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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: An Interview with Spacebar Theatre (The Utama Spaceship)

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Photo Credit: Lee Shu Yu

If there’s one thing Singapore theatre seems to lack, it’s more companies willing to go down the irreverent route, having fun with their craft and taking theatre to its extremes. For Spacebar Theatre, comprising Eugene Koh and Lee Shu Yu, the NUS Theatre Studies graduates are about to do just that with The Utama Spaceship, playing this January as part of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

Photo Credit: Lee Shu Yu

Set in the not-so-distant future, the titular Utama Spaceship is sent into space to colonise a planet in Alpha Centauri. On board that spaceship are two intrepid explorers, tasked not to get lost. But on the way, to stave off their boredom, they tell stories and legends to each other. Naturally, they eventually get lost.

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

The Utama Spaceship encompasses Spacebar Theatre’s interests in looking at ways of playing with the theatrical medium, bringing together issues of technology, legacy and mythology. The idea itself came about in 2017, when Shu Yu was in a workshop about how ‘scores’ could be used as a starting point for any work. Beyond music, this also included pictures, videos, text and more, where Shu Yu decided to draw a comic of a spaceship. Eugene looked at it, and imagined Sang Nila Utama coming out of it. The two contrasting ideas were eventually worked on and developed into a working production, and finally, performed in 2019 at NUS.

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“It made sense at the time, because Sang Nila Utama actually means ‘the first one’, and the spaceship is a natural nautical metaphor. So we put two and two together, and we got the Utama Spaceship,” says Eugene. “In our first production, Kalakuta: The Time Puzzle in 2017, we were playing with ideas of Hinduism, and took inspiration from how the world was saved when Shiva drank the poison that would destroy the entire world. We’ve always been interested in exploring concepts greater and bigger than ourselves, and perhaps, finding a nugget of a moral as well.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“A lot of people were interested in the spaceship element of the show, and didn’t really know what to expect coming in,” says Shu Yu. “We were kind of going with our gut feel back then, and used a lot of feedback gained to improve our work for this new version. We were interested in furthering our exploration of the intersection between tech and theatre, and mythology and histories of the distant past.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

Adds Eugene: “Some people ask you have the past and the future, then where’s the now? It was interesting because by focusing on the distant past or future, the audience couldn’t locate themselves in context, and had to understand it in a purely visceral manner, releasing themselves from the present context to imagine something outside of their current lives and somehow find a way to work that back into the present.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

For both of them, the chance to be a part of the Fringe was serendipitous, with how their work happened to fit the theme this year. Initially, The Utama Spaceship was slated to be put on hold, giving them time in between to work on other projects and restage it as a retrospective instead, but with the opportunity granted to them to be in one of Shu Yu’s ‘favourite calendar events of the year’, they took the chance to stage it anyway. “It was very welcoming, in an edgy kind of way for new experimental works,” she adds. “Yet it’s a platform that’s still very accessible, and I have friends who may not necessarily be into theatre, but attend it anyway because of how different it is.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“It helps to ease our fear of doing a show as well, because the theatre community has been so supportive of us, from The Necessary Stage and Centre 42 both providing a rehearsal space for us,” says Eugene. “Doing work in Singapore, we are a little afraid the audience won’t get it, but we also don’t want to dumb down our performance or sacrifice our aesthetic integrity for accessibility. We want to instead gently nudge our audience in the right direction, to get them to think what if I link these two tings together? That’s a little tricky sometimes, and not coming from a conservatory, we know our performativity isn’t on the same level as professionals, so we need to employ other creative methods to bring out those feelings and thoughts instead.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“We have this mantra for our production, and that’s for it to be something people can ride again and again,” says Shu Yu. “I think we achieved that the first time around, and we managed to create a production that’s not only fun, but something people want to experience again because it’ll hit you differently each time you watch it. Even today, as creators, we’re still discovering new things about it every day, and there’s so many parallels and vignettes of stories that resonate with our audience.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“This idea of tackling something larger than ourselves is quite appealing,” says Eugene. “There’s something ironic about Sang Nila Utama, who first came to this small biscuit of a country, living his dreams and trying to conquer the universe. And it’s really this very nerdy show that also brings together the innate concepts of time and space and journeys.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Koh

“We were part of this workshop where experts came in and explained by space matters to them,” says Shu Yu. “And one of the speakers was Mr Lim Seng, the guy from GoSpace.sg who wanted to be the first Singaporean in space. What we offered was about how to create space within the theatre space, and how we could bring that same feeling to arts and theatre, say the feeling of anti-gravity and being lost in space, and not just in film, which has the benefit of camera tricks and technology.”

Photo Credit: Lee Shu Yu

“Inevitably,” she continues, “this is a play about existentialism. I don’t think we’ll ever actually be in space, ever, and experiencing this show makes us confront what we fear about going up there, and about what are they leaving behind or going towards. We went to Woodlands Galaxy CC, which has an observatory and is run by astronomy enthusiasts. There was a couple there and we casually asked them if they would like to go to space for 10 years, and they said sure…if there was a spa and volleyball court. Other people said yes immediately, or reacted by saying they could never imagine leaving, or people who straight up go that’s so weird to imagine a Singaporean in space. People all come in with their own biases, and by presenting this unexpected scenario to them, they’ll come to realise these perspectives and prejudices they might have, and hopefully, better understand themselves and how they view the world.”

The Utama Spaceship plays from 14th to 15th January 2020 at the NAFA Studio Theatre 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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