They say that the idea of a utopia falls dangerously close to a dystopia, where perfection often comes at a cost – that of total control, or the hiding of some deep dark truths from public view. Created in collaboration with students from the BA (Hons) in Performance Making programme at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, new show Less Than Half will explore that disturbing future when it premieres at the 2023 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Co-directed by Adib Kosnan and Yarra Ileto, and written by Aswani Aswath, Less Than Half is set in an imagined, futuristic world, where there exists the Sama Wholeness Centre, a place that strongly supports the country’s mandate that all human lives are Whole. Citizens who do not conform to the status of Whole are put through a rigorous training programme that will help them achieve the desired status before gaining admission to the country. Those who fail seem to disappear and fall off the face of the planet. What is the truth behind the sinister Sama Wholeness Centre?
Speaking to co-director Adib Kosnan, we found out more about the preparation process and working with the NAFA students. “I’ve always been interested in exploring perspectives from people beyond the majority, which I think stems from my own status as a minority and some other work I’ve done. Yarra and I, in our conceptusalisation process, talked a lot about how both of us never felt like we truly belong in certain spaces,” says Adib. “I wanted to explore what that could mean, but use Less Than Half as an opportunity to explore a more collaborative effort, not just with the students, but also from a dance perspective with Yarra, and Aswani to really concretise the writing with the students.”
Performance Making students specialise in either dance or theatre, and primarily aims to develop your ability to work collaboratively and independently on making original and interpretative works that can contribute to today’s fast-evolving performing arts landscape. “I wanted the students to explore what it means to bring their own perspective into the piece, and think about how they might identify as a minority in any way. And not having a fixed theme for the festival this year means that I could go out and see how I could really get out there and get my collaborators to think about how far we can take the project,” says Adib.
“The process and framework to working together was so important; the initial concept for this dystopian world was something the three of us came up with, before we went into discussions with the students, where their experiences informed certain instances or characters in the play, which in turn prompted certain conversations and discussions as we developed it,” he adds. “We wanted to leave a lot of opportunity for students to explore, and we had to have many conversations to help them infuse their personality into their performance and show that onstage.”
The story itself imagines a world inspired by concentration camps and the idea of re-education, assuming that there are certain people in the world who simply are not as good as or ‘whole’ as others, and are required to assimilate. That in turn leads to one of the play’s primary ideas – the fear of every minority to give up a part of themselves in order to fit in, and what that means to different people. “We had conversations that dealt with students sharing about things they couldn’t give up or things they were being limited by, and we grappled a lot with their own idea of what a utopia would be,” says Adib. “It’s not meant to be a parallel to Singapore, it really is a fictitious world where we imagine people worshipping this ‘ideal’, and discriminates against people in poverty, foreigners or more, and focuses on what it would mean to strip them of all these things that give them their identity. Some of the characters go through this and realise its not what they want, and rather than conforming, they reject it and choose to leave the city.”
Being so cognizant of the sheer diversity in student backgrounds, it was important for Adib, Yarra and Aswani to ensure the students were given a voice, and could share their experiences in a safe space. “We do need to give minorities a voice, but sometimes when we do they feel like they’re oversharing, so we had to figure out how to have the proper conversations and create space that allowed them to talk about themselves, to honour that space, and even now, it’s an ongoing process,” says Adib. “Of course, we do structure the conversations, and do shape and direct the conversations, but from an educational perspective, I think it’s a good opportunity to allow future practitioners the space to experience the project and carry this into their own practice, to understand each other, get to know each other and honour what they share in this play together.”
From an educational perspective, the team also wanted to push students out of their comfort zones and expand their abilities, which primarily came out through the narrative and stories themselves. “We did want everyone to stick with what they were good at so they could be at their best, but the theatre students would do some choreography while the dancers do have some lines, but I do think that the subject matter alone already pushes people quite far out of their comfort zone,” says Adib. “Primarily, our focus was on the devising process, to honour that and allow a performer to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable with. That’s why we focused primarily on the content rather than the format. There’s a lot of vulnerability onstage, and it’s a chance for them to experiment in a guided manner and do things that they may not be able to say or do when they’re in the industry itself.”
What then, would go into an ideal student production? “I think we recognise than a student production will almost always be a work in progress, but on the basis of being in Fringe, we do have some flexibility to experiment and try things out with our cast, and really help students gain professional experience in the production of a show, from devising to working with designers,” says Adib. “They’re given a lot of autonomy and get to know what things work or don’t work. It’s a case where we need to satisfy and respect the needs of all parties involved – the school, the students, the festival, and ourselves. Of course we would be impressed if the end product is incredibly polished, but we’re also looking a lot at the effort that goes into it, and the learning process behind how they deal with and recover from mistakes and learn the workings of the industry.”
Finally, Adib shares the advice he has for all these young hopefuls about to graduate and enter the arts industry as working professionals. “I myself am someone who never came from art school, and it was a lot of learning as I went along. I always tell the students, you have so many resources available to you, make the most of it,” he says. “A lot of what you learn comes from observing others and asking questions, and with so much of these at their fingertips, they need to realise it won’t be the case once they get out there, and it’s important to find people they can trust and turn to for guidance. You cannot control the industry, but what you can control is your own progress as an artist, in your craft. And this bunch of performers I’ve had the chance to work with, they’ve been very positive in terms of going through these processes and changes, something that’s not easy to do at this stage in their careers, and I’m excited to see what they take away from all this, and showcase during the show itself.”
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
Less Than Half runs from 5th to 8th January 2023 at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here