Katrina Stuart Santiago*
The Bangkok International Performance Meeting (BIPAM) 2021, Bangkok Thailand, 1–5 September, 2021.
To say that Southeast Asia’s theatre continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic would be an understatement. And it isn’t just about the lockdowns, which inevitably mean the closure of our performance spaces. It is also about the perception that the arts are non-essential, where cultural spaces are the first to close and last to open; where cultural workers are lowest in the pecking order of priority beneficiaries of assistance—if they are on the list at all.
This is not to say that theatre has not continued. In the past 20 months of this pandemic, I have seen more performances from Asia than I ever have in the decade that I have worked as critic from Manila. Festivals have had no choice but to take on the virtual as viable space for theatre, creating with it an online audience that engages in the collective paradox of wanting theatre spaces back but also accepting that online is now the only space we have.
As a critic, this has been a difficult space to navigate, primarily because its context is a pandemic. A difficult time seems to demand that we bite our tongues as we watch theatre productions grapple with this shift to another medium. It means understanding that you will most probably see a lot of bad performances, if not get bored out of your wits by productions that only seek to use the virtual as a platform on to which their shows might be uploaded.
This crisis is no surprise. After all, if the medium is the message, what happens to that message when we lose the stage to the screen?
Owning the Virtual
The Bangkok International Performance Meeting (BIPAM) 2021, as the name suggests, is not just about its showcase of performances. Just as important, it is about creating meeting points for different theatre practitioners across Asia so that they might network, engage in dialogue and collaborate on curated panels and projects. This set-up is not new: it borrows to some extent from the annual The Performance Arts Meeting (TPAM) in Yokohama, Japan (now called YPAM or the Yokohama Performance Arts Meeting).
But the programming of the showcase for BIPAM’s 2021 festival deserves mention because it was dominated by shows that, for once, looked as if they comfortably lived in the virtual, and could not exist anywhere but online. Entitled Ownership, one of the things BIPAM truly owned is this virtual space, the one we have been limited to and have been invariably oppressed by for close to two years.
With a programming team that includes a diverse set of theatre practitioners and that includes a theatre critic—a rare occurrence for any festival—one gets the sense that this BIPAM deliberately took its time and thought things through, ultimately finding the balance between using the virtual as space and keeping the theatre as critical storytelling practice.
The Lecture, Magnified
An Imperial Sake Cup and I by Dr. Charnvit Kasetsiri, directed by Teerawat Mulvilai, is a lecture-performance, one where Dr. Kasetsiri does not only sit and tell his story but also performs bits and pieces of it, moving across the space that has been fashioned as an office without walls. Dr. Kasetsiri’s movements are thoughtfully planned out, seemingly chosen to coincide with instances in his narrative where there is talk of movement and action. Layered with video, lighting and sound design elements, this would have been enough to sustain a spectator’s interest in a narrative about Kasetsiri’s personal history as academic, citizen and historian, whose deliberate displacement from Thailand and reconsideration of Japan as home is born of the interweaving socio-political histories of the two countries.
But this performance sought to do even more. Throughout the lecture, the camera would shift from a wide shot of the staged space to a top view of Dr. Kasetsiri’s desk. As our gaze falls on that desk, it becomes a stage in itself—its objects deriving meaning from the voice of the persona, telling a story that is deeply personal but bound to the historical. The shifts between the desk, the large video screen and the stage set provide the spectator with a sense of these shifts in experience, one that is specific to Dr. Kasetsiri yet speaks to our own experience of lived history.
This camera work made the performance more engaging, demanding of the spectators not only to shift their gaze but also to tune in better, or differently, to what is being said at any given point in the lecture.
One takes cognizance of the fact that this might have only worked because the lecture of Dr. Kasetsiri was, to begin with, a carefully written one, which seemed to have a keen sense of how to keep an audience’s attention. If this performance is any indication, then it is the deeply personal story—one that is complex, difficult, and even convoluted—interwoven with the socio-political that captures that audience. Live, and online.
