Stories and the Theatre

When I was growing up, stories were avenues of exploration and escape. The dystopian futures of comic books were scary but that was all they were at the time – stories. Imagining living a life as a superhero trying to right the wrongs of society, while at the same time stopping the world from destroying itself, occupied many of my evenings after homework was claimed to be done.

I would spend afternoons after school at my late grandmother’s home in Ang Mo Kio, watching Indonesian-dubbed episodes of Kamen Rider and pretending I could turn into him by using the walkway through the kitchen as a portal. During PE lessons and in after-school football sessions at the void deck, I would imagine scoring the last-minute winner for Singapore as they lifted the Malaysia Cup with my footballing heroes clamouring to congratulate me.

“An active imagination” – those were words more than one form teacher used to describe me back then. For me, it was as normal as brushing your teeth. In fact, even while doing that, I could probably escape to some planet and pretend to be a monster attacking spacemen while frothing at the mouth.

I did not know it then but using my imagination and pretending to be other people ended up being a big part of my life’s work. Many young children grow up using role-playing and pretending to be characters from stories they are exposed to, in books, movies or cartoons. I just happened to continue doing so and am lucky enough to make a career out of it.

I first entered the world of theatre in primary school. It was a creative story telling competition and I was forced to join; the teacher thought it would be a perfect outlet for me. I loved every minute of it, pretending to be someone else, showing all these emotions (some I have never felt before) and having everyone listen to me for those few moments before and after my character spoke or did something. People listen to you when you are on stage. Maybe they would not continue listening if you don’t capture their imagination or if they’re not interested in the topic, but for that few moments, you have their attention.

That made me realise that I could tell stories and if I made them compelling enough, or if I was effective in how I presented it, these stories would be told and reside in the minds of the audience. They would take away their own reflections from it of course, but I could at least start a conversation and say the things I wanted to say. Every one of us involved in putting something on stage has a say in it. From how it looks to how it sounds, to what words are being said and how they’re being said – this was what made me fall in love with theatre.

Theatre has given me the platform and opportunity to tell stories like the ones I grew up with. It has given me an avenue to interact and socialise with like-minded colleagues and try to live in the shoes of characters I have never met before. It has given me a chance to tell stories that have become important to me and to the world that we continue to live in.

One of the most common misconceptions people seem to have about putting up a play is that it does not take much time. I mean, for a one-and-a-half-hour play, how much time does it actually need right? It approximately equates to an hour for every two and a half pages of script. So, a typical three-act play can be anywhere between 70 and 100 pages. That is the minimum amount of time you would spend in a rehearsal room.

The rehearsal room thus is such a special place. It is where words and ideas come to life, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. The time I spend with my fellow collaborators is one that I really cherish because all of us are giving a piece of our creative selves to come up with a new experience for the benefit of those who will eventually watch the play. The discoveries and conversations that take place in this space are often enlightening and encouraging. It makes us feel seen and heard, and there is an implicit acknowledgement that we are all part of a covenant of sorts. An amanah (trust) to put the story out there for people to see, hear and leave with their thoughts about it.

It all culminates in the performance itself – where the audience and the performers come together and experience something live, together. A piece of work, which has been developed in a few months or even years depending on when the playwright began penning down the first words to the story, is a culmination of a collaboration between producers, designers, directors, crew members and actors. The final piece of the collaboration puzzle is the audience who enters the space at the final stretch of the process: show time.

As a theatre maker, I feel anxious in those moments just before the audience enters. Will the story resonate? Will my performance move them? Will they leave the theatre with their thoughts provoked or would they dismiss the experience as a waste of time? These questions usually fade away into the background as soon as the show begins as the focus shifts towards ensuring the story is told. More often than not, you can feel the connection the audience has to a story and it reinvigorates and nourishes the performer on stage. You hear people understanding the struggles of the character, resonating with the stories in real time through their breaths, laughter and reaction and that is something that is unique to a theatre performance – you get real-time feedback, good or bad. You cannot replicate that. No amount of rehearsal can prepare you for it either.

This brings us to our current situation. While the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped people from creating and expressing themselves, it has changed a fundamental aspect of performances: the interaction between the audience and the people on stage. How do you, as a performer, get the connection from a live audience when there isn’t one? It is a problem that is at the forefront of the minds of any theatre performer in this current climate.

As with any other industry, we have adapted in a few ways. Many have put our past works online so that people can revisit or catch them for the first time. This has its limitations as most videos taken of performances were for archival purposes and thus may lack the dynamism of a live performance. The video sometimes doesn’t do justice to the work as it is not meant to be experienced in that way. Others have held live readings of new or past works to an audience who can see us on their computer screens. While such sessions may not be as ‘full’ as a performance in the theatre, it gives us an opportunity to stay connected somewhat, and be reminded of the people in our community, colleagues or audience.

Safe or social distancing for the theatre scene hits us on several fronts. We miss the social interactions with our fellow collaborators in the rehearsal space. We miss the real-time interactions with our audience during show time. For some of us, the stage is a place of refuge. For all of my colleagues, it is our source of livelihoods and the current situation means a lot of us don’t know where our next paycheck is coming from. Against the backdrop of an upheaval occurring around the world where people are fighting not only the pandemic but also for their rights to be seen and heard, stories become even more sacred. The ability to share these stories become more urgent despite the difficulties and obstacles that currently stand in front of us.

The world will evolve, the future will become the new reality, and we will find ways to continue sharing what is dear to us. As I’ve grappled with these thoughts and issues as a theatre maker, I also am confronted with my personal hopes and fears as a son, husband and father. I do not have the answers on how to deal with them effectively, and I don’t think I ever will. But when the time and space allow me to, I will attempt to speak about them through the only way I know how: in the rehearsal space and in the theatre, through the words and actions of my characters, illuminated and supported by my collaborators.

For now, I find myself spending time with my son and daughter, pretending to be characters from their favourite cartoon series, Teen Titans, and having conversations, in character, about the people and the world we live in. It is a familiarity that I cherish and it is a cycle that repeats itself, but it’s one that allows me to connect with them. Until we step on the stage again, I’ll take this for now. Stories, after all, are all that we have. ⬛


Adib Kosnan is a theatre practitioner and educator. He was recently named Best Supporting Actor at the Life Theatre Awards 2020 for ‘Angkat’ by Nabilah Said and Noor Effendy Ibrahim. Adib is especially interested in improvisation and forum theatre as tools for creating awareness and enhancing communication.

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