Breaking barriers in play

Immersive theatre production Hurstville explores mental health by encouraging dialogue about the struggles people face every day

The cast of Hurstville: The Heir includes (from left) Rachel Chin as the village's mad woman, Jax Leow as the carpenter, Jane Chia as the apothecary and Sherilyn Tan as the gypsy.
The cast of Hurstville: The Heir includes (from left) Rachel Chin as the village's mad woman, Jax Leow as the carpenter, Jane Chia as the apothecary and Sherilyn Tan as the gypsy. PHOTOS: UNDERGROUND

Leadership trainer Sheena Ling has watched popular New York City immersive theatre production Sleep No More six times and was intrigued by its ability to break barriers among people.

"We often feel threatened when we need to have difficult conversations," says Ling, 35. "Immersive theatre sparks conversation and creates an atmosphere of openness."

This is one of the reasons she is directing Hurstville: The Heir, an immersive theatre production that aims to explore the topic of mental health by encouraging conversation about struggles people face on a daily basis.

It is staged by Underground - the theatre arm of social enterprise The Inside Space, which Ling founded in 2016. The Inside Space holds personal development and leadership training programmes.

Hurstville allows members of the audience to influence the fates of the characters in the play through their interactions with them.

Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, the play examines life in a village that is spared from the hardships of the period. The people of the titular village have homes and ample food, and are generally hesitant to challenge the status quo.

However, a new family joins the village and starts asking questions, such as how the village gets its resources, revealing cracks in Hurstville's society.

Ling, who is Hurstville's co-director, says: "This is us, in our society today. Most of us have decent and comfortable jobs and we do not dare to change anything, even if we are miserable."

The production conveys the message that people have an important part to play in influencing the cultures of their societies, she adds.

In Hurstville, this message is evident from how audience members can create an ending of "regression or redemption" through their behaviour and conversations with the characters.

  • BOOK IT / HURSTVILLE: THE HEIR

  • WHERE: 265 South Bridge Road

    WHEN: Various dates from March 1 to April 20, Sundays (12.30pm, except March 1, and 7.30pm) and Mondays (7.30pm)

    ADMISSION: $85, $149 (with three-course dinner), $320 (bundle of four tickets)

    INFO: Admission only for those aged 18 and above. Precautions amid coronavirus outbreak: Audience members will have their temperatures taken before they enter the venue. The premises and props will be sanitised before each show and audience members will get a surgical mask to wear throughout the production.

For example, the baker in Hurstville struggles with guilt as he made a mistake that caused his wife to be banished from the village. When he recounts the story in a one-on-one conversation with an audience member, the audience can either be nonchalant or give him sound advice. "Even inaction leads to consequence," says Ling.

Held in a four-storey shophouse at 265 South Bridge Road, each show can accommodate up to 150 audience members.

This is the second production Underground will be staging. Its maiden production Black Lotus in May last year was also an immersive show directed by Ling, centred on the themes of betrayal and trust and set in a fictional drug cartel.

For Hurstville, co-directors Ling and Dyllis Teo, 26, wrote half of the script before holding auditions. They wrote the remaining half based on the strengths and life experiences of the 11 main actors and 12 supporting actors.

Teo says: "Every role is written for a particular actor, based on his or her struggles in life and wisdom he or she has gleaned over the years."

They picked cast members whom they thought would be sensitive to the audience's reactions, as these reactions determine the ending of each show.

Cast member Beatrix Tay, a full-time dance instructor, says the actors are encouraged to let their personalities shine through their roles. Hurstville is her first foray into acting.

"My character brings a new perspective to the village and gets audiences to find freedom for themselves by questioning social norms," says Tay, 26, who plays the younger daughter of the new family that joins the village.

Preparing for the show was no mean feat, says Ling, as the crew faced the Herculean task of making the large set look straight out of the 1930s.

While doing so, they also needed to make the production relatable on a personal level. She declined to disclose how much was spent on the production.

Ling says: "We hope audiences will feel like it is another world. But we also want them to experience the authenticity of the emotions, lessons and wisdom that come from the characters."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2020, with the headline 'Breaking barriers in play'. Subscribe