Theatre-maker Liu Xiaoyi steps out to form new group

Known for his experimental works, theatre-maker Liu starts non-profit company Emergency Stairs with two other arts practitioners

The people behind Emergency Stairs: (from left) producers Chong Woon Yong and Jo Lim and director Liu Xiaoyi.
The people behind Emergency Stairs: (from left) producers Chong Woon Yong and Jo Lim and director Liu Xiaoyi. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

After 15 years with The Theatre Practice, award-winning director and playwright Liu Xiaoyi has moved on to start a new non-profit arts company, Emergency Stairs.

He is the artistic director of the company, which announced its existence last week, working with producers Jo Lim and Chong Woon Yong.

Emergency Stairs has a seed grant from the National Arts Council, funding it from April 1 this year to March 31, 2020.

"I've always wanted to start my own company," says 35-year-old Liu.

Asked to describe his vision, he says: "Emergency Stairs theatre is experimental rather than user-friendly, poetic rather than mere narration and thought-provoking rather than entertainment."

Take, for example, Offending The Audience, his reworking of the Peter Handke play of the same title, staged in February for Huayi - Chinese Festival Of Arts presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. Offending The Audience was presented under Liu's name before the official incorporation of Emergency Stairs, but is one of three commissions that Emergency Stairs is making for the Huayi festival.

During the work, performers rarely appeared before the audience, though their conversations were heard on the sound system and translated on a surtitle screen. Viewers were free to leave the Esplanade Theatre Studio at any time or to bring in food and enjoy the "show" as actors debated what made a play.

Liu has a reputation for experimental work that pushes the boundaries of theatrical conventions here. He won the arts council's Young Artist Award last year.

The China-born permanent resident gives kudos to The Theatre Practice and its artistic director Kuo Jian Hong for helping him find his wings.

Liu moved to Singapore in 1998 to study engineering at Temasek Polytechnic. Instead, theatre reeled him in after he acted in The Theatre Practice's 2002 production of Animal Farm.

His collaborations with Kuo include the crowd-pleasers Lao Jiu: The Musical and Legends Of The Southern Arch. Both have received multiple nominations and wins at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

But Liu's heart is with non-traditional works such as Fluid, a radio play presented on stage, which won him an award for best original script in the 2015 Life Theatre Awards. From 2013, he helmed The Theatre Practice's arm for experimental works, The Practice Lab.

He met his partners in Emergency Stairs through The Theatre Practice. Chong was a member of the ensemble in 11: Kuo Pao Kun Devised, a critically acclaimed production directed by Liu. Lim was a producer with The Theatre Practice until last year.

"We are friends and we share the same vision of theatre," Liu says.

Chong, 31, adds: "What this means is, we are peculiar. We are about creation and challenging the status quo."

The company is training an ensemble, Emergency Shelter, with the aim of devising a new work tentatively for next June.

It will also present a festival of contemporary and traditional art, Southernmost, in December.

Southernmost follows the model of One Table Two Chairs theatre festivals in London, Zurich, Tokyo and Hong Kong, which rework traditional art forms such as Chinese opera or dance.

In Southernmost, viewers will be invited to open rehearsals and artist dialogues. Collaboration and discussion are the key themes rather than presentation of new works.

Producer Lim, 40, says: "I think the role of the audience is changing and evolving. We shouldn't see audiences as being on the receiving end and passive."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline Theatre-maker Liu Xiaoyi steps out to form new group. Subscribe