Arts malaysia Review Theatre

Review: Imaginarium by Out of the Blue Theatre (George Town Festival 2021)

Opening a portal to other worlds in the comfort of your room.

The human imagination is one of the most powerful tools available to us from the moment we’re born. And in the middle of a pandemic, where so many of us are under lockdown, the limits of the human mind are put to the test, it becomes more important than ever to use it to stave off ennui and keep our mental health in check as we wake up and stay cooped up at home with nowhere to go, day after day.

The only problem? Few of us know how to fully harness it.

But that’s where Out of the Blue Theatre’s Imaginarium comes in. Created and co-written by Haylin Cai, the online audio-immersive theatre experience played as part of the 2021 George Town Festival, in a time where Malaysia faces yet another lockdown. Pre-recorded and ‘performed’ online, Imaginarium’s minimalist approach features zero visuals, only a black screen, subtitles, and the voice of co-writer Harry Dean as he guides us on this journey into the mind.

As with any journey, the team begins by ensuring we are prepared, requiring only a half glass of water, and peace and quiet. It is highly recommended that audience members are in a space familiar to them, with the freedom to move around within those confines. Listening to Harry’s confident voice, he prefaces the journey by describing how we’ve been far too obsessed with social media and technology, feeling the need to ‘connect’ in that way without allowing our minds to take a pause. As we hear the sounds of the ocean in the background, we are lulled into a relaxed state of mind, let Harry soothe us, and introduce us to the mindspace of the ‘imaginarium’, a place where anything is possible.

Imaginarium then takes the form of a guided meditation/visualisation exercise, relying completely on the power of sound. The instructions are hypnotic, where transitions into each new ‘space’ are marked by a bell to signal a change, and we can almost feel our physical bodies shift as Harry throws open the doors to this magical headspace.

We begin, as the universe does, in darkness, as Harry describes a place where everything is cramped together, before we slowly pick apart the debris. Harry’s voice is friendly but instructional, and we feel compelled to listen to his commands, innately trusting where he’s about to take us. Unlike more lofty, new-age style audio journeys, Imaginarium feels rooted in a believable reality, relying on rich descriptions of places rather than poeticisms to create an abstract mood.

The process is methodical, and instructions clear, as it illustrates clear scenarios for us to visualise in our mind’s eye. From the darkness, we find ourselves in a park, soaring on the wind to reach the top of a tall building gazing out at all we see before us, to even the farthest reaches of space as we hurtle through the night sky and into the cosmos. In particular, Tingying Dong’s masterful sound design is key to this experience, as each instruction by Harry is accompanied by atmospheric soundscapes that immerse us deeper into the experience, helping us visualise our bedroom transformed.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of our journey would be when Harry instructs us to return to our childhood, by way of counting down from 10. It’s a simple but effective way to imagine the hands of time going in reverse, and we can almost feel our bodies shrinking down, our minds loosening up and becoming more malleable and open to suggestion. Or even the use of the half glass of water we were asked to prepare at the start; the act of swirling it around creating a physical sensation to focus on, as we listen to Harry and feel ourselves plunging into a body of water.

But after all the initial fantastic places we’re taken to, the most important aspect of Imaginarium is when we return to Earth, and are asked to just look around us, out the window, and re-centre our point of view. Our task is to think of our neighbours out there, and think about how they too are stuck in this same lockdown that we are, in their own bedrooms with the potential to transform those spaces too. You remember that even though we’re physically distanced, we’re going through the same pandemic, and feel a little more desire to be connected once all this is over. Imaginarium thus ends off on this note, and gives us one final opportunity to dance in the comfort of our rooms. It is as if we’ve been roused from a long dream, and we awaken feeling better than ever in knowing how we can escape its confines through the power of imagination.

Imaginarium runs from 15th to 18th July 2021 online, as part of George Town Festival 2021. Tickets available here

George Town Festival 2021 runs from 15th 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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