The Stories That Make Us Who We Are

Everyone has a story. Marcia Vanderstraaten, W!LD RICE’s Associate Artist, chats with us about using history, improvisation and research to tell the stories of the many people who will be checking in and out of HOTEL.

As a writer, what appealed to you about the concept for HOTEL?

I think a hotel is fertile ground for storytelling in general. The transience of encounters there, the vast number of reasons you might need a hotel, the equally diverse sorts of people you find there: all these give rise to endless permutations of narratives to explore. Applying the hotel as a metaphor to our nation is, I feel, very fitting, considering our history as a port of significance and our location along major trading routes. Many people do treat this country as a hotel, coming and going as they will, never quite setting down roots – but just as many people consider it home, which makes it a complex and interesting idea.

Tell us about the process of working on HOTEL.

Of the four of us [directors and playwrights], I was the last to come onboard the production. The rest of the team and the cast had done preliminary workshops exploring possibilities and discussing the history involved, so, at the point when I joined, they were already doing a second round of improvisation workshops. This second round was when Alfian Sa’at and I bounced ideas off the cast and, in some cases, got them to imagine scenarios themselves. I found it inspiring and humbling to work with these extremely talented and creative people. The sheer amount of material we managed to generate in those five days of improv was beyond what Alfian and I could have achieved on our own.

Once the workshops were done, Alfian and I discussed the various possibilities for each scene/decade, and agreed on which stories we could explore. We wrote separately but, in coming back to the rehearsal room and hearing the words out loud, along with the thoughtful comments and feedback from Ivan, Glen and the cast, it was easier to draw connections between our scenes and characters, and find the common threads that run throughout the play.

Marcia and Alfian at a workshop with the cast and creative team of HOTEL

What were some of the challenges you faced in crafting the narratives, which cover a hundred years of history?

The research was mind-boggling. Every scene, being in a specific decade, requires an understanding not just of history, but culture, population changes, politics, global innovations and then-current affairs. On top of that, each scene has a new set of characters and a new narrative i.e., it’s effectively an entirely new play (even though it’s about 20 to 30 minutes long at the most). So, yes, it felt like we weren’t just writing one play, but many different plays in one. And yet it all had to connect and be part of a whole, and not just exist by itself. As a playwright, I found the challenge exhilarating – although I am still collecting bits of my brain off the floor, having had my mind blown by it!

How does the Post-EMPIRES theme of the Singapore International Festival of Arts factor into HOTEL?

I think it comes out in quite a straightforward way with the history, especially since we are talking about starting in the British Empire, going into the Japanese Empire, and then the aftermath of all of that – how much of the British have we kept with us despite changing our flag? How much of the Japanese have we purged from our national and individual consciousness? etc. In a not-so-straightforward way, we are making use of languages to illustrate this – the unease with which English is introduced, then shunted aside, then reinstated, and the effect that has had on the use of Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and the Chinese dialects. Aside from history and language, we also explore cultural empires and how it can be another form of colonialism in disguise. All this also ties in with the more universal themes of time and memory, two things that take on almost otherworldly significance in the context of a hotel.

What do you hope audiences will take with them after watching HOTEL?

I think it was Anne Bogart who said (and I am paraphrasing here) that, when you do theatre, all you can really do is put together the right environment and conditions for your audience to have an experience. For HOTEL, I hope that the audience gets to experience another side of our history, of our nation – the human side. People are stories affected by circumstance, and a nation is made up of all such people, and all such stories. We are what makes Singapore: not pages in a textbook or speeches on a podium, but the stories that make us who we are.

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