A Staged Conversation
Dujdao Vadhanapakorn’s Borrow happens in a defamiliarized space: the smallness of a studio, dominated by a mountain of salt, on top of which is one plastic chair. Solitary performers are made to take up space here as they receive the same questions from Vadhanapakorn. They are not only supposed to answer these questions but are also given a set of instructions for doing so: answer with a smile or answer with your eyes closed, answer with a lie or answer with a half-truth, answer screaming or perform your answer.
On the surface, it seems as if the spectator is just watching a simple psychological test, bearing witness to the performers’ answers to well-chosen questions, ones that speak to each performer’s self-awareness and identity, answers that are inevitably affected by the demands of a space that is equally familiar and strange, as much an opening to play as it is a threat of entrapment.
One is drawn to this conversation, because what Vadhanapakorn does is to build a narrative through her questions, one that would be told regardless, and maybe precisely because, of the diverse and divergent answers. It is a narrative of unfreedom, where family and gender, society and history are brought to bear on these four individuals. They might speak of different experiences, but they are all essentially tied to the same collective socio-political history.
This collective history that Vadhanapakorn fashions is what makes Borrow important. Yes, it surfaces the instability of identities; but, more than that, it ties that instability to a specific context that is just as precarious, one that is still in the process of being told, one that is both real and imagined community.
That this could only be done for the screen would be an understatement. Taken from video documentation of the individual performance-interviews, it is the skillful and careful video editing that brings it all together into a riveting show that builds upon intimate similarities, irreconcilable differences and collective struggle.
Off-hand, A Perfect Conversation: Oh! Ode x Blunt Knives on Google Doc Jam by Sasapin Siriwanij and Eng Kai Er is simply a documented conversation between two artists and an audience. The chosen platform? An empty Google Document page.
But as with the rest of the projects in this year’s BIPAM, at the heart of this is a wrought conversation that the performance makes us privy to. It engages with two complex works, Siriwanij’s Oh! Ode (2017) and Eng’s Blunt Knife (2019), and it allows for the audience to speak with the artists, posing questions and articulating observations, on the common page. The conversation could go anywhere, but what is interesting is how even when it does, what it creates is a sense of a collective of interlocutors—artists and spectators together—grappling equally with the text and all that is contingent to it. Here, the artists and spectators, the contextual and historical, the critical and meta-critical are given space to exist. But it does so within the frame of a blank page, a friendly and open conversation and the voices of multiple women.
That page captures more than a conversation. It is a documentation of responses and ripostes that builds a community around the spectatorship of the two works. It is as deeply personal as the works are, and as complicated as the contexts that gave birth to these works. That this staging demanded of the spectator to watch performances through another screen flashed on one’s own screen was, surprisingly, not a problem. This is a measure of how well-conceptualized it was: the theatre was happening on the Google Document. The two recorded performances were its primary subjects.
Yes, the shows were important. But this performance of the conversation was the point.
Taking Back Our Stories
The power of BIPAM 2021’s showcase lies not just in how it owned the virtual space but also in how it did it. Where one has witnessed many productions complicating this exercise by employing technology to the point that the performance becomes secondary, here what we see is theatre going back to its roots: storytelling. Difficult conversations and complex narratives were brought to the online space with a keen sense of audience and a thoughtful use of technology, in projects that still believed in putting performance front and center.
Probably the greatest measure of BIPAM’s success for me is the fact that, in the course of watching these shows, not once did I feel any nostalgia for the physical theatre space at all. This speaks to the fact that the screen didn’t hamper my appreciation of the performances, and the task of spectatorship didn’t seem strange or wrong or different.
And when you stop wondering if what you’re watching would be better seen live, then it means that you are finding logic, maybe even some comfort, in the screen as mediator and the virtual as space. It took us a while to get here, but BIPAM is showing us the way.
*Katrina Stuart Santiago is an independent essayist, arts and cultural critic, book author and opinion writer from Manila, Philippines, with a decade of work in mainstream and fringe publications. Her role as critic fuels her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions and institutional crises. She is also a teacher, a small press publisher and editor of the review site gaslight.online. She has been writing at katrinasantiago.com since 2008 and is @radikalchick online.
Copyright © 2021 Katrina Stuart Santiago
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