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Observe: Telling Time in Performance

By Tracey Toh

What does it mean for a performance to tell time? Liveness and ephemerality are perhaps the most defining qualities of performance, what makes each staging or interaction with an audience irreproducible. How can a form founded on immediacy be leveraged to observe the passing of time or to offer a record of the past?

In reflecting on Singapore’s theatre history, The Vault: Past Perfect attempts a kind of oral history, presenting the actor as embodied archive. Four theatre practitioners recount the experimental spirit of the 1990s, when they cut their teeth as actors. Tan Kheng Hua discusses the thrill and the burnout of doing theatre then; Nelson Chia recalls sweeping the stage and boiling tea leaf eggs for the audience; Oniatta Effendi recounts doing field work in the red-light district of Geylang; Serene Chen jokes about auditioning for a play “so alternative and underground it wasn’t even written yet”.

These are seasoned performers, engaged in an unapologetic nostalgia that strikes me as a powerful rebuttal to a country committed to cultural amnesia. The actors command the stage with an ease that can come only from experience, as they slip seamlessly between languages, or break into song. As a student, I had read scripts and seen restagings of plays from the 90s. Now, hearing their stories about a period of bold artistic experimentation, I have a living connection to an earlier chapter of local theatre.

Yet, I also get the feeling that these doyens of Singapore theatre are scripting theatre history, and lending their authority to the composition of what we might call a canon. Excerpts of famous scripts get an airing here. All the theatre greats are name-checked: Ong Keng Sen, William Teo, Nora Samosir, and Kuo Pao Kun, whom every performer has an anecdote about. Their influence is undeniable, but I’m curious about the specialists who don’t grab the spotlight as often — the lighting and sound artists, the set designers and stage managers. Who gets to be remembered? What will endure?

And what does the past owe the present and the future? The Vault: Past Perfect is part of the SIFA X: there is no future is nostalgia presentation, which sets out “to understand ongoing or disrupted trajectories” and also includes other components featuring new plays by young artists. Such curatorial framing sets up an expectation that Past Perfect’s throwback to the 90s would speak more directly to current efforts in theatre. There is an opportunity in this performance to connect the 90s with a younger generation, through the presence of Lim Shi An — the daughter of Tan Kheng Hua, and an actress herself. But while Lim pays homage to the veterans, she never interrogates how this history bears on her own struggles and aspirations. During a reading, she takes up the role of Ellen Toh, a closeted lesbian lawyer from Mergers and Accusations (1993), a character that might now seem dated, in a generation more comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity. Yet Lim doesn’t comment on the choice of this play, its resonance or dissonance with our contemporary moment. Where young artists are asked to orient themselves in relation to the past, there is no sense of the past reciprocating in a similar way.

The risk and daring of those early years are sadly lost on me, as these scripts and anecdotes start to feel like artefacts that it would be disrespectful to query. Looking back on her one-woman play, Peti Kayu Ibuku (My Mother’s Wooden Chest, 1999), Oniatta Effendi says that this time, she’s not taking items, and the memories they evoke, out of storage. Instead, she’s placing memories in the chest. I wonder about the implications: in making a record of the past, we preserve memories precious to us, but we also decide which are worthy of posterity, and we risk letting those same memories settle and collect dust.

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A similar question of time, of how it passes us by, and how we might capture or notice its passing, is the central preoccupation of A Day, 2023. Conceived by Joyce Ho, this series of performances and video installations is revealed over the course of six days, with a different room in The Arts House opening each day.

Visiting on a Thursday, the third day of the installation, I’m asked to trade five minutes of my time for a drink, either red wine, white wine, or water. It’s an unusual proposition but the terms seem fair, so I sign a contract agreeing to the exchange.

Thursday’s encounter is hosted in a small room set up like a bar, rows of empty plastic cups lining the wall. A performer (Yu Pei-Chen) places a kitchen timer before us and sets it to five minutes, gesturing for us to drink. Her movements are careful and measured. Everything happens in slow motion, wordlessly. Each second is marked by the insistent ticking of the clock.

The exchange makes explicit how time is regulated in performance, as in life. Under capitalism, our days are ordered by such bargains; we barter our time and attention for money and material goods. On this occasion, to even be admitted, I had to register for a 15-minute slot, then turn up and be ushered into the room for my allotted session.

Though I’m acutely aware of how every moment has been scheduled, the experience never feels overdetermined. The audience’s agency can shape the play at any point: I could always refuse the drink, and what would happen then?

Across the week, A Day, 2023 sustains this sense of possibility and consistently frustrates our expectations. Sunday’s “Artist Talk” turns out not to be a dialogue but another largely silent performance. The main performer, Vera Sung Meng-Hsuan, goes through a series of motions with a pre-recorded version of the same sequence playing above. At first, her movements appear to be in sync with the video, but a schism soon emerges. On screen, she slips a pen in her breast pocket and the ink leaks, staining the white shirt. On stage, the ink does not leak; the shirt remains pristine. In the video, she tears through an orange with her bare hands, getting juice and pulp everywhere. Before us, she simply gazes at the orange.

This discordance, between recording and live performance, brings me alive to the discontinuity of action and the violent ruptures in the flow of time. An earlier iteration, one that was more dynamic and destructive, is set in comparison to the current sequence. The past becomes a provocation for the present.

Even the lack of a record can be suggestive. I missed Tuesday, the first day, when another encounter with the artist was staged, but I can enter the room where it happened. Inside, there’s a card that reads “Vera Sung” and not much else. Maybe the performer spoke to the audience or inhabited a persona. I’m wistful about what I missed, but now I’m engaged in another kind of exercise, left to chase clues and speculate.

Drawing on the contingency so native to theatre, A Day, 2023 may be an effective counterpoint to the archival impulse that manifests in The Vault: Past Perfect. Documentation can foreclose possibilities when it doesn’t give room for reflection or dwell in the rich potentiality of something still unknown or yet unwritten. Time passes, and some moments have already passed us by — irretrievable, but always available to the imagination.

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