Review: Who’s Next Door? by Tapestry Playback Theatre (presented by Singapore Kindness Movement)

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This week, in an effort to encourage increased interaction between neighbours in the hope of a better neighbourhood and society, The Singapore Kindness Movement presents Who’s Next Door? – a playback theatre piece encouraging audience members to speak share their own stories and experiences growing up in their respective neighbourhoods.

Playing at the Centre 42 Black Box to the public on 24th October, while reaching out to various school students for its other shows, Who’s Next Door? utilises a form of improvisation known as playback theatre to create conversations. Playback theatre is unique in that it requires audiences to be a key part of the theatremaking process, where audience members tell personal stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot, and different from forum theatre in that there are no fictitious scenarios for discussion here, only real, heartfelt truths being brought to life.

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Photo Credit: Tapestry Playback Theatre 

At the premiere performance that we watched, Sengkang Secondary School and Yuan Ching Secondary School students were in attendance, with about 70 students present. Facilitating the performance was Tapestry Playback Theatre, a fifteen year old theatre company with over 30 public productions to their name. This time around, the company collaborated with the Singapore Kindness Movement to share more about one of their key themes: neighbourliness.

Tapestry Playback Theatre began with an interactive activity, as students got up and began to shake each other’s hands and introduce themselves to each other, in an attempt to get to know each other just a little before the performance began proper. Hosted by Michael Cheng, the company explained the concept of playback theatre quickly and effectively to the students before demonstrating with short, personal stories of their own. Each short skit was brief and abstract in its portrayal of the story it took inspiration from, offering a quick dramatization to better visualize how the experience might have been for the person who offered the story.

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With the demonstration out of the way, students began to slowly ease into sharing their own stories, starting with sharing stories that were similar to those the cast had shared at first, before moving on to much longer and more personal stories that similarly were acted out in even more detail. Even though some of them started off shy, with a little encouragement from their friends, they plucked up their courage and were brave enough to share their deeply personal stories in the safe space created. Interestingly, many of the stories took a shift towards experiences of discrimination, racism and prejudice, surprisingly mature topics for what initially felt like a simple exercise. At one point, a student even became so overcome with emotion in telling her story, she choked back tears at the memory of being teased for her physical appearances.

The cast consisting of Renee Chua, Evelyn Chye and Ghazali Muzakir were quick thinking, and in performing these stories, made them entertaining while remaining relatable. Particularly in the second half of the performance, students were asked to choose one of the actors to play them in each skit, which gave each story an immediate, stronger connection to these students and their friends, and much more personal. In addition, cast member Anne Chua also created unique soundscapes to each story using a plethora of unusual musical instruments, from a multicoloured xylophone, to a recorder, a harmonica, and even a squeaky hammer, in addition to improvising tunes on the spot.

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At times over the top but always keeping it real, these stories transformed from simple recounts into a tapestry of tales that formed an idea of the shared experiences of this generation of students. This was literalized by Visual Practitioner Wendy Wong, who spent the entire 90 minutes of the performance at the back of the space illustrating and compiling the stories told into a beautiful, easy to understand mindmap summarizing the entire performance. Although Tapestry Playback Theatre never suggests any hard and fast solutions to the various problems and experiences the audience experiences, what the performance does do is evoke familiar memories and encourage sharing in a safe, non-judgmental environment. It was evident by the end of the show that these students had thoroughly enjoyed the fun performances, while also deeply moved by some of their schoolmates’ stories, and hopefully as they left the theatre, went away with a little more empathy and goodwill in their hearts.

Whether you have a bone to pick with a neighbour who’s cooking a pot of curry, or endless praise for your childhood friends who’ve grown up with you, come on down to Who’s Next Door? to share the stories of your estate, and together, find out how we  encourage one another to take an interest in, care for, and support the people around us, and find out precisely who is living next door.

Performance attended 23/10/17, 2.30pm

Who’s Next Door? plays at the Centre 42 Black Box on 24th October (5pm). Tickets available from Peatix

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