M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Don't just watch the play - be part of it

Participatory theatre is one of the strains running through the 16th edition of the fringe festival, which runs from Jan 8 to 19

Imagine attending a play you know nothing about. Even its title gives you no clues beyond a number.

There are some hints about joining the workforce of a mysterious medical institute, some talk of questioning what it means to be a loyal citizen. But what it all boils down to is you, armed with no more than your phone's WhatsApp and a pair of earphones, awaiting instructions. Nothing can be assumed. Everything is a surprise.

So goes Secretive Thing 215, an M1 Singapore Fringe Festival offering so clandestine that the people behind it refuse to reveal their identities, saying it will detract from the experience of the work itself.

"The elements of mystery and risk-taking are often some of the most vital in Fringe works," says the festival organising team, in a response to why they chose to programme a work they know nothing about. "We believe works at the Fringe should empower audiences to question and find their own meanings and responses rather than abide by singular messages. Through the lens of this work, they will be led on their own journey to determine the choices they will make as a member of a community, in a time when societies and nations are fracturing due to differences in social and political beliefs."

Participatory theatre is one of the strains running through the 16th edition of the festival, which runs from Jan 8 to 19. Its theme is My Country And My People, inspired by Lee Tzu Pheng's 1967 poem of the same name.

In Cafe Sarajevo, a world premiere by Canadian performance collective bluemouth inc, the audience will be part of the recording of a live podcast.

Through radio frequency audio headsets and cardboard goggles displaying 360-degree video, they will get to follow Lucy Simic, one of the show's creators, on her journey to her father's birthplace of Bosnia.

Her father left Bosnia during World War II after his father was killed and a neighbour told his mother that her children were in danger. They migrated to Croatia, a part of what was then Yugoslavia. At 22, he left Yugoslavia to escape the communist dictatorship of then President Josip Broz Tito.

"I was brought up very conscious of my father's history and my heritage," says the New York-based Simic, 50, in an e-mail interview. "We spoke Croatian at home. I had gone back to Skocaj, the village in Bosnia where he was born, on several occasions, but had never been to Sarajevo, the capital. It was an intense curiosity that compelled me to go.

"I had followed what was happening in Bosnia during the war there from 1992 to 1995, and the stories of both survival and destruction coming from Sarajevo during the siege were unimaginable. I had been thinking about Bosnia watching the rise of nationalism at home and abroad. I never imagined it would lead to creating a performance about it."

Besides being immersed in the journey through the headset and goggles, audience members are invited to volunteer for different roles such as reading the opening credits, playing characters in the script, participating in a game of soccer or singing along to a karaoke song.

Co-creator Mariel Marshall, 32, says: "Rather than being passive observers, we ask the audience to help us tell the story by becoming a part of the experience through participation. The goal is to reach beyond the boundaries of conventional performance practice, to create interdisciplinary art that leads audiences and artists alike into new forms of play.

"In Cafe Sarajevo, we hope to open up a dialogue about really complex issues around human nature and sectarianism. Having audiences immersed and active within the story can help people see things through another lens."

Kebaya and dancing girls through the ages

Step into a time-travelling cabaret from the 1960s and dance with actresses Aidli ''Alin'' Mosbit and Siti Khalijah Zainal in Kebaya Homies, one of the highlights of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Jan 15 to 19; Wednesday to Saturday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg

The actresses play perempuanperempuan joget (''dancing girls'' in Malay) in the play by home-grown theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS), a musical romp through Singaporean Malay history and culture. Centred on the kebaya, it explores how perspectives of the traditional outfit have changed over the years.

Aidli, 46, says in an e-mail interview: ''When you talk about perempuan joget in the past, people always think of them as (having) low moral values. But perempuan joget have their own ambitions and desires to do well in life. They didn't become perempuan joget without very important reasons. So it is important we are also deconstructing that image and sharing different perspectives of their stories.''

