Couple spell#7 out plans for new move

National Language Class (2008) was inspired by paintings that captured snapshots of the old Singapore. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
National Language Class (2008) was inspired by paintings that captured snapshots of the old Singapore. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan (fourth from left) with daughters Summer (left) and Lola, and Eleanor Song, Tan’s mother, in Family Duet. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan (fourth from left) with daughters Summer (left) and Lola, and Eleanor Song, Tan’s mother, in Family Duet. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan will shut down the theatre group to move Down Under where he will be taking up a new post

The husband-and-wife duo behind home- grown performance and theatre group spell#7 will be entering a new chapter as they move to Melbourne, Australia.

While spell#7 will be shutting down, Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan will likely be returning from time to time for collaborations and standalone performances.

Rae, 40, who is assistant professor of theatre studies at the National University of Singapore, will be taking on a new post as senior lecturer at the English and Theatre Studies department of the University of Melbourne's School of Culture and Communication. He leaves for Australia next week.

Tan, also 40, and their daughters Lola, 10, and Summer, seven, will join Rae in June. The children are in primary school.

Rae tells Life! over morning coffee that their performance work will probably continue in Melbourne: "It's hard to say what form it will take because theatre is a local activity and so it does reflect the place it's made in. So going to a new place, it'll be interesting to take some time to see the lay of the land. It might be a very different thing that we do, especially because theatre is so much part and parcel of our lives.

"I don't make theatre out of choice. I do it when I have to and I expect to have to because there are some ways of working out the world that we are able to do only by making theatre."

The couple are known for their intimate and multi-disciplinary works that often put the spotlight on ideas of home, displacement and fitting in, and which are also deeply personal. Rae, who is British, and Tan, a Singaporean, met while studying drama at Bristol University in the 1990s and tied the knot in 2000.

They seem to be comfortable as the quiet sibling in the Singapore theatre scene, emerging once in a while to create a work filled with observations of everyday life or capturing the beauty in the mundane.

Their semi-autobiographical Duets series, for instance, began in 2005 with Tan's pregnancy with Lola, reflecting the couple's anxieties about imminent parenthood and what happens when a family of two turns three.

Rae says that they never intended to dramatise themselves, "because we're not especially flamboyant types, we're actually quite retiring - but when it comes to putting things on the stage, I guess this fits in".

The Duets series has evolved into a total of five shows, including Sky Duet (2008), an audio piece on the Singapore Flyer that was part of the Singapore Biennale, and Tree Duet (2009), nominated for Best Original Script at the 2010 Life! Theatre Awards.

Tan says: "If you think of the bookends of spell#7's work, Apocalypso (1997) and Family Duet (2013), in a way it's like coming full circle. Starting with two and ending with four."

In Apocalypso, a man and a woman find themselves under surveillance in a cheap hotel room, in a work that also explored layers of gender identity.

Their most recent work, Family Duet, which was staged as part of the Esplanade's Studios season last year, was a multi-generational look at the Rae-Tan family, scrutinising family relationships and the idea of parenthood, and asking big life questions in a little domestic play.

Rae says: "We open up the box and invite other people to look in."

They have also developed a niche in site-specific theatre, moving out of traditional theatrical spaces and staging work in an eclectic array of settings, including Chijmes (Walk With Me And Be Perfect, 1998), an office in Shaw Tower (Spring Awakening, 1999) and MRT stations (Dream-Home, 2009) - to rewrite the way audience members encounter a space and negotiate their relationship with it.

The result is a clutch of deeply immersive plays, including Beautiful Losers (2003), staged at the company's nook of an office in Little India, where only about 25 audience members could watch the work at any one time. The group has also crafted several audio walks, such as Desire Paths (2004), set in Little India, and Ghostwalking (2010), along the MRT's North-East Line.

Addressing the issue of national spaces on a broader level, the group has also taken on work inspired by paintings that capture snapshots of old Singapore, namely painter Chua Mia Tee's 1950s artworks National Language Class (2008) and Epic Poem Of Malaya (2010).

Rae says: "When we started, we were keen to avoid making grand-standing political statements. I think that theatre in Singapore has played an important public role, but it doesn't always serve theatre well to take too many cues from other things, to allow your theatre to be scripted by dissent.

"We just knew it wasn't where we wanted to go, to make state-of-the-nation plays or social issue plays. They're important but they have their place and their time and, in the meantime, everyone is also living a life. And when it comes down to it, that stuff is not separate. It's where and how politics and policies manifest on a day-to-day basis, the level of human relationships. We were always more drawn to that."

The duo are also disarmingly self-deprecating about the work that they do.

In a 2012 essay for the Australian theatre and performance journal Performance Paradigm, the pair wrote: "We go, with a sense of relaxed resignation. Our passions, prejudices, the trivia of life - we stuff it all in, poorly edited, here poking out through the surface of the work, there sellotaping a crack in the structure or narrative."

They both say they will miss the Singapore theatre scene, having developed so much of their work here.

Rae says: "When we started, we hardly knew anyone in Singapore. In some ways, the Singapore theatre scene can seem very closed and hermetic, you see the same people over and over. But once you get started and make those opportunities for yourself, it becomes very welcoming. It's so diverse in terms of the forms and the people involved."

Tan adds, with a touch of wistfulness, about saying their goodbyes: "There's a really nice sense of community, that people will come and support you."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan