Conference of the Birds: Spiritual Theatre

Part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2011, Conference of the Birds opened last night and closed tonight. There’s a pleasant “human” resonance in knowing that we’ve given ourselves to a part of humanity while at the same time partaking in it. This is what I’m taking away as William Teo’s theatre.

Conference of the Birds 2011 Hoopo Scene

Some of the words repeatedly heard over the last few days have been “zen” “seeing ourselves” “the Simorgh” “looking” “searching” “a theatre with humanity” “sacred”

I can’t remember when exactly or how exactly but the sacredness of theatre was intuitively part of my understanding of the craft – a craft I discovered in America, in a Catholic prep school from a theatre maker old and frail (a bit like Jack’s drama coach, from Will and Grace) that freaked the hell out of me but still somehow managed to let me discover the joys of simply being a different character. Conference of the Birds reminded me of the importance of these rituals. Rarely these days do we get to partake in the rituals of theatre, traditions that help us embrace why we work so hard for art. Theatre these days can be quite industrial. It is usually an expensive craft and for sure the audience and critics rarely provide that affirmation. And making it past the bottom line isn’t the most fulfilling for the actor – unless you’re an actor producer of course.

Jeremiah made it possible and important to respect these rituals, and it felt like a treat, something special, something rare. When most productions would’ve started tearing down the set and keeping props immediately as soon as it’s no longer needed (which can often be while the audience is still hot in the house. One show I was in started ripping the sets off-stage so loudly you could hear the carpenters banging while my co-actor and I were still progressing through only half way through the last act), we invited the audience to sit and watch us in our final ritual. We said goodby to our birds, putting to rest the spirit we imbued it with, taking back the energy from the space. It was an emotional experience, special and completely insane.

It was a weird feeling, parting from the inanimate object I looked after and brought home (and Febreezed manically) over the past 2 months. Tears threatened I pull back the guilty bird’s body of cloth over my head, to release it back to the care of the production team. It was a new feeling about the importance of theatre and why I partake. This feeling was different. It wasn’t exuberance like in musical theatre,  it wasn’t the audience like in the pantomimes or musicals for families, it wasn’t social driven justice like Mad Forest, it wasn’t the lyricism of words like in poetry or the great works. I have no existing words in my vocabulary except it was both human and sacred at the same time. This would have been my first experience with what Jeremiah (I think he was the one who first used this word in rehearsal) calls Spiritual Theatre.

I was speaking to Jeremiah, over the buzz of beer in his and erm…root beer in mine, that perhaps the reason I’ve had difficulty finding words to articulate this piece because it was a new type of theatre for me. I honestly did find it difficult on many levels to access the piece emotionally. And I suspect part of the challenge for the audience was mine to – understanding the cultural context and metaphors of this Sufi poem based theatre.

Nonetheless this piece had meaning for me. Whether it was a sold out audience of 2 houses, or the fact it was only a 2 show run, or because of the 2 month rehearsal every week for 2 days each (hmmm, 2?), I am glad to feel refreshed. This has reminded me of why I do what I do. That theatre, singing, art for me is a prayer in God’s Name.

Theatre stirs our feelings, reminds us we are human, and gives us courage.

Theatre tells us we are not alone.

I do theatre to offer a prayer, and to tell stories that otherwise never be told. – William Teo

Conference of the Birds 2011 Moth Scene

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