Postcard from Adelaide
Hotel (OzAsia Festival); Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium, ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’
I was in Adelaide last week for the Australian Theatre Forum. While I was there I saw two shows at the OzAsia Festival: Hotel by Singapore company W!ld Rice and The Dark Inn by Japanese playwright-director Kuro Tanino. I also attended ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’ – a ‘satellite symposium’ organised by the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network.
Hotel is a five-hour, two-part production that premiered at the Singapore Festival in 2015; I saw Parts One and Two at the Dunstan Playhouse in the Adelaide Festival Centre in a single afternoon-and-evening marathon with a dinner break between the two parts. It’s an epic work of inter-cultural ensemble theatre, directed by the company’s founder Ivan Heng and co-artistic director Glen Oei, written by resident playwright Alian Sa’at and Marcia Veerstraaten, and featuring a multi-racial cast of 14, including Chinese, Indian, Malay and mixed-race Singaporean actors.
The structure of the play consists of 11 ‘scenes’ – discrete one-act plays really – set in the same unnamed luxury hotel room in successive decades over the last 100 years of Singapore history. It’s a brilliant conceit, as the hotel room becomes a metaphor for the city itself as it passes through one regime after another: the British Empire, the Japanese Occupation, post-war independence, separation from Malaysia, Lee Kwan Yew’s authoritarian ‘democracy’, and finally the post-LKY, post-GFC and post-9/11 surveillance-state it remains today.
Crucially, the dialogue alternates between multiple languages – including Cantonese, Tamil, Malay, Japanese and English (often more than one is used in the same scene) – simultaneously translated and projected on screens above and either side of the stage. This linguistic layering and framing reflects the shifting (but always racially tinged) stratification of Singapore society from one era to the next: the dominant class and language shifting from English to Japanese to Chinese; the Indians occupying the lower-middle ranks; and the indigenous Malays at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In terms of its material, then, Hotel is very specifically ‘made in Singapore’. However, as the play goes on, and stories and characters (or their descendants) from earlier scenes reappear or intersect in unexpected ways, the city’s history becomes indistinguishable from that of the increasingly globalised world – most pointedly so in the penultimate post-9/11 scene, when a Muslim Malay family who’ve just checked in are targeted as terrorists. And in the final scene, when a Chinese man dying of cancer chooses to spend his final months in the hotel room, it comes to stand for life itself: a ‘transient’ space in which we are all ‘guests’.
The play continually shifts in focus from broader historical, social or political themes to more domestic, individual, corporeal or spiritual dimensions which exceed all forms of national, racial, cultural, linguistic, religious and even sexual/gender identity. For example, at the climax of one of the funniest scenes in Part Two, a ‘straight’ US ex-serviceman decides to let himself be fucked by a mixed-race trans-woman who reveals that despite going through with hormone therapy she decided to keep her penis on the scheduled day of the operation (in defiance, respectively, of her Catholic mother and the rigid binarism of her medical team). And in one of the most poignant moments in the show, the son of a Japanese military officer and a Malay former comfort-woman kneels before his long-lost mother and apologizes to her for the atrocities committed by his adoptive country – 40 years after he was taken from her as a baby by his father in the same hotel room and shipped back to Japan (a heart-rending earlier scene in Part One).
The wide-ranging script was apparently generated by the actors doing their own research for each decade/scene, and then improvising plots, characters and dialogue – all which of was then shaped and refined by the playwrights. This creative process accounts not only for the breadth of the material, but also for the sense of connection and ownership that emanated from the cast. Conversely (and perhaps inevitably) I found some of the writing a little broad-brushstroke; and the same could be said of some of the performances – which (perhaps ironically) didn’t always avoid a degree of ethnic stereotyping (exuberant Indians, domineering Chinese, submissive Malays, etc). Staging, lighting and music also felt a little unimaginative and even clunky at times; the relentlessly musical-theatre-style scene-changes (accompanied by documentary-style video projections) becoming increasingly didactic and repetitive as the show wore on. I felt I was watching an intentionally ‘mainstream’ production, at least in terms of its aesthetic. Perhaps its makers didn’t want to alienate their audience artistically while challenging them in terms of political, religious and sexual content. One must also be mindful of context: this was a production made for a Singapore audience, as opposed to one in Melbourne or Berlin.
