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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021: Koh Wan Ching and Andrew Sutherland shed light on ‘a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be’

In a world that seems all but apocalyptic, be it from the storm of politics, the wave of disease or the melting of the polar ice caps, it’s only natural that we begin looking back on ourselves, and wonder what exactly life is all about. For director Koh Wan Ching and playwright Andrew Sutherland, that’s something encapsulated in their play a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be.

Playing as part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, this production of a line could be crossed marks its second production, following its debut as performed by Intercultural Theatre Institute students back in 2019. Now, newly armed with a professional cast comprising Grace Kalaiselvi, Irfan Kasban, Jeramy Lim, Liz Sergeant Tan and Shahid Nasheer, along with a new design team comprising Vivian Wang on sound and Huang Xiangbin on lighting, they’re back to warn us all of the fine line we might be about to cross, with no hope of return as the world changes forevermore.

“Everything is going to be cleaner and more colourful, and with the three-sided staging, we’re hoping to achieve a greater intimacy with the audience, even with safe distancing measures in place,” says director Wan Ching. “But we’re mostly happy that we get to even stage it. Even after we were shortlisted this year, we weren’t sure if theatres would be open again in January, and everything has been in a state of flux, and learning to adapt to not being able to fly the design team in, casting changes because of shifts in schedule due to the pandemic.”

With some of the play’s main themes revolving around connectivity and climate change, Wan Ching reflects on the idea, applying it to the theatre industry. “Actually, I like to think of it as an ecosystem rather than an industry, because that brings into focus the idea that we are all connected,” she says. “Theatre as a whole has the potential to grow and evolve, and in recent years, there’ve been so many efforts to reach out to different parties and make things better, whether it’s in terms of accessibility or even improving on fair practices. When it comes down to climate change, theatre may not have a direct impact, but we hope it has an effect on fostering awareness and getting people to think of the impact of their actions.”

“I do believe that theatre has the potential to reduce harm, and if you go to Australia, you can see some theatre spaces and independent companies and venues working to become carbon negative,” adds Andrew. “Certainly, theatre isn’t the biggest form of change, because you have education and protests and revolutions to have a much greater and more immediate impact, but what it does do is offer a unique space to complicate existing narratives, and get audiences to reflect and think about the way the world is changing.”

Reflecting on the futility of individual action in the face of climate change, Andrew thinks about how the pandemic has affected him and his thoughts. “With the hard border closure for most of 2020, I can’t really imagine even getting on a plane or going anywhere,” he says. “I think a lot about how the pandemic has led to feelings of isolation and helplessness, and perhaps the way to cope with that is to focus on acts of collaboration and interpersonal change, while grappling with our own responsibilities and the looming future. It’s true that individual change is mostly irrelevant, unless you’re someone like Jeff Bezos, but as an individual, we can try to effect some sense of solidarity and change in the interactions we have.”

“Back when we did the 2019 production, we discussed this a lot with the ITI students, and discussed what the point of even doing something like this was,” says Wan Ching. “It’s interesting how a lot of them were foreigners, and even though we’re in Singapore, they reminded us how climate change was at the forefront in their home countries, and how its effects could be seen and felt more than over here, so we have to continue to spread this culture of care, of taking care of people and each other. Perhaps instead of adapting to these changes, we need to really focus on how we can slow down and reflect, and give ourselves time to be less productive, and start focusing on things like healthcare and elder care and accessibility care that need the most help right now, before figuring out how we evolve to deal with the changes to come.”

“In a way, the pandemic and how it’s caused us to become unable to perform publicly has forced us into experimentation, turning unexpected places into performance spaces, and undertake more creative development with no fixed outcomes.”

