Arts Interview Singapore

SRT’s Caught: An Interview with Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar


There’s something undeniably joyous about the way Ed Sylvanus Iskandar carries himself. Perhaps it’s a pre-requisite for an immersive theatre director to be have a little spring in their step, a little hope in their heart and almost always excited each night with the unpredictability of what one will experience at a show, where every performance will undoubtedly be different.

“I like comparing the theatre to the church,” says Ed. “It’s a very spiritual experience to come watch a show, and my sermon ends up being the story I’m telling. There’s a similarity in the one-ness, in experiencing something as a group. Which explains why there’s this religious following of immersive experiences, where we’ve constructed a space where we can be one with society, engage with it on your own terms, and get as much as you can or want out of this very fleeting experience and learn to understand your own point of view. And part of the immersive theatre experience involves the act of repeat viewing. Not many people end up returning for a normal play, but there’s this idea of addiction to the experience of being a part of immersive theatre, and not just the story behind it. And people don’t spoil it for others, because they inherently know that to do that would be the ultimate act of audience assassination no one wants to be guilty of committing.”

Known for his riotous vision and theatrical panache, Ed is currently in town to direct the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s latest production – Christopher Chen’s Caught, which premiered off Broadway in 2016. But Caught isn’t just any show – it’s a bona fide experience where audiences will get a chance to meet dissident Chinese artist and fugitive Lin Bo, the most famous artist you’ve never heard of, as he brings the world tour of his specially curated exhibition to Singapore’s Miaja Gallery, and invites everyone to party it up each evening. Says Ed: “I was honestly quite shocked when Gaurav asked me to do the play. It takes an extreme amount of desire to experiment and put yourself through an immersive production of any kind. It’s the kind of work that makes you question every pre-existing facet we have in place, and I love that SRT felt so ready to take this on. By experimenting so much in the field of immersive theatre, I wasn’t trying to do immersive for no reason, and they wanted to give their audience that experience. Plus, it’s amazing how SRT has been giving such accessibility to this show with their ticket prices, something I’m not used to seeing back in the states at all.”

“Once, I came for an art exhibition right here,” he recalls, thinking back to a time when he was still working at SRT. “I was with two colleagues from SRT at the time, and it was basically a cocktail party. We were having a good time just looking at the paintings exhibited, but we got tired. There were no benches, so we decided to just sit down, right there in the middle. People came over and asked if we were part of the exhibition, and it made me realise how that simple act ended up a form of disruption of the room and the party.  The art gallery has this transformative quality, where anything you do becomes performative. There’s this aliveness, openness and adaptability about the space, a social space. When you take a work out of the theatre, people have no idea what to expect coming in, and they’re more susceptible to leaning in and willing to discover something new.”

“I’ve entered the National Gallery Singapore so many times already, and it’s honestly one of my favourite spaces to be in,” he continues. “It’s open for so many hours, and there’s all these restaurants and businesses, where the whole building has the illusion of staying open constantly. You could be anywhere within it and have you own experience, and you’re constantly being surrounded by art. It frames the idea that our journey is an artistic one, and that we may not place ourselves specifically as exhibits or a thing to be looked at, but to be a part of the experience.”

Regarding the play itself, Ed explains how much of Caught surrounds itself with issues of truth, depending on whose perspective we see it from. Says Ed: “The central question the play asks is whose story is this? Depending on your perspective, truth can be read as lies, realities can be read as fantasy, and assumptions can be presumptions. Caught then animated the central academic pieces into an experiential adventure, and attempts to challenge our perspectives and how we see the world around us. That’s essentially the most thrilling invitation to a director, as he explores how many different ways there are to reiterate and deliver that point to an audience. As we go through an experience, the genre might shift over the course of the evening, as we continue to be implicated within the scope of the event. We break that distance because we no longer are separated by a frame, but within the experience itself.”

