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Production

That Thing You Do

Company

Tapestry Playback Theatre

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

04/11/2007

Time

3.00pm

Place

Guinness Theatre, The Substation

Rating

***

Confessions from the Stage Floor

I was first introduced to playback theatre when I was invited to contribute to the devising process of The Necessary Stage's Sing Song in 2004. Friends of the company became guest storytellers during rehearsals: we shared personal stories (in this case, about the impact of music on our lives) and these were then translated into short improvised scenes by the actors; some of these fragments were then used as the inspiration for the various vignettes in the show.

In my eyes, therefore, playback theatre is a creative process that leads to a product rather than an outcome in itself. A different perspective is taken by Tapestry Playback Theatre. The short scenes of poetry, music and drama performed by the actors are not being used as material for a future work. Instead, they are meant to be entertaining in their own right and, perhaps more crucially, to help create a sense of community because of the closeness that comes when a group of people share personal stories. The audience members who volunteer to become storytellers are said to be gifting the actors and the rest of the audience with their stories and likewise, as facilitator Anne Chua says before and after each scene, the scenes being devised are meant as gifts for the people who have shared the story. At one point, Chua says that we are gathered here to simply "honour the moments in our lives".

If this all sounds very earnest and much like free therapy, that's because it is. A couple of the storytellers and audience members actually cried as the various stories were being re-imagined onstage: a wife surprises her husband with passes to an EPL football match and round-trip plane tickets; a lady's father loses his dog, only to find new happiness with a puppy she buys for him despite his protestations; a teenage boy leaves his home in India and receives an elaborate scrapbook filled with photographs and messages of love from dear friends ("guys don't normally write") and the girlfriend of just three months who had put it all together.

It is to the team's credit that they were able to draw such intimate stories from the audience in the first place as this is not an easy feat. Although I personally found facilitator Anne Chua's constant prompting of the storytellers to be a little intrusive and leading, clearly the storytellers themselves did not think so: many audience members happily volunteered to share their tales and proceeded to do so at great length and in much detail. Chua's warm and unassuming character clearly helped to put people at ease and made them feel safe and comfortable enough to share their stories, a few of which I thought were surprisingly close to the bone - for example, a boy talking about how he felt like he didn't fit in in school.

I was a less impressed, however, with the actual scenes developed by the four actors. Don't get me wrong, what they were doing was difficult and the playful and enthusiastic cast certainly gave it a good go. However, I just did not feel that the scenes added all that much to the stories themselves, despite the arsenal of theatre devices, costumes and props at hand. Often, the actors simply enacted what had been described, essentially playing out the narrative if not literally, then predictably.

I thought the potential to go from good to great was not being realised: with more imagination and dramatic flair, these scenes could have explored more fully the complexity of human emotion that is at the core of any good anecdote. The cast's blunter and more straightforward approach clearly helped a couple of the storytellers to achieve a cathartic experience but I was left constantly wondering if the emotional reach of the pieces could have been even greater in both depth and breadth if the scenes had fleshed out the subtleties of the situations more intricately.

There were moments of inspiration though. One I particularly remember is a scene where actor Gabriel Lee used pieces of cloth to construct a metaphor for a long-distance relationship. He laid a blue piece of cloth across the stage and crossed it with a red one, with one end of the red cloth encircling some gold cloth. What was striking was the way he then crouched beside the opposite end of the red cloth and then so gently, so quietly pulled at it. This little tugging from across the ocean was a moment I found immensely poignant because it captured not only the longing but also the loneliness and desperation of a long-distance relationship.

There were little spontaneous comic touches that had me laughing out loud as well - when a mother is told that her son has graduated from university, her immediate response is a dry, "Which lecturer did you pay money to?" - and I also found Hannah Barden's use of simple musical instruments throughout the performance to be well-timed and suitably evocative of the production's wistful mood.

All in all, I thought that That Thing You Do was an interesting show because interactive theatre is hard to come by in Singapore - but I must admit that I remained unsure of its ultimate purpose. Tapestry had previously performed playback theatre for groups of friends or for communities of people living together, for example, in Cambodia. This was their first time performing to a public audience composed of random people who bought tickets. If one of the objectives of playback theatre is to build a sense of community, then what was its specific goal in this case? What is the value of bonding a group of people through the sharing of intimate moments when everyone is just going to disperse again afterwards?

And if it was meant purely as a piece of entertainment, I would suggest that, in future, more of the production be focused on the telling of the longer, more substantial stories. That Thing You Do often seemed like an introductory workshop on playback theatre rather than a performance because of the use of a string of different playback theatre tools (e.g. Three-Sentence Stories, Four Elements, Pairs) in a series of very short fragments. This touch-and-go approach made That Thing You Do seem disjointed and unsatisfying, whereas the telling of a greater number of sustained stories (rather than the current two or three) would have anchored the production and given it the weight it needed.


"The cast's blunter and more straightforward approach clearly helped a couple of the storytellers to achieve a cathartic experience but I was left constantly wondering if the emotional reach of the pieces could have been greater"

Credits

Cast: Anne Chua, Hannah Barden, Gabriel Lee, Michael Cheng and Renee Chua

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.