Andrew Sutherland

Thinking about how the pandemic’s restrictions have affected the industry, Wan Ching chooses to see the silver lining, with a chance to experiment in form. “We’ve been having an ongoing discussion at ITI where I teach about how actor training shifts in this climate, and I turned to outdoor theatre, where we ended up doing a whole production of the The Bacchae outside of the school with students masked and shouting and safely distanced,” she says. “I was also doing this thing called tiny theatre, which is small, puppetry based work, and I’ve been thinking it might be viable to bring that to schools, since they can no longer have full assembly programmes, and it works for class sizes of 20 or so. You won’t have to project very loudly, and it’s something different from the usual digital or hybrid theatre forms out there.”

“In a way, the pandemic and how it’s caused us to become unable to perform publicly has forced us into experimentation, turning unexpected places into performance spaces, and undertake more creative development with no fixed outcomes,” says Andrew. “In the last year, we’ve seen so many thinkpieces on digital theatre and why it’s not theatre, and a lot of less successful pieces I’ve watched are more like impersonating experiences, rather than making it their own. The best thing I’ve seen this year is Harriet Gillies’ PLEASUREDOME or, a vision in a dream. A fragment, but I don’t think it’s online anymore, and there’s also been a creep towards creating a borderless online archive, where we’ve seen the potential of keeping theatre archives accessible by putting them online.”

That of course raises the question on the quality of the performance audiences not experiencing a line could be crossed live would face, as they catch the pre-recorded version from their homes. “I was definitely hesitant about putting it on a digital platform, because it was written to be performed and embodied live in the theatre. I was even willing to go to the extent of giving it up altogether if we couldn’t have a live platform to perform it in, as a responsibility to my art,” says Wan Ching. “We eventually reached a consensus that it must be made clear to the audience that it was made for the theatre, and what they experience online is simply not the same. As much as I want to gear resources towards making it work for the digital space as well, as an independent producer, I simply don’t have the resources to do it at this point.”

“And I think about Zoom classes in the circuit breaker, and I realised I had no idea how to do it, to teach an embodied practice in a non-embodied way. But somehow, people pressed on, and it showed just how everyone was trying to reach out and connect in spite of our distance, and remain together despite being apart.”

Koh Wan Ching

If you’ve been reading up to this point, you’ll probably have noticed the rather fascinating promo photos shot for a line could be crossed, featuring an unknown actor in an animal mask standing in a murky sea, cargo ships behind her as she poses in positions of shock and horror. That actress happens to be Wan Ching herself, and the story behind them quite interesting. “We took the photos right after the lockdown lifted, because we needed to submit publicity photos around that time,” says Wan Ching. “I tried to trial the shots at home with animal masks and miniature cities, but I can’t take photos so the results were awful. I called up Rachel (Lim), who took production shots for my last show, and we took inspiration from Italian sculptor Alessandro Gallo, who explores the relationship between humans and animals and sculpts animal faces on human bodies. We went to the beach, and were worried because the light wasn’t great, the weather was bad and there was so much trash, but somehow, it all came together quite nicely, to create these strange protohumans pulling scrap materials from all sorts of places.”

“In a lot of the readings we were doing as part of our research, people talk about how we conceive of ourselves as separate from the natural world or the environment, and talk about Nature with a capital N or The Environment,” concludes Wan Ching. “And the biggest things in this piece is to build the awareness that everything is connected. We can’t speak about climate without speaking of inequality and property and issues. And I think about Zoom classes in the circuit breaker, and I realised I had no idea how to do it, to teach an embodied practice in a non-embodied way. But somehow, people pressed on, and it showed just how everyone was trying to reach out and connect in spite of our distance, and remain together despite being apart.”

Photo credit: Rachel Lim Hue Li

a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 20th to 23rd January 2021, while the Live Stream is available from 23rd to 29th January 2021. Tickets available here

The 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 20th to 31st January 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC

For the first time, the Fringe is launching a special stay-home package to catch all performances at the festival via SISTIC Live. For an exclusive rate of $95, get access to all videos on demand of the Fringe performances throughout their screening periods.

Check out more information and the safety measures at venues the Fringe will be held at on their website here

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