“The play is very much rooted in the now, and in our preparation, we’ve been talking about fake news and the quality of truth and journalism,” he continues. “Caught is the first play I’ve encountered that’s asked the question head on. Writer Chris Chen never offers any solutions during the play, but just asks questions, the central one being if there is such a thing as objective, definable fact. And when I first read the play, it was so thrilling for me to not know at all what was going to happen each time I turned the page, and I want to deliver that same rush of excitement to audiences here, as I take them into a different world one can neither conceive nor understand, as we suture your experience into the story of Lin Bo.”

The ‘play’, if you can call it that, takes on an unusual structure. From the very get go, we’re already placed in a non-traditional theatre space, a setting that doesn’t simply split audiences with the fourth wall, and given that freedom of choice as to how much they want to invest in it. Says Ed: “As a director, you only have so much control over an audience’s ability to respond,” he adds. “And just being able to surprise them already adds a new dimension to the piece, and for them to just be caught unawares so they don’t come in with a checklist of things they do or don’t want to see.”

He continues: “The structure for the evening is a means of seeking engagement with each layer of reality and truth, on the terms of each layer and what is true at any one point we’re experiencing it. I dare any audience member to tell me this work isn’t accessible to them, because no one should feel daunted in approaching this piece. I myself have been diagnosed with the worst case of ADD by my therapist, and if I can sit through the construction of a story by putting all the pieces together in a rehearsal, you can be damn sure that it’s reached a form where you can experience that has managed to appease the most rigorous standards of my boredom, helped by a core of good storytelling.”

Ed is no stranger to the theatre scene at all, having received critical acclaim for his work over the years, many of which are either site-specific or immersive theatre, and aims to create unique durational experiences that continually push and pull at the definition of ‘performance’. Of his philosophy on immersive theatre, Ed explains: “My big break in New York was a 7- hour marathon, for which audiences demanded the guarantee of food and fellowship to even consider coming. Eating and chatting amongst them, I discovered I could deepen the collective impact of our experience by inspiring artists and audiences to invest in each other. Through breaking the fourth wall, artists become personally accountable to their audience, who then invest in the human effort behind the art. That’s how theatre becomes what it was designed to be: a spiritual experience that cultivates community through authentic dialogue.”

Known for his immersive experiences, Ed’s productions are wide and varied, receiving accolades such as the New York Times Best Theater of 2017 top ten list for his work, with plays such as Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, his own original immersive adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and The Mysteries, a collaboration he conceived with 54 American playwrights to create new versions of the medieval York mystery plays, presented in a 6-hour marathon evening.

Says Ed: “Funny enough, I’m the least likely person to make immersive theatre, considering that I’d probably never willingly buy a ticket to watch one myself. I don’t like the concept of being a part of a performance I’m the one who’s suddenly thrust into the spotlight and the object of everyone’s gaze. It’s a highly invasive experience, so when I direct a show, I ensure that I design it with multiple levels of engagement, and there is that degree of choice as to how engaged you want to be with it. It’s perfectly possible to thrust yourself wholly into the experience, but it’s also possible to completely remove yourself from it. That degree of agency is very important to me, and I never want my audiences to feel like they’re being forced into anything.”

Speaking of being classified as an ‘immersive’ theatre director and how the word has been heavily marketed to the point it’s become a parody of itself at times, Ed says: “I’m so tired of having to defend the medium I’ve chosen to work in, and how it’s been appropriated or accused of being fringe, or irrelevant, or elite. I think of what I do as inclusive rather than immersive. My work is a way to include audience perspectives into the work rather than purporting a single point of view. It’s not like audience interaction is a new thing, and it’s been done since even before Ibsen.”

“Secondly,” he continues. “I’m incredibly rigorous when I use immersive productions as a conceptual underscore, where if a story doesn’t need an immersive framework to deepen audience appreciation of the work, then why bother? Consider how it’s one of the toughest forms of theatre to actually produce in the world, where everything you do is based on the decision to sabotage all pre-existing structures of theatre that were precisely designed to deal with theatre, and demands you design a new structure. From the questions as simple as ‘how do I pick up my ticket’ or even what happens when they enter the theatre, you already have so many things to consider that the entire team has to figure out. For me, I use every point of natural interaction and engagement the audience already has to do, and activate it from the point of view of the story being told to include them in it.”

