[Theatre Review] No Disaster on This Land by The Finger Players — What disaster? What land?

Hairi Cromo as Table Boy and Vanessa Toh as Debris Girl / Photo: Tuckys Photography

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

In its bid to place the process of puppetry construction at the forefront, The Finger Players decided to create No Disaster on This Land around the puppets crafted by Loo An Ni during her stint with The Maker’s Lab

The production is helmed by the co-artistic directors of the company as Myra Loke directs, while Ellison Tan came up with the general narrative through a workshopping process.

The two puppets featured are Table Boy and Debris Girl. Loo wanted to work on exoskeletons and a modular system which would allow one to easily make modifications to a base structure. This prevents wastage from creating a completely new puppet for every show. 

Both puppets have an exoskeleton with aluminium extensions. For Table Boy, different table legs are attached all along the extensions. For Debris Girl, intimations of flesh and concrete pieces are placed along the extensions. 

In the show, these two characters are placed in an apocalyptic scene with concrete bricks and a backdrop of a partial grid wall, as we see how they interact.

The information above was mostly gleaned from the digital programme booklet. The information that we should be getting from watching the production, however, is fuzzy. 

Who are the characters? What sort of world do they inhabit? Why are they there? These questions are hardly answered as we see two characters tentatively existing in the same space. 

Beyond the initial encounter, as the characters suss each other out, it is difficult to make out the dynamics of the relationship. What are they disagreeing about? How are these conflicts actually resolved? How did they fall in love? (I only know they fall in love because the synopsis mentions a “love story”.)

A love story? But how did it develop? / Photo: Tuckys Photography

What about the puppets themselves? Do we ignore the human puppeteers and take the built structure as characters? Or are the structures extensions of the puppeteers, and both man and mechanics form a creature?

Given the skeletal nature of the puppets, it would seem that the latter is the case. But what sort of creatures are they? What do the extensions do? Are they hands or do they have some sort of magical power? 

In terms of actual movements, the extensions are used to move the concrete bricks perfunctorily as the puppeteers still use their hands when not manipulating the extensions. 

To make matters worse, the general rigidity of straight aluminium rods for the extensions meant that there is a limit to what the puppeteers could do with them. In manipulating Table Boy, Hairi Cromo carries the structure like a shell. And the extension occasionally gets in the way of Vanessa Toh’s movement work as Debris Girl—she has to figure out how to tuck it away when she is on the floor. 

All these limitations mean that whatever metaphors or concepts that the show is trying to convey are not articulated clearly. For example, a baby doll and a cradle feature quite strongly in the show. Do they symbolise birth, rebirth, or a literal baby?

Despite all the flaws, there are a couple of lovely moments.

Lovely moments emanating from the anguish of Table Boy / Photo: Tuckys Photography

When we are first introduced to Table Boy we see Hairi Cromo seemingly struggling against the structure placed upon him. Despite the black box being a rather small space, the intensity of his physicality, coupled with the garish strains of the electric guitar and the distortion of Hairi’s voice provided by Ctrl Fre@k, amplifies the struggle to tectonic proportions.

In another moment of anguish later in the show, Hairi rears his puppet up like a pair of wings, and the table legs attached look as if they are floating above him. This seems to suggest a certain sense of implosion or disintegration. 

Unfortunately, those moments could not save the show that is vague in its intent and story-telling.

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni

[Interview] Director Myra Loke on Creating ‘No Disaster on this Land’ Around the Puppets

Following last week’s interview with Loo An Ni about her experiences in designing and creating puppets during her stint at The Maker’s Lab 2021, I was interested in finding out more about No Disaster on This Land, a non-verbal performance that features Loo’s puppets.

What makes this production different from most puppet shows is its workflow. As the main focus of The Maker’s Lab is to nurture designers and makers of puppets, the production was created around the puppets created by Loo. This gives her the freedom to explore and experiment rather than worry about abiding by a pre-determined brief.

No Disaster on This Land 无灾难岛屿
There is no disaster on this land but it is the end of time. The body is defiled. Debris Girl meets Table Boy. In their hands, an effortful tug, an accident of air, a love story that ends with death.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to Director Myra Loke, who is also the co-artistic director of The Finger Players.

Puppetry has been part of The Finger Players’ DNA since the inception of the company. In your opinion, what is it about puppets that captures our imagination?

