In the wake of the global pandemic that’s wreaked havoc over the last year, a wave of fear and uncertainty has spread across the entire planet, with the disaster that disrupted everything we knew, and put the already vulnerable in an even more dire situation.
At the height of fear in June last year, Brazilian theatre company Os Satyros presented their digital play The Art of Facing Fear, which faced the perplexity of the pandemic and all its unanswered questions head on, boldly attempting to look fear in the eye. Now, as the pandemic still continues to rage on, The Art of Facing Fear returns, this time in an all-new version that unites 25 actors from 21 countries across 5 continents for a one-of-a-kind digital global production.
Directed by Rodolfo García Vázquez, this new ‘World United version’ plays live three times within 24 hours, and is set in a dystopian future where people are trying to reconstruct stories from a life before the pandemic. In quarantine for 5,555 days, isolated and anguished, they created an internet group to connect, and share about their lives, capturing the depression, loneliness, fear of contagion, and anguish over the proximity of death.
Of the 25 actors involved, one of them happens to be Victoria Chen from Singapore. Despite the the pandemic, Victoria has managed to work on an impressive number of shows, beginning with a digital version of her experimental work Charlie, to How Drama’s Zoom version of their hit sketch show Fat Kids Are Harder To Kidnap. When things got better, she even returned to stage performances, with Wild Rice’s The Amazing Celestial Race in February, and more recently, Toy Factory’s A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts.
With the chance to work on yet another project with new collaborators, Victoria took it up in earnest, and has spent the last few weeks in intense digital rehearsals with her director somewhere on the other side of the planet, while working alongside her fellow international cast members, workshopping a monologue, and as always, combats the woes of digital theatre.
“It was just the kind of thing I wanted to do, this act of collaboration and going international with people I wanted to work with,” says Victoria. “My involvement came about because Fat Kids was playing at the same time as them at The Good The@tre Festival last year, and they ended up reaching out to all the other theatre companies in the festival and asked if any of us would like to be a part of this World United edition.”
While Victoria may be no stranger to digital productions, The Art of Facing Fear has definitely demanded a different set of skills from her, primarily when it came to devising her lines. “I was paired with an actor from a country where freedom of speech in the arts is a lot more limited, so I’m telling that person’s story through my acting, or the authorities in that country might come after her,” says Victoria. “As a performer, I’m not necessarily playing her, but telling it in a way that such resonances might be felt in Singapore, while having that person’s experience in mind.”
I don’t feel a burden in telling that story though, it’s more of an honour, and when that person sees my work and cries, you realise how you have this responsibility to represent them and be the only voice they have.
Despite the time differences with her collaborators and her already busy schedule, Victoria tells us that rehearsals have been a relatively easy affair for her. “My time in Dream Under The Southern Bough clashed with the first week of rehearsals for this production, but they never made me feel like it was a problem for them,” she says. “And in terms of the time, I’ve maybe had to wake up at 4am once, and for most of the other rehearsals, either stay up till 2am or wake up at 7am, and it’s all very doable. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me.”
“But I remember, back in 2013, one of the first international digital theatre experiences I was part of was PopUp Theatrics’ Long Distance Affair. I had a 9 minute monologue to perform, and back then, I was in a different position, where I didn’t even have my own room to do things, didn’t have good internet connection, and there were times my brother would be in the room and disrupt rehearsals, and I’d just feel so embarrassed,” she admits. “There were times I was even rehearsing in the toilet at 6am due to the time differences, and just so I could have my own space!”
Of course it’s better now, but I admit that I’m in a position of privilege and very lucky to even be able to do digital theatre like Fat Kids and Charlie last year. You have to have a home that’s conducive, with a good internet connection, a computer, a private space for creating and performing work where you won’t be interrupted, and for some people, they don’t have as much access to these resources.
On how her mental health has been affected by the pandemic, Victoria is all smiles and a bundle of energy, soldiering on and somehow fast forwarding past most of the initial shock that the world was going through. “I definitely wasn’t the most busy person during the pandemic – it’s not like I had back to back shows, but neither was I in a place where I felt like I was going to take a hiatus and leave the scene for a while,” says Victoria. “People all over the world have related to the pandemic so differently based on their conditions – in Singapore we’re quite lucky that we have vaccines going on, compared to say Brazil or India, or even places where people are selling fake vaccines.”
“Over the pandemic, I’ve realised that I think we’ve forgotten how to listen to each other, as fellow human beings. As artists, we don’t just bang out message over your head, and what we produce, it’s more than fact, more than truth, and a lot of it boils down to the presentation of it all,” Victoria continues. “This is a show that I think everyone will have a unique response to, depending on how you’ve experienced the pandemic. Fear is a primal emotion, and this show will make you reflect on your experiences over the past year, whether it evokes ideas of uncertainty or hope or apathy.”
And for Victoria, because of the sensitive nature of the show, she emphasises how much care there has been in the creation of it, and the presentation of herself. “I never felt unsure of my place in the production, but there were times I did wonder about how I would be presenting a Singapore narrative,” she says.
There was a scene which involves actors who came from countries that lived through authoritarian governments, like Argentina and Indonesia. But then I was asked to be involved too, and that made me hesitate. While I understand why they might see Singapore as a ‘benevolent dictatorship’, I know that I don’t want to act like there is oppression like some other countries in Singapore.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been in an international production, and I think I’ve grown more conscious of how everything I do has weight, and is a reflection of both myself and the society I grew up in. If I’m going to say something about society, I’m not going to tell the people who don’t understand – I don’t need the world to be my therapist. If I wanted to do something about it, I would tell the people who lived and understood the experiences I’ve been through, so my expression of criticism, resentment and frustration can be channeled into action!”
Ultimately, Victoria is content with the place she’s in right now, and of course, looking forward to her whirlwind of performances over the next three shows. “With 25 cast members, I’m constantly amazed at all these different points of view,” she concludes. “This is the heart of art and artistic creation – to connect and tell stories.”
The Art of Facing Fear plays online at 2am, 10am and 7pm on 20th June 2021 (Singapore Time). Book your tickets here