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What If: Disability as opportunity

Navigating new realms of expression at M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2020


Published: 4 Aug 2020

Time taken : >15mins

Top image: Photo of Okorn-Kuo Jing Hong. Photo credit: Clara Wildberger

Interview with Director of What If, Okorn-Kuo Jing Hong

What If is the festival commission of M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2020, which focuses on the issue of Disability this year. A new media experience co-created by a multidisciplinary group of performers, designers and directors, What If explores what it means to be human, amid a pandemic. The team is diverse and alongside the cast, who each have a disability, five theatre designers have been included in the devising process, blurring the lines between actor, designer and director. Director Okorn-Kuo Jing Hong tells you more about What If and what it’s been like transitioning from a live to an online production. 

In your own words, what is What If about?

We set out wanting to devise a piece of work with a group of performers from the disabled community with the support of production staff and designers making a performance, to be staged in a physical space. In terms of that original plan, What If no longer exists [as it is now an online new media production]. 

Instead, the very fundamental thing that drives this whole project is to look at disability in a different light; not to, disregard the reality of what people with disabilities have to deal with in their everyday life, but to find a different approach and perspective.

And what do I mean by that?

Generally, in everyday life, we run into hurdles, difficulties, broken hearts, challenges, problems, threats; and it actually can be very defeating. We can feel overcome and overwhelmed by these problems or issues. So what if we see these challenges as an opportunity instead of a burden? By doing so, it actually gives us an opportunity to see deeper into what these situations in life are.

In that light, what if I, as a director see this group of actors, each with a so-called disability, as not having a disability, but their disability as an opportunity, without avoiding and negating what their life has been and their challenges? In that sense, their experience of having a disability creates a different perspective of expression.

Director, Jing Hong and the cast during warm-ups. Cast is seated on the floor.

Jing Hong and the cast during warm-ups. Photo Credit: ArtsWok Collaborative

How is the experience of disability translated into opportunity, in the context of expression?

For instance, initially, we were thinking about how, if the cast who cannot see need to orientate themselves in a space, maybe we need to put certain materials on the floor so that they can know how far they need to move? Or which direction is what? Or maybe the placement of speakers, or placement of light? Or for Stephanie, who's on a wheelchair, what if we don't see it as a wheelchair? How can we use the wheelchair as another layer of expression? 

Stephanie in her wheelchair as she moves to Jing Hong and Bob, the photographer’s, prompts.

Stephanie Esther Fam in her wheelchair as she moves to Jing Hong and Bob, the photographer’s, prompts. Photo Credit: Bob Lee from The Fat Farmer

Given our initial physical rehearsal space in Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre, that's what we were thinking of in terms of form. And when we were actually denied this physical space due to Covid-19, then the challenge became how do we hold the same spirit of working when we no longer have a space that we are used to, that we are comfortable with, that we have always as what is necessary for theatre? So, what does it mean creatively to have the obstacle of being unable to see each other in person anymore? How do we still create that space for us, to meet, to rehearse, to create something? At the same time, how can we still hold on to the initial objective to look at that disability as an opportunity to create new expressive forms? 

In that sense we are actually trying to hold together two huge packages of so-called “challenges”. Hence, in What If and every single show of What If, we are posing different questions to ourselves and to the work that we're creating. And seeing how it can challenge us and push the limits and push us to the extremes; how we can survive it with a different perspective and with a different way of expressing ourselves. Therefore, my idea for What If was to look at these limitations as an opportunity to create, at the same time acknowledging, but not excluding the difficulties. In the same vein, we are not looking at the experience of disability in terms of difficulties. I'm looking at disability in terms of limitations. 

Limitations are actually very important in this creative process or else everything under the sky goes, you don't know where to start. And so, what if I see this as a particular set of limitations that I have to work with, to force me to come up with different strategies to resolve creative, logistical, technical issues, which are all intertwined. Yes, you have the logistics of how to get an access worker to Stephanie [who has cerebral palsy] to help her, how to get help for Hidayat  or Wai Yee  [who are blind] to get the camera angles right so that we can see them to work or to frame it for the show. How does doing that and giving time for that to happen force the flow of the making of the piece in a particular way that we don't take for granted? We have a wave from the stream that we have always taken for granted.

Why did you choose to make the creation process a collaborative one?

Besides the cast and directors (myself and Tan Beng Tian), there are two other groups: the production staff and designers. 

Production staff are often not considered as creatives. But in this process, this group of people came together to share ideas logistically, technically, and creatively. When you create something, you can't get away from the logistic and technical because it needs to manifest in a certain form and every form has logistical and technical issues to it. As you're solving logistical, technical issues, you are also creating. And as you're creating, you need to also look for the appropriate logistical or technical means to achieve what you want to express. This was heightened by the loss of our physical rehearsal space. Hence, we are not just a team of individuals holding a certain set of responsibilities, but individuals creating together. The creative process is much more egalitarian, and hierarchy flatter, than the original set up.

During a rehearsal, the team of What If responded to a prompt by one of the group’s presentations to make sounds with an object of choice.

