Singapore International Festival Of Arts

Artists rediscover the joys of audio theatre

Live productions by arts practitioners aim to win audiences back with shows in the retro, intimate storytelling format

(Above) Actor-director Tan Shou Chen (left) and playwright Joel Tan (right) worked on audio drama A Bird Calls You To Moscow. (Left) Multidisciplinary artist Irfan Kasban's work, The Silence Of A Falling Tree, invites listeners to be part of a perfor
Actor-director Tan Shou Chen (left) and playwright Joel Tan (right) worked on audio drama A Bird Calls You To Moscow.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
(Above) Actor-director Tan Shou Chen (left) and playwright Joel Tan (right) worked on audio drama A Bird Calls You To Moscow. (Left) Multidisciplinary artist Irfan Kasban's work, The Silence Of A Falling Tree, invites listeners to be part of a perfor
Multidisciplinary artist Irfan Kasban's work, The Silence Of A Falling Tree, invites listeners to be part of a performance art piece.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Two audio productions by Singapore theatremakers are part of the Singapore International Festival Of Arts' v2.020 programme. This wraps up the last quarter of the year with a smattering of online events which pick up from this year's disrupted festival fare.

Multidisciplinary artist Irfan Kasban's art collective Compound is presenting The Silence Of A Falling Tree, a three-track journey which invites listeners to become part of a performance art piece.

Actor-director Tan Shou Chen teams up with playwright Joel Tan on A Bird Calls You To Moscow, a three-episode audio drama with music to be experienced on the move.

Irfan says his piece was inspired partly by a desire to escape the Zoom trap - "there's something internal that we are not addressing, or tapping into, with the performances we watch on a phone or a laptop" - and partly by his discovery of guided meditation.

He says: "You listen to a track and there's a set of instructions after meditation. There was something quite theatrical about that."

Venues are cautiously inching towards reopening - the latest advisory released by the Government last week allows two groups of 50 people each to gather in designated performing venues - after more than six months of closure.

In the meantime, theatremakers looking to recapture the vibe of live performances have latched on to the "retro" audio format.

These two shows follow on the heels of Checkpoint Theatre's three audio offerings earlier this year.

Tan Shou Chen observes: "In theatre, sound is always the forgotten sibling. It's so obvious when it's done badly. Done well, you actually forget it's there."

Joel Tan recently returned from a three-year stint in England, where he rediscovered the pleasures of audio drama.

He says he approached the work by asking: "How do we use this as an opportunity to make something digital that is not just monologues?"

  • LISTEN /THE SILENCE OF A FALLING TREE

    WHERE: str.sg/J6bR

    WHEN: Each of the three tracks will be released on Nov 22, Nov 29 and Dec 6 respectively

    ADMISSION: Free

    A BIRD CALLS YOU TO MOSCOW

    WHERE: str.sg/J6bD

    ADMISSION: Free

  • Shows to catch

    A THOUSAND WAYS

    In this show by 600 Highwaymen, call in and let a narrator guide you through an hour-long immersive theatre experience with a fellow participant. The three-part event begins with a phone call and will pick up next year with a socially distant, face-to-face encounter, and a finale which brings together all participants in the production. It is created by American theatremakers Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who won an Obie (Off-Broadway Theatre) award for their craft.

    WHEN: Nov 5 to 20; Thursdays and Fridays, 3, 4.30, 7.30 and 9pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 11.30am, 1, 2.30, 5.30, 7 and 8.30pm

    ADMISSION: $20 a phone call

  • CONTEMPORARY WINDS: ENSEMBLE INTERCONTEMPORAIN LIVE IN PARIS!

    This celebrated wind quintet was scheduled to play at Sifa in May, but will live-stream its concert from Paris instead. Its programme is inspired by nature and its sounds, with works by Claude Debussy, Pierre Boulez, John Cage and Luciano Berio. There will also be a short Q&A session.

    WHEN: Nov 10, 8pm

    ADMISSION: Pay as you wish; $10/$15/$20

    UNBOXING NEW MUSIC; SOUNDS OF ASIA

    This hour-long digital concert will highlight new music from around the region, including works by Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun and Koh Cheng Jin. This ticketed concert will also be the launch of Singaporean contemporary music group Ensemble AEquilibrium.

    WHEN: Nov 18, 8pm

    ADMISSION: Pay as you wish; $10/$15/$20

    THE MR BROWN SHOW LIVE!

    The self-styled "blogfather" of Singapore headlines a live-streamed concert with skits and music. It will feature Mr Brown (Lee Kin Mun) and his frequent collaborators, blogger Mr Miyagi and poet Marc Nair. Ticketing details will be announced soon.

    WHERE: KC Arts Centre, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Dec 25 to 27; Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 and 8pm; Sunday, 3pm

    For more programmes and information, visit sifa.sg

A Bird Calls You To Moscow was originally intended as a response to Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, a festival highlight by home-grown company Nine Years Theatre.

But Tan Shou Chen says: "When I started reading it, I was wondering: What is my connection with Three Sisters at this height of the circuit breaker? Why should I be responding to this?"

He took inspiration instead from his love of music and nature walks.

The resulting work encourages listeners to pick different locations to listen to each instalment, ranging from a room to a park with old trees to a ride on public transport.

The Silence Of A Falling Tree also suggests locations, such as a supermarket, and related exercises such as "imagine everyone in the supermarket is an actor".

For these theatremakers, the audio format offers intimacy and a different, more internal way to access the audience experience.

Irfan, who compares his work to a choose-your-own-adventure book, says: "When you watch a show, all your judgment comes into play: Why do you think it's not a good piece? Why do you resonate with it?

"It all comes from you. So I just wanted to make that clear. At the end of the day, we are our own performers and our own audiences."

A listener consuming an audio experience alone means the artists do not receive feedback from their audience, unlike in a live theatre experience.

But that is an advantage for Joel Tan, who says: "I've always found something selfish and vampiric about the need to feel the public responding to your work.

"This format feels to me like the potential for intimacy is a lot higher. It is really between the listener and the sound. I don't really care what you think. I'm just giving you this frame around which you can spend some time by yourself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2020, with the headline 'Artists rediscover the joys of audio theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe