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George Town Festival 2021: An Interview with Danny Yeo, co-creator of BODY X – The Culprit

When theatremakers Danny Yeo and Li Xie founded BODY X Productions in 2014, immersive theatre in Singapore was practically non-existent at the time, marking them as local pioneers of the genre. Making their debut with BODY X – The Wedding at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014 to fascinated audiences, they took the success in their stride, returning in 2016 with BODY X – The Rehearsal.

Now, the group have found themselves as pioneers yet again, this time as one of the very first companies to produce interactive digital theatre while in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. After receiving the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Digital Presentation Grant, the company produced BODY X – The Culprit in 2020, a digital murder mystery that had audience members playing detective as they wracked their brains to solve the case, and a production we hailed as having “set a standard for digital murder mysteries both now and in the future”.

If you missed the opportunity to catch it back in 2020, there’s still another chance, as the show returns as part of the 2021 George Town Festival, running from 10th to 18th July online. But as much as the show enjoys its success today, it hasn’t always been the case, as we learnt from producer Danny Yeo, who describes the entire process as a bit of a roller coaster.

“When we initially applied to George Town Festival, we were actually declined due to budget constraints,” Danny explains. “But surprisingly, a few months later, we received an email from them, and they said that circumstances had changed and they could now host us for the festival. It’s a happy twist, and we’re excited to bridge that gap between Singapore and Malaysia after a year of the pandemic, via theatre.”

Conceptualising the project alone was already a challenge to begin with, as digital murder mysteries, at the time, had not yet become mainstream, with few theatremakers familiar with the mechanics of such a show, or how to go about executing it. “We knew that while it was going to be on film, we ourselves aren’t filmmakers, so how could we maintain the theatrical elements of this show while taking it online?” says Danny. “The most important part to maintain was the audience interaction and involvement, and making sure they felt like they were a part of the show.”

“There was a steep learning curve; some of us had to practically learn to become technicians and IT experts, and not just master it, but also ensure that nothing went wrong so that the audience experience wouldn’t be compromised. Even when it came to how we would film it, we considered how we would make it more theatrical, and as if the audience members were there watching these actors. To do that, the footage had to feel a little raw and not too expertly filmed, so as to maintain the realism.”

As it turned out, that was just the start of many hurdles BODY X would be facing over the course of the year, with the next big hoop to jump through being how to market it to audiences, and get them to understand what the show was all about. “Not many people realise that there’s still so much back end work, with stagehands, production crew and actors. You’ve got six people on the back end doing tech, one person handling audience members in the rooms, one person on comms, and all that adds up to a whole production team,” says Danny.

“Even when we pitched it to schools, teachers were asking so many questions, like why can’t we just buy one ticket and screen it in class, rather than individual tickets, or people were questioning why Zoom, and about issues of privacy. What they don’t realise is that because of how interactive it is, the audience has to get involved as an individual to get drawn into the drama.”

“But in a way, as arts practitioners trying to make clear what this new genre was, it was very fortunate that we were one of the first to do this, and got to establish what digital theatre could be.”

Danny Yeo. Photo Credit: Tan Ngiap Heng

Even when the team finally made the project come to life, it was a bittersweet victory. “After our very first run, we felt very defeated because even after accounting ticket sales and the NAC grant, we were in the red. People don’t realise that there’s still so many people involved in a digital work, and it’s akin to a full production,” Danny recalls.

“But subsequently, we presented the show to 3,000 students under an MOE programme, and we got out of the red at last. And now, it’s been the production from NAC’s Digital Production Grant with the longest legs, and is still ongoing.”

BODY X – The Culprit has received strong reception from local schools it was presented to, not only succeeding as a means to present the Chinese language to students, but successfully capturing their imagination and sustaining their attention. “With the kids, we were apprehensive at first, because this was a generation who grew up with YouTube and short form videos on TikTok, and we were doing a much longer form of entertainment,” says Danny. “But from the feedback we received from schools, we heard that even students who usually weren’t very participative got involved in the show. We’re now in discussions to present it to schools again in October.”

Danny Yeo. Photo Credit: Tan Ngiap Heng

From the outset, BODY X – The Culprit seems like a complicated play, but at its heart, its creators really just want to tell a nuanced story that will resonate with audience members. “We approached BODY X the same way we learned theatre; it was never been about ‘tricking’ the audience with a difficult mystery, but to create a story that had some kind of social issue or historical background to it,” says Danny. “The story is set in 1985, when Singapore faced its first big economic crisis, and it parallels how 2020 and the pandemic created such a huge challenge for the country. How then are ordinary people, the kind you meet every day in a kopitiam, affected by this? That’s what the audience members feel for, as they hear their stories and relate to them and what they’re going through.”

“BODY X isn’t about putting forth a moral, but to get people to understand that everyone has their own backstory and possible motives for doing what they do, whether it’s love, revenge or money.”

Fun fact: during rehearsals, not even the cast themselves knew who the culprit actually was, testament to the complete trust and belief the BODY X team have in each other after working together for so many years, and knowing each other for even longer than that.

Reflecting on how far they’ve come, Danny is happy with the progress the company has made, and the impact they’ve had on the arts scene. “When we founded the company in 2014, I don’t think anyone had ever experienced murder mysteries or theatre in the way we presented it, where you could be so close to an actor and follow them,” he says. “People were even wondering how could we have two or three scenes happening at the same time in different rooms. We have friends within the Chinese theatre circle who’re always asking to be a part of it, and that makes me happy, to know that we have such support and we’re committed to keep evolving as we go on.”

“For now, we’re considering how to approach the next production, and how we can make use of opportunities like NAC’s SEP grant,” says Danny, on how the future of BODY X looks. “I was thinking that all these companies that have done digital theatre should have a sharing session and discuss what worked or didn’t work, so perhaps the next time one of us does a digital work, he or she knows how to improve it, and continue to develop this genre of theatre in our scene.”

“While we are thinking of going back to a live theatre production, it’s much harder to do that in these times, with the limits on audience numbers, the need to disinfect and clean the venue, and budget. We have to ask ourselves if we can balance the books,” he admits. “Perhaps, if possible, we might house the BODY X experience in a more permanent location, so that more people can have access to it, or even create a television miniseries. With what we’ve achieved so far, we’re going to keep at it, and keep improving with what new technology and concepts develop over the next year.”

BODY X – The Culprit runs from 10th to 18th July 2021 online, as part of George Town Festival 2021. Tickets available here

George Town Festival 2021 runs from 10th to 18th July 2021. For more information, visit georgetownfestival.com or follow George Town Festival on Facebook and Instagram for the latest updates.

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