The Esplanade Theatre, as it is. A room on its own. A room of its own.
Esplanade’s The Studios may have gone online this year, but with the easing of performance restrictions, and as 2021 looms ever closer, it seems that it’s finally time to welcome audiences back into the theatre to see the arts, live and in person. To kick start the year, the Esplanade has commissioned design collective INDEX to produce a new show: #THEATRE. Described as a “site-specific conversation” between INDEX and the Esplanade Theatre, #THEATRE takes place on the Esplanade Stage itself, and seeks to unravel the hidden stories and memories drifting invisibly within the theatre space, whether they’re lingering on the walls and settling in the crevices.
“It is not about how we interpret the Theatre space, though. This work is about revealing the space, and we are attempting to see, feel, hear and touch the Theatre as what it is, stripped bare of masquerades.”
To do this, INDEX, comprising lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, alongside spatial designer Lim Wei Ling and sound artist Darren Ng, will harness its team’s expertise in light, sound and space, in an ode to the Theatre, following the unprecedented closure of performance spaces earlier in 2020. Seated on the empty Esplanade Theatre stage and dwarfed by the contrast in scale, the audience will experience the quiet magnificence of the architecture, immersing themselves in a grand yet intimate journey that evokes the histories and energies that live in the theatre space. A poignant response to these strange times, #THEATRE is set to be a poetic meditation on a place of assembly that has been isolated in a liminal pocket of solitude. Prior to its premiere in January, we spoke to INDEX to find out more about the project, and what exactly a ‘site-specific’ conversation entails. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: INDEX has previously worked together on RAW: IN:dex as part of The Studios 2013, where you focused on having a conversation with the Theatre Studio. How did the collective come to conceptualise #THEATRE? Was there a specific reason behind the title?
INDEX: #THEATRE was actually first conceived shortly after we completed the 2013 project. It was to be helmed by Woan Wen, who had already been developing a thread of work in which performance venues are engaged as-they-are in conversations with light, prior to IN:dex. The Esplanade Theatre, with its grand architecture, is one particular space that she strongly desires to light as a room, and it so happened that the venue was closing soon for a scheduled renovation around the time. So we decided to take a long shot and sent in a proposal. Obviously it did not materialise, and the collective moved on to develop other works.
Fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic hit us and theatres had to close, trends started to emerge and as we pondered along with the rest of the industry, we started to wonder what else can we do besides exploring digital platforms, and if this was the time to, for example, make works that would be enhanced and strengthened by having a very small number of audience (assuming that mass gatherings will continue to be discouraged when theatre eventually reopens its doors). This was when the unfulfilled project from 2013 resurfaced, and we felt it was now more significant and poignant than before to create a piece that engages directly with the physical space that we are used to congregating in, but have unexpectedly been denied access to.
The work was originally titled #02 THEATRE — ‘#02’ indicated that it was to be the collective’s second project and ‘THEATRE’ is a reference to the venue’s name. The reference remains, but shortening it to #THEATRE is to suggest this as an ode to theatre in general as well, following its unprecedented closure in Singapore and worldwide.
Bakchormeeboy: While IN:dex was a conversation with the Theatre Studio, #THEATRE takes place in the Esplanade Theatre itself. The concepts behind the two works sound similar, but the space, completely different. Could you explain how different #THEATRE will be from IN:dex, and how the collective interpreted the Theatre space, considering how much more familiar the team has been with the studio instead?
INDEX: In IN:dex, the methodology dictated that we approach the work from our separate perspectives and interpretations, while #THEATRE sees the collective working as one and the piece is more distinctly spearheaded by the space itself. Clearly, the two venues have very different characteristics — they differ drastically in size, one is a black box while the other is a proscenium stage, one has more built-in stage mechanisms, etc. — and that in itself informs our strategies, choices and decisions differently.
It is not about how we interpret the Theatre space, though. This work is about revealing the space, and we are attempting to see, feel, hear and touch the Theatre as what it is, stripped bare of masquerades.
Familiarity means we have more personal stories and histories with the Theatre Studio and we know it better, but it is not necessarily a key factor. Having said that, we really appreciate that Esplanade had offered us the opportunity to hold a trial session in November. We spent four days experimenting in the venue and that really helped us in feeling, learning and understanding the space further.
