Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: A Thousand Ways by 600 Highwaymen (SIFA 2021)

Learning to connect again in three parts.

After a year of the pandemic, watching dramatic readings on Zoom and pre-recorded archival footage, audience members are hungry for one thing – engagement. And one of the most effective ways of doing that is turning the tables and transforming the audience into the artist.

In a way, that’s what 600 Highwaymen have done in A Thousand Ways, which played as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Split across three parts, the work is described as a series of encounters between audience members, who then build performances for each other given a set of instructions and prompts, allowing perfect strangers to forge closeness in spite of their distance.

Back in November, we experienced Part One: A Phone Call. While venues were still making baby steps towards re-opening, A Thousand Ways circumvented that by creating a performance that could be experienced anywhere. All you needed was a working phone. In a world where we’ve become obsessed with texting, we are aware that people simply don’t talk anymore. The human voice can be an easy way of reaching out and connecting, even if we’re not physically together.

A Phone Call then attempts to bridge that gap and find the human connection again. When we pick up the call, we are greeted by an automated voice, as well as a second audience member on the other line. Over the course of the conversation, the automated voice poses a series of personal questions to both ‘audience’ members, as we answer them and listen out for each other’s reactions, whether it’s our respective responses or just laughter. Even though we couldn’t see each other, by being asked to describe ourselves, we got an inkling of what the other person was like, where they were, and what they were going through, essentially making A Phone Call an exercise in listening.

With an automated voice however, it comes with its fair share of frustrations, something we knew after a lifetime of dealing with such entities over banks and telco services. There were times it was hard to hear what the voice was saying or asking for, with no way of asking them to repeat themselves, something both listeners commiserated in and shared a laugh over. By the end of the experience, it felt like we’d made a new friend, even if there was no follow up to cement that new relationship. A Phone Call then, was a great way of re-learning how to start a conversation again after a year spent mostly in lockdown, and the importance of finding the human connection we were craving for.

But that all changes in Part Two: An Encounter in April. Now on location, this iteration had us heading to the Malay Heirtage Centre Auditorium. Sweeping the curtain away in front of me, I saw an illuminated table in the middle of the space, with two chairs on either end. A sat on one side, while a second audience member sat opposite me, separated by a pane of plexiglass.

To be there in the centre of the theatre like that feels daunting, with the spotlight on both of us, strangers to each other, as if we were being watched by an invisible, unknown audience. Our experience begins when I am asked to put my hand on the table. We are to engage in conversation with each other, prompted by instructions and questions on a pack of cards, and by the end of the session, get to know each other.

Screenshot 2021-04-17 at 1.16.00 PM

The series of interactions begins tentatively, from a simple ‘hi’, to smiling, to being told at specific parts of the person opposite us or into each other’s eyes. Unlike A Phone Call, An Encounter takes the degree of human connection a step further, thanks to how we could now actually see each other react, in our facial expressions or body language. As the experience progressed, the instructions began to probe deeper, and touch on more personal territory, to the extent we wondered if we should lie, or tell the truth to a perfect stranger (and if we did lie, would they be able to tell?).

You could practically feel the electric buzz in the air when we are each asked to put our hand on the glass, ‘touching’ even when apart. This feeling is the result of our interactions, and how the act of persevering on and learning about each other creates that closeness in just 50 minutes. It was almost surreal to get to know someone new in this context, a reminder that real, genuine conversation is so important, and to check in with each other in these pandemic times. We left the experiencing more aware of how rich all these lives are of strangers we walk by every day, and more sensitive to the people all around us. By the end of it, again, I felt like I’d forged a brand new connection, and even if we were released back to our own separate lives, this experience had left us more fulfilled by the act of sharing, and welcoming a new person into our lives, if only temporarily.

Unfortunately, due to the evolving pandemic situation in Singapore, Part Three: An Assembly could not be staged in May, resulting in an incomplete journey. Initially intended as a public convening in a theatre space, the assembly would have expanded on An Encounter by showcasing the power and complexity of community and groups.

But as much as there will always be a missing part to the experience we will be haunted by, both Parts One and Two showed how A Thousand Ways was a progressive experience, slowly but surely reminding us about the importance of conversation, listening to each other, and connecting on an emotional level with a fellow human being. The pandemic has left many of us tired, but it is through this act of being vulnerable, through exchange and allowing ourselves to open up, that keeps us going, and survive these uncertain times.

A Thousand Ways Part One: A Phone Call ran from 5th to 22nd November 2020. More information available here

A Thousand Ways Part Two: An Encounter ran from 15th April to 2nd May 2021 at the Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium. More information available here

A Thousand Ways Part Three: An Assembly was slated to run at the SOTA Drama Theatre from 21st to 23rd May, but cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More information available  here

The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here  

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