States of the Union is an ongoing series featuring brief pieces by writers we admire from around the world. Some of the writers are in exile, some communicate from within a country ruled by a regime they defy. Read editor-in-chief Dale Peck’s introduction to the series here. For the full series, click here.
It is around 8 p.m. and I have just finished my dinner. I log on to my email account and try to find my ticket. I do a search for it by using the name of the theater company as a keyword.
This is what going to the theater means, in these pandemic days.
I find the email. I am told to “download e-tickets here.” Clicking on the link opens a page on my browser, displaying my e-ticket, with the logo of the presenting venue and a barcode. Under normal circumstances, an usher would use a scanner to direct a red pulse on the barcode, and I would hear a beep—the sound of approval in a mechanized world. But I am asked to “click here to watch live.”
But the play is not live. It has been recorded and is now a video. Many theater companies have been struggling with the concept of liveness as they make their offerings available online. For liveness to occur, it needs what performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte describes as “bodily co-presence” (of performers and audience), which then creates an “autopoietic feedback loop” (the term “autopoiesis” is borrowed from biology, to describe a closed system that is self-creating and self-maintaining).
In May 2020, in response to Singapore’s first lockdown, the theater company I worked with, Wild Rice, released videos of some of its past productions online. The “premiere” of each video was set in the evening, at the time when a play performance would typically commence. On YouTube, where the video premiered, the comments section was opened to allow for viewers to register their presence and interact with one another. This was a semi-liveness: a live audience for a non-live performance. But there was no loop. I was kidding myself—this was not a semi-liveness but a pseudo-liveness.
I watch the play on my laptop. I am dressed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. The absence of liveness means that I can watch without being watched. I have often wondered whether the entire disciplinary regime of theatergoing—not talking during a performance, not looking at one’s phone, staying still so as not to create unnecessary sounds—was maintained through surveillance by ushers and mutual policing by audience members.
I find my fingers roaming over the keyboard, in a sly parody of the term “digital theatre.” I start to open windows on my screen. I check my emails, my phone, and eventually I am lying on my bed, playing a mobile game, tethered to the play only by a pair of wireless earbuds. In the absence of surveillance, I become the worst audience I can think of—distracted, impatient, unforgiving.
At the end of 2020, I was invited to become a curator for a program called “Deleted Scenes Southeast Asia,” organized by the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting. I was asked to propose a play from Singapore which had been censored or banned. The play would then be translated into Thai and performed as an omnibus program of digital theater with two other plays (from Indonesia and Thailand).
The play I chose was Smegma by Elangovan, which was banned in the year 2006. According to the Media Development Authority of Singapore, “Comprising 10 playlets, Smegma undermines the values underpinning Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious society. The play portrays Muslims in a negative light…[and] could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims.” As a Muslim myself, I disagreed with this characterization of the play. It was obvious to me that the censors were more worried about the portrayal of some Muslim characters, from the South of Thailand, who were part of a secessionist struggle. They were less concerned about the stereotyping of Muslims as jihadists than they were about artists humanizing jihadists.
In September 2021, I watched Smegma on my laptop. The segment chosen was called Insurrection, and portrayed a Thai soldier and a Singaporean military observer interrogating a Muslim woman. It was disturbing, but also raised difficult questions about violence as a response to oppression. Here was a work which I would have never been able to see performed in Singapore, but which I was now witnessing in my own bedroom.
Artists were finding ways to produce cross-border collaborations in spite of their physical inability to cross those borders. Virtual spaces had become international waters where terrestrial censorship regulations were suspended. Through the “Deleted Scenes” project, I became sensitized to the possibility of the Singaporean play as a political refugee, seeking asylum not in any of those white savior countries of the Global North, but a neighbouring country in Southeast Asia.
In the absence of the theater’s surveillance, I found myself watching plays in a mode a truancy. But there were fugitive plays which found life by migrating online, capitalizing on the absence of state surveillance. It did not matter to me that these plays were not live, as long as they were alive. And my wish is for governments to leave these spaces for transnational cooperation alone, to not even try to facilitate them through the framework of “cultural diplomacy.” We have borne witness to the limits and failures of “bilateral relations.” We demand new and anarchist forms of kinship with our neighbors.
This is what going to the theater means, in these pandemic days. Theater is dead, long live theater.
Alfian Sa’at is the Resident Playwright of Wild Rice. His published works include poetry collections: One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia, and The Invisible Manuscript; short story collections: Corridor and Malay Sketches; and three collections of plays. His works have been translated into German, Chinese, and Japanese.
Image by Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1902). Reproduced from L'âme humaine: ses mouvements, ses lumières et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique (The human soul: its movements, its lights, and the iconography of the fluidic invisible), Paris: Librairie internationale de la pensée nouvelle, 1913.