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  • Mohamad Shaifulbahri

Empty Chairs in Empty Theatres

For those of us working in the performing arts, a theatre remaining empty is a pretty unfathomable idea...until the pandemic hit us at least. You spend a lot of time in them whether watching a peer's show or working on one. The thrill of the lights dimming ahead of a performance coming alive before you, in that space, in that moment in time, is one of the more magical things you can encounter. I enjoy the moment as much as I enjoy wandering backstage or standing in the wings during a run of a show I've produced, listening to audiences' reactions. The feeling of people reacting to a funny or sad moment land, is in return magical to those of us who worked on bringing the story to life. If you've never done it, take a moment and try, the next time you get a chance.


Broadway and the West End come to mind when you think of the 2 famous theatre streets in the world. I've been a West End boy (I've not been to Broadway by the way!) and so the fact that theatres would remain empty hit me when sometime in March, UK theatres collectively made the decision to not proceed with shows and shutting their doors. The West End without a crowd, bustling pavements or bright lights? Mad. Naturally, the emptiness was further compounded by the fact that Singapore theatres had to close and slowly, I find out that all my projects for the remainder of the year, local or otherwise, had been postponed or cancelled. This was it. What made it worse was the not knowing when we could return to the theatres.


And I tried to recall the last show I had seen in a theatre and as I write this, I have to check my notes (if I can find them) because it was in Melbourne while I was attending the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM). I did a show in Singapore in the middle of March but it wasn't quite in a theatre space and then I spot a note in my organiser - the last time I was in a theatre was at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), their Studio Theatre specifically, when I was part of a Career Day panel for their graduating students.


Since that day, my energy started depleting and by month's end it was becoming apparent that we were headed for some sort of lockdown and I decided that I would shut down once the Academic Year (there were still 2 lessons plus assessments to go at LASALLE College of the Arts where I'm an adjunct) came to an end. I'm generally an optimist but in this instance, the depletion felt heavy but nonetheless, I decided to keep the ghost light in my heart lit, as theatres around the world were doing. That one day, we'll be back.


For those who might not be familiar with what ghost lights are, click here.

And here's a photo of Ivan Heng & a ghost light in the Wild Rice theatre taken from The Pitch's website. (P.S. Have you seen The Pitch? It's quite funny.)


Despite the closure of theatres, more recently, there have been some theatres that have gotten creative with presentations including those practicing social distancing measures in Eurpoe. There are other examples of those who have taken to the digital realm and those who have created works for beyond the theatre space. But I'll probably talk about those another day.


One of the projects that stuck with me during the first few months of the circuit-breaker (otherwise known as Singapore's version of a semi-lockdown) period was the Royal Court Theatre's Caretaker by Hestor Chillingworth. It's still running today, check it out below.

During those months, there were times, especially during the wee hours when I'd click on the link, hoping something would be conjured onto the stage before me. Nothing happens except for occasional announcements. It's an uninhabited stage on which sits the abandoned set of Shoe Lady, a production running at the Royal Court before it shut down. The venue installed a camera in the balcony to run 24/7 and anyone from around the world can visit the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at any time.


Tonight, I notice that 2 others are watching the livestream with me. I wonder who they are, where they’re from. Under normal circumstances, would they have been seated on either side of me in the theatre? One, a theatre student who had scored a complimentary ticket from a crush working backstage part-time at the venue, the other, a much older man in plain colours, a visible thick coat, scrunched up copy of The Evening Standard in hand. It’s silent and I try to catch an announcement of support but I’ve not stayed long enough to do so. Lighting states change sometimes and the leaves hanging over stage move ever so gently. You start to miss the little things – the bustle of settling down, a familiar face to wave to, the somewhat comfortable but not really comfortable seat, the sporadic coughing at silent moments, tension slicing through laughter and vice-versa, applause, the thrill of pouring out onto the street to take in the show or to debate about it over drinks.


Some of the shows I've watched on that very stage play in my mind. I find myself jumping through different universes and timelines. The one that strikes me strongest is Lola Arias' Minefield, a work about the Falkland Islands. It brought together actual soldiers who had fought on the British and Argentinian sides during the conflict in 1982. It's an amazing work about recollection and reconciliation.


Here's a trailer from its original run.


What are some theatre pieces you've watched that will stick with you for some time?


Photo by Lijesh Karunakaran


For me, some instances that come to mind include a Hindi version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by The Company Theatre from Mumbai that was presented as part of the Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam in 2012, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The audience was only provided with a basic act-by-act description in English but otherwise left to our own devices. I don't understand Hindi (though I did grow up on Bollywood movies and know many songs) but to date, it was one of the most rambunctious shows I've watched. Language, big spectacular sets all didn't matter that night


One of the larger shows I enjoyed in recent times has got to be the phenomenal Hamilton, which I was lucky enough to catch on the West End just a month before I moved back to Singapore. I remember attending a 3-day conference in Bristol when tickets were first released. I didn't try to get one for myself then as I wasn't sure if I was even going to be in London when Hamilton started previews. As fate would have it, they released more tickets just days before they went into previews and I was lucky enough to get them for the second night. I could've gotten one for the first night but I had committed myself to a rehearsal. It's a feat and one that needs to be experienced.


These are just some examples, one day I'll share more about some of my favourite Singapore plays and some of the shows I've seen on my travels that have left a mark, especially those that were at the Edinburgh Fringe. Or maybe I'll tell you when we see each other at the theatre again, whenever that may be...

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© 2020 by Mohamad Shaifulbahri