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M1 Patch! 2020: Playwrights’ Bootcamp (Review)

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Bringing out unexpected creativity under immense time pressure.

If anyone was asked to write, conceptualise and stage a play in under 3 days, most people would balk and respond that it’s an insane task. But for the participants of The Theatre Practice’s Playwrights’ Bootcamp, it’s an activity they’ve willingly taken upon themselves to see through once again, as they create and perform a whopping nine plays within a week from scratch.

Returning for its second edition, Playwrights’ Bootcamp sees 3 playwrights pen original 15-minute Mandarin scripts over the course of 48 hours, given just a single prompt. But that’s not all – each of the playwrights will then hand their script to three directors, who will each work with a separate group of actors, one sound artist and one stage manager to put on the finished play in just six hours. This entire process is then repeated twice, giving each playwright a chance to have their works staged by a different director and sound artist.

Programmed as part of the 2020 M1 Patch! Festival, Playwrights’ Bootcamp could be said to be the company’s ultimate manifestation of play, with the immense amount of experimentation and imagination necessary to get each script staged within the tight deadline. Unlike the previous edition, where playwrights were given a full week to write a script, this time around, with just 48 hours to write their plays, participants Lee Wai Lok (Hong Kong), Lin Meng-huan (Taiwan) and Su Chun Ying (Singapore) were under pressure to go with their first instinct to write and develop a story, rather than having the luxury to overthink their work.

While the journey to completion certainly sounds tough, the results of the first round of performances were professionally done when we watched them. Despite taking place completely online, rather than simply performing a naturalistic play, each piece made use of the digital format and capitalised on filmic sensibilities.

The first prompt given to each playwright was the sound of bells, reminiscent of rituals held at temples for commemorations, perhaps meditative of our current climate. Inspired by this, Lee Wai Lok penned 重头再来, which literally translates to ‘starting over’. Directed by Kuo Jian Hong, with sound by FERRY, we watched as Ng Mun Poh narrated the story of a man struggling to make sense of his life (performed by Hang Qian Chou). Surreal and dream-like, we see an alarm clock is drowned in a tub, the man attempting suicide, and the constant temptation to escape through alcohol. In all, 重头再来 seems to present the feeling of entrapment, where anything and everything we do only sinks us further into our pain, wishing only to start things over once again. 

In the second piece, Su Chun Ying’s Let’s Celebrate…, Jonathan Lim directs Ang Xiao Ting as a Singaporean girl constantly disturbed by loud knocking noises from upstairs. Believing it to be a ghost (a claim promptly dismissed by Jodi Chan, as her mother), Xiao Ting searches for ways to stop the noise on the internet. Seen from the perspective of her computer’s camera, there is a distinct sense of voyeurism as we watch Xiao Ting go about her mission. Less dramatic than it is keenly reminiscent of our daily conversations, we think about the way our mind plays tricks on us when we’ve been cooped up too long, and how we cope during a lockdown.

In the final play, and perhaps the most disturbing one of the three, Lin Meng-huan’s 无伤 is directed by Liu Xiaoyi as it tells the story of a man’s life coming apart, involving a broken family, taboo sex and unusual male relationships. But interestingly, all this is narrated rather than performed, as we see a single, almost unmoving scene of Chong Woon Yong and Johnny Ng, sitting on a couch in their underwear in a state of complete slobbery. In this case, the cameraperson is the performer as it roams the set, magnifying each performer’s state of sloth and excess, from empty bags of snacks to used tissues strewn all over. The only obvious movements come from a moment Yeo Lyle calls them via Skype, or when Isabella Chiam appears as a mysterious woman standing over them. In the end, watching Woon Yong laughs uncontrollably, silenced from being dubbed over by electronic music, we wonder about the absurdity of life, and how it becomes all too easy to lose our morality and sanity while trapped at home.

It’s no surprise that with the pandemic, the fear of isolation and stress from being cooped up at home was on everyone’s minds, an issue that was explored across all three plays that evening. The performance ended with us impressed by what each team had achieved in such a short amount of time, knowing that this was no easy feat to complete, let alone do well. In allowing their creativity to run wild with total freedom limited only by time, Playwrights’ Bootcamp is a fascinating display of how the right amount of pressure can lead to some truly original work, and how the art of play produces concrete results.

Playwrights’ Bootcamp presented the finished works on 18th, 20th and 22nd August 2020 as part of the 2020 M1 Patch! A (Live) Theatre Festival of Play. For more information, visit their website here.

M1 Patch! A (Live) Theatre Festival of Play runs from 18th July to 30th August 2020. For more information and full list of programmes, visit their website here

 

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