Puppets can be anything and everything. They can be so close to life that you can’t help but relate to them. At the same time, they are not bound by gravity, physics, logic, and social expectations.

This constant flux between reality and fantasy brings audiences to a level where you simply don’t wish to or can’t rationalize what you are seeing and feeling. And you ultimately just give in to your imagination and intuition. 

Puppeteer Vanessa Toh testing a prototype of the puppet used in the show / Photo: The Finger Players

As No Disaster on this Land is created around the puppets by Loo An Ni, what were your first impressions of the puppets?

The primary material used is metal and we often relate that material to a cold and distanced feeling. However, the movements from the puppets were fluid and transformative, contrasting with what your brain tells you. It was as if I’m watching blobs in a lava lamp morphing into different shapes and images.

As there is no dialogue in the show, how was the general plot of the show conceived?

Oftentimes, we start with a script and the puppet design comes after to complement the story. But as part of The Maker’s Lab, we were interested in the reverse—to discover how a story can be inspired from the puppet design instead.

So at the start of the process, Ellison Tan and I met with An Ni monthly to understand her thought process and creative impulses. Then we moved on to a phase where we had a series of jamming sessions with An Ni and the puppeteers to develop characters or explore possibilities of a narrative. With the devised content, Ellison would piece them together into a script that is inspired and informed by the puppet design and the jamming sessions. 

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing the makeshift handles of the prototype / Photo: The Finger Players

Could you describe the rehearsal process? What were some of the challenges? Were there any interesting moments that left an impression?

The puppet design and its manipulation method developed by An Ni are quite new to us. We were quite lucky that we had jamming sessions in the pre-rehearsal phase to give the puppeteers more time to be familiar with the puppets. This is so that we can concentrate on creating the physical score and visuals in rehearsals.

As this is a non-verbal performance, words are no longer the source of information. A huge challenge is to create imagery that is indicative enough for the audience to follow the journey or thought process of the characters. Yet, it must still be imaginative and leave some space for interpretation.

That involves a lot of trial and error in rehearsals, and it can sometimes be quite frustrating whenever we can’t “nail down” a scene. When that happens, I try to tell myself to be patient and there is no need to create everything at one go. This is something that I learnt through my journey of creating non-verbal performances.

Now, whenever I start a rehearsal process, I would pre-empt the performers and stage management team that there will be a lot of repetition, and that we may find ourselves feeling frustrated, and that is ok. 


Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

Sustainability in Puppetry: An Interview with Loo An Ni

The Maker’s Project is a series of events that serve as the culmination of The Maker’s Lab by The Finger Players. The Maker’s Lab is an initiative that seeks to grow and nurture designers and makers of puppets and objects.

In a span of nine months, the maker will conceptualise, prototype, and research puppet design for performance.

The theme for the second iteration of The Maker’s Lab is Puppetry and Sustainability, which touches on the longevity of the puppet, generating less waste in the construction process, and renewing the afterlives of the puppets after the performance.

One of the main events of The Maker’s Project is a non-verbal production, No Disaster on This Land. This production is created in response to the puppets developed by Loo An Ni, the maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021.

I spoke to Loo An Ni to find out more about her experiences in The Maker’s Lab as well as her processes in creating the puppets.

Loo An Ni, Maker for The Maker’s Lab 2021 / Photo: The Finger Players

What made you decide to join The Maker’s Lab? Could you briefly describe your experiences in the programme?

I wanted to have the opportunity to examine and develop ideas that have been floating around in my mind for quite some time. As there were many components to the puppets, there were a lot of testing and trialling of ideas as I try to improve a different aspect of the make or design each time.

Loo was interested in exploring exoskeletons / Courtesy of The Finger Players

How did you go about creating the puppets? Did you have a character in mind at first?

I started with the puppet structure and explored different movements each puppet structure allowed. The script and the characters emerged from there.

Puppeteer Hairi Cromo testing out the puppet structure / Photo: The Finger Players

As the theme for this cycle of The Maker’s Lab focuses on sustainability, what are some of the features of your puppets that speak to that?

I approached the theme of sustainability both in the creation process and in terms of performance. I developed a modular puppet structure that will allow us to devise different structure variations using the modular parts. This means that the puppet can be reconfigured for different shows.

I also developed a supportive harness with the aim of reducing the stress on puppeteers’ bodies when working with large puppets.

