The Studios 2018: An Interview with Kaylene Tan (In The Silence of Your Heart)

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For the second show of Esplanade’s 2018 season of the Studios, spell#7 co-founder and co-artistic director Kaylene Tan returns to Singapore to direct an all new production titled In the Silence of Your Heart.

Like Kaylene’s previous works, In The Silence of Your Heart offers an alternative theatre experience, as she subverts and plays with the idea of a monologue. Utilising in-ear audio recordings, audiences become privy to the world of paralysed man Thian, a charming politician and inveterate drinker. Today, it is the birthday of his dead daughter, and it is time to lend him your ears and listen to his life’s triumphs, passions and betrayals.

Developed in residence at Centre 42, we spoke to writer and director Kaylene Tan about this new work and her practice of creating immersive theatrical experience. Read the interview in full below:

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Kaylene Tan

Bakchormeeboy: What was the inspiration behind this play, and why its title?

Kaylene: In terms of storyline, the character, Thian is inspired by my maternal grandfather who lived in Kuching, Sarawak. He was a politician, journalist, teacher and an altogether larger than life character who loved to drink, smoke and eat. He had a stroke and was bedridden for 13 years, unable to speak or move. My only memories are of him in bed, so I never knew the man he was before the stroke. I was fascinated by the stories I had heard about him and always wondered what he was thinking in all the years of silence as he seemed very alert. This is not a biography, it is based on some family events but it is largely fictional. The character has also been inspired by other family members who have been physically unwell and the stress that pulls at family members when caring for them. 

Secondly, in response to the Esplanade’s initial suggestion to consider the medium of a monologue, this is my attempt at challenging and experimenting with the traditional form, which usually relies on one virtuosic actor on stage playing many roles while the audience watches a character unfold before them. In this piece, the character is absent – heard only through headphones. Lim Kay Tong who voices Thian plays only one character and the audience in some ways become him through the wearing of the headphones and immersing themselves in his world.

Thirdly, I am interested in immersing the audience in a sensory landscape. In the show, all the senses are activated – hearing, scent, sight and touch. Set in a kitchen, the audience sit within the set and get to experience the sights and smells of what happens in the kitchen of Thian’s house. When wearing headphones, they get to experience the world from his perspective. So, audiences can expect a very intimate and enveloping experience.

The title links to the themes in the show – of loss, heartbreak, joy and the silence between these moments, and what happens between the spaces between heartbeats. It is also an invitation to the audience to listen, contemplate. In a way, our lives today have never been noisier – we enclose ourselves between headphones, soundtrack our commutes, keep the TV on in the background. But these aural atmospheres are often ways to distract ourselves from the mundanity of the here and now, sonic barriers to keep silence from seeping in. This performance is an invitation to listen and just be, to be still, from one moment to the next, and in experiencing the world of Thian, it is an opportunity to surrender yourself to sound and to listen to the silence of your heart.

 

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Cast members Lim Kay Tong, Jalyn Han and Tan Hui Er

Bakchormeeboy: How and why did you decide to specialise in audio-based/immersive theatre experiences? 

Kaylene: I began exploring immersing the audience in an experience since spell#7’s audio walk of Little India, Desire Paths, in 2004. In Desire Paths, audiences wore headphones and listened to a soundtrack and stories while exploring the neighbourhood. We worked with binaural recordings (3D sound), music and text to magnify and amplify the already vibrant environments of Little India. So, it began from there really. We were interested in using sound to immerse the audience in the ‘live’ experience of being in sites. spell#7 has also done numerous site specific works over the years – at Zouk, Chijmes, Sculpture Square, Singapore Flyer, Chinatown, Shenton Way and I’ve also worked in numerous historical houses in Singapore (Baba House) and Malaysia (Cheong Fatt Tze, Penang) using audio and performance to take audiences out of conventional theatre spaces and to immerse them in other types of living and storied spaces.

Working with sound, I am interested in the theatre that happens between your ears, you have a captive audience and an opportunity to take them to ‘places’ – and challenge what they see, hear and feel. Building on this, In the Silence of Your Heart not only uses sound, but also ignites the other senses. For the creative team, this production has been a collaborative effort to create an enveloping sensorial landscape in the theatre that activates hearing, smell, sight and even touch. We are creating a palpable and throbbing world that the audience comes into momentarily. And this is a world of the character, Thian, who is trapped in his own body and thoughts, audiences see what he sees and smells. And they hear his thoughts between their ears. There is no escape – this is the kind of immersion that we are working with. I hope it will be an intimate, intense and bodily experience for audiences.

But how it started is perhaps interesting too. Paul (Rae) and I started spell#7 and had no money to rent theatres to mount performances, so we decided to make site-specific performances – and approached companies to use their spaces e.g. Chijmes, Zouk etc. It was a win-win situation as they got publicity and we got to make shows! And it grew from there. And when we got arts housing in 2001 in Little India, we wanted to explore our relationship to the neighbourhood. So, Ben (Slater), who was our artist-in-residence and I created a walking tour of Little India in 2003, called Kinda’ Hot, where he and I took turns to take small audiences of up to eight on a walk around the area at night. Back then, it was the police that issued public entertainment licenses, and they did not grant us a license, as they saw this style of performance as mingling which could get audiences excited – this type of ruling dates back to soliciting at cabarets in the colonial days. Anyway, Ben and I decided to rope in sound designer, Evan Tan, to transform the material from Kinda’ Hot to an audio experience. So, the decisions to do site-specific and sound work were circumstantial!

Bakchormeeboy: Why should audience members come watch In the Silence of Your Heart? 

Kaylene: A few reasons: Headphone theatre is in its infancy – not just in Singapore but worldwide. So, this will be a sensorial experience in the theatre that pushes boundaries. We have on board a headphone theatre sound designer from Australia, Chris Wenn designing the sound, so the audience will be in good hands.

The performers are great – Jalyn Han has recently been cast in many ah mah roles because she is such a brilliant performer, but not that many know that she is extremely physical and quite the mover. This is a chance to see a different side of her. Tan Hui-Er, young and fresh-faced is a very sensitive performer and one to watch. And Lim Kay Tong who is the voice of Thian is just wonderful to listen to. Just through the use of his voice, he takes you on one hell of a journey through the life of this character, and his many ups and downs, hopes, dreams and disappointments.

The set is designed by architect, Ling Hao, President’s Design Award winner, who is known for his pure and transcendental designs. In fact, the whole design team is pretty awesome (Lim Woan Wen on lights and Jasmine Ng on visual media) and it has been a very collaborative process of creating this sensorial landscape that the audience will experience. Just don’t expect to sit comfortably in the dark! 

In the Silence of Your Heart plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 5th – 8th April. Tickets available from The Esplanade.

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