Artist Spotlight: Han Xuemei and Jean Tay, Collaborators on Drama Box’s MISSING

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New Year’s got you down, feeling a little lost with no direction? Drama Box has just the cure for you, as they present their newest work MISSING: The City of Lost Things this January. Taking on an all new experimental form, each 4 hour session held at Drama Box’s headquarters in Chinatown will see audiences embarking on a personal journey into their past, attempting to reconnect with moment they lost amidst their busy metropolitan lives. To gain a little more insight into the project, we spoke to Drama Box Resident Artist Han Xuemei, who leads the project, as well as collaborator Jean Tay, best known for writing plays such as Boom and the more recent The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey. Read the interview below!

Bakchormeeboy: How was the idea of MISSING developed?

Han Xuemei: MISSING came into my mind one night when I suddenly remembered one of my teachers from primary school and wondered how she was doing. That got me thinking about how at every stage of my life, I keep moving forward yet leaving things behind, and I should pause and do a little reflection on that. In turn, I thought about how every person has probably gone through some form of loss, and what it’d be like to bring these people together to go on an introspective journey of rediscovery and re-connection.

More formally though, MISSING was inspired by this workshop I attended in 2015 run by two Belgium-based artists. During the workshop, we broke a lot of our daily routines, creating a lot of little ‘interventions’ in our lives by following certain instructions. I loved this whole idea of how a performance can be so dynamic, taking place outside of a contained space and having real impact on the person doing it. I pitched the idea to Drama Box (it was initially a project I titled Hello Goodbye), and in mid-2016, we gathered the team of myself, Jean, Neo Haibin and Darren Ng and developed it to its current form today. In all my works, there’s always this common theme about loss and finding something. Maybe it’s to do with the stage of life I’m in as well, about trying to catch a break from all these hectic things and just take stock. 

Jean Tay: The entire creation process was very open, and it’s not like each of us were stuck with very specific ‘roles’. Each of us brought our own sensitivities to different aspects of the production, be it text, sound or visuals, and we were very open with each other as we just had fun and explored the work’s possibilities. A lot of our process was actually embarking on our own personal journeys, and we each took turns to run workshops for each other and see the responses they evoked from us, like finding an hour each day to do some reflection. As a mum with my kids on holiday at the time, it was so hard to find an hour alone everyday. Yet that time became precious to me as I started to reflect and journal again. The piece itself is about carving out a space for introspection and reflection, and that’s really something quite hard to come by nowadays. 

Bakchormeeboy: Why did you choose to use the unique marketing strategy of the SMS, and how does it play into the show itself?

Xuemei: We didn’t want to just dump information on the public and say ‘oh, this is an immersive theatre experience’, so the first contact that the public has with this performance is meant to be experiential, and we we wanted to start the connection right from the beginning. We prep the audience via the initial SMS exchange and they’re meant to bring an object along with them that represents a lost connection, so they’ll start thinking of those things, past relationships and things that physicalize them. 

The SMS form is a tool to scaffold the journey, making sure they’re mentally prepared and in the right frame of mind. From the start, we were already playing around with the idea of how phones supposedly disconnect us from things and people. So we decided to subvert that idea, and use the phone as a means of reconnecting. A lot of people were actually concerned about whether they can really face their lost connections, and this SMS system is about that sense of connection, and preps them to find out if they’re ready to explore.

Jean: Using the phone, it creates a connection that is virtual, and even thought they’re not physically there with you, you know someone’s there and guiding you through this journey. It’s different from an app in that an app is self-guided, but here, you’re ‘forced’ to communicate with someone you don’t know, and you have no clue what they’re going to say next. Often, you’re locked into your phone and it’s about you and your world, but here there’s someone connecting to you through your phone. In the midst of exploring old connections, you might even be connecting with someone new.

Bakchormeeboy: Is the participatory theatre experience something you might return to and continue exploring in future, as Drama Box has been exploring with some of their recent works?

Xuemei: Participatory theatre is something Drama Box has been moving to as a whole, and personally, I definitely want to continue exploring it and maybe further developing MISSING. I think one of the key challenges was in trying to create an experience that is simultaneously meaningful, open for creative interpretation and interventions from the audience, yet doesn’t feel too loose or too open. We also want to be in control of it, but not too didactic about it. Designing a participatory experiences is always interesting because you’re looking a the spectrum of human behaviour and personality types. The final experience is dependent on the audience and how open they will be, and I like to think we’ve reached a nice middle ground where we have a structure for the whole process, but allow audiences to decide for themselves how they want to experience it and what they make of it.

Jean: I truly love the way audiences are engaged in so many different, unexpected ways through participatory theatre. A lot of it is about challenging audience expectations, just bringing audiences into the space and finding ways to start conversations with people everywhere, whether it’s a traditional theatre audience or the aunties in Toa Payoh. Traditional theatre is about audiences going to the theatre and waiting to be spoon-fed, but here, it’s about putting yourself out there and experiencing it for yourself. It’s actually quite scary, because it takes them out of their comfort zone. As the artists, we’re a bit scared as well because we have no idea how they’ll react to it!

Bakchormeeboy: What is something you two have found through MISSING?

Xuemei: For me, creating MISSING was about finding the child in me again and rediscovering what it means to be more carefree and fearless. It’s quite a challenging and nerve wracking experience creating this project because you don’t know if this will work. There’s all these struggles we face as we do the project, and sometimes we just want to play with it and try something we’re afraid to.

Jean: Through our unusual and memorable creative process, I rediscovered my love for writing. I haven’t done free writing and journalling since my university days, and it’s the kind of thing you can only do when you’re alone. To do that, you need to have enough space, physically away from children, and without being impinged by deadlines. It was very freeing to go back to that phase and rediscover why I wanted to write in the first place and find the value in introspection.

MISSING plays on 6, 7, 20 & 21 Jan 2018 (in English) and 13, 14, 27 & 28 Jan 2018 (in Mandarin) at Drama Box, 14A-C Trengganu Street, Singapore 058468. SMS “MISSING” to 9095 7676 (before 22 Jan) to start the journey and to buy tickets.

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