The Bicentennial Experience: An Interview with Creative Directors Beatrice Chia-Richmond and Michael Chiang
Amidst the countless ways each and every Singaporean entity is attempting to deconstruct, grapple with or straight up capitalise on the Bicentennial year, at the heart of the event remains the Singapore Bicentennial Office’s blockbuster centrepiece – From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience.
Meeting with overwhelming demand upon its launch, so much such that it’s now been extended all the way till the end of the year, the Bicentennial Experience takes visitors across 700 years of Singapore’s history, from 1299 all the way to the present day, telling the Singapore story through key moments via an unprecedented multimedia sensory experience.
Led by creative directors Beatrice Chia-Richmond and Michael Chiang, the two part experience comprises an immersive set-up within the Fort Canning Centre (Time Traveller), before visitors exit to enjoy a free and easy exploration through various pavilions within Fort Gate (Pathfinder).
With the launch of the experience’s extension, we spoke to both Beatrice and Michael and found out a little more about the origins of the project, the process, and why you too should come witness this thoroughly fascinating dive into Singapore’s past.
Bakchormeeboy: How did you come to be a part of this project?
Beatrice: There was an open call for proposals for the Bicentennial Experience, and we answered it. The brief was to showcase the history of Singapore in an engaging way, whether you’re a Singaporean yourself or a foreigner taking an interest in it. As such, it demanded the Experience be engaging and interactive, going beyond just an exhibition one walks into and observes. We knew we needed to pull out every trick in the bag to make it a bigger encounter. We formed a creative team, partnering up with companies like Kingsmen, came up with a killer proposal and knocked their socks off!
Bakchormeeboy: On your own end, what did you want to achieve with the Bicentennial Experience?
Beatrice: The aim of the Bicentennial Experience was primarily to make people curious about our own history. It wasn’t about jamming in the hard facts and details, but to tell a story about these episodes in history one might not have known before. But then after the experience, you start to wonder more and end up googling and reading more about each episode. We wanted visitors to be inspired to take the first step towards discovering Singapore’s history, something they did by choice and not forced down their throats. That’s what makes the Bicentennial Experience a success for me.
Bakchormeeboy: What makes the Bicentennial Experience such a different project from everything else you’ve done so far?
Beatrice: There’s never quite been a project of this scale in Singapore. I’ve done the ceremonies for the SEA Games and NDP before, and that’s all about creating high entertainment value and filling each one with big wow moments. With the Bicentennial though, there was so much more responsibility when it came to depicting our history. There are so many ways of telling it, but it ended up circling back to our origins as a thriving port, and how our fates and fortunes rose and fell when the winds blew in the right direction, vulnerable to so many events beyond our control.
Bakchormeeboy: Taking on the role of creative director, tell us a little more about your jobscope.
Beatrice: As a creative director, my job is to provide the belief and the vision. Once my team is formed, I’m meeting them and working with them every day, and with all these talented people in the same room, you learn not to get in the way of their process. We figure out the big idea, and set a course, metaphorically, to reach this destination by a certain date and how we’re going to get them. We’re here to keep inspiring and encouraging our talents’ genius, and it’s such a privilege to witness them at work.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a little more about the fantastic team you’ve put together to bring the Bicentennial Experience into a reality.
Beatrice: We have maybe 200 or so people working on this, but I’d like to spotlight some people. Our technical director Kenny Wong is very special, and he goes beyond just the guy you call on for when you need equipment. He’s one of the few people who can articulate exactly what tech we need for each segment, so when I go ‘it’s like that and it just bursts out’, he somehow knows exactly what you need to achieve that, thanks to his years of experience in theatre and concerts. He’s this great treasure trove of technical possibilities, having spent years just watching shows and learning the different ways people tell a story onstage, and he’s absolutely a genius.
Michael, on the other hand, as a playwright and former journalist, knows how to make a concept sexy, digestible and interesting for anyone from age 2 to 200, and it’s so difficult to figure out how to make 700 years worth of facts and details a one hour emotional experience. For multimedia, Brian Gothong Tan and Sally Lee have both been longtime collaborators, with each of them heading one team, simply because we had so much content we had to produce, from CGI to animation. It’s been 1.5 years in the making to create all of this, and constant effort from over 100 people. There’s honestly never been a creative collaboration of this scale, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work on such a project, one that’s really left us feeling so much more for our country than ever before.
Bakchormeeboy: What was it like to design around a pre-existing space and building with so much history?
Beatrice: The Fort Canning Centre is a pre-existing building, so that was simply something we worked into our plans when designing the first part of the experience. But for the second part, the pavilions were created from scratch by Randy Chan and his team. He’s the rare architect who can do multiple disciplines, from pavilions to buildings to houses to theatre, and it was wonderful to see how each pavilion to suited the content, and how the content would in turn inform the pavilion. The Singapore Bicentennial Office has been a very strong collaborative partner, with them helping provide the historical information and facts. We get a lot of creative input from them as well, outside of simply accepting proposals, where they give very clear, precise feedback, yet always respecting our vision. Ultimately, it all boils down to a matter of designing around what exists, and we bring out the history behind the building and fashion the pieces within it, creating a work to fit the space.
Bakchormeeboy: What were your personal favourite parts of the Experience?
Beatrice: My favourite part of the experience would be the first act and fifth act. The first gives you a sense of adventure, thinking about how Raffles was someone who went out to discover new lands and worlds. That’s the same spirit I hope I still have no matter what age I’m at. And Act 5, well, hearing Lee Kuan Yew’s voice and being familiar with that era myself, it always has an effect on me. As for the pavilions, I love the ones that feature the early maps. It never fails to astound me how brave it was for those cartographers and explorers to get out there and explore the world and make these maps with no idea what lay in store for them.
