Singapore International Festival of Arts

Hybrid shows break new ground

In these pandemic times, the performers of next month's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) have found necessity to be the mother of invention.

Some have found ways of beaming themselves in remotely. Others have opted for a "hybrid" production, with actors present digitally and in the flesh.

This year's event, the final leg in festival director Gaurav Kripalani's tenure, returns from May 14 to 30 with more than 60 shows by local and international acts.

Public response has been positive since ticket sales opened last month. While festival organiser Arts House Limited declines to reveal sales figures, it says several shows sold out right away.

It adds that it is exploring ways of offering more seats in the light of the National Arts Council's latest advisory that zoning is no longer required for live performances, which may have up to 750 audience members with pre-event testing.

Traverse Scottish landscape and central Singapore

An interactive performance by a Scottish illusionist and an audio walk in central Singapore are some overseas productions that local audiences can look forward to, besides the Singapore International Festival of Arts' headline commissions.

The Journey by mentalist Scott Silven is a 50-minute digital experience that begins in Glasgow, Scotland, against the landscape of Silven's childhood home.

He wanted it to feel as close to his live shows as possible. "What we have created is something that not only feels like a live experience, but is also deeply interactive and immersive, as the audience's input directly affects key moments of the show."

Audiences of 30 will receive "special films and a binaural sound experience" before the show and will be asked to bring objects of meaning to them.

Another highlight is En Route, an immersive audio journey where participants put on headsets and walk through the streets of a Singapore neighbourhood, guided by text messages and hidden clues.

Designed by Melbourne collective One Step At A Time Like This, it encourages people to see their city with fresh eyes.

Nine Years Theatre and Siti Company: Three Sisters

Three Sisters will see actors from Nine Years Theatre performing at the National Library’s Drama Centre Theatre while those from New York’s Siti Company will appear as cinematic projections on the walls. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

A modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters will see Singapore's Nine Years Theatre and New York's Siti Company "come together" on stage, even as the actors remain socially distanced, all of 15,000km apart.

When the production premieres at Sifa next month, actors from Singapore will perform onstage at the National Library's Drama Centre Theatre. Their counterparts from America will appear as cinematic projections on the walls of the set - a white room that is also the memory scape of one of the sisters.

"We've conceived the entire world of the play as Irina's dream or memory," says Nine Years Theatre co-founder Nelson Chia, who is directing the play and had originally wanted both groups to be physically present together.

"It happened quite magically. We never expected or wanted to do something like this. But dramaturgically, it makes sense: Irina seems to be the one with the most hope at the beginning, compared with her oldest and second sisters. We also think of dreaming and memory as a kind of play-making. Memory is not always reliable, but it can be imaginative."

The titular three sisters are Olga (Ellen Lauren), Masha (Akiko Aizawa) and Irina (Mia Chee), who live in a small town in Russia and long to return to Moscow, where they grew up. The play charts their relationships, frustrations and search for meaning in life.

Three Sisters, one of Chekhov's best-known plays, premiered in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre.

The Sifa production runs from May 20 to 22 and crosses borders in several ways - with actors from two countries appearing physically as well as virtually, and speaking to one another in English and Mandarin.

It is based on an English version by United States playwright Sarah Ruhl, which Siti member Darron West adapted for this hybrid production. Some parts were also translated into Mandarin by Nine Years Theatre member Neo Hai Bin, who plays army captain Solyony.

Three Sisters is a milestone in the groups' long relationship.

Chia, 48, first saw Siti's production of Death And The Ploughman at the 2006 Singapore Arts Festival.

When he started Nine Years Theatre with his wife, Chee, six years later, they incorporated Siti's Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints practice into their company's training regimen.

All of Nine Years' ensemble actors have trained with Siti Company at different points in their careers.

Siti's co-artistic director, Anne Bogart, 69, who founded the company with Tadashi Suzuki in 1992, says the collaboration has been a long time in the making.

"It's more innovative than we'd ever imagined. I think it will break some new ground in terms of what hybrid theatre could be."

Working together remotely may be innovative, but it also comes with a slew of challenges - time zone differences, interrupting one another on Zoom and complicated logistics.

Video director and sound designer West, 54, a Tony Award winner, says: "This show has involved more planning than the largest Broadway production I've ever worked on."

He adds that the US actors are currently being filmed in upstate New York. "We've got it all set up with lights and background screens. We will start one actor at a time, plod our way through it, put the whole show together, send it to Mia and Nelson in Singapore and we'll make a play together.

