10 Jan 2018:
Rehearsal rooms are typically patriarchal, according to Rei Poh and Zee Wong. The director, playwright, or producer is the king who sets the rules, and everyone else are the followers who carry out the instructions given to them. This may be the conventional way of getting the job done, but the pair wanted to find out whether there are other approaches to the process.
Their chance came in the form of Attempts: Singapore. Rei had created and staged the first iteration of the piece in Melbourne in 2016, when he was studying for his Masters in Theatre Performance & Directing at the Victorian College of the Arts. The work was inspired by Martin Crimp’s 1997 postmodernist play, Attempts on Her Life, where the audience is presented with 17 unrelated scenarios that give clues about the possible identity of a woman named Anne. Rei was commissioned to restage the work as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018, and as director, the first thing he did was to bring Zee on board as his dramaturg. After all, she was a big part of the reason that he started examining what it means for him to be a feminist, and it’s a topic that the couple would often discuss.
“I think it was a very natural progression [for me to dramaturg for Rei’s work] because we have always been aligned in terms of our interest in feminist theatre. And examining the male gaze is something I do in my own work as a playwright as well,” says Zee, who is also an actor and singer. “As a dramaturg, my role is to help the team look at patterns, and to help them find meaning in the images they come up with. I’m also there as a second pair of eyes for Rei and the team.”
At the time of this interview, the team has had about five rehearsals, and Rei has already been learning a lot.
“Zee has taught me many things, such as how to relook my position as a man,” says Rei. “I’ve learnt that even in my practice of creating works, I am still subconsciously abiding by the laws of toxic masculinity.”
Together, they have been making a conscious effort to create what they call a “feminist rehearsal room” for the Attempts: Singapore team.
“One of the ways we’re attempting to subvert the patriarchal hierarchy of traditional rehearsal rooms is by focusing not on the product, but on the wellbeing of the team,” Rei explains. “Because of my training in Forum theatre with Drama Box, I also see myself as a facilitator rather than a dictator. So in the rehearsal room, we replaced comments like ‘you should have done this’ with ‘would you consider doing this?’ This has somehow made a very strong impact on the progression. I no longer feel the need to dictate, and the collaborators are now owning their parts in this project. In a feminist space, everyone has their own role that they are interested in. It is a space where they can challenge themselves and at the same time feel safe.”
To build on that, Rei invited the cast and creative team – including the stage manager, sound designer, and intern – to devise the content of the piece from scratch, even though he had already staged the work before. In each rehearsal session, the team would look at one or two scenes and come up with a series of images based on the text, which they will then expand into a performance. Rei and Zee would encourage them to incorporate local context into the piece, and tackle issues that are relevant to Singapore.
Naturally, the resulting work is similarly feminist in its nature and structure. Attempts: Singapore is set in a fictional world governed by a corporate conglomerate called ARC. The company provides an Artificial Intelligence system called JOAN, which predicts and caters for the needs of the population. But when a mysterious database containing the memories of a woman named Anne is found within JOAN’s code, the audience members – or “players”, as Rei likes to call them – are tasked to deduce Anne’s identity by exploring a series of spaces. As the piece is rooted in the genre of participatory theatre, players are given the agency to make a decision, and thus determine how the play ends: a feminist element in itself.
But while the team will take every care to create a safe environment for participants to feel empowered to speak out and make decisions, Rei and Zee hope that those who attend Attempts: Singapore will confront their own biases and prejudices, too. For instance, the players will have to decide whether they would be willing to relinquish certain powers that they might enjoy in a more patriarchal system, in exchange for more feminine values. They will also be meeting quite a few complex female characters.
“In Singapore, there can be a sense that women have achieved full equality, and we don’t need to fight for women’s rights anymore,” says Zee. “This sort of thinking is dangerous, because it means that the women who quietly live with spousal violence, unfair treatment and sexual harassment at their workplaces solely because of their gender are ignored and forgotten. As an artist, I hope to get people to see that there really is something wrong with the way we’ve defined gender today. And really, we need to stand up for each other a little more.”