In bed with strangers

In Everything By My Side, viewers get into bed with actresses, who tell them a story.
In Everything By My Side, viewers get into bed with actresses, who tell them a story.PHOTO: CHONG YEW



Fernando Rubio

National Gallery Singapore/ Last Saturday

Ten at a time, viewers file into a fourth-floor space at the National Gallery Singapore.

Electronic devices are surrendered outside the door. Absolute silence is to be maintained.

There are 10 beds, made up in white. Each is half-occupied by an actress staring silently at the ceiling.

Under the curious gaze of spectators ringing the area outside the arts space, the viewers stop near their assigned beds.

They remove footwear and get in, turning their bodies to face the assigned actress. Most pull the sheets up to cover themselves, surprisingly unafraid of lying down with a complete stranger for 10 minutes.

Everything By My Side offers a moment of intimacy by transforming a public space into something private.

In the second half of the ongoing Singapore International Festival Of Arts, director Fernando Rubio of Argentina will do something similar in Time Between Us. Next month, a house will be set up in the Marina Bay Sands Event Plaza and occupied by Singaporean actor Oliver Chong, with viewers invited inside to visit.

Everything By My Side offers an even closer connection to its 10 performers, including Singaporean actress Margaret Chan and others from Argentina, Greece, Chile, Brazil, the United States, Croatia, Holland, Finland and Uruguay.

It is difficult to tell which actress each viewer is assigned to. No introductions are made. No conversation is initiated. The actress merely turns to the viewer and tells a story.

It is a story told in the second person so each viewer can decide if it is a personal story, a sharing or a recitation. The story describes a moment of childhood fear, the confidence of adulthood, the deep loneliness of loss and the quiet meditation of acceptance.

It is told with varying degrees of emotion: fear, laughter, joy, sorrow. Some actresses stroke the face of the viewers, lulling them into minutes of eyes-closed contemplation. Some viewers later describe the experience as a return to childhood, like cuddling up with a grandmother, or hearing secrets from a girlfriend.

When the story ends, viewers file out, actresses sit up and then lie down again, waiting for the next batch of listeners.

It is mildly horrific to consider the performers' investment in their performance, which takes place every 15 minutes for 12 hours over three days ending yesterday.

Everything By My Side is a feat of endurance for the performers, but allows too little time for the listener to enter the new world created by the actresses.

Clearly, the story was chosen to reflect moments even strangers might have in common with one another. Clearly, the hope is that this commonality will unite actor and listener in that unreal yet hyper-real pocket universe created by theatre.

This does not always happen. Some viewers emerge recharged and refreshed, others dissatisfied. For the latter, more time is required to create a personal connection. Ten minutes is just not enough.

Apart from more time, more attention needs to be paid to the individuality of the listener in such an intimate performance.

The connection between performer and spectator has never been a one-sided matter. Theatre may seem to be a one-way performance with actors sharing and audience receiving, but as anyone who has enjoyed a good work of theatre knows, in truth, energy cycles between performer and viewer, transforming both.

Everything By My Side is a performance that takes far more out of the actress than is returned to the viewer. It creates a bubble of intimacy but, for some, the bubble is too fragile and bursts before completion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'In bed with strangers'. Print Edition | Subscribe