"One thing I do know about the piece is that it's musically not confined to any one period. We might have a waltz to a really beautiful Russian song one minute, and a scoring that sounds like (English rock band) Radiohead the next. I'm not putting the play, aurally, in a box quite yet."

Performing live with filmed actors will take the Nine Years actors into uncharted territory. "Is it more painful or less to say 'I love you' or 'Goodbye' to your loved one through a screen?" Chia wonders.

Chee, 42, who is also the show's producer, says Three Sisters was an apt choice because it is an ensemble piece - and Nine Years Theatre and Siti Company are known for their ensemble acting.

The play's emotional and geographical isolation resonates in these pandemic times.

Bogart adds: "The sisters constantly say, 'To Moscow, to Moscow'. That human desire to go somewhere that's accessible feels really familiar right now.

"Our 'Moscow' is to be together. We are almost together, but we are not. There's a quality of irony in the piece that feels relevant to this moment."

  • Go to In-venue tickets are currently sold out. Available on video-on-demand.

The Finger Players: Oiwa - The Ghost Of Yotsuya

Written and directed by Chong Tze Chien (above), Oiwa - The Ghost Of Yotsuya features a cast of 10 Singapore and Japanese actors. PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

Playwright Chong Tze Chien was on a research trip in Tokyo seven years ago when a local told him about Oiwa, one of Japan's most famous ghosts.

Oiwa, as legend has it, was the beautiful wife of a samurai in the Edo period. After she was disfigured and murdered by her husband, she appeared as a ghost to avenge herself.

The Oiwa-Inari Tamiya shrine in the Yotsuya neighbourhood of Shinjuku is dedicated to her.

"I said, 'You've got to take me there, you can't just leave me hanging'. It was like the Macbeth of Japanese culture," says Chong, 46. "If that was really what happened to her back in the Edo period - and even today, people have to appease that anger by dedicating a shrine to her - that speaks to the depth and scale of her grief and trauma."

This tale of betrayal and vengeance has reverberated through the ages - and will continue to do so in a new play by The Finger Players.

Oiwa - The Ghost Of Yotsuya, written and directed by Chong, premieres at the Singapore International Festival of Arts from May 28 to 30 after a four-year gestation. It will be performed in Japanese with English surtitles.

Inspired by the 19th-century kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, it will run at the Victoria Theatre with a cast of 10 Singapore and Japanese actors, told from the points of view of Oiwa and her husband.

Some actors will simulate the movements of puppets, manipulated by shadowy puppeteers, combining techniques from bunraku and ningyo buri traditions.

Written and directed by Chong Tze Chien, Oiwa - The Ghost Of Yotsuya (above) features a cast of 10 Singapore and Japanese actors. PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

"The first thing we had to do was recondition the actors' bodies," says Chong, who is a core member of The Finger Players. "They had to learn how to work and behave like puppets. There was the process of moving as though they are puppets, but also trying to look human-like at the same time."

It also required a lot of intuition and hard work, he adds. Since the puppeteers are only pretending to manipulate the human puppets, actors need to pay close attention to one another's breath and speech patterns to sync their movements.

Chong is excited to bring horror to the stage.

"How do you pull off that illusion and have people suspend their disbelief? Because it's not like film. How do we do 'special effects' on a live stage? Those were the challenges I had to work around."

The production will be highly stylised and almost all the actors will be wearing masks - allowing multiple Oiwas to be on stage.

The legend of Oiwa has had a lasting influence on the Japanese horror psyche - inspiring, for instance, the figure of Sadako Yamamura, the long-haired, white-garbed woman in the 1998 horror film Ring.

Staging a play about Oiwa, some might say, comes with its risks. "It's almost a cursed play. You need to get her blessings before you can stage any story that revolves around her," Chong adds.

In 2018, he and the Singapore cast met the five actors in Japan, rehearsing together and visiting the shrine for a ritual where they sought Oiwa's blessing with the help of a priest. "We have a plaque from the ceremony and we will have it with us at every rehearsal."

  • Go to In-venue tickets are presently sold out. Video-on-demand tickets will go on sale soon.

Sophia Brous:The Invisible Opera 

The Invisible Opera by Australian interdisciplinary performer Sophia Brous will have its world premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts next month. PHOTO: PAUL PHILIPSON

Next month, somewhere in a public square in Singapore, a security camera will "sing" a libretto.

Pedestrians will be under remote surveillance by a woman in Melbourne, who will - without being visible to them - comment on the scene, issue instructions and sing in real time.

This, in broad brush strokes, is what audiences might expect at interdisciplinary performer Sophia Brous' world premiere of The Invisible Opera at Sifa.