The play marks TNS' return to the Fringe line-up after five years. It is directed by TNS founder and artistic director Alvin Tan, who will also be reclaiming the mantle of Fringe artistic director from Sean Tobin, who wraps up his six-year run next year.

Kebaya Homies jumps through time periods from the 1960s to the 2040s. Similarly, it also moves through the theatre history of its creators, piecing together scenes from plays by TNS resident playwright Haresh Sharma that Siti and Aidli have acted in.

These range from Pillars, an obscure 1997 play by TNS and Teater Kami that has not been restaged since, to Rosnah (1995), a play with special significance for Aidli and Siti. Both have played the lead role, with Aidli directing Siti in a 2006 Fringe revival and later translating Sharma's mostly English script into Malay for a 2016 iteration, directed by Tan and, again, starring Siti.

''It's quite fun,'' says Tan, 56, who, like Sharma, is a Cultural Medallion recipient. ''You're reappropriating your own work and hijacking it for a new one.''

Siti, 34, says: ''It feels great to be able to go back and unearth the past scripts, like going back through time, walking down memory lane. I bet it's going to be a treat because it has never been done before - where you get to see different versions of Rosnah on stage, combined. It is a passing down from generation to generation.'



    WHERE: Foyer, Centre 42 (meeting point), 42 Waterloo Street

    WHEN: Jan 9 to 12 and 16 to 19, various times

    ADMISSION: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: This is a rain or shine roving experience on foot. Please travel light and wear comfortable shoes and clothing. Bring your own earphones or headphones and a fully charged phone with access to WhatsApp. If you have concerns about accessibility, contact info@singaporefringe.com


    WHERE: Black Box, Centre 42

    WHEN: Jan 8 to 10, 8pm; Jan 11, 11am, 3 and 7pm; Jan 12, 11am and 3pm

    ADMISSION: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic


    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Jan 8 to 11, 8pm; Jan 12, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic

    INFO: For more information, go to www.singaporefringe.com

Audiences could even be responsible for the fate of a nation in A Tiny Country, a collective experimental work in which the audience plays dual roles as members of a community tasked to build their country over a decade, and as social scientists impartially experimenting with the people's future. A prophecy foretells that the country will experience a hostile takeover in 10 years' time.

A Tiny Country is by home-grown participatory theatre collective Attempts, which was founded by actor and director Rei Poh. The collective includes playwright Jean Tay and performer Farez Najid, who runs Lion City D&D, which organises local Dungeons & Dragons game sessions.

For the 2018 Fringe, Poh created Attempts: Singapore, a detective game in which the audience were "researchers" tasked with identifying a missing character.

"I play a lot of games, be it theatre games, card games, board games, video games or even watching the streaming of games," says the 38-year-old in an e-mail interview. "I often let my mind run wild when I'm playing games and imagine how the mechanics of the game would be like in theatre."

He was inspired by The Quiet Year, a role-playing map game in which players define the struggles of a post-apocalyptic community and try to rebuild in the year before the next cataclysm.

There are not many resources devoted to participatory theatre in Singapore, says Poh, but he hopes Attempts can provide a platform for like-minded artists to experiment. "My whole life has been about sitting down and listening in Singapore," he says. "I love the provocation and the imagination of theatre, but yearn for the activeness of games."

Other highlights


What: A documentary theatre work by local group Bhumi Collective about the role of the modern Malay mother in Singapore, which involves text, Malay dance and videography. Where: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Studio Theatre, 151 Bencoolen Street When: Jan 17 and 18, 8pm; Jan 18 and 19, 3pm Admission: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic Info: In English and Malay with English surtitles


What: A "live concept album" about dysphoria and disembodiment by Singaporean indie-electronic duo.gif. Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Jan 10 and 11, 8pm Admission: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic


What: Cologne-based choreographer Reut Shemesh looks at Jewish Orthodox and secular women's roles and relationships in this dance work. Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Jan 14 and 15, 8pm Admission: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2019, with the headline Don't just watch the play - be part of it. Subscribe