For his writing and directorial debut this month, local producer Neo Kim Seng has drawn on the experience of having his heart stopped for two hours. Gwen Pew hears more.
16 Apr 2014: Shortly after 8am on 16 May 2013, Neo Kim Seng’s heart was stopped for two hours as doctors corrected a dysfunctional valve. While the chances of him not waking up from the operation were very slim, he was still understandably concerned. But there was at least one thing that kept him optimistic: an offer by Cake Theatrical Productions the year before for him to make his stage writing and directorial debut with them after he recovered. Like a true artist, he soon came up with the idea of basing the work on his life- changing experience.
‘I’d heard before my open heart surgery that people often hallucinate and I was hoping to base my piece on my own,’ the soft-spoken 50-year-old recalls. ‘When I woke up 13-and-a- half hours later, I was very happy to be alive, but also disappointed that I couldn’t remember anything.’
The recovery process was painful and difficult, but he was eventually well enough to start working on his script towards the end of last year. The themes of life and death have been on the forefront of his mind ever since the operation and so inevitably feature in the work; but at the same time, he didn’t want everything to be so obvious. He decided to make it partially as a tribute to people he’s worked with, including William Teo, founder of the now-defunct but once highly influential Asia-in Theatre, and Zai Kuning, one of the pioneers of experimental performance art in Singapore, amongst others. Indeed, over the past few decades, Neo has had the opportunity to work with a range of theatre companies – although he actually first stumbled into the performance arts scene by accident.
Armed with a degree in History and Sociology from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1986, he ‘took advantage of the fact that Singapore was going through a recession at the time and used it as an excuse not to try too hard looking for a job,’ he remembers with a grin. After almost becoming a history teacher and a prison officer (‘I’ve always loved history and been fascinated with the idea of rehabilitation – plus I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs’), a friend convinced him to help out at an arts festival organised by NUS called Yin Yang. There, he ended up meeting a lot of people in the arts scene, and by 1988, was working on programming for the Singapore Arts Festival. ‘The late ’80s and early ’90s were the golden age of theatre here. A lot was happening in the local scene and people weren’t concerned about money back then. I could find companies that would do four or five shows for $500,’ he says. ‘There’d be two to three hundred performances taking place over a few weeks, with ten or more shows happening during the weekends.’
Over the years, his hunger for knowledge and new experiences led him to a range of opportunities, from selling tickets for ACT 3 International to eventually becoming programming officer at the Esplanade. In between, he tried his hand at virtually all aspects of working backstage, from lighting to publicity and sound operation to set design; and has worked with TheatreWorks, W!ld Rice and the Singapore Repertory Theatre to name a few. With his piece for Cake Theatrical Productions, however, he will be writing and directing for the first time.
Titled Decimal Points 810 after the number of minutes he was unconscious during his surgery, his piece is about a patient who hallucinates about having a hallucination, and will be performed this month by a group of nine young actors. ‘I told the cast and crew from the very first day that I’m not trying to do anything new,’ says Neo. ‘If I say I am doing something original, I would be bullsh*tting them. I believe it’s almost impossible to do anything original in art.’
The idea of remixing has always fascinated Neo – he previously staged an installation for the Esplanade titled ‘Re/tape’ in 2012, where he created a soundtrack with snippets from 800 cassette tapes which were put together in the shape of a ‘SoundCloud’ – and it’s apparent in Decimal Points 810. ‘The lines are so blurred these days, and my piece will have elements of movement theatre, dance, history and even K-pop!’ he tells us. ‘It’s definitely an abstract, schizophrenic piece where the stage is ultimately dismantled at the end. I want to keep it surprising without making it too intimidating; it will still be accessible.’
With feedback from his cast and friends, he’s happy with his first original work, and is planning on penning more after this. For now though, with his heart in the right place, he’s just focussed on creating good, honest theatre. ‘When I had to decide on what shows to include in the programmes for either the Singapore Arts Festival or the Esplanade, the thing that I’d look out for is whether the actors were being real onstage. The work has to touch me,’ he reveals. ‘I hope the audience will appreciate that in my work too.’