Loo An Ni (centre) working closely with puppetry consultant, Oliver Chong (left), and physiotherapist, Choong Li Sann (right) / Photo: The Finger Players

How has your experience with The Maker’s Lab inform the other roles you play in the arts scene such as wardrobe or design and construction?

While the other roles that I play such as costumes design and props and puppet design are different, I find myself leaning towards working with textiles. In The Maker’s Lab, I had the chance to apply the use of textiles once again in a very different manner; for long-term use instead of single use.

As a culmination to the project, a production, No Disaster on This Land, is created in response to the puppets you have created. Could you describe your involvement in the production?

I designed and made the puppet structures, of which the production emerged from. Subsequently I designed and made the puppets for the show. 

Further Reading

Catch It!

No Disaster on This Land runs from 24-27 February 2022 at Drama Centre Black Box.

[Theatre Review] Borderline by PSYCHEdelight: On the Side of Humanity

Refugees huddling together on a boat / Photo: José Farinha

Borderline

PSYCHEdelight

Online

12–23 January 2022

Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

In the opening sequence of Borderline, a few actors take turns to come on stage and remove their shoes. At the same time, live musicians play Bella Ciao to accompany the sequence. Slightly upstage, there are mountains of shoes. 

The sight of the numerous shoes is a stark reminder of the number of people who had to flee their countries. It reminds me of a Holocaust exhibit which has piles of shoes from the vicitims. But from a distance, it looks like piles of rubbish in the Calais jungle, a makeshift refugee settlement in France.

Despite the sombre themes, complemented by the music that uses the revised lyrics by the Italian resistance movement, the jaunty tune and the actors’ playfulness lend a jovial, almost circus-like atmosphere.

The juxtapositions and seeming simplicity encapsulates the spirit of the show which aims to be a comedy about the tragic refugee situation. 

Through a series of vignettes, we witness the various difficulties the refugees had to endure in order to cross the border: the various means to survive; uncaring bureaucracy; and the absurd actions of supposed do-gooders. 

While the cast—comprising a mix of refugees who managed to find asylum in Britain and Europeans—uses their own names, we are not given any biographical information about the refugees. This allows us to look at the different facets of their experiences in general, without being pulled in by one particular story. 

It also emphasises their humanity, warts and all. They are not simply pure, helpless victims. They have ingenuity as well as weaknesses as evident from the scene where the refugees try to exaggerate the provenance of the donated clothes in the hopes of getting a good price for them.

Police trying to haul a refugee out of a refrigerated truck / Photo: José Farinha

Just as the refugees had to make do with little, the cast deftly transports us to various settings through devised movement sequences. From trains to a police dog sniffing out refugees, the synergy among the cast members is a joy to behold. 

As this recording is made specially for video due to the pandemic scuppering any plans for the company to tour, there is an added complexion to the presentation of this performance. 

There is an inspired choice in the cinematography and editing which presents us with certain scenes as though they were filmed with a camcorder. This adds a mockumentary flavour to the show that live audiences might not get, thus giving the satire about the exploitativeness of news reports and documentaries more bite.

While there are no easy solutions as the world sets about beefing up their physical and legislative borders, this show resolutely stands in humanity’s camp.

[Theatre Review] OK Land by Circle Theatre (Thailand) — Ills We Conveniently Overlook

Boss and Joy, employees of OK Land

OK Land
Circle Theatre (Thailand)
Online
12–23 January 2022
Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

Convenience stores are quick and dirty. We visit them for an easy fix to satisfy our hunger, thirst, or nicotine and alcohol urges. Little thought is given to it, and we even overlook the higher prices in exchange for the sheer convenience.

But in Circle Theatre’s OK Land, a chain of convenience stores in Angel Land, it becomes an arena where the wants of different segments of society play out.  

The whole set-up is a thinly veiled reference to a dystopian future that is quite close to home. As the Zombie Ant disease ravages the whole world, we see two store employees; a food blogger; an architect that has just returned from Trumpland; a student activist; a poor, hungry woman; and a ghost coalescing in the convenience store. 

Triggered by the poor woman trying to steal food from the store, issues of growing restrictions, corporate dominance, inefficient bureaucracy, social media prominence as social capital, and political activism come to the fore.

