In the span of two years, COVID-19 may have disrupted the world as we knew it, but perhaps, has also been necessary for unveiling some deep-seated, undiscussed issues within our society. In remaining cooped up at home, in social distancing and covering up with masks, and in choosing to put ourselves before others, our innate sense of urban loneliness in the big city has been exacerbated and entered public conversation. How do we start the process of mending these wounds?
The long road to healing will surely take years, but in an attempt to make sense of all this, Rei Poh, Goh Shou Yi and the students of NAFA’s pioneer student cohort of BA (Hons) in Performance Making have devised 0.01, a brand new performance premiering at the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
The work’s title takes reference from Wong Kar Wai’s cult film classic Chungking Express, which explores the idea of loneliness in cramped urban spaces. In a tightly structured urban city like Hong Kong, he posits that there only exists a tiny space of 0.01cm between us. Yet it is this same space that could make or break our relationships, whether we choose empathy and close that gap, or choose to remain forever separated.
Speaking to Goh Shou Yi, we discussed how 0.01 seeks to explore such ideas of connection and disconnection in a pandemic-stricken time where we seem to drift further and further apart. “I think urban loneliness exists across all the big cities, whether it’s Hong Kong, Singapore, New York or London,” says Shou Yi. “It’s something that’s always been present, but it’s only become more apparent during the pandemic, and how it relates to our mental health.”
“When I used to study in New York, sometimes I would observe the pedestrians and notice how detached they are from each other. And similarly for Singapore, even though we’re an Asian country, which are usually more open and welcoming in our culture, we’re so Westernised in comparison,” he adds. “There’s more individualism here, more of a ‘mind own business’ attitude, like if you’re walking down the road and someone faints, people will notice it, lean in to help, but then hesitate and wonder if they should. Everyone is innately kind and wants to reach out, but are very shy or hesitant.”
It is with this realisation in mind, coupled with the mental and emotional strain brought on by COVID-19, that he and fellow artist Rei Poh began the process of developing 0.01. Both lecturers at NAFA, while Shou Yi specialises in dance, Rei focuses instead on the theatre side, making for an interesting dynamic in coming together to lead this group of Performance Making students.
The course, in short, is a hybrid programmes that offers students a specialisation in either Dance or Theatre, while also opening up opportunities to explore interdisciplinary work between forms and new perspectives and approaches. “There are some overlaps between the two students, where theatre students might look at movement classes, while dance students might try improvisation,” says Shou Yi. “To facilitate this interdisciplinary style in a single production, both Rei and I tried to see performance making from each other’s point of view. When Rei talked about how characters develop, with backstories, I found it quite different to how I was more used to dance just putting emotions into action. So it was important to create that safe space to facilitate synergy between art forms, and allow the students to feel comfortable when devising.”
As with any devised work, the resulting production is more than the sum of its parts, as each student contributes their stories to the pieces, reflecting on what their loneliness looks like, their process of healing, or even the pain point that created a need to heal in the first place. And in such situations where students open up and offer their most vulnerable selves, it is important to create a safe space to facilitate such discussion.
“Our dramaturg was Zee Wong, and both Zee and Rei were able to facilitate a safe process, where they talked a lot about how people can feel ok one day, and not so much the other,” says Shou Yi. “That’s the hardest part, when people were so guarded at the beginning, but it’s about reassuring them and creating a space where they can finally feel comfortable to share. Zee and Rei reassured them that at any point they felt uncomfortable, they were free to walk away during rehearsals.”
“After a few weeks, I was quite surprised how open and willing the students have been, especially when it comes to such a personal process,” adds Shou Yi. “As facilitators, we’re not here to just tell them what to do, but to get them to devise their own performance, and we’re on a journey as much as they are. It’s tedious at times, but the journey has really helped us get to know each other better, and allowed more connection and vulnerability and self acceptance.”
One thing of note about 0.01 is how intimate the entire experience will be for audiences. At just 20 members per show, each group of audience members will be experiencing it as a community, listening and feeling each story as it is being told. “The performance seems linear, but also weaves in and out of the various stories, some things said, and other left unsaid,” explains Shou Yi. “Issues such as how masks and social distancing have made it so easy misinterpret what others say or mean, while some people have responded to the issue as keyboard warriors in cyberspace. I do remain hopeful about it though, as at least, now it’s out there in the open, people are willing to talk about it, and we realise more than ever, the need to help each other.”
“I do hope that the audience can hopefully come in and watch the play with their heart more than their mind,” he adds. “Even if you don’t understand it, I hope that it’s a production that creates goosebumps, and that something resonates with them. With just an audience of 20, they can see and experience everything, and they’ll each be wearing headphones, so it feels like a collective experience of our stories, while being in your own world, and hopefully, they walk away with those feelings in their heart.”
Knowing how difficult it can be to be an artist, Shou Yi shares his personal advice for these young hopefuls on the verge of graduating, deciding to take a realistic but optimistic approach when talking to them. “I don’t want to smash all their hopes, but also don’t want them to go into the industry not grounded,” he says. “I try to ask them to go beyond school, and to go for classes, festivals, volunteer, watch shows, talk to directors, playwrights, and members of the industry because there’s just no better way for themselves to get the information firsthand.”
“I remember having good teachers who just told me to email artists like Pina Bausch, to just try, and things actually happened when I did. So many Artistic Directors and companies are actually very open and willing to share their craft,” he adds. “When Rei came back from Melbourne, he introduced so many new interactive and gamification elements to theatre that the scene hadn’t really explored yet, and for myself, there’ve been so many new permutations of ways to present work overseas. I hope that when they graduate, this generation injects some new things and brings their own ideas into the art scene, and that they continue to challenge boundaries.”
Coming back to this year’s theme of The Helpers, Shou Yi concludes by saying it couldn’t have come at a better time, and on a personal note, shares how he’s been approaching it. “Personally, I’m not the kind of person who will actively go to someone and check in on them, and my family when growing up, wasn’t very open, where we don’t really express our love for each other,” he says. “In creating this work and listening to people’s stories, it hit me so hard on how we all need help, and how we can all help in some way, even if it’s just buying tissue from the uncle. I still hesitate and question it before committing, but I try to push it aside. $1 may not be very much to you, but it’s still help, in some small way.”
“These days, society is very fragile and divided – we can argue over an issue, and suddenly find ourselves fighting and on two different sides. But we can also agree to disagree, and still care for each other without pigeonholing ourselves and our opinion. So the theme of The Helpers, at least on a personal level, has really made me rethink and re-open some personal doors towards understanding my relationships with my friends and family.”
Photo Credit: Jyanne Plr, @yane_dere
0.01 runs from 13th to 16th January 2022 at the NAFA Studio Theatre, as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here