Split Theatre’s Work on the Self: How Theatre Transforms

Image Credit: Ines Pang

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We’ve placed high hopes on 2021. 

Maybe COVID-19 would be gone and we won’t have to live in the shadow of it anymore. Maybe we’ll no longer be in limbo. Maybe we’d have walked out of 2021 unscathed, as stronger versions of ourselves, just like one variant after another. Many maybes, but only one reality: we’re still dealing with the pandemic, and everything that comes along with it—loss (of varying magnitudes), loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty, and many more. But also, recovery. 

We all turn to different things to cope and to recover. For the artists of Split Theatre, they’ve turned to various art forms, including theatre, to alleviate anxieties and painful memories. This interview details how three theatre practitioners have harnessed theatre to face their personal obstacles—how theatre-making has helped them heal—and how perhaps you might benefit from it too. As their motto aptly asserts, you matter.

Split Theatre was founded by Mr Darryl Lim, a former MOE educator of five years. The NUS alumni now manages the Split Theatre Ensemble as Artistic Director, and is a trained Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) certification trainer, theatre practitioner and coach, with a Master of Arts in Theatre Studies Research. In this interview, he speaks about theatre in Singapore, the role of the arts especially during a pandemic, and why he chooses to keep going.

Accompanying his interview from Split Theatre Ensemble are Lim Ci Xuan, third-year Chinese Studies and Theatre Studies student as well as Cheng Xin Rui, fourth-year Theatre Studies major. As part of Split Theatre’s new Work On The Self (WOTS) programme, these NUS undergraduates share how theatre has played a role in their educational journey and how it allows them to express and heal from stress that accompany their day-to-day lives. WOTS centres on helping participants to heal from various painful memories and experiences, empowering them to become not just better actors, but also stronger human beings. The 10-week journey culminates in a final showcase. 

Ci Xuan, top row first from left, and Xin Rui, top row third from left.

TR: What is theatre to you?

Darryl: Theatre is a place where we can examine human relationships at their core. Theatre is about communication. Theatre is also about dialogue. Theatre is about understanding and about searching to become better. Theatre is about looking at the vulnerabilities of humankind and accepting them as a part of who we are.

TR: Not many people are involved with theatre in their lives—how would you describe or define what theatre is in Singapore?

Darryl: Most people in Singapore look at theatre as entertainment, or simply as a ‘place to chill and relax’ after a long day or week at work. Theatre in Singapore is much more though—it’s about the struggle to find the Singaporean voice and identity. It is the struggle to tell the Singapore story. Who are we, really, as Singaporeans? That’s something to be defined and it’s a dream that we want to work towards.

TR: What are some misconceptions people have about theatre in Singapore, if any?

Darryl: Theatre is not just about storytelling or about driving home ‘a message’. In the past, the theatre used to be a place where people gather to have a collective experience or to simply go through something together. It’s an anchor of connection that many of us are searching for nowadays, but we can no longer find such a thing because of the pace at which we are moving along in life. Is it time to return to the theatre?

TR: Last year, during the circuit break period, we all came across that infamous Straits Times “most essential jobs” poll—how did you feel about that, as an artist and theatre-maker?

Darryl: It’s really about context—the poll was about the essential parts of society that should remain open during a lockdown, and I believe it’s ok to have had ‘artist’ placed under the ‘non-essential’ category at that point in time. Nevertheless, I’m really glad the poll got people talking about how art is in fact really important to us even during such times. Being an artist is about being courageous enough to start conversations, and when people talk, words make things happen. Words can carve out a landscape over time. 

TR: What is the role of the arts and theatre beyond entertainment, and why is this crucial especially with COVID-19?

Darryl: The arts and theatre can promote social healing. Arts and theatre promote the culture of searching—of finding answers of our own for ourselves. In a time when many are feeling isolated or (emotionally, physically, or psychologically) broken, stories can move us towards acceptance. When we realise that we are all searching in our own way—searching for reasons, for answers, or for relationships—and when we realise that each of us has got an important story to tell, that’s when a sense of togetherness emerges in society. With COVID-19 pulling us in different directions, I believe such a sense of togetherness can help heal our society; that is partially why I started the “Work On The Self” programme.

TR: These two years have been some of the toughest, especially for the arts industry. Why do you still choose to carry on with what you’re doing? How has your love for theatre helped you push through?

Darryl: I am blessed to have my team at Split Theatre alongside me during these two years. We chose to carry on because we believe very strongly in the message that Split Theatre brings to society: You Matter. The “You” in our motto is not a universal “You” but a very personal and specific one that refers to each person that comes in touch with Split Theatre. We believe that our society needs a place for healing, for love, and for growth, and we seek to provide that. We want to be a place where people can be who they are and who they want to be, in relation to others, so that a culture of care and respect can be built in our society.