As the characters debate how best to help the woman, while a ghost bears witness by filming everything, personal interests are slowly revealed. This shows how messy socio-political issues can be as it is difficult to untangle the personal from the political.

The characters try to help Pa Orn, the poor and hungry woman

Yet, in the midst of the cacophonous debate, we hardly hear the poor woman apart from her laments and desperate outbursts.

Even though the show is being touted as a reflection on society by other critics, something is missing as most of the characters are middle class. We soon realise that this particular outlet of Ok Land is near a condominium that some of the characters live in, several storeys above the majority of the population. 

Despite these flaws, kudos to director Paspawisa Jewpattanagul for a taut production and playwright Nuttamon Pramsumran for fleshing out a variety of important issues, without forcibly shoehorning them into the production. 

Additionally, the Zombie Ant disease is not merely a quirky alternative to COVID-19. It is an allegory of how we are hosts to the ills of society and are blindly behaving according to the way these ills have structured society. 

At the end of the show, there is a rallying cry from the student activist to work towards change; to carry on even though it feels hopeless. But how do we change course when we, like the ants, only recognise our territory and therefore our path by familiar smells?  


OK Land was originally staged from 3 to 12 December 2020 at 6060 Arts Space, Bangkok, Thailand. The online stream for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival features a recording of one of the performances.

[Interview] Jo Tan talks about her latest play, Session Zero

In December, Checkpoint Theatre will be staging its first live production for the year, a premier of Session Zero by Jo Tan. The play revolves around a couple trying to save their marriage by playing the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.

Intrigued by the premise of the play, I spoke to Jo Tan to find out more about the show.

What inspired you to write a play about a couple trying to save their marriage?

I don’t know what it was about the pandemic, although I saw friends less, I managed to fall out with several of them… pretty hard. We had common passions about common issues, but the gap between how these issues affected us differently suddenly seemed an uncrossable chasm. I had a hard sleepless time understanding how these relationships had fallen apart so thoroughly, and I wanted to use this play, and the marriage in it, to try and figure out whether any differences are truly irreconcilable.

Why did you decide to choose the game, Dungeons & Dragons, as a main feature of the play?

Dungeons & Dragons got me through a large part of the pandemic – I couldn’t go out or act much, but I could escape to a different body and fantasy land in my head. And it just fascinated me how people (including myself) played their game characters. You could see how it was a tool for them to express how they could have been if only things were a little different. What if the play’s hopelessly estranged couple could be other people for a day?

As you are an avid player of the game itself, has the process of creating this piece made you appreciate new facets of the game?

I generally play with actors (which make up three-quarters of my social circle), and you tend to take it for granted that they will be quite unabashed when inhabiting the characters. However, when my co-actor Brendon led everybody in the show’s crew in a game as part of the rehearsal process, it was quite incredible to watch how playing the game characters empowered some of the more reserved personalities to make dramatic flourishes, laugh out loud, and take up more space. That’s the magic of the theatre of the mind.

As you are also performing in the show, has the rehearsal process made you see the story and characters you created in a new light?

Definitely. I always tend to separate my playwright self and my actor self, since the playwright just sets things on paper while the actor is generally a tool and channel for the visions of many people – the director, the writer, the designers.

You always see different things when performing something than when writing it. In both this and previous things I’ve written, I’ve definitely tried to say some lines which made me go, “who the heck wrote that?” But just walking through the story as opposed to living it in your head makes you understand them better, so I even have to empathise with the aggressors.

How does one win in a game of love and marriage?

Try to equate the two. That’s probably most important.


Catch It!

Session Zero by Checkpoint Theatre runs from 2 to 19 December 2021 at 42 Waterloo Street.

[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
29 September–15 October 2021

If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?

In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface. 

In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.

Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration. 

While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama. 

With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men. 

Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road. 

The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?

Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family. 

It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.

Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.

Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!

[Interview] Playwright Adib Kosnan talks about his new play, The Karims

The second half of Checkpoint Theatre’s Take It Personally season opens with a new digital production, Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims).

Written by Adib Kosnan, the play looks at how a new son-in-law shifts the family dynamics, which reopens new wounds and surface new tensions.

I contacted Adib, who is also performing in the production, to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write this play?

The inspiration for this play began with my own personal experience of coming into another family as an in-law. While talking to friends who went through the same situation, I found many similarities in terms of our experiences.

