Over the last year, Sight Lines Entertainment has been making the most of a bad situation, and finding the silver lining in the pandemic. With live theatre shows taking a severe hit, whether cancelled, postponed or limited audience numbers, the arts company has instead opted to go full speed ahead into the digital realm. The results have been varied, but one thing’s for certain – each new project they’ve produced has been pushing at the boundaries, building on their knowledge and experience to bring new dimensions to their technology each time.
In their latest project, Murder at Old Changi Hospital, Sight Lines Entertainment presents a spiritual prequel to their previous Murder at Mandai Camp. While both works do feature a vengeful pontianak ghost, this time around, the pontianak takes centre stage, with her tragic origins explored in detail by audience members, or players, against the spooky backdrop of the infamously supernatural titular hospital. We spoke to producer Derrick Chew and actress Munah Bagharib to find out more about the inspiration behind this edition, and how Sight Lines plans to continue evolving their unique brand of ‘theatre’ into the future.
“My brother actually goes ghost hunting a lot, and as a family, we were always intrigued by this supernatural world and the story of the Pontianak,” explains Munah. “I remember how when we were younger, every time we had a chalet at Changi as a teen, we would make sure to arrange to explore the area. So when I was approached by Derrick, I got so excited at the idea, and wanted to be a part of this.”
Munah’s role is integral, if not the most important one of the show. She plays the victim at the heart of the mystery – a young canteen worker, Farah Aiyah, who is murdered in 1996. What happens to her remains a mystery, but suffice to say, something supernatural is afoot.
“Farah is a foreigner, and she’s just trying to find her footing in this new country. And she’s young, so she’s still very romantic, and has this idea about how love is so magical, and believes that she’ll find a boy who cares about her, without realising that it will involve a lot of pain as well,” explains Munah. “In real life, I’m a bit more ‘lup sup’ compared to Farah! But I resonate with how it’s such a human story, and realise she’s just out for justice against the perpetrators.”
“Even though it’s not as scary as it used to be, Old Changi Hospital is still so significant in my life because of my fascination with it, and I’d try incorporating that same sense of fascination into the experience, and capture the feel the relevance, and the eerie atmosphere and the joy of exploration in my performance,” she adds.
With ‘digital theatre’ still being so new-fangled, producer Derrick Chew recognises the challenges still present, even with all the experience the company has had with past productions. “We’ve been constantly improving our style and execution, but it’s still a lot of work to create,” he says. “Beyond shooting each scene with 360 degree cameras, we add sound and animation, and then finally pass it to the game developer to insert into the game. And if there’s tweaks, it needs a full filming again, and restart the process.”
“What’s interesting about this show is how we’re adding even more new game and puzzle elements into it, with our new tech partners The Doodle People,” he continues. “The rest of the team is mostly the same, as we all work together to achieve director/playwright Chong Tze Chien’s vision, and besides Munah, we’re also bringing Joshua Lim, Jon Cancio, Andre Chong, and Wayne Lim as new cast members, and Tze Chien has worked with them in some capacity before. Erwin Shah Ismail and Bright Ong are returning cast members, but will be playing completely different roles. We’ve all got a great working relationship, and it’s been a breeze to work together with all our collaborators.”
Munah concurs, expressing how easy it was to work with the actors, many of whom she’d collaborated with before, while even for first time collaborators Andre and Wayne, she found it easy to build chemistry with them on set. “You know, at first I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I really liked the story, coupled with how it was a new medium, and how I wanted to explore it as an artist and try something new,” says Munah. “The pandemic has had a severe effect on live theatre, and I do want to say that for the time being, this form of digital theatre is one way we could move forward. In terms of rehearsals, it does take a bit of getting used to the 360 degree camera, sort of like performing onstage but more of a combination with TV as well.”