TR: How did your experience of surviving lymphoma give you the courage to explore a way to express your struggles, through your art and art-making?

Darryl: My experience with lymphoma gave me a very personal illumination about my life. I remember looking at the tumour in my left cheek through the mirror and hating that part of myself. There was once when I hit it repeatedly because it was really quite an ugly sight. Then one day, I decided that hey it’s a part of me. And I wondered why I was hitting it. In a sense, those are merely cells that have ‘gone wrong’, but those cells were still part of my body. That acceptance of that part of me got me to think about a related issue in another context. At times, when we experience growth in our personal lives, we may discover something about ourselves that we do not like. How then can we move from our conflicted selves towards accepting ourselves as who we are? How can we learn to look at the ‘ugly’ parts of ourselves and continue to say that we love ourselves no matter what? This illumination got me started on the Work On The Self programme curriculum that seeks to use physical theatre techniques to help participants learn more about themselves. What happens when we see something that we don’t really like? How can we learn to accept that part of ourselves? That’s what participants will learn about.

TR: How can theatre / art tackle the growing anxieties, stresses and other challenges faced by school communities in Singapore?

Darryl: Fear emerges when we do not trust ourselves. And the key to trusting ourselves is to work on ourselves, and to learn more about who we are, so that we grow to know ourselves and accept ourselves. I believe that the growing anxieties, stresses and other challenges faced by school communities come about predominantly because we seldom provide students with the time and space to get to know themselves. There’s usually a “correct” answer in Singapore and I wonder if one day, we can work towards allowing students to find their “own answers”?  

Theatre and art can help students with that because it’s all about innovating and about creating for yourself and for society. When we realise that we can make things happen for ourselves in life, then certain anxieties and stresses fade away. Usually, it’s a sense of helplessness that brings about unease for youths. How can we help them grow to trust themselves to find the right answers for themselves?

TR: How can students benefit from being exposed to art forms like theatre?

Darryl: The theatre helps students to appreciate stories and to understand that there are people like them in society going through similar problems or challenges. At the same time, even with such togetherness, each person is unique and has a story worth telling. Through exposure to art forms like theatre, they grow to understand how to relate better with others and to become proud of their own stories. My hope is that each student will learn to own their personal stories, so that they can grow up to be unique individuals who can craft their own places in society.

Ci Xuan: It really depends on your personal connection to the arts. I like to look at art just for the sake of it, it is another language altogether to me. The arts is another medium to communicate ideas, discuss social and political issues. I get to connect and be exposed to so many other people, ideas, and concerns because I do the arts. 

Xin Rui: Students—and anyone, really—can benefit from being exposed to arts forms in general in a multitude of different ways. On the most surface level, being exposed to more art forms means you have a wider selection of mediums to be entertained by.

However, there is so much more to it. Theatre serves as a forum for students to explore a multitude of different ideas, concepts, issues both foreign and domestic. It invites its viewers and performers alike into a liminal space of play, separate from the rules of reality, to encounter and entertain a plethora of “what if”s. This, I think, is particularly valuable to students in particular, who exist in a transitory stage between childhood and adulthood, finding their own place in society and the wider world. It lets them safely explore different scenarios, variations of reality, and gain a deeper understanding of the way they understand and react to different situations. […]  When developing my own piece in the space, I found that more than just creating a piece of entertainment, I was finding my own place in the room. The space became more than a rehearsal room, but a microcosm of society, but one in which I could search, free from the judgement that exists outside of the space. The arts, and theatre in particular, is a space of experimentation, of searching and exploration, and the process of practising the arts allows for a level of freedom seldom found elsewhere.

TR: How can theatre play a role in students’ formal and informal learning processes?

Darryl: Theatre demonstrates empathy—this is something that cannot be taught; it can only be modelled. And once students learn how to empathise with others in their lives, they will go to places. The theatre that we do at Split also encourages each person to own their voice. Learning in Singapore can be very mechanical at times, and I wonder if there is a possibility for students to start owning their own voices, and to start questioning the status quo, so that we gradually move towards a society where people are willing to question, to listen, to accept differences, and to love authentically.  

The Split Theatre Ensemble will be presenting their showcase after their 10-week WOTS programme journey. Titled “Don’t Cancer Me Can”, it will be held at The Arts House from 18th to 21st December, and tickets are available on the Split Theatre website. Curious to know about their experience and process? Hear from the first batch of participants here. Split Theatre’s inaugural WOTS programme is also open for registration for its January 2022 run.