What struck me most was how certain attitudes, especially about gender roles, differed in varying degrees amongst families, but always hovered around the same archetypes—who was in charge of certain chores, or who got served first at the dining table. I found these family dynamics fascinating. That was the starting point for me, this constant re-negotiation of spaces and boundaries even as you create your own new culture as a married couple.

I’ve also found that as a Malay Singaporean,  there are certain cultural idiosyncrasies that are prevalent, and sometimes there are religious or cultural ideas that clash with your own set of personal beliefs—navigating these undercurrents was something else I wanted to explore through this story.

This production was initially meant to be staged live, however, it has since changed into a digital production. Has this impacted the way you write in any way?

The decision to stage it as a digital production initially brought mixed feelings for me. There was a sense of excitement and relief that the story could finally be told, but at the same time, I was very aware that certain theatrical moments and nuances I had envisioned would now need to be re-imagined. How do we maintain that feeling of intimate connection with the audience when they are now experiencing the story through a screen rather than sharing immediate space with the cast?

It was very interesting to refine the script while now considering the camera as the literal lens through which the story is experienced. For instance, certain moments could be amplified through a close-up of a facial expression rather than an actor embodying the emotion for the audience to understand. As we worked, I really began to appreciate all the possibilities and nuances that could be captured and portrayed through this new medium of presentation, while still keeping that original essence of the family that I wanted to express. I’m very excited for everyone to experience the final product in September.

As you are also acting in the production, have there been interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process that made you look at the story or the characters anew?

Being part of the performance process as an actor and working with our director, Claire Wong,  is something that I will cherish for a long, long time. Claire’s process of unearthing the depths of each character,  coupled with the other cast members’ layered and thoughtful portrayal of their characters, really helped me understand my own writing in a deeper way.

I discovered—or rather, rediscovered—the different sparks of inspiration that led me to craft these characters, which became a very emotional process for me because the stories came from real places of connection. There were times I even questioned myself whether it would have been better to maintain some distance from the work as its playwright, instead of immersing myself in it as an actor as well, because I was so affected by the words that were spoken. However, that would have meant missing out on an opportunity and process that really pushed me to grow as an artist.

Claire’s careful crafting of the rehearsal process allowed all the actors the space to explore and connect with each other as a family, as well as develop each character’s distinct voice. My character, Aqil, was originally written very much in my personal voice; the Aqil that you see in the play is quite different, but still retains the motivations and empathy that I initially envisioned for him. The challenge of exploring this expanded version of Aqil as an actor felt like a parallel to the play itself: the idea of entering a new group or family and having to adjust and adapt to foster a new dynamic.

Seeing how the other cast members resonated with their own characters, or hearing about the versions of each character that existed in their own families, not only helped to add depth to each character but also gave me a sense of personal validation—that these voices and stories that I was trying to represent by writing this play truly existed and should be told. This entire production has definitely left an indelible mark in my heart.

What is the one thing you love and hate about being in a family?

I think the one thing I both love and hate about being in a family is how connected we become. This connection can be nurturing and fulfilling, but also needs untangling as individuals go through different situations and evolve. Sometimes we continue to communicate with the versions of our family members that still exist in our heads, forgetting that they too may have changed, and that’s when conflict arises. Communication becomes miscommunication. It is easy to be understanding, but difficult to truly understand. But family is family—the love is there to help us get through these rough areas. At least I’d like to think it does, for the most part.


Catch It!

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) will be shown online from 29 September to 15 October 2021.

The performance is in Malay and English (with English subtitles).

New Sci-Fi Story: 999 by Frank Passani

Photo: Marek Piwnicki / Unsplash

Having read my review of his debut novel, Void, Frank Passani contacted me about a new collection of science fiction stories that he is working on, and some of them are set in Singapore.

The following is one of the stories in the collection. If you have any honest comments or feedback, do leave it in the comments section and I will relay them to the author.


999

Fiodor Haldeman flushed the loo, washed his hands, brushed his hair with his fingers in front of the mirror and went back to his aisle seat. On his way, he noticed that the Filipino billionaires were still chitchatting in Cebuano in that lively way and the Japanese lady on the left, travelling solo, kept sleeping. He wondered why someone would pay for an interstellar tour just to fall asleep. He sat on his seat and politely smiled at the Indonesian couple who occupied the seats between him and one of the panoramic windows that allowed all passengers to gape at the galaxy.