Despite these reservations, I found the whole journey immensely entertaining and at times deeply moving. As is often the case with large-scale ensemble productions, I loved becoming familiar with each of the actors and following their individual journeys through their multiple roles. Some of the older, more experienced performers were more capable than others of fully and truthfully inhabiting and fleshing out their roles – a challenge given that most of the characters had only one scene to establish themselves. Nevertheless I found it easy to forgive occasional weaknesses in the writing, staging or performances because of the diversity of stories, genres, voices, faces, bodies and levels of skill.
The audience in the Dunstan Playhouse was predominantly white, middle-aged and middle-class. They seemed to enjoy themselves too, and to ride the show’s ups-and-downs. In the dinner break between Parts One and Two, I left the Festival Centre and wandered over to the Lucky Dumpling outdoor Asian food market nearby. It was a completely different crowd: much more diverse in age, class and cultural background.
I wondered what it would take to get a crowd like that into the theatre to see Hotel.
The next day I was back at the Festival Centre for the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’: two days of keynote lectures and roundtable discussions expertly co-curated by Malaysian-Australian performance maker and dramaturg Lim How Ngean and Australian independent artist and thinker David Pledger. It was a demanding, occasionally frustrating and always thought-provoking two days that left me chewing on the question of what dramaturgy or the dramaturg might be or have to offer performance-makers today.
David led with a keynote, ‘Operating Systems in Concentric Circles’, loosely defining ‘dramaturgy’ as ‘how something works’. He applied this to the dramaturgy of his own performance company Not Yet It’s Difficult, which he described as operating in ‘concentric circles’ from an initial creative idea and team of core artists, extending to a further ‘circle’ of experts in relation to the initial idea, and then to further ‘circles’ of artistic and non-artistic colleagues who might provide further input and feedback. He then extended this notion of dramaturgy from the sphere of creative practice to larger ‘concentric circles’ like culture, society and even democracy; criticized the isolation of theatre and performance from these broader ‘circles’ of practice and reflection; and specifically advocated for a creative dramaturgical intervention in relation to democracy itself, in an era when the latter has become systematically distorted by the ideology of neo-liberalism. This ambitious prescription for political dramaturgy was illustrated by examples from David’s work as a curator, such as the use of ‘body-listening’ as a form of facilitation, and the structural inclusion of young people as instigators/provocateurs (or ‘free radicals’) in the biennial Gold Coast conference-event ‘2970°: The Boiling Point’.
In the first roundtable discussion that followed, ‘The Public(s) and the Arts’, the three speakers were Shawn Chua, a Singapore-based researcher and artist; Rachael Swain, co-artistic director of Broome-based inter-cultural dance theatre company Marrugeku; and Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Singapore theatre company Drama Box and a Nominated Member of Parliament – which (as he explained to me afterwards) means he is appointed specifically to represent the arts constituency and is able to vote on all except budgetary legislation (in itself a remarkable advance on Australia when it comes to the significance of the arts in society). Shaun delivered a nuanced account of recent ‘participatory’ performances in Singapore, including a sly critique of participatory-performance ‘tours’ that enrol the audience-participants as ‘extras’, and advocating a dramaturgical ethics of ‘friction’ in order to make ‘rough’ work that exposes contradictions rather than ‘smoothing them over’. Rachel told a powerful story about dramaturging a solo indigenous dance performance in an outdoor recreation venue for a remote Aboriginal community, and then gave further examples where tensions emerge and have to be negotiated between artists and communities (especially over issues of territory). And finally Heng Leun spoke of the dramaturgy of community engagement in the context of participatory performances in public spaces, referring to his own use of live game-show formats in public housing zones, parks and cemeteries, and the installation of an inflatable pop-up venue that is both open and semi-closed in order to accommodate the needs of the work, the rights of the public and the exigencies of the law in Singapore (where public gatherings are tightly controlled by the state).
