Singapore International Festival of Arts: Power of promise

Ten actresses, 10 beds

The Singapore International Festival of Arts explores the theme of potentialities this year and three shows that featurewomenperformers offer a look athowthe arts have the power to move, inspire and reinvent tradition

Theatre veteran Margaret Chan is facing her toughest challenge yet - and she is taking it lying down.

Come August, she will dig deep within herself for an intimate performance that will see audience members crawling into bed with her.

"I'm going to be completely in the moment. It's about how I feel at that point in time, with that particular person. I'm just handling the energy chords, so to speak, the frission between us," says the 66-year-old, whose commanding turn as the iron-willed Emily Of Emerald Hill is etched in Singapore theatre history.

"You're going to have Margaret Chan like you've never had her. She's not Emily. She's not even Margaret Chan. She'll be someone I haven't even met and it'll be someone different with each audience member."

Chan is the face of Singapore in Argentinian artist Fernando Rubio's Everything By My Side.

This dreamy and deeply personal show features 10 actresses from 10 countries, whispering childhood memories in bed to one audience member at a time.

  • BOOK IT / EVERYTHING BY MY SIDE

  • WHERE: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Aug 12 (6 to 9pm), Aug 13 (2 to 5pm & 6 to 9pm), Aug 14 (2 to 5pm); individual performances every 15 minutes

    ADMISSION: $10 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: sifa.sg

Groups of 10 people at a time will experience the performance, which lasts about 10 minutes.

The show, says Chan, who has four decades of stage experience under her belt, is one of her toughest yet.

"I'm nervous," she says with a laugh. "You essentially have a script that's not even one page long, but it wrenches everything from you. Fernando's concept is that you must take your time, that pauses are as important as the words.

"Make those 10 minutes count. It's about this sense of union with your audience."

Rubio, 40, brings the show - which has been staged in unexpected places, including a railway station in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay - to the National Gallery Singapore as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

It was conceived years ago in Buenos Aires, where he was born and where he still lives.

After waking from a dream one morning, he found himself assaulted by a long-lost memory of the first time he truly felt alone.

He immediately started writing the script for Everything By My Side, completing it in 40 minutes.

"I'm very interested in investigating the relationship that is built between the audience and the actors," he tells The Straits Times on his visit here earlier this year, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish through an interpreter.

"I'm also working around this idea of art not just as entertainment. I think that many times, theatre is suffering from this whole idea of being entertainment."

Theatre can instead be a chance for human connection and reflection. In his show, barriers between actor and audience are erased and strangers find themselves caught up in a startling intimacy.

With his looming height and shaved head, Rubio may come across as intimidating. But this is a man whose art is enduringly human and he is as personal and as guileless as his work.

He says: "My entire work is thought from the perspective of building emotional life. And there is also the discovery of what can happen with someone who I see for the first time."

When he and Chan first met in February, something clicked and they "got on like a house on fire", says Chan.

Rubio has high praise for the actress. He says: "I asked for the Singaporean actress to be someone with a trajectory, someone with life lived and when I met Margaret, I could see that depth that she has. In her voice, in her life, in the way she looks. She's a very special actress."

For Chan, Everything By My Side is the closest she will ever come to her audience.

The show, she adds, has to be handled with tremendous honesty. Trapped together in the most intimate of spaces, there is no hiding from her audience. There are no props, no supporting actors.

Rubio has even forbidden actresses from putting on perfume and make- up, wanting to keep anything that could affect the relationship between actor and audience at bay.

Says Chan, who turns up for the photo shoot at Studio M without a trace of make-up, says: "Each actress will interpret the script differently. And I'll respond to each person in a different way. Their energy is very important. There'll be certain people who'll lie down next to me and I'll just know, 'You're my friend, I can be open with you', while with others, it might be, 'I'm afraid you might judge me'.

"Or maybe it'll be someone I'll have to calm down - a giggly young girl or a nervous young man."

Meanwhile, 64-year-old Lenora Champagne flies the American flag for Everything By My Side.

She performed it a few years ago in New York - once on a pier on the Hudson River, another time on the lawns of Bard College.

The Singapore show will be her first time doing the performance indoors.

"All of the women I performed with felt safe," she says of her experience. "The risk is on the part of the audience. Will you allow yourself to be vulnerable and feel whatever these words elicit from you? Will you remember something that touches you? Will you and I be able to have a meaningful exchange in this short time?"

Everything By My Side, after all, is about actor and audience creating a shared experience, drawing on themselves and each other.

"I feel that what Fernando has written and conceived allows people to go on a journey that involves memory and suggestion and all kinds of possibility. I try to encourage the person beside me to allow himself to experience that journey, as I experience it myself," she says.

"Even though I'm lying in bed during the show, I'm always exhausted after performing it for a while. It's an emotional experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Ten actresses, 10 beds'. Print Edition | Subscribe