          “Will you be the first passengers in the ship to reach home after landing?” he asked them to break the ice.

          “Not sure… We live in Kalimantan, so we’ll have to take a flight from Batam Interplanetary Station,” the man explained under his wife’s approving gaze. “But if you live in Singapore, the bullet train will take you there in five minutes.”

          “I do live in Singapore, but in a new floating condo off the coast. My name is Fiodor,” he introduced himself offering his hand only to him.

          “I am Iskandar,” he replied.

          “My name is Syadah,” she smiled at a distance.

          “Excuse me, you are Chinese Singaporean but your name is… Russian?” Iskandar asked, intrigued.

          “Yes, my late father was a Literature Professor at the NUS campus in Mars and he loved Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist. So he named me after him.”

“I see. But… do you live in Mars?” he asked.

          “No, no, on Earth. I was born in Mars but I just went to Primary school there. Later I moved back to Singapore with my mother after their divorce.”

          “Oh, I am sorry,” he replied whilst she kept smiling. “So your mother is still alive in Singapore?”

          “She was as of Monday!” he joked. “She is 105 years old but still keeping all right. By the way, may I ask if the two of you have ever been to Mars?”

          “We have,” she spoke.

          “So… well, I assume you are Muslim and you pray, right?”

          “We are and we do, indeed,” he explained. “I guess you want to know how do we pray to Mecca when we actually are in another planet?”

          “Yes! If you don’t mind…”

          “Not at all. It’s a common question. We carry a portable gravitational sphere with us. I am not sure you know about it…”

          “Oh, I think I saw a picture once…”

          “Right. So let’s say that you are on Mars and in the very moment when you must pray, Earth is, so to speak, below you, like drawing a line through the core of Mars straight across the solar system. So you get into the sphere, lock it and activate it with your voice, and the sphere isolates your gravitational pull and allows you to face Earth by facing the floor. You are floating in the air but sitting on the plate inside the transparent sphere, moving the plate in any possible position. You could pray upside down, if you wished, without falling to the floor outside the sphere.”

          “This technology is unbelievable!” Fiodor acknowledged.

          “And you don’t even need to point at Mecca,” she added. “The sphere does it automatically. It carries a universal GPS.”

          “Literally universal,” Fiodor laughed.

          “Dear passengers, this is your captain speaking. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We are about to enter the wormhole that will take us from this solar system back to the outskirts of ours in a couple of hours, and from there back to Earth in ten more hours,” he announced.

          “What a trip, huh?” Fiodor remarked whilst fastening his belt. “Mastering this technology has changed our lives. If only my grandparents could see it…”

          “Indeed,” Iskandar agreed. “The world has changed so much! At the beginning only the billionaires could afford such leisure trips. Now the millionaires too! May I ask what your profession is?”

          “I am in the financial sector. Mars investments,” Fiodor replied nonchalantly. “And you?”

          “My wife is not working right now. I am the CEO of a small company in the terraforming industry. We are in the Jupiter project.”

          “That’s extraordinary!”

          “We developed the special coating that the giant robots need to penetrate Jupiter’s atmosphere. The factory is in Bintan.”

          “Those one-hundred-meter tall robots?” he said, raising his left hand. “They are like out of a science fiction story.”

          “Take my business card,” Iskandar said pulling one out of his spacesuit pocket. It was a new model of 3D card that included videos and audios. “I can arrange a visit if you have children. Or just for you. The robots are spectacular. We assemble them in the space station orbiting Jupiter.”

          “I have no children but I’ll gladly accept your invitation,” Fiodor responded with sincere enthusiasm. “Thank you.”

          “You are welcome.”

          Out of a sudden, the spaceship began shaking violently.

          “Is this normal?” Fiodor asked, grasping both armrests with undisguised fear.

          “Not with this intensity,” Iskandar responded whilst his wife looked suddenly frightened. “I’ve travelled through wormholes before and this is really…”

          “What’s going on, Isk?” she asked terrified, with her gaze glued to the front seat.

          “I am not sure, sayang. Just…”

          “Dear passengers, this is an emergency. Please stay calm and put your helmets on. We are…”

          Fiodor woke up. That headache was killing him, as if he had been enduring it for centuries. He pressed some buttons on his left forearm display and the spacesuit injected him with a painkiller dose in the neck. He looked to his right. His vision was blurred but Iskandar and Syadah seemed to have fainted like him. He heard someone vomit in a seat some meters behind him. Other passengers were already awake and complaining. A flight attendant, with her hair dishevelled, rushed down the aisle to the back of the ship.