I began to sense that for many at the symposium ‘dramaturgy’ referred not only to the work of a particular individual (‘the dramaturg’), but to a more diffusely located and shared form of reflective and creative practice – and even beyond this, to a latent or inherent quality or structure in the text or performance itself. Moreover, the entire session led me to reflect on the ethics and politics of dramaturgy – and even to think of dramaturgy as an ethical and political practice.
That night I met up with some Adelaide friends for an Asian meal. They included a novelist and poet, a musician and former academic, and two teachers. We didn’t talk about dramaturgs or dramaturgy – at least not directly. The former academic – a German scholar – quoted Brecht: ‘Grub first, then ethics’. I thought about Brecht as a dramaturg and theorist of dramaturgy – one who perhaps understood more deeply than anyone the ethics and politics of ‘how theatre works’.
Day Two of the symposium began with a keynote by Singaporean researcher and dramaturg Charlene Rajendran entitled ‘Difference and Aesthetic Agency – Dramaturging Choices for Change’. This provided a sweeping overview of the work of three major Singaporean director-dramaturgs (who, she acknowledged ironically, were all Chinese, as well as being all male). She also spoke suggestively of the work of the dramaturg as involving a practice of ‘deep listening’ and ‘active presence’, and invoked the mythical figures of the familiar spirit or trickster-god in Malay folklore, accompanying, questioning and occasionally provoking the theatre-maker to a new level of political consciousness. I thought of the Fool in King Lear, speaking truth to power at a time of crisis – and of how the figure of the dramaturg rose to prominence in German theatre after the catastrophe of the Second World War, when artistic and political roles and responsibilities were being reflectively interrogated across the board. Perhaps in this context the dramaturg could even be considered a kind of therapist or catalyst for change.
The roundtable that followed, ‘Difference and Deference – The Question of Culture’, picked up on these themes, specifically in relation to working across cultures and communities. Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at (one of the co-writers of Hotel) spoke about representing inter-cultural experience in his plays, specifically in reference to inter-marriage across cultures and religions. Australian actor, broadcaster and producer Annette Shun Wah spoke about her organisation Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and its progress in developing and promoting the work of Asian Australian performers and playwrights across the industry (a theme picked up in her brief ‘firecracker update’ at the Australian Theatre Forum the following day). And South Australian theatre maker Edwin Kemp Attrill, artistic director of Act Now Theatre in Adelaide, described his work in interactive and participatory theatre, in particular using Augusto Boal’s technique of ‘forum theatre’ with oppressed communities such as the disabled, LGBTQ, young people, migrants and refugees.
The symposium ended with a discussion facilitated by David, Charlene and How Ngean, including everyone present and inviting more personal reflections on the question of dramaturgy, the role of the dramaturg and what these terms might mean in various contexts. A Singaporean artist who runs a play-space for children had an epiphany about being ‘a dramaturg of her own life’ in relation to her own inter-cultural marriage, and summarised her position on dramaturgy with the motto: ‘let art do what art does’. I confessed to my own misgivings about conventional script-dramaturgy, in the context of being employed by companies and organisations as a dramaturg, and then feeling as if I was collaborating in a process whereby playwrights lost their original vision. And a Malaysian writer, editor and producer vented her frustration at listening to all this talk about ‘dramaturgy’ and ‘Asia’, as she remembered similar discussions in Australia in the heady days of the early 90s, and wondered what had been achieved since then. Perhaps, she suggested, we needed to apply a little more ‘conceptual rigor’ to the dramaturgy of our own discussions!
Despite these misgivings and frustrations, I came away from the symposium with the sense that dramaturgy has a new meaning in the context of theatre-making today, especially in regard to inter-cultural, cross-artform and collaborative work. This was the tentative frame of mind with which I would approach the Australian Theatre Forum the next day – about which more in my next Postcard.