Drama Box’s FLOWERS: An Interview with Creators Han Xuemei and Jean Tay
Coming to the stage this May, Drama Box kicks off their 2019 season with an all new show – in a house! Conceptualised by Han Xuemei, FLOWERS reunites the Drama Box resident artist with playwright Jean Tay, who worked on last year’s MISSING: The City of Lost Things, in an experiential installation where audiences explore a terrace house in Chip Bee Gardens, and in turn, discover the hidden issues of patriarchal violence that live on in our culture and society. We spoke to both Xuemei and Jean to find out a little more about this unique production before we head on down ourselves to experience it when it premieres in a month. Read the interviews in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: How was FLOWERS first conceptualised, and what is the significance behind its title?
Xuemei: FLOWERS started as a response to sexual violence (mostly against women). I had wanted to unpack and investigate my emotional resonance with the issue. This then led me on a journey that eventually arrived at the notion of “patriarchy”. During this journey, I’ve had conversations with individuals who have lived through violence of different types and severity, as well as social workers who encounter many lived experiences of violence. These conversations inspired me, and I realised that what I really hope to address is how all of us, regardless of gender, are affected by the patriarchal values that are so prevalent in society.
The title FLOWERS was actually inspired by a poem that my company manager Jiaying shared with me, and I was attracted to the word “flowers” in one of the lines. There is an association we tend to make between women and flowers; that like flowers, women were supposed to be charming, decorative, gentle and fruitful. But that is not the only way we can read flowers. Flowers can also symbolise life, strength and resistance. In particular, the image of a Vietnam War protester placing a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a soldier comes to mind. So in naming the project FLOWERS, I hope that we can unsee the image of a flower as a woman, and instead look to it as a reminder of hope. Where flowers bloom, so does hope.
Bakchormeeboy: FLOWERS takes on an unusual theatrical style and performance space. What kind of journey are you hoping to bring audience members on, and how should they prepare themselves before watching it?
Xuemei: FLOWERS is about family as the primary institution of patriarchy. There is a story, and a house. The audience has a choice over how they would like to engage with this story and this house. It will be an intimate experience moving around the house. Should the audience allow, it can potentially become a reflective space for the audience to consider how living within a patriarchal system has cost us. How has it influenced our relationship with ourselves and people around us?
Bakchormeeboy: What challenges do you foresee, and how do you plan on overcoming them?
Xuemei: This has been an extremely challenging work to make, primarily because of how complex the topic is. How can this work contribute to the ongoing conversation about gender inequality and gender violence? How can this work both respect the oppressive realities of many women and recognise that men are not “on the other side” of this oppression; how can this experience encompass rather than alienate?
Yet, how much can one project include? One of the biggest challenges was in making choices about which aspects of the topic we are able to include / what we had to exclude from this project. For example, one decision we had to make had to do with language and cultural representation: What does it mean when it is solely in English? How do we take into consideration different cultural influences? Eventually, we had to make choices based on what we can realistically achieve, and I feel it is important that we acknowledge that this work is limited in its own way. That said, one way in which I am trying to include what couldn’t be included in the fictional world is to make them available in the form of a mini-exhibition outside the house.
Additionally, I believe that each artwork grows and accumulates – this project marks a beginning for me in my exploration of patriarchy, and I believe it will grow into other future projects, so I can continue to address some of these challenges that I’ve encountered.
Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences watch FLOWERS, and what do you hope they take away after watching it?
Xuemei: People should come for FLOWERS because it is about a topic that is very relevant to us, and because there is a house full of remnants waiting to be unveiled.
I feel that in all the works I have made so far, I have given a part of myself. The audience, through their presence and participation, generously leave behind a part of themselves as well. Eventually, what all of us take away will be what we discover and learn from one another during the process.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about how different working on FLOWERS has been for you from previous projects.
Jean: Xuemei and I collaborated last year on MISSING, and that was a project about going on a personal journey to find lost connections. This year though, the project started with the location, which Xuemei found, and wanted to do an installation there. For me, it was an interesting challenge to tell a story without using the traditional form. While there are similarities to previous works, in that MISSING and Chinatown Crossings were both experiential, FLOWERS was about utilising this home space to excavate the themes of patriarchal violence, and how family can end up distorting relationships.
We carried out interviews with people who had encountered different forms of such violence, and eventually found a cohesive story we could use and anchor to this specific place. It’s been a joy to work again with Darren Ng (sound designer) and Lim Woan Wen (lighting designer), bouncing ideas off of each other, with the collaborative process allowing the project to really evolve in such exciting ways and figuring out how to tell this story.
Bakchormeeboy: What are some of the themes or messages that you hoped to bring out through FLOWERS?
Jean: While Xuemei was initially set to be about sexual violence after Xuemei read about a case in India, the production has managed to grow into something much broader and perhaps more universal, in the form of patriarchal society and families, affecting both men and women to certain degrees and leaving an impact. Within the experience, audiences will encounter a fictitious family that’s embedded within the house, and hopefully, they’ll be able to better see the cost and toll of patriarchal violence, something we often take for granted, but does cause some families to become messed up.
This realization is intended to get audiences to ask themselves why they follow these notions, leading to wondering how we can then break free of them, breaking free of gender roles, and breaking free of expectations our ancestors have passed down from generation to generation. Essentially, we want this work to resonate with audience memebrs’ own lives, and consider how a seemingly ordinary family actually holds plenty of issues to be dug up, and ask ourselves why we allow such subtle forms of violence to be perpetuated.
Bakchormeeboy: What kind of an experience can audiences expect or prepare for before they enter the space at Chip Bee Gardens?
Jean: FLOWERS is intended to be an immersive, experiential installation, where audience members wander the house in an open-ended, free-roaming journey. We didn’t want to dictate a set path for them, so it’s completely different from a traditional proscenium-style performance, and it’s aimed to really evoke emotions and have them catch glimpses and senses of the characters who once ‘lived’ here. It’s kind of like when you go into someone else’s room and you feel their presence, from the things they have, the way they’ve left it, the scent in the air. A lot of it has to do with the idea of remnants, and how our possessions and actions do leave behind an impact, with history or memory haunting this house.
Violence often works very insidiously, especially verbal violence, which can often be just as traumatic or enduring as physical violence, leaving behind plenty of scars in different ways. For FLOWERS, we really wanted to tell a story without telling it. It’s more abstract, and we really won’t be able to control the audience and how they experience the space. It’s a bit similar to MISSING, in that audience members have almost full control over how much info they gather and can infer from it.
Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences be excited about coming to watch FLOWERS?
Jean: FLOWERS is unlike anything we’ve done before. It’s about activating the curiosity in all of us about how different people live their lives, what’s hidden in private spaces and homes, and the excitement of entering those spaces to discover these lives. I’m always very grateful that Drama Box gives our team so much space to explore different kinds of storytelling and experiences to engage the audience in new and different ways. And especially with a work like FLOWERS, you’re not just going to the theatre and letting the story be told to you – you’re given a chance to explore an entire house; the possibilities for engagement are endless, and everyone walks away with a different experience at the end.
FLOWERS runs from 1st to 5th May 2019 at 74 Jalan Kelabu Asap. Tickets available here