While Derrick does sincerely believe in digital theatre being a key part of the future arts scene, he’s realistic about this particular project, and recognises that it acts more as an additional portfolio piece that precedes bigger projects to come. “Is this going to make money? No. Costs are too high. But I do think this is an investment, and contributes to our portfolio, and makes it easier to pitch to other companies so they know what we’re doing, and can understand what we’re pitching to them,” he says. “There’s been an attempt from boards and organisations to give companies grants tide over this period, but it’s not enough, and you can see how it’s started to create a glut as well, as creatives try to rush out productions that are due, even amidst the tight deadlines for completion.”
“In fact, looking ahead, we’re planning on working closely with the Arts & Civic District, and another project where Munah is also involved,” he continues. The idea is to activate different precincts, like Joo Chiat. So it’ll be site-specific, but also incorporate tech. And with the pandemic in mind, seating won’t be a problem because it’ll be self-guided.”
“For now though, we do know that virtual can’t be the one and only way in future, and we’re still competing with channels like Netflix and Disney+. Theatre still needs a live element to it,” acknowledges Derrick. “With this project, we’re thinking of expanding capacity in our game tech, making it a more seamless experience, and try to generate more buzz, even reach out to international audiences. Right now it’s really about giving it time to gain traction, and for people to actually understand what kind of experience this is, with how new it is as a medium.”
“This is still such a new type of show, and right now it’s about getting participants and people to actually do it, and understand what it’s about, so we have the audience base to branch out further,” chimes in Munah. “When friends ask about it, I describe it as a kind of choose your own adventure game, with the level of interaction. They’re intrigued because it’s something fresh, and there’s that immersive element, even when online.”
One thing Sight Lines has done to incorporate the live element to it is adapting the show for a live play experience, where the audience members step into the shoes of the paranormal investigators at a real life, secret location. Attuned to the spirits, they are thrown into the events that continue to bedevil the abandoned hospital, and any who get close. The immersive event starts with an escape game at an undisclosed location, which will unlock access to the virtual gameplay to be played at the players’ own time and space.
“We believe you cannot use the methods of yesterday to compete with the economies of tomorrow. Digitalisation isn’t just putting a show online, but understanding what current and new audiences are looking for,” says Derrick. “Even within the digital space, we’re introducing a chat function so people can communicate with each other and create this communal feeling.”
Looking forward on a more personal basis, both Munah and Derrick are hopeful for the future, and firmly believe it won’t be long before the pandemic clears up. “I do want to progress further as an artist, and grow more, maybe do more of my own productions and develop my career instead of just working with clients,” says Munah. “You should do something because you’re passionate about it, and not for the likes or followers; only then will things naturally come your way, and your audience will be able to tell. And over this year, the sheer number of opportunities I’ve been lucky to have, it keeps me excited.”
“I’m looking forward to Singapore re-opening again, and to be able to be more free again after being ‘trapped’ her for 2 years,” says Derrick. “It hasn’t been easy to go through all this, but I think there will be more joy next year. I know that our hybrid model of theatre will reach a lot of new audiences, and people who’ve never even stepped into the theatre, and I hope it helps contribute to a more cultured scene in Singapore.”
“I’m no longer as afraid to go into the new year as I was at the end of 2020, and this year has really been all about learning from our mistakes in 2020, and trying to make things work,” concludes Munah. “Working with Sight Lines, I feel like they’ve opened up so many options for people, to try new things, and opportunities for the arts scene. It’s a good place to be, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2022.”
Murder at Old Changi Hospital runs online from 8th October to 7th November 2021, every Friday to Sunday at 8.30pm and 10pm. Tickets available here Each experience will run for approximately 90 minutes, and each ticket allows for group access via one device with options for clue and time extension add-ons. Clues can also be activated for additional costs at specific points in the experience.
Murder at Old Changi Hospital The Live Experience plays at a secret location from 12th November 2021 to 2nd January 2022, every Friday to Sunday, at 2pm, 3.30pm, 5pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 9pm. Tickets available here