Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: A Thousand Ways Part III – An Assembly by 600 Highwaymen (SIFA 2021)

Last leg of the journey.

After being cancelled in the midst of the Heightened Alert phase, we were filled with disappointment that we would likely never catch the final instalment of 600 Highwaymen’s three-part show A Thousand Ways. But perhaps, rather miraculously, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) pressed on, and somehow found a way to revive the show, allowing those who had started this journey, to finish it over the National Day weekend.

In a similar vein to the last two instalments, A Thousand Ways Part III: An Assembly, is all about getting to know a complete stranger in a short span of time. But where Part I and Part II were one-on-one experience in light of the pandemic, An Assembly expands the scope to 20 people, all onstage at the same time as they play both audience and performer for this experience.

Playing at the SOTA Drama Theatre, all we see are 20 unlabelled chairs onstage. We are allowed to sit on any of the chairs we want, and when we pick our seat, there’s a folder waiting for us, with clear instructions not to look inside until told to do so. Looking around us, we’re surrounded by audience members, each one of a different age, different background, a different face. With the sheer diversity of people, strangers to each other, how will we possibly coordinate our ‘performance’, as the doors shut, and we get ready to begin?

But once it begins, the doors shutting behind us, the process is smooth like clockwork, even without a director or facilitator. It’s only human to want things to be done in the ‘right’ way, and when we open up our folders, we find ourselves with a set of instructions, with specific lines highlighted clearly for each individual to read. Like in previous iterations, the bulk of the piece focuses on asking each other questions, with nobody guiding us, completely dependent on the audience’s willingness to follow the ‘rules’ and comply with the script.

It is in times like this that we really feel the power of communication and conversation, a rare opportunity since COVID-19 emerged to gather and assemble in a relatively large group and just get to know one another. As more questions are asked, we learn to just share in this space and time with each other, getting more comfortable as the work progresses, and more forthcoming with our answers, even delving into the dangerously personal.

From time to time, we hesitate when we are asked to raise our hands in response, unsure whether to go with the flow or not, to open up and be real with these people we’re meeting for the first time with such hard hitting questions. And perhaps that too encapsulates the idea of life – that it is never a straightforward narrative, as we constantly figure out how to navigate our relationships, and how best to cherish, embrace and love the people that come into our lives. Even if we trip and stumble over our lines in this ‘performance’, we acknowledge and accept these flaws, knowing that life isn’t always smooth-sailing.

The beauty of An Assembly lies in this idea that we are all imperfect – its script itself highlights that we will trip a little, stumble a little, and often not get it right. Yet amidst these imperfections, we find solace in community, helping each other out where we need to, and with no photos or videos allowed, lets us to focus our attention fully on the here and now, keeping this experience in our memory.

And as we come to the end, bringing our journey with A Thousand Ways to a close at last, we pause for a moment of reflection, thinking over everything that has happened to the world in the nearly 2 years since the pandemic began. We leave the theatre more aware and appreciative of the little things that get us through each day, and to see the SIFA team push through and make this final iteration happen is testament to their commitment to both artist and audience. On this journey together, there is no end goal; only the process of learning to trust each other, have faith in each other, and share in the conversations and laughter along the way.

A Thousand Ways Part Three: An Assembly ran at the SOTA Drama Theatre from 5th to 7th August 2021. More information about the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts available here  

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