[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).

[Theatre Review] Check Point Charlie

Charlie           
Bhumi Collective
27 November 2018
Goodman Arts Centre, Block L, #01-46
20 November–7 December 2018

We have all entertained thoughts about what we would tell a Martian about us, if we were to meet it. My experience meeting Charlie is the closest you can get.

Charlie is a twelve-year-old girl, portrayed by Victoria Chen, who has been raised in a sterile room. For some unknown reason, one is given a fifteen-minute visitation, in which one is allowed to talk to her about anything. The only ground rules are not to touch her, or let her out of the room.

I should have heeded the advice of countless etiquette books of not arriving at someone’s place a little too early. Being the first in the shift, I arrived fifteen minutes beforehand, and “the woman”, as Charlie calls her, has yet to complete setting up. Throughout my wait, it felt that I was waiting to see Victoria Chen perform something, rather than waiting for this opportune moment to meet Charlie.

All of that changed when “the woman” opens the door to a spartan room with fluorescent lights. Charlie is lying on a mattress covered with a white bed sheet. Beside the mattress are scattered drawings, which Charlie later reveals that they are scenes from her dreams.

Eager to discuss as many topics as possible, I ask a series of questions to find out more about Charlie. I established that a “professor” visits her to check on her and give her more paper and markers, and a “woman” would usually deliver food and drink to her.

Before I knew it, Charlie turns the tables, “How do you spend your time?”

Explaining to her the concept of work and money sparks off a philosophical dialogue:

“Why would you do something you don’t like? Shouldn’t you do what makes you happy?”

“I like it for the most part, but as with anything, there are parts that you don’t like and you have to do it.”

“But why can’t you just do the parts that you like?”

“Unfortunately, to get ‘money’, you have to do both. Then, you use the ‘money’ to buy food and other stuff that makes you happy.”

Charlie is unconvinced—so am I.

Apart from being philosophical, she is incredibly attuned to the ebb and flow of conversation. There are moments when she simply keeps quiet and looks at you as you continuously explain things, while trying to assess whether she shares the same set of concepts as you do. Soon, Charlie unwittingly becomes your psychologist as you become increasingly aware of what matters to you based on the topics you chose.

Suddenly, the door opens and our time is up.

“Bye bye… Isaac.”

This takes me by surprise. I only told her my name at the very start, and she still remembers. The slight pause before saying my name sparks an internal struggle: What is stopping me from taking her out of the room? Who are these people that I have to listen to them? If I “rescue” her, how do I ensure that she is safe?

Before I could formulate any answers, I am already on my way to the train station.

It is odd how one could connect to a fictional child embodied by a wonderful actor. Who would have thought that I would benefit more from the conversation than Charlie?

Other Reviews

“Meeting Charlie was also seeing my inner self – A Reflection” by Sam Kee, Arts Republic

“Review: Charlie by Bhumi Collective” by Bak Chor Mee Boy