Bakchormeeboy: What makes the Bicentennial Experience so quintessentially Singaporean and a must-attend for anyone?
Beatrice: This is such a Singaporean project because it’s our history we’re talking about. Anyone who comes here will be a participant in that story, and we don’t focus simply on the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 – we look at the entire scope of history, and how we came from then to where we are today, and the full cast of characters who brought us here. It’s definitely not a case where you think it’s all because of Raffles, as much as you can’t ignore the fact that he did start the whole process. But how we shaped our own destiny from there was all on us, as we took decisions into our own hands and determined our future for ourselves.
Bakchormeeboy: You’ve been working very closely with Beatrice for a long time. Could you share with us about the joint creative process with her you undertook for this project, and how you feel about the results?
Michael: This joint creative process was actually new for us. But having worked together so many times, I think we’ve grown to understand and trust each other instinctively. For this project, we just sat down and started throwing up ideas! I think because we were so comfortable together, the creative process was pretty amazing. It almost felt like we were trapeze artists flying around, doing triple somersaults and catching each other in mid-air. We came up with the craziest ideas, then turned to Kenny, our trusty Technical Director, and begged him to try make them work! Haha. It was a very exhilarating process, fraught with a lot of fun – and a smidgen of fear.
Bakchormeeboy: Your role in the experience is as scriptwriter and key to imagining the story that will be brought to life. How did you initially feel when presented with such a monumental task, and did things go as you expected them to, or were there some good surprises along the way?
Michael: There’s no denying that the subject and material was daunting. Once we’d worked out what we had to convey in each Act and how to do it, we were able to fix the narrative style. The main thing was to avoid giving the audience an overdose of repetitive multimedia. After we had a narrative ‘shape’, I had to quickly work on the script, so that the multimedia teams could start planning and designing the content. There was a lot for us to digest and process, but SBO had a strong team of researchers and historians on hand, which helped a lot. It was generally quite smooth.
Bakchormeeboy: It took a village to make Singapore the success it is today. The same goes for the Bicentennial Experience – could you share more about your team that made this possible?
Michael: Beatrice and I worked most closely with Kenny, as he had to ‘actualise’ all the different storytelling techniques we wanted in each Act. The next step was to brief the core creative team on what was needed in their various fields – multimedia, music, lighting, sound, design, architecture, etc. We met every Tuesday to keep everyone up to speed, but also held separate meetings with individual teams. We were very blessed to have assembled a nice mix of veteran and young creatives, all detemined to make this once-in-a-lifetime project exceptional.
Bakchormeeboy: Can you tell us more about the thought process behind the storyline? In terms of the audience experience, and how you wanted them to feel as they went through the entire affair, such as that transition from the indoor area to the outdoor area?
Michael: It helped that SBO had already marked out the key periods for us. Our task was to create a way for the audience to be taken through 700 years of Singapore history seamlessly. We wanted them to be engaged, and feel like they were really eyewitnesses.
The indoor show, Time Traveller, was presented as history through Time, while Pathfinder, the series of outdoor pavilions, was presented as history through Space. The very nature of the two parts is already indicative of the experience: a timed experiential show that runs within an hour, versus a free and easy spatial exploration through eight different pavilions.
Bakchormeeboy: The indoor area is where it all happens. Knowing the limitations and structure that you had to work with, how did that affect the way you approached writing the script? Did you write with these challenges in mind, and what exactly where these challenges, if any?
Michael: We wanted each Act to be kept within seven or eight minutes. But the challenge wasn’t just about working within that time frame, it was more about finding the right tone for the storytelling. As we wanted to make the Bicentennial Experience accessible and audience-friendly, the script had to be easy to understand without being dumbed down.
Bakchormeeboy:I honestly loved the concept and experience, and think that if my history lessons were made this way 20 years ago, I would have aced them! Could you share more about the thoughts that went into the individual rooms, and how you decided on the medium each room would take to bringing those lines to life?
Michael: Act 1 had the dramatic, epic stories, so we both decided that the narrative should be equally dynamic – hence the moving travelator, the live actors, the layers of multimedia. Act 2 was about discovery, so we chose to see history through the eyes of indigenous wildlife, to capture a certain wide-eyed wonder. Act 3 was about industrialisation and modernity, so we felt that a moving rotunda would provide that mechanical feel. Act 4 was WW2, so the key idea was deprivation: the bunker and tunnel were meant to be dark, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable! We wanted Act 5 to be heartfelt, and used indoor rain for its emotive quality.
Bakchormeeboy: 200 years of history collapsed into a 1 hour experiential immersive wonderland is an incredible feat.To me, hearing LKY speak about freedom and then his death brought tears to my eyes. Can you share with me about your own life experiences living through that period of time, and the conceptualisation of the rain room?
Michael: The significance of NDP 1968 and LKY’s funeral were highlights in the brief from SBO; so it was really a question of how we introduced it. While most visitors would have experienced many of the modern-day events in Act 5, we had to find a way to turn everything into a coherent narrative. I can’t really think of any significant life experience I went through myself that’s worth sharing though! Anyway, once we came up with the idea of making everyone hold an umbrella, we worked to enhance the sensory experience.
Bakchormeeboy: Finally, as much as it’s always been about the numbers and visitorship, the experience has really seen a surge in demand and an extension all the way till the end of the year. Were you surprised by this outcome?
Michael: We had taken a big risk with this very unconventional approach to history, and were quite anxious about how it would go down with visitors. But once the show opened and we saw first-hand all the reactions – from surprise and delight to excitement and tears – we knew everything had fallen into place. People exited the show feeling emotional, feeling a sense of pride, feeling they had grasped a little bit more about Singapore history. That, to me, has truly been priceless.
The Bicentennial Experience runs till 31st December 2019 at the Fort Canning Centre. Admission and more information available here