Locally-based theatre collective The Art of Strangers debuts this month with an intimate play that requires audience members to climb over a mountain. Gwen Pew talks to co-founder Felipe Cervera to find out more.
A scene from The Art of Strangers’s debut performance, ‘The Mountain’. Image courtesy of Syahirah A. Karim.
13 Jan 2013: Rather than allow their audience to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the show, newly-established theatre collective The Art of Strangers has a different idea in mind for their official debut at this year’s M1 Fringe Festival. The Mountain, a 45-minute piece based on a short story called The Mystic Mountain by Indian author Amitav Ghosh, is set in a village surrounded by a mountain that locals have never climbed because of ancient superstitious reasons, until a bunch of foreigners – the audience – arrive and embark on the trek.
‘Yes, the audience will need to move around,’ grins Mexico-born Felipe Cervera, 29, who co-founded The Art of Strangers with his Singaporean- Malay wife Fezhah Maznan, 28, and will be directing and acting in the production. ‘But at the same time, we have to make sure that they don’t feel ridiculed or embarrassed. That’s why we’ve been having trial runs – to get feedback and see how we can improve the experience.’
To keep the experience as intimate as possible, only 15 people can attend each performance – matching the number of cast members. ‘The most memorable theatre experience I’ve ever had was at an overnight performance in the UK called Hotel Medea [by Anglo-Brazilian collective Zecora Ura], where the audience members suddenly became part of the show’, says Cervera, explaining his love of intimate, interactive theatre. ‘One minute I was getting my palm read by a gypsy character, and the next an army invaded and I was like, “Oh sh*t, I’m in the story!”’ he recalls with a laugh.
Both Cervera and Maznan have had plenty of experience in the field of intimate theatre. Prior to their relocation to Singapore two years ago – he came to take up a PhD in Theatre Studies at NUS, while she returned to take up a job as a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic – The Art of Strangers used to be called Nuestro Living Room, and the couple ran the project quite literally in the living room of their apartment in Mexico. ‘We had a huge flat back then. Huge! We set up a theatre space there and we would fit around 25 to 30 people and just put on a show,’ Cervera reminisces. ‘We’d have free flow drinks. It’s all good fun.’ Though they no longer have the luxury of such a large space since moving to Singapore, they are determined to re-establish a similar set-up here.
Thematically, The Mountain touches on several big issues, but inevitably, the juxtaposing idea of locals and foreigners forms a large part of it. ‘We started working on the script a year ago, which was [before the release of the population] White Paper, but the tension was already there,’ says Cervera. ‘But it’s definitely not a purely political play – it’s larger than politics. It’s about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and it’s also about climate change and how we engage with nature.’
As a foreigner himself, Cervera’s own views play into the script (‘Locals aren’t always right,’ he says), but he’s determined ‘not to preach’. ‘I am a theatre-maker, and my aim is to entertain. I just want each audience member to leave with an experience, having been touched, or moved, or inspired. The play has no props, set or costumes; it’s just 15 people meeting 15 people to tell a story,’ he emphasises. ‘Theatre is my way of thinking out loud. It’s how I deal with my anxieties and the world.’
In gauging the interest for something a bit different from traditional theatre performances, Cervera says, ‘I think we underestimate Singapore. I was at a media event for the M1 Fringe Festival, and at one point in the showcase, everyone was asked to sing. I thought no one would do it, but they just went for it!’
Indeed, the response they’ve gotten since announcing the show has been tremendous: tickets for their initial performances were sold out within 24 hours, and the extra two shows they decided to add on were likewise snapped up shortly afterwards. ‘It’s the first time in my 15-year career that I’ve sold out before opening,’ Cereva says happily. ‘I’m now in the position where I can just focus on putting out a really good play.’
For those who didn’t manage to score tickets to see the show this time around, worry not – Cereva reassures us that this will not be the last we see of either the show or the collective. So far, he has expressed hopes of taking The Mountain on tour in 2014 – as well as directing two monologues, though he is reluctant to say too much about those in the time being – so keep your eager eyes peeled!