          “Dear passengers, we are decelerating as we approach Earth. Keep your seatbelts… fastened and… and…” the captain sobbed, “and… I am sorry… I can’t explain… I am sorry…”

          Another flight attendant walked down from the front of the ship. Her eyes were puffed. She was crying and muttering something about her child in kindergarten. When she was next to Fiodor, she fell on her knees and began shuddering. He unfastened his belt, stood up and held her shoulders from behind.

          “Miss, what’s wrong? Please, stand up. You’re scaring me and everyone else! What’s wrong?” he prompted her.

          “What happened? Did the whole ship faint?” Iskandar asked, already awake.

          She wouldn’t stop trembling. Fiodor helped her stand on her feet and stared at her. Insanity was engraved in her countenance. Her gaze was lost and her jaw shook whilst she tried to articulate a few words.

          “Miss, can you explain…”

          “Nine… hundred… and… ninety-nine,” she stuttered, staring through him as if he were not there.

          “What did she say?” Iskandar asked from his seat whilst his wife rubbed her eyes.

          “Miss…”

          “Nine hundred and ninety-nine,” she repeated with a clearer voice.

          Fiodor stared at Iskandar. “She keeps repeating nine hundred and ninety-nine. I don’t know what she means.”

          Iskandar’s eyes opened wide. Fiodor thought they would roll out of their sockets. A male attendant approached Fiodor and asked him to sit down. His face couldn’t disguise that he would rather be dead than living through whatever had happened.

          “I’ll take care of my colleague,” he added, hugging her as if it were the end of the world.

          Fiodor sat down and grasped Iskandar’s left hand. “Do you have any idea of what’s going on?” he asked him out of his wits. “You have to tell me… If you understand what this is about, you must…”

          “Nine hundred and ninety-nine…” Iskandar slowly replied, spacing out the syllables as if he needed to make sure he himself understood it.

          “So…” Fiodor pressed his hand.

          “Fiodor, this is… something they said… well…”

          “Well?”

          Some passengers were screaming at the bottom of the aisle, as if insanity were taking over the ship.

          “You see…” Iskandar mumbled, “it’s in the Terms and Conditions of the ticket we purchased… of course, nobody reads so many pages and this is only a highly hypothetical event that shouldn’t happen… but it has happened…”

          “What has happened, for God’s sake?”

          “Fiodor, we took the wrong wormhole or something happened inside the wormhole, who knows… Our understanding of cosmic mechanics is not that exact as it may seem… The thing is that we travelled at the speed of light, as expected, and we have lost consciousness due to unknown reasons… for how long? Two hours? We have not aged but… we took a detour and… in Earth’s time, this detour means nine hundred and ninety-nine years.”

          Fiodor stared blankly at him. His brain couldn’t process that information.

          “What are you…” Syadah tried to ask her husband, but she swallowed saliva and broke out in tears.

          Iskandar left his seat and knelt in front of his wife, caressing her head whilst talking to her in Indonesian.

          “Do you mean that everyone we have ever known is… dead?” Fiodor asked Iskandar. “Like… we have been gone for a millennium and now we are back and the authorities… our governments…”

          “Back from the dead, from History books. We are live legends,” Iskandar concluded with a bitter smile.

          The broken voice of the captain was addressing the passengers on the speakers but Fiodor wasn’t listening. He suddenly noticed that the robotic lenses implanted in his eyes had just automatically updated the information on the display via the new signal boosters scattered through the solar system: new condo units for sale in Jupiter, heavy rains in the Far East during Chinese New year, Manchester City had lost a Champions League final for the umpteenth time, the PAP had won Singapore’s General Elections again with an android as a candidate and would stay in power for fifteen centuries in a row. His mother had passed away more than nine centuries earlier. His friends were dust. He couldn’t help but think of his brand new panoramic penthouse in The Floating Residences between Singapore and Batam, a luxury condo unit purchased the year before his interstellar leisure tour. A 999-year leasehold according to Singapore’s law. He had lost his property by one year.


