Reviewer: Cordelia Lee Performance: 16 September 2017
Almost two-thirds of the audience have their hands up as the cast from Tapestry Playback Theatre asks who among us hasn’t experienced playback before.
Chins tilt upwards and eyes dart frantically around the room.
Everyone’s surveying the percentage of rookies, who like themselves, have no idea what they’re in for.
“This is playback theatre – participate, or die.”
Fortunately, the cast dispel all irrational fears as they begin.
Taking the lead, each member introduces him/herself and shares a personal anecdote about claiming public spaces. Fluid sculptures, coupled with repetitive phrases and character expositions, subsequently translate verbal recounts into visual narratives on stage. The impossibility of littering in Japan’s spotless, bin-less streets materialises as the cast sulkily stuff trash into their pockets out of peer-pressure. Comically thought-provoking, the cast’s encounters successfully calm the nervous energy in the room. The storytelling then opens to the floor, and our stories proceed to dictate the line-up for the rest of the evening.
Focusing on the topic of civic-mindedness, Does It Matter? encourages open dialogue among strangers by creatively bringing their stories to life in a safe space. Aesthetics is secondary in this kind of theatre. Yet, Tapestry delivers a commendable level of artistic skill in their execution, presenting theatre as both an artform and a social service to the community.
Improvisations commence barely five seconds after each story is told. A cast member establishes the improvisational style and title of the piece, the audience yells “Let’s watch!”, and it begins. Facial expressions, precise physical actions, and tonal shifts clearly mark out new characters from previous ones. With a bit of imagination, the most unassuming objects transform into something else. A scarf is knotted and strewn like bagged rubbish, while a box placed over the head becomes a gas mask respirator – an essential headgear for surviving air-pollution. The actors think on their feet, but are never completely breaks away from the ensemble. The story weaves the enactments together, a stimulus triggering an instinctive, collective reaction. Transitions flow seamlessly without overt communication as they bounce off each other’s energies, and intuitively negotiate space.
I wonder if they’re psychic.
For the most part, Tapestry strives to preserve the crux of each story, responsibly representing the given stories as sensitively and accurately as possible. But at times, a host of exaggerated local stereotypes invade an enactment, distracting the audience with cheap laughs. Unapologetically incompetent GRC ministers, self-entitled MRT seat-hoarding aunties, and zombie-texting teenagers make their cameo throughout the evening. Granted, given the immediacy of improvisations, the use of easily accessible caricatures is unavoidable. Yet they often seem superfluous and fail to leave a meaningful impression.
Does It Matter? provides an unfiltered platform for opinions about the state of civic-mindedness in Singapore to be heard. Importantly, it empowers the average citizen to communicate them. By transforming personal stories into improvisational theatre, art enters the interactive social domain as a tool, unearthing different perspectives and fostering greater understanding through conversation.
Yes, civic-mindedness does matter, and playback theatre does a beautiful job of reminding us of that.