either. It’s really going back to the roots of theatre and play and imagination and fun, right. You do get a sense of wonder in child’s play, the same kind of wonder you get when you look up into the sky and you realise you can see the stars today. And it’s about finding that sweet spot. Which I enjoy in this piece. It’s about finding those resonances that you’re like, you know, “I’m looking at stars and they look like sand grains, almost like the sands of the Utama story, the white sands”. And it’s about finding these kinds of parallels that you hope people will receive in the same way that they hear stories from long ago, and those stories give them comfort, maybe, or make them think, “okay, I belong here. I belong on this land. I belong to a community” and they register it as part of their own identity, I guess. It’s about putting it out there and having people say, “I know what you’re trying to do, and you don’t have to do it or say it in full. But I accept that as part of the play”. The exchange.
AE: What’s it like to be part of M1 Singapore Fringe platform?
EK: It’s been really exciting. I think, the support that we’ve been given is been really heartening. Yeah, having someone check-in on you and say, “Hey, how you doing?” I say, “yeah, we’re doing okay”.
SY: “Let us know if you need anything”. So helpful. They put a lot of faith in the work and the idea. And it’s not just the fringe, it’s like from members of the community, right? Everyone is just like, “hey, I want to catch the show. If you need any help, let me know. I want to catch your previews. I want to give you feedback”. And that has been so comforting and so nice. It’s almost like everybody is preparing to go to space together.
AE: Because it’s the Fresh Blood podcast, I also wanted to talk about how do you think Spacebar Theatre… what are you both concerned with? And how do you see, I suppose how do you see the industry at this moment and your place in it?
EK: I think Spacebar Theatre, the nominal name for us the nominal term for us is a collective. But we’re not looking to expand into a group of say 15 or 20 people under one name. We are looking to be a very portable, lightweight theatre node, because that’s what we call ourselves a “theatre node”. And we say that because we want to find a niche in the intersection between technology and theatre and we want to share it with the different collectives that are out there because there are many collectives out there really, and I’m sure each collective has their different niche. And we are looking towards trying to share what we know, what we have in our research about science, technology, nuclear war and about outer space, with people who are looking at vastly different things, about looking at Singaporean canon, for example. Yeah. That is one thing that we as Spacebar Theatre we are looking to do as well. Collaborations that may not seem intuitive at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.
SY: Also because Eugene and I, we do write, we write reviews, and we do have a background in research. So the practice is not just informed by drama or theatre in the traditional sense, but by ways of breaking down these hierarchies of, “okay, the artist puts out a work, the reviewer comments, the scholar writes a paper assessing it or not”, but having all of those elements blend together. Like I mentioned for The Utama Spaceship, it’s really starting from a point of research and then developing that, but we have also kind of constantly reviewed the work internally, we have written about the work before, while it was still happening. It’s about merging these kinds of methods and also bringing that to different collectives and different groups which we have done in the capacity of an external eye, and in-house critic. We’re very interested in those kind of intersections and that node that’s happening.
EK: A node in a network. Yeah, so we’re just one node. Yeah, we’re not aiming to be an entire network in and of itself.
AE: Yes, it’s kind of tied in to your multi-universe – well not multi-universe – but we are one solar system but there could be many others.
SY: Yeah exactly, and that’s the exciting part.
AE: Okay, can we end this interview by giving me three words that you think describes your performance?
AE: … Shu is thinking.
SY: I am thinking so hard…. Wonder.
AE: And one last one.
EK: …The wacky.
AE: Let’s just pretend that was one word.
AE: On that note, thank you so much.
SY/EK: Thank you. Thank you.
AE: I’m very excited to hear about the show. It’s not my time to catch the show. Maybe there will be another one. Everything happens for a reason.
SY: Indeed! Indeed.
AE: Thanks. Bye.
The Utama Spaceship takes place on 14 and 15 January 2020 as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets are sold out. More info here.
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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.