The production responds to the multifarious activities that go on in a public square, as well as ideas of surveillance, public assembly and freedom of movement. It will feature sound design, electroacoustic orchestration and live vocals.

"Sometimes, sound exists as an accompaniment to theatre," says the 35-year-old Australian, who is also a respected arts curator.

"It's used as a device. In this work, I hope sound can be a vector of drama and action. Sound becomes an enabling, immersive tool to dramatise the city and animate everything we see. It invites the audience to question what is and isn't theatre, both within the piece, but also within our everyday lives."

Brous says she spends a lot of time people-watching in Melbourne and New York, the two cities she shuttles between.


    WHERE: Various venues; online WHEN: May 14 to 30; video-on-demand from June 5 to 12 ADMISSION: Tickets start at $8 for video-on-demand, $10 for front-row student tickets and $15 for selected in-theatre programmes. Go to or call 6348-5555. Video-on-demand tickets will be on sale from Monday INFO:

"What's the sound of the sandwich being eaten by the gentleman in the corner? What are the sounds of electric bikes and scooters?

"When people think of opera, they think of large-scale scenography, the grandeur and romance of epic opera performance.

"But I was really interested in how it interacts with the mundane, with the everyday. I was noticing what people were doing in these spaces, noticing what seemed like impossible, staged behaviours - but of course they weren't staged."

The Invisible Opera, which has been several years in the making, was created by Brous in collaboration with performance-makers Lara Thoms and Samara Hersch and choreographer Faye Driscoll.

Brous will be "sounding the city" in the run-up to her performance. "We'll have a team of collaborators in Singapore on the ground to sense out the city through microphones and cameras to create a portal for my team and me to view Singapore from afar."

  • Performance timings and ticketing details will be released at a later date. Go to​

Tania El Khoury: Gardens Speak and As Far As Isolation Goes

In Gardens Speak, a haunting sound installation by Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury, audiences dig up the ground to listen to the narratives of people killed in the early years of the Syrian conflict. PHOTOS: JESSE HUNNIFORD, PANTELIS LADAS

During the Syrian war, they were killed and buried in gardens.

Now, the stories of these 10 ordinary people can be heard in Gardens Speak, a haunting sound installation by Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury.

When the work comes to Sifa next month, people at 222 Arts Club - just 10 of them each time - may place their heads on the ground to listen to these intimate narratives.

"The piece has 10 speakers buried in four tonnes of soil," says El Khoury, 38. "The audience is invited to go into that space and dig the soil with their hands - to get closer to the sound, lie down and listen to it whispered into their ears - and then bury it back."

The intimate, first-person narratives, originally written in Syrian dialect, are based on interviews with friends and families of the deceased.

Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury

Singapore audiences will hear these stories in English.

About 400,000 people have been killed since the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime spiralled into civil war. El Khoury recalls that there was "a lot of hope" at the start of the uprising.

"Gardens Speak reminds us that these were people who went out and took to the streets to protest an oppressive regime, decades of dictatorship - and were targeted, demonised and killed by the regime."

She says that the form of the work has political potential.

"When you are involved in a multi-sensory experience, you are not just viewing as a spectator. You are smelling, touching the soil, and being there, lying there. It places you in other people's realities and evokes your own mortality, your own vulnerability, your own humanity."

Gardens Speak was a co-commission by the Fierce Festival in Birmingham and Next Wave Festival in Melbourne.

Since 2014, when it was first mounted, it has travelled to about 30 cities, using the soil of the land where it is staged.


    WHERE: 222 Arts Club, 01-01/02, 222 Queen Street WHEN: May 19 to 30, 6, 7.30 and 9pm (Wednesdays to Fridays); 11am and 12.30, 3.30, 5, 8 and 9.30pm (weekends) ADMISSION: $35 INFO:


    WHERE: Online WHEN: May 21 to 23 and 28 to 30, in slots from 5.30pm to 9.35pm ADMISSION: $20 INFO:

"In Australia, it was all sandy where we presented it. In Oslo, I think it was like ice," she adds.

"I don't try to do a realistic representation of a Syrian garden. On the contrary, it's a designed space, a theatrical artistic experience and an invitation to remember those people in their own way, with their own connections."

El Khoury's other Sifa piece, As Far As Isolation Goes, is a collaborative project with musician and street artist Basel Zaraa.

The intimate 20-minute performance unfolds online in real time and will invite audiences to draw on their own arms as they explore the mental and physical state of refugees.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2021, with the headline 'Hybrid shows break new ground'. Subscribe