Recently announced as the new Deputy Artistic Director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), Daniel Jenkins has a busy year ahead of him. Not only will he be learning the ropes of what it takes to steer the company towards the future, he’s also heavily involved in planning the upcoming season, casting, scheduling, directing and producing a couple of shows, and even taking on a few acting roles onstage. For now though, he’s putting all his energy in SRT’s newest show coming up at the end of April – C-O-N-T-A-C-T, an outdoor, promenade theatre show, quite unlike most of the company’s repertoire.
“When the idea was first touted and suggested where we found out the actors weren’t going to be speaking, I was skeptical as to how it would keep audience engaged,” says Daniel, on his first impressions of the script. “So I was really surprised in the rehearsal room when I was hooked, finding myself connected with them, on a very different level from if they had been talking out loud instead, drawing you in and forging this relationship with the actors.”
C-O-N-T-A-C-T was originally written in French by Eric Chantelauze during the pandemic, playing to rave reviews that described it as charming and gripping. After premiering in France, the work went on to tour to areas such as Europe and Canada, and now, finally makes its way to Singapore. To avoid spoiling too much of the play, essentially, audiences follow a woman named Sarah on her way home. Along the way, she encounters the mysterious Raphael, and from there, the two embark on an exploration of love, loss and connection.
But what’s also unique about the production is that neither of the actors will actually be speaking. Instead, audience members have to download an app to their phones, and listen to a pre-recorded track that allows them to listen to the characters’ thoughts as we follow them around, as if we have been granted the power of telepathy.
“It’s really quite a straightforward concept – audiences follow Sarah around and listen to her thoughts through the app,” explains Daniel. “But unlike some other promenade works we’ve seen here, we’re giving you almost free rein to choose where to experience it from, where you can choose your angle, how near or far you are from them, or to be completely out of sight, all while hearing their thoughts. It’s a very intimate piece and the way you interact with it, with this immersive soundtrack, it feels like you’ve been allowed in to witness something personal.”
This actually isn’t the first unusual venue SRT has used for their shows. After all, they’re known for their regular Shakespeare in the Park series, where they perform the Bard’s plays outdoors, or even their more experimental, 2019 production Caught, where audiences were part of an immersive theatre performance at an art gallery. Daniel himself is no stranger to such works – in 2020, he directed that year’s Young Company graduation showcase Ghost Light, where audiences were given a theatrical tour into the depths of the KC Arts Centre. This time around however, audience members will be actively roving around the Arts House and its surrounding area, uncontrolled, outdoor space where everything from traffic to the time of day could leave you with a completely different experience.
“The brief given from the French side is that there’s a sort of distance you need, where there’s signifiers for each segment, such as a bench to sit on, or being able to accommodate two separate routes for two concurrent groups to experience, but never meet,” says Daniel, on the planning process. “When we were scouting for a possible location, we went on a walk around Singapore to find somewhere nice and pleasant to walk in that had plenty of space. We considered Gardens by the Bay, which was a beautiful location, but didn’t make sense why the character would be finding herself there, as she’s on her way home in the play. Ultimately, we chose the Arts House provided that, along with being a nice central location people were familiar with, and contained all the elements we needed.”
As with other versions of the performance, the team at SRT opted to re-record the track for this particular performance, with Shu Yi Ching and Brendon Fernandez providing the voices of Sarah and Raphael, completed with pre-recorded music and a 3D soundscape. The track is also available in Greek, Italian, Dutch, and French. “While it’s been done before in Europe, with a couple of English versions but we wanted a Singaporean version. So we rerecorded the track, made a few tweaks and adjustments in the script to contextualise an localise it, and sent it to France to finalise,” says Daniel. “And while the track remains the same for every performance, there’s a lot of value in rewatching it – each iteration changes with how what happens around you is different, be it the time of day, the audience members, or even your choice as to where you stand.”
Part of the appeal of C-O-N-T-A-C-T is how much choice audience members are given as to how they want to experience it, and how deceptively ordinary it all feels. “The actors look like ordinary people, and the original French director, Samuel Sené, explained that sometimes, there would be audience members who actually come right up and sit next to the actors not knowing what’s going to happen,” says Daniel. “And they don’t know who the actors are, and might even try to move Raphael out of the way to try to comfort Sarah on their own. There’s a slight element of unpredictability to it and it’s quite fun.”
For such a unique production, casting then also required actors with a specific skillset. “It’s a hugely challenging piece for the actors. Not only do they have to learn the script and know what is happening in the audio at any point of time, they also have to make it seem natural instead of in a theatre setting,” says Daniel. “The levels of focus and concentration required is huge, and it’s so easy to see when they’re not engaged or focused. It’s about finding people who can emote and display the thoughts without showing you the thoughts on their face. It’s not overwrought, so they’re not constantly changing their expression, but much more subtle in showing their thoughts, sort of like performing for film instead of theatre.”
C-O-N-T-A-C-T features two sets of actors (Chanel Ariel Chan/Rebecca Ashley Das as Sarah, and Keagan Kang/Vester Ng as Raphael) who will be concurrently performing, with each group going down a different route. “It’s a performance that should feel extremely real, and it’s difficult to find people who can produce such a natural and nuanced performance, because there’s a temptation to push and show everything,” says Daniel. “For Raphael, we wanted to find a male actor who had an ethereal quality to them, who has a gentle presence, and displays empathy, sensitivity and understanding. Sarah on the other hand must be super natural, but also able to deal with the emotional content. And for both of them, there’s going to be audience watching you up close and scrutinising every detail. But I’m very happy with the cast, because they’ve taken to the challenge very well, and I’ve worked with quite a few of them before, and have a good working relationship with them.”
Reflecting on the significance of the piece, Daniel considers how the pandemic may have been awful, but also offered up a jolt in a new direction for creativity in theatre. “As a whole, the pandemic has been terrible for theatre, and for the whole arts industry,” says Daniel. “But in trying to look at the positive side, some good has come out of it – people have been very creative in how theatre gets produced in different ways, and as a result. audiences are also a little more open to different types of theatre, and don’t necessarily need it to be an experience where you sit down in an air-conditioned space in comfy seats. There are so many more of these outdoor events and site-specific shows now, and I doubt we would have explored them if our hand wasn’t forced a little bit.”
“Over the COVID period, save for my wife and kids, I’ve been separated from the rest of my extended family for over two years, only able to connect over Zoom,” muses Daniel. “I really am glad things are finally changing. Certainly, we’re all wary about removing the mask, to finally be able to see their faces and actually engage with them again is so refreshing and much needed. My wife is a teacher, and while they’re still wearing masks in class, they remove them when they leave, and for her, she’s seeing their faces in full for the first time in two years. So I’m pleased we can get together again and finally learn to get to know each other again and to recognise those facial expressions and body language that gets lost behind the mask.”
“This was probably one of the smallest shows SRT has ever produced, and it’s such a unique piece, so relevant for the times we’re living in. It feels like the right time to produce it, and thank goodness we’re stepping out of closed theatres and audiences are coming back,” he concludes. “And even though C-O-N-T-A-C-T was produced during the pandemic period, for an audience in the pandemic, even without such a context, you’re still left with the uniqueness of the experience, listening to these people’s emotions and thoughts on such an intimate level. It’s not meant to be an uplifting piece, but it is a moving exploration of grief and separation, and to help us, through Sarah, learn how to connect again and find love and togetherness with other people, to cherish those around you, and make the most of the limited time we have with them.”
C-O-N-T-A-C-T plays from 29th April 2022 at The Arts House. Tickets available here