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  • Mohamad Shaifulbahri

Together-gather

Earlier today, my friends, Square, Lynn, Cindy and I were catching up from different corners of the world and one of the things we talked about was about how they've all been affected by the inability to tour (they all manage artists and were in the midst of tours). Square, who is based in Aotearoa (New Zealand) was in the middle of 2 tours and was in the middle of planning of a number more when it the dread seeped in again. After 102 days of no COVID-19 cases, Aotearoa saw its first new cases and within 48 hours, had gone into Phase 3 lockdown again. We talked about how the initial hit many months ago left all of us with an uncertain future but to be hit again, when you're seeing a possible return to normalcy? That sucks big time.


For me, the takeaway here as a producer is that we have to remain nimble. It's going to be hard to plan for shows in theatres because can all shut down at a moment's notice. As I make plans for 2021 with much caution, I wonder if it's wise to start talking about programming for physical shows in 2022. Yes, we're adapting to the digital and finding new ways of presenting live performance but we definitely would want to be back in a theatre. For those of us who work in or watch the arts, it's a special feeling.


Our resilience means we will find the ways. Some are already trying from instances we've heard of in Europe of socially distanced seatings or the reconfiguration of theatres by the removal of some chairs, etc. Square shared about what the The Regent Theatre in Palmerston North in Aotearoa is doing.

Photo taken from Stuff's article about The Regent Theatre's plans


Where gatherings are limited to 100 people, the theatre has decided to split the theatre up into 4 areas with entry and exit points specific to those areas. Each area will take up to 100 people, allowing for 400 people to watch. Their plan was approved and the musical, Sister Act is back on stage. Have a read about their plans here.


Another friend of ours, Ginny, who's based in Seoul, has been busy with the opening of the international tour of Cats! Back in July when she told us the organisers were going ahead with it, I was surprised. They were going to fly in performers from Australia and the UK - how were they going to pull it off in this climate?! The performers all did indeed go through 14-day quarantine periods (is this part of our theatrical future where we factor in the cost of such?) and went into rehearsals and were ready to open but when South Korea too saw a sudden increase in cases, plans have had to change. They're still going ahead but with limited capacity. Find out more here.

Photo taken from Korea Herald's article about Cats in Seoul.


Here in Singapore, the National Arts Council announced they would trial small-scale live performances at some venues, limiting seating capacity to just 50. The Esplanade trialed some shows over the weekend and next, with more announcements from other venues scheduled for October. Naturally, I'm excited about the possibility but I've got to admit that I've been very cautious about this too. When asked if I would return to the theatres if there were social distancing, my reply was that I'd see how. Wanna know more? Here's an article.


I found out the answer this past Friday actually. Unexpectedly.

I found myself at The Substation for the performance lecture, Brown is Haram by Mysara Aljaru and Kristian-Marc James Paul, which was part of SeptFest 2020. When The Substation first announced its programming for SeptFest, I had half-expected the projects to take place digitally but no, they were for their 100-seater theatre! Tickets were sold out so very quickly while I was still contemplating, "should I, should I not?" Then, as fate would have it, I was offered a ticket and I said yes.


When house opened, I went up the steps and I noticed the heavy black curtains by the door and the brown wooden floor and it all felt like a place I know. Half a year since I've been in such a space. The bleachers were not out and we were meant to sit in a circle on the floor. 10. Only 10 audience members were allowed to be in the space to partake the experience (no wonder tickets were sold out quickly!). I found out this will be the limit for all the shows under SeptFest. Even the gallery space could only accommodate up to 10 at any given time.


For 45 minutes, I was in a shared space - taking in the laughter of those in the know when something funny was told, the discomfort of our bodies trying to contort themselves into more comfortable positions, the nervous or confident participation of some audience members who had to read some text, the clanging and clumsy clunking from the control room and hearing the performers speaking their lines...live. They're alive and breathing in front of me. Performance is alive and breathing in front of me. Performers' eyes meeting audience members' eyes, audiences catching each other's eyes probably thinking, "we've missed this, haven't we?" I catch the light bouncing off the floor boards, I see the spaces created by uneven flooring, spotting little bits of dirt, dust and what looks like the shell of a beetle. And then it ends. We are each given bunga rampai (potpourri). Before we leave, I push my mask-covered nose into the bunga rampai and take in the flowers and the pandan and I'm transported back to a wedding, a cukur rambut, a kenduri - when my family gathered to celebrate.


And that's what the theatre is, isn't it? Where we gather and the good things happen.


I step outside to the audible quiet of the front-of-house. It's stark but our private chatters about the performance, about our lives make up for it.


And then, some go back in to catch the next show and I head in the direction of SMU, bunga rampai still in hand. It's only 820pm but the streets feel somewhat empty. I walk while contemplating my dinner options. I somehow end up at the Singapore Art Museum and then Centre 42 and then I decided that I'll still be able to have dinner at home.


We gather together-gather.

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© 2020 by Mohamad Shaifulbahri