During a rehearsal, the team of <em>What If</em> responded to a prompt by one of the group’s presentations to make sounds with an object of choice. Photo credit: ArtsWok Collaborative

Egalitarian also in the sense that we are all very clueless with respect to working on a digital platform. Zoom has its particularities. Basically, most of us on the team have been working in theatre for many years. Some more experienced than the others, but our common language was the structure, the workflow, the protocol, the lingo, of theatre. You say something, you use the lingo and then everybody will understand the implications of it, how to prepare for it, who does what, at what point of time with what. But when you come to this platform, we might still be using the same lingo, but then it has different implications. And because it is so unfamiliar to all of us, suddenly we all are starting from the first page. In terms of this platform, this paradigm, we are all clueless, and our working style has become more egalitarian because we're all trying to figure it out. It's like a perfect storm, although very draining because for every single step to resolve a problem, you have ten other problems revealing themselves. 

I feel that it is more interesting and more challenging to see how I can collate our work by holding the anchor, the core of that piece of work, but at the same time, see how varied and how diverse it can be in terms of the form of expression. 

And personally, I find that much more interesting than me as a director who comes in, "oh, I have this idea, so this is how I need to do it." I'm less interested about my own ideas. I find them quite boring. But on the other hand, the reality that we are facing actually forces that much more to the extreme. 

What was the thinking behind pairing the cast members and designers together for each show?

As for the designers, at first, they were positioned more as a support for the cast. But I realised very quickly in the initial stages of working that this is a group of designers who are young but very sensitive, aware, empathetic, proactive, and curious. 

During an exercise as part of the devising process, the team of What If split into groups and used paper plates to create a logo for an imaginary company.

During an exercise as part of the devising process, the team of <em>What If</em> split into groups and used paper plates to create a logo for an imaginary company. Photo credit: ArtsWok Collaborative

Therefore, from early on, I thought of pairing a cast member and a designer to create something. And of course, each of the designers specialises in a different sense: set designers or light designers, they're all visual-based, and then of course, there's the sound designer. At that point of time, we were already trying to reconcile the question of what does the visual mean for people who cannot see? What is that experience for them, can we even translate that experience? When we moved on to the digital platform, I also wanted to explore that further.

Self-Portrait 1.0 by Lim Shengen.

During initial stages of the devising process, the lighting designer Faith Liu Yong Huay, explained her medium to the <em>What If</em> team. Photo credit: Timothy Trung Hua

How has it been navigating the digital with New Media Director Lim Shengen?

We decided to invite him to our team quite early because I realised that we were clueless when it comes to the digital. The great thing about Shengen is, while he knows a lot about and is curious about new media, the digital and technological aspects of things, he is also an artist. 

Of course, he deals with a lot of technical aspects of things, but he's also exploring different possibilities to this particular tool that we're using. And to see how we can frame it and create the grounds on which we want to, in a way, customise this platform to our needs. He also brought in artistic perspectives because he's more from the New Media Arts, which is a very different perspective. The way they process things, or the way they put things together and the way they communicate, that's another layer of perspective, which actually completes the team. He plays a major role.

During an initial stage of the devising process, the lighting designer Faith Liu Yong Huay, explained her medium to the What If team.

Self-Portrait 1.0 by Lim Shengen. Photo credit: Lim Shengen

When it comes to moving our production to Zoom, I don't think there's only translation. I think there's also transformation. Even that work itself is huge because there's so many things that are very fundamental that you have to rethink, and we don't have that answer. And we don't know. 

What do you like best about being part of the What If team?

One of the great things about this group is that the tolerance of not knowing is very high, or else we will not be able to deal with what we're dealing with right now. Of course, not knowing doesn't mean that, "I don't know so I throw my towel in." Instead, to say “it’s okay, not knowing, and what does that mean?” And then to hold that question and then to investigate it, while simultaneously exchanging information and communicating. As well as alternately working solo to resolve a problem and to work as a team to seek help. It's the capacity to do that within this team. Which actually, I think is also what's sustaining us. Well, and we as a team enjoy the thrill. Because not knowing doesn't have to be suffering. Well, it is suffering but then you have to enjoy and be a bit masochistic, like "Ah! Very painful but this is very shiok man."

So in that sense, the circumstances put us in the extreme, but at the same time, I think the nature of this team is such that we also have that thirst of putting us ourselves in the extreme and to see how far we can go, and then survive.

M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2020 is taking place online in August 2020. Audiences who are blind or vision-impaired may make their ticket bookings through Ting Yu at connect@artswok.org or message her at 9785 7685.

Connect with M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival.

Website: peerpleasure.org

Facebook: www.fb.com/ppfestival

M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2020

What If

Amid a pandemic, where time and space are warped and how we exist and connect feels alienating, What If explores being human. Presenting 4 original works accompanied by animation.

4, 8, 11 & 15 Aug 2020
Online via Zoom
$5 per ticket for each show (excluding $0.50 SISTIC booking fee)
Get your ticket now
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