In essence, Ed reveres the theatre as a transformative space and tool for civic dialogue, where every step of engagement is an opportunity to embody the story. By asking us to re-engage with society, Ed plants the audience at the core of the event, which he believes will revitalize the theatre as the foundational site of the human experience. “German playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote about beauty and how it’s the most powerful thing in art,” he says. “If a person is confronted with something truly beautiful then you won’t be able to respond, and in that moment of taking something in, art can enter. Similarly, I ascribe the notion of surprise and amazement to the experiences I create. What differentiates my work from daily life is the opportunity to shape and aestheticise it, and provoke a response based on their point of view. Part of engaging with art is figuring out how it is that we shape our response to the world, and how to be authentic about it.”

On bringing the show to Singapore, Ed expresses excitement and has a glint in his eye as he speaks: “What I love about Lin Bo is that it’s a fully universal story, and doesn’t need a cultural definition to have value. In evaluating his story, Lin Bo would ask you to put his story in the middle of various communities, and interrogate it in different cultural conditions. I do not know what ‘immersive’ means to Singaporeans, and one of the reasons why I was excited to bring it in was to see how the fundamental concept of Lin Bo, as a Chinese artist, would play to a non-Caucasian audience, and to fully examine the story from another point of view. The identity Lin Bo achieves for himself is layered with meaning and it’s going to be fascinating to see what a Singaporean audience has to learn about his relevance of this man in their culture.”

He adds: “Being in Singapore, more than anything, I realise how much joy there is to be in a society where multiculturalism is the expectation and not the exception. I didn’t appreciate that the last time I was here, but given time and the new eyes I see the world with, it’s interesting to come back and see it this way instead.”

Speaking of the script itself, Ed assures us that Caught isn’t all doom and gloom, but in fact, very fun to be a part of: “Playwright Chris Chen happens to write very director-friendly stories, and his style is very rigorous with what he’s trying to address, yet remaining unabashedly entertaining, to get the point across. It’s not about being serious all the time, but lighter and laughter and sheer absurdity in what is or isn’t the truth. Caught is an entertaining play, and in fact, the most entertaining one I’ve worked on. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve sat in a story I’ve told and look forward to seeing how an audience discovers its twists and turns. It’s only when someone releases that guttural laughter that they learn to engage with the seriousness behind it.”

On the future of his productions, Ed explains: “By breaking the fourth wall, we’re creating theatre that pushes deeper into society, asking questions about how we can still create a special experience around a live experience. Recently, I was out with my costume stylist and noticed how Singaporeans were starting to feel the burn of online shopping. There was so much competition in real shops as they vied for attention in the experience they offered, and perhaps these too would make for a good canvas for an immersive experience. I want to see how much further I can delve into society and tell stories in new ways, activating each experience to make it unforgettable, and for audiences to be reminded to appreciate every moment of what we’re experiencing at a given time.”

Ultimately, Ed once again expresses how ready he is to bring Caught to Singapore, saying: “I can’t wait to share this piece, which, more than anything, I will be using to challenge the notion that an evening at the theatre has to be this or that. This is going to be the kind of party I enjoy – the kind I never feel like I have to get ready for, and the one I arrive at and stay all night because of the quality of the conversation and the substance of everything around me. It’s a choice to lean in and choose to continue, and I’m excited to see if people react that way to the evening I’ve designed.”

“This is not a play about politics and the world, but about how many versions of the truth can exist at the same time. We’re asking you to re-engage in the narrative, and not to force a narrative down your throat. Sure, you can read it as a clash between East and West, but a lot of it comes from your own feel and how you end up thinking about  how many versions of truth can exist at the same time. I want audiences to consider what it takes to get to a certain viewpoint, and imagine a world where you’re more conscious, and let this work transform you.”

Photos from Caught website

Caught plays from 10th September 2019 at the Miaja Gallery, 9 Muthuraman Chetty Rd
APS Building, Singapore 238931. Tickets available from SRT

Follow Lin Bo @linbo.caught, and read his story at


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