Actress Karen Tan is coaxing me into making eye contact with the stranger (now friend? acquaintance?) sitting across from me in the Drama Box rehearsal studio. Or, at least, her voice is, piped in through the studio's speakers as a sort of omniscient narrator. I'm not sure if it's working. I stare at my hands, embarrassed, and glance up at my assigned partner, who is wearing the same sheepish smile as I am. Drama Box resident artist Han Xuemei's MISSING: The City of Lost Things begins with an invitation to surrender yourself to the production's main conceit. To be introspective, but open and willing to participate – and to keep skepticism at the door.
We're on a journey to reclaim a lost connection in our lives, a journey that begins from the moment a potential participant decides to text a phone number that will lead them to the ticketing portal for this experience. The City of Lost Things continues on trajectories of investigating urban alienation and interrogating public space that have surfaced in many of Drama Box's productions over the past decade, and looks at rediscovering the deeply personal in what can feel like a very impersonal city. The four-hour journey can be experienced in either English or Mandarin, with playwright Jean Tay contributing the text for the English sessions and practitioner Neo Hai Bin for the Mandarin ones, and a lush, industrial soundscape by Darren Ng.
The City of Lost Things grew out of a workshop Xuemei attended in Hong Kong in 2015, conducted by Ant Hampton (United Kingdom) and Christophe Meierhans (Switzerland). The duo and a group of participants came together to test out an 'automatic workshop' – a participant-led workshop with minimal intervention from the creative team, who would convey instructions by, say, text message or pre-recorded audio. It was a work in progress (which would eventually become THE THING), leaving participants both frustrated and intrigued by the workshop's demands for self-initiated action. Participants were instructed to talk to strangers beyond their zone of comfort in social interaction, or carry out unexpected actions – and then perhaps replicate the actions of their fellow participants out of context. Some did, others didn't. Regardless of their approaches to decision-making and the meaning they derived from it, one thing was clear: the participant had become the performer.
In a similar way, apart from Karen Tan's disembodied voiceovers, The City of Lost Things has no cast or prescribed narrative, and the participant determines the outcome of the experience. But where the automatic workshop was communal and encouraged some sort of social disruption or intervention in everyday life, The City of Lost Things is deeply private and personal. There's a tradeoff here in terms of dramatic effect. There is safety in numbers, and a group of 8-12 participants may be more willing to take risks as a whole than an individual with no one else to ascertain accountability in performance. There is no one to perform for or with, as it were, other than an unknowing public whose presence might be intimidating. I was certainly afraid, as a person alone, to enact gestures or draw with chalk in a public space.
One might argue, however, that the point of The City of Lost Things is not the 'narcissistic participation' or 'entrepreneurial participation' of a Punchdrunk-type show, where savvy audience members actively seek out hidden spaces and revel in the exclusivity of an intimate moment with a performer, basking in what's perceived as a unique moment of attention. The journey here demands an internal risk-taking rather than an external risk-taking, a four-hour version of a ten-day silent meditation retreat where you are left alone with your thoughts and forced to confront your self. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is an obvious influence, with an extended homage to his collection of prose poems investigating magical cities, hidden cities, cities between cities – peeling back the surface of Singapore's urban fortress to find moments of magic beneath through Jean Tay's meditative, lyrical text. You're loaned a beautifully designed travel kit for this purpose – a tiny plastic suitcase containing an array of interesting objects and curios to accompany you on your journey – but I found many of the objects (and the instructions they came with) tangential or irrelevant to my own journey in negotiating my friendship with a specific person I'd lost contact with. I understand the need for these instructions to be open-ended enough to suit most situations, i.e. lost connections with institutions or objects or places, but I craved some sort of structure with which to engage with my intangible past through these tangible objects – some of which were especially lovely to hold and turn over in the palm of my hand.
Xuemei's first foray into this vein of participatory work feels like a blend of Belgian group Ontroerend Goed's radical intimacy – where you find yourself in situations that test the limits of your personal space and how much you're willing to confide in or trust strangers – and the intimate audio walks of Singapore performance collective spell#7. Where it departs from these very structured, narrative-driven participatory experiences is Xuemei's experiments with automation and the text messages each participants receives en route, and what it means to have a self-initiated journey that's open to personal interpretation – and whether an audience can find meaning in plotting their own journey, or fail productively at it. The use of tech here was interesting to me – it allows the participant a great degree of autonomy in moving around a public space, but it also disrupted the more meditative parts of my journey, where I'd be journalling about an experience but half-expecting to receive a text message at any time prompting me to do something else, a sort of stop-start guided therapy or meditation that takes place in fits and spurts.
I'm not sure if it's an experience for everyone, and I wonder if The City of Lost Things is most effective with a very specific type of lost connection – those who seemed to enjoy the experience most either returned to places or institutions they'd never visited for over a decade, or sought closure for difficult relationships still aching years later. But the introspective flaneurs who wander the city on a regular basis may find this experience an extension of what they already do, day to day – and those who find the small activities frivolous and are unwilling to engage deeply with the material may find the four-hour journey unmeaningful and protracted.
The parts of the journey I realised I enjoyed the most – and this is probably more of a reflection of my introverted self than the piece's aesthetics – were the more structured encounters with the other participants, most of whom I had never met before, where we were encouraged to share experiences and initiate physical contact in ways that needled at my comfort zone. I felt as if I were laying a lost connection to rest while initiating a new one, even if it's a process that film and performance scholar Keren Zaointz describes as a 'presumptive intimacy' borne out of the spectator's desire to make the most of a singular experience, where audience members may 'feel entitled to proximate and intimate liaisons with performers or other audience members that are paid for and expected'. How much can a production or an experience intervene in a participant's personal, emotional relationship with person and place – and alter the outcome or provide closure? I'd like to think that I let go of a fragment of the past and embraced something new on my journey, and allowed myself to observe the city I move through from a slightly different vantage point. If anything, The City of Lost Things allows you four hours of suspended time, time spent with yourself rather than on something, letting you hit the pause button on the rattle and rush of city life.
- MISSING: The City of Lost Things runs till Jan 28. Details here.
- Thanks to Akanksha Raja of ArtsEquator for being such a wonderful partner on this journey! I attended the media preview and happened to be paired up with her for some of the exercises.
- More thoughts to come after I experience the Mandarin session this weekend.