About the Author

Frank Passani (Barcelona, Spain, 1975) obtained his Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Barcelona with a dissertation about the Platonic and Aristotelian influences on C. S. Lewis. He became a Modern Greek translator while working in Greece as a Spanish language teacher. He is currently based in Singapore, where he still teaches Spanish. He self-published his first novel, Void, with Notion Press in India since Singaporeans deemed it to be “polarising.”

[Interview] Facing Fears with Victoria Chen

The silver lining of COVID-19 closing theatres worldwide is that the yearning to reach out and connect whilst in isolation has led to many interesting artistic experiments.

The Art of Facing Fear is set in a dystopian future in which people are trying to reconstruct stories from a life before the pandemic. In the midst of quarantine for 5555 days, isolated and anguished, they create an internet group to connect.

With the success of its first staging in June 2020, featuring Brazilian, Afro-European and North American montages, the show is back with a bigger and more diverse cast of 25 actors from five continents, including one actor from Singapore.

I caught up with Victoria Chen to find out more about the show.

What drew you to this international collaboration?

I’m drawn to international collaboration all the time! Last year, dancer Valerie Lim and I paired dancers and movers of different disciplines from Singapore with those from various cities in Europe to create a digital piece called Vaudeville-In-Place

The Art of Facing Fear is my first time embarking on a worldwide project of this scale. I want to know who’s out there! I believe in transcending geographical boundaries and blending cultures, and in a time when travel isn’t convenient or possible, the digital space becomes our main point of connection.

What is the creative process like for this production? What were some of the difficulties?

The creative process has revealed how little we know about the world, and yet how much connects us. What will stay with me are the glimpses I get into everyone’s lived experience. An actor kept dipping in and out of a rehearsal because their city’s telecommunication services had been disrupted. Another actor rehearsed their scene in a car because they were stuck in traffic. One actor had to leave rehearsal before it ended because their city was observing a mandatory curfew. And another actor’s landlord switched off their electricity supply and disrupted Internet access.

With such a massive team coming from varying time zones, it is almost impossible to have everyone in rehearsal at the same time.  I missed out on most of the first week of rehearsals because I was in tech for a live production, and last week I woke up at 4 a.m. to work on a scene with actors from Iran and Kenya. (And we thought arranging a meet-up with our friends in Singapore was tricky amirite?)

But this experience has been moving, to say the least. Coming from so many different worlds, everyone forms their personal, unique associations to the piece. The diversity of perspectives and responses while developing this production emphasises the significance of its creative process.

Your previous work, Charlie, also deals with isolation and compels the audience to relook at their world. Do you see resonances between both works? Was there anything you learnt from that production which you are bringing to The Art of Facing Fear?

Both works were created in response to significant events with global repercussions, and both question what the future would be like. The success of a Charlie experience depends on the level of intimacy between the participant and me, and I’d like to create this sense of intimacy with the audience for The Art of Facing Fear. Compared to the one-on-one experience of Charlie, this show has multiple vignettes and 25 actors. It’s a true team effort.

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

So many! But one thing that really surprised me was the impression others have of Singapore. They’re still holding on to the narrative of the chewing gum ban, strict rules, lack of human rights, locals speak Cantonese, etc. I showed them pictures of our skyline and they were amazed. Now the team wants to visit Singapore… they want to ride the MRT and see the yellow boxes we demarcate for smoking!

Of course the same goes for me; the discoveries I make about their countries and how their cultures influences the way they make art, express adoration, and resolve conflict. Some people need to escape, some need to express their anger, some rely on humour, but this is all part of humanity. All of it is art.

You were probably asking more about any artistic or creative discoveries, but the magic of international collaboration is that the discoveries go beyond the work. We could totally say the same about the conventional rehearsal process, in that we learn more about our ensemble members as the weeks go by, but with this show, every rehearsal feels like International Friendship Day.

What is your greatest fear and how do you face it?

I have a fear of losing my memory and I don’t know how to face it. I try to stay mentally active through reading, navigating without a map, playing Sudoku and other small habits, but I’ve started to notice that I’m already becoming more forgetful or maybe it’s absentmindedness. Losing one’s memory feels like an inevitable outcome that I simply have to brace myself for.


Catch it!

The Art of Facing Fear is a free online performance taking place from 19 to 20 June 2021. Donations are encouraged.

There are three shows catering to three time zones. The one most suitable for Singapore is on 20 June, 7 p.m. (Singapore Time).