Trailer for RAW: IN:dex as part of The Studios 2013, the group’s first project as a collective
Bakchormeeboy: In terms of the process for IN:dex, the team described it as not communicating directly with each other, and not getting any direct information about each other was doing. Was it a similar working process for #THEATRE, or more communicative this time around?
INDEX: We had been working together for a long time and were already very comfortable with each other when we kick-started the collective with IN:dex. The non-communication was a methodology we had intentionally and specifically designed as a challenge to ourselves, to rattle our comfort zones somewhat.
It was an interesting experiment, moderately frustrating and occasionally funny as we had to consciously draw parameters and withhold information, but after reviewing the process we did not see the need to pursue that path and we do not employ that method anymore.
The irony is, we are probably ‘communicating’ less in #THEATRE than we did for IN:dex. As a collective, our rapport has deepened over the past years and projects. We are even more at ease with each other now, and our collaboration processes and methods are very relaxed. We no longer require extensive discussions to reach a consensus, or detailed elaborations to feel confident that we are all on the same page.
Bakchormeeboy: What exactly does a ‘site-specific conversation’ entail, compared to how IN:dex was a ‘performative installation’?
INDEX: We decided not to re-use the term ‘performative installation’ to keep it more open and unbounded, and also to avoid any wrong expectations as we are not creating any ‘installation’ within the Theatre, so to speak. The piece is a site-specific conversation in the sense that we are interacting directly with the place — its architecture, structure, texture, energy and resonance — using the language of light, sound and space.
Bakchormeeboy: Design elements are often thought of as pre-planned, with no room for ‘live’ or improvised elements. How does the collective intend to make #THEATRE feel alive, and what were the challenges that went into that?
INDEX: It is definitely necessary to pre-plan, but we are of the opinion that it is not true design elements have no room for ‘live’ or improvised elements.
In #THEATRE’s case, the lighting element will be played live by Woan Wen, the audience will be listening to sounds that the space produces in real time, and spatially, any movement that will be activated are intrinsic to the space.
Bakchormeeboy: Beyond INDEX, all three of you have worked together across various projects (mostly with The Finger Players). INDEX sees all three of you working together directly, but compared to that, in the world of performance design, how often do lighting, sound and spatial designers interact and work together with their designs relating to each other, rather than as individuals communicating what the director hopes to bring across?
INDEX: Strictly speaking, design elements do not exist independently and should work closely together in any production. In reality the relationship between different elements and different designers differ from project to project, but light, sound and space are certainly interdependent and often intertwined, albeit in varying degrees.
Bakchormeeboy: During the lockdown, while actors took to going digital for their performances, it’s been harder for the people who work behind the scenes to find work. How did all three of you adapt to the restrictions in performance during 2020, and did the lockdown prove completely debilitating, or were there any beacons of hope amidst the gloom?
INDEX: Some of us certainly had projects cancelled or postponed due to the situation, but at the same time other opportunities have arisen. In fact, it is admittedly the unforeseen circumstances that have shaken up the usually jam-packed schedule of the Esplanade Theatre to allow us to even imagine the potential of realising this project dreamt up 7 years ago.
Economically speaking, to place such a small number of audience on the large stage of the Theatre is obviously not the most practical option. For that, we are really grateful that Esplanade has offered us this generous opportunity to make this dream-come-true.
Bakchormeeboy: What do each of you respect or admire most about the other two’s work?
INDEX: We are not sure we always admire each other (haha) but we certainly have a lot of mutual respect within the collective. While we share common tastes in aesthetics and work ethos, it is not a given that three distinct personalities can get along (most of the time, at least!) and evolve naturally as an entity, and for that we count ourselves very blessed.
Bakchormeeboy: Is there any message or thoughts you hope audiences will be able to reflect on after watching #THEATRE?
INDEX: For us, this is a distinct time to look inwards and reconsider fundamental questions of what theatre is — its meanings, and the relationships and connections within. We do not intend to deliver any messages, but we are striving to find and share with our audience the essence of the untranslatable resonance of a live performance in a tactile space that we can touch, and which can touch us deeply in return.
#THEATRE runs from 14th to 17th January 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Stage. Tickets and more information available here