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A Tale of Two Cities: Open Waters by Tan Shou Chen and Jaturachai Srichanwanpen

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It has to be said that of the many potential cross-country collaborations out there, Singapore doesn’t often feature many Thai ones. So when Singaporean theatremaker Tan Shou Chen met Thai artist Jaturachai Srichanwanpen (Chuan) one day at the Substation, it seemed the perfect opportunity for pioneering a brand new collaborative project, and one that would reflect on their own perspectives of their own and each other’s countries.

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Photo Credit: Tan Shou Chen

Created with the support of the National Arts Council’s Creation Grant and developed in residence at Centre 42’s Basement Workshop, the two artists thus launched into Open Waters, so named for their initial starting point in identifying water as a recurrent motif in both Singaporean and Thai history and culture. From learning puppetry from Finger Players co-founder Tan Beng Tian in Singapore to traveling out to an artist retreat in Thailand (where Shou Chen spent almost the entire time in silence), the two artists would continue to devise and develop the piece over an 18 month period. Eventually, Open Waters would be presented at the 2017 Bangkok Theatre Festival as a dramatized reading, before ending this phase of production with a presentation at Centre 42 in January 2018 (which we caught over the weekend).

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Photo Credit: Tan Shou Chen

So what exactly is Open Waters about? The project was inspired quite literally by each other’s geography, from the Chao Praya to the Singapore River, as well as legends involving water, from Sang Nila Utama all the way to the Merlion. The two artists then sought to use water as a basis for exploring each other’s countries beyond tourist destinations, teasing out a surprising number of similarities and parallels. Performed in both English and Thai, Open Waters itself takes the (scripted) form of the two artists sitting at a table and discussing these similarities, interspersing the expository nature of the work with dramatizations of two brand new myths each artist wrote about the other’s country. Interestingly, both myths went in completely opposite directions – while Chuan’s took the form of a fairytale-like hero’s journey style origin story as a mysterious girl goes on a quest to find her identity, Shou Chen’s was a ’20 minutes into the future’ urban fantasy story where a unremarkable clerk’s life in Bangkok is changed forever when the Chao Praya is slated to be moved one kilometre to the West.

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Photo Credit: Tan Shou Chen

Each act then inspired further food for thought, allowing Chuan and Shou Chen to elaborate and discuss the potential issues raised when breaking out of ‘myth-mode’ and returning to their table. Open Waters flows like a liquid, living being, moving quickly from one theme to another, from the impact of the recent passings of both Lee Kuan Yew and King Bhumibol, to comparing the military conscriptions of both countries. There were plenty of big ideas mined in the conception of Open Waters, seething with a sea of imagination and nothing but respect for each other’s countries as they tackled each other’s cultures and histories as outsiders. It is the casual setting and tone of the way Shou Chen and Chuan carry out their cultural exchange that makes it so accessible, feeling almost exactly as if it were completely natural (sans the dramatization). At the same time, there are genuine moments within the script where one feels provoked into an emotional reaction when considering potential impacts of the hypothetical situations and ruminations each actor brings up.

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Photo Credit: Centre 42

For now, as a work in progress, Open Waters returns to hibernation, allowing it time to percolate and sit. But evident from its oversubscribed run at C42 (plenty of people were left on the waiting list for tickets), Open Waters has certainly opened new doors in the local arts scene for potential collaborators to come on board and continue engaging in intercultural exchange. Open Waters, both as a process and piece of theatre, has been a truly epic journey for its creators, developing not just as a performance but also its performers. From the ocean of fascinating ideas and images seen in the current iteration of Open Waters, one hopes then that both Shou Chen and Chuan will continue to dive deep into each other’s cultures, and pave the way for further inspired developments in both cities’ contemporary arts scenes.

For more information on the full story of Open Waters and future updates, visit their official website here

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