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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: An Interview with Rei Poh (A Tiny Country)

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After making their debut as a collective at the 2017 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, ATTEMPTS is back for another show at the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, this time with a brand new storytelling meets gamification experience in A Tiny Country.

In the work, audience members take on the role of members of a community living in a tiny country, while also playing as social scientists interesting in experimenting with the people’s futures. Based on each decision, from how to use resources to going to way, a unique story will emerge, affecting individual and communities’ lives differently, as they work their way through personal struggles and national crises.

Rei Poh, as director and game designer of A Tiny Country, has never been one to settle for regular storytelling techniques. In ATTEMPTS: Singapore, he imagined audience members as part of an immersive game, as they got to the bottom of the mysterious ‘Anne’. In ATTEMPTS’ sophomore production Dating Sim, the collective attempted to make real an interactive dating simulation, with audience members attempting to take a closer look at modern dating and relationships.

Speaking to us, Rei recalls how the unorthodox nature of the first production left many reviewers stumped, and such confusion left them only able to try to process what they had experienced via narration in their reviews, i.e. spoilers. “That was a weird period because even we ourselves weren’t sure what to expect from reviewers, or if we should have told them not to reveal anything, and if it affects the show” says Rei. “I now understand that for them, that was a very new experience, and to assess and evaluate something like that was a challenge. It was a good first outing for us to learn from, and better understand how to navigate this space between audience viewing experience and us, from a production standpoint.”

From that first experience, Rei and his team have continued to hone and develop their craft, figuring out how best to streamline productions and the audience-performer interaction, while still ensuring creating a work that has real impact, and not totally reliant on the form alone. “We’re trying a lot of different things. The first ATTEMPTS was had a semi-open level of engagement from the audience, say 20%, while Dating Sim required about 10%, since all they had to do was vote,” says Rei. “With A Tiny Country, it’s about 60-70% participation, and we need to be more careful in balancing out the gamification and the content. We’ve set ourselves a very high bar, because this is our third show, and we’re no longer navigating in the dark.”

A Tiny Country, according to Rei, is akin to a tabletop game mixed in with collective storytelling, as the audience comes together to imagine a story and history for this place. Audience members are split into tribes, and go through a total of five ordeals or ‘crossroads’. They must then decide what to do during each ordeal, deal with the outcome, and figure out the next course of action, for example, prioritizing rebuilding a structure or giving resources to the people following a natural disaster.

“The scaffolding of this show is very important,” explains Rei. “Even though we have Farez Najid as the storyteller, the story ultimately belongs to the participants, and they will have a sense of ownership after finding it themselves. Even though every night, the show is different based on the decisions made, the focus is the journey and the story that they’ve created, rather than the ultimate outcome.”

Going a little more in-depth into why he started ATTEMPTS, Rei explains how he wants to create this platform for participatory theatre, eventually crafting a structure where it can serve as a space for experimentation. “ATTEMPTS is really my playground, where I want to create a layout for people to come and play meaningfully. The fun is an important element, and the diversity of experiences, and the focus of a participatory theatre work isn’t so much the meaning, so much as the experience,” says Rei. “I hope that the other members of the collective can eventually push their own ideas out, and I do eventually want to revisit the older works again at some point. Like even how Dating Sim seemed quite simple, it actually explore a lot about masculinity and consent and the problematisation of what may have once seemed so innocent.”

“Of course, the first step to even making sure they can experience that is to make sure we are good facilitators. The moment you slip up in establishing rules and roles, it creates a problem that will only continue to grow as the work continues,” says Rei. “Right from the moment they enter the space, the very words and tone you use with them will establish the mood of the show, and we need to figure out how to invite participants to have conversations with us without necessarily prompting them or we might break the natural flow. There’s a lot of elements of control and learning when is the best time to talk, when to focus on a task or open it up to the ground and discussing.”

Rei expresses a little anxiety and excitement for the show, knowing full well he’s going into the unknown with this level of ambition. “I really have no idea how people are going to react to this work, and that’s quite exciting,” says Rei. “I remember how when we were doing a test run of the first ATTEMPTS in Melbourne, there was a moment the actors couldn’t remember at all what they did the last time, and we had to re-create some scenes again. A lot of this kind of work has to deal with testing rather than rehearsals, and one day, I had a panic attack because I felt almost lost in the entire process.”

“Some of my research has involved investigation into video games, and when you play them, some people say it’s immersive,” Rei continues. “But for me, there’s still that level of awareness that takes you out of that because there are still prompts to press a button and enter commands, which takes you out of that headspace to strategise rather than experience. For me then, I need to figure out the best way of getting people to engage with content without having them feel alienated or taken out of the experience.”

“Ultimately, I guess I really do just want to see how this kind of experimentation and game plays out, and I hope for the audience, they experience a lot, and as much as they learn about themselves through it, I want to learn from them as well.”

A Tiny Country plays from 8th to 12th January 2020 at Centre 42 as part of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets are SOLD OUT

The 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 8th to 19th January 2020. Tickets and more information available from their website here

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