Imagine attending a play you know nothing about. Even its title gives you no clues beyond a number.
There are some hints about joining the workforce of a mysterious medical institute, some talk of questioning what it means to be a loyal citizen. But what it all boils down to is you, armed with no more than your phone's WhatsApp and a pair of earphones, awaiting instructions. Nothing can be assumed. Everything is a surprise.
So goes Secretive Thing 215, an M1 Singapore Fringe Festival offering so clandestine that the people behind it refuse to reveal their identities, saying it will detract from the experience of the work itself.
"The elements of mystery and risk-taking are often some of the most vital in Fringe works," says the festival organising team, in a response to why they chose to programme a work they know nothing about. "We believe works at the Fringe should empower audiences to question and find their own meanings and responses rather than abide by singular messages. Through the lens of this work, they will be led on their own journey to determine the choices they will make as a member of a community, in a time when societies and nations are fracturing due to differences in social and political beliefs."
Participatory theatre is one of the strains running through the 16th edition of the festival, which runs from Jan 8 to 19. Its theme is My Country And My People, inspired by Lee Tzu Pheng's 1967 poem of the same name.
In Cafe Sarajevo, a world premiere by Canadian performance collective bluemouth inc, the audience will be part of the recording of a live podcast.
Through radio frequency audio headsets and cardboard goggles displaying 360-degree video, they will get to follow Lucy Simic, one of the show's creators, on her journey to her father's birthplace of Bosnia.
Her father left Bosnia during World War II after his father was killed and a neighbour told his mother that her children were in danger. They migrated to Croatia, a part of what was then Yugoslavia. At 22, he left Yugoslavia to escape the communist dictatorship of then President Josip Broz Tito.
"I was brought up very conscious of my father's history and my heritage," says the New York-based Simic, 50, in an e-mail interview. "We spoke Croatian at home. I had gone back to Skocaj, the village in Bosnia where he was born, on several occasions, but had never been to Sarajevo, the capital. It was an intense curiosity that compelled me to go.
"I had followed what was happening in Bosnia during the war there from 1992 to 1995, and the stories of both survival and destruction coming from Sarajevo during the siege were unimaginable. I had been thinking about Bosnia watching the rise of nationalism at home and abroad. I never imagined it would lead to creating a performance about it."
Besides being immersed in the journey through the headset and goggles, audience members are invited to volunteer for different roles such as reading the opening credits, playing characters in the script, participating in a game of soccer or singing along to a karaoke song.
Co-creator Mariel Marshall, 32, says: "Rather than being passive observers, we ask the audience to help us tell the story by becoming a part of the experience through participation. The goal is to reach beyond the boundaries of conventional performance practice, to create interdisciplinary art that leads audiences and artists alike into new forms of play.
"In Cafe Sarajevo, we hope to open up a dialogue about really complex issues around human nature and sectarianism. Having audiences immersed and active within the story can help people see things through another lens."
Kebaya and dancing girls through the ages[hhmc]
Step into a time-travelling cabaret from the 1960s and dance with actresses Aidli ''Alin'' Mosbit and Siti Khalijah Zainal in Kebaya Homies, one of the highlights of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
BOOK IT / KEBAYA HOMIES
WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Jan 15 to 19; Wednesday to Saturday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3pm
ADMISSION: $27, $19 (concessions) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg
The actresses play perempuanperempuan joget (''dancing girls'' in Malay) in the play by home-grown theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS), a musical romp through Singaporean Malay history and culture. Centred on the kebaya, it explores how perspectives of the traditional outfit have changed over the years.
Aidli, 46, says in an e-mail interview: ''When you talk about perempuan joget in the past, people always think of them as (having) low moral values. But perempuan joget have their own ambitions and desires to do well in life. They didn't become perempuan joget without very important reasons. So it is important we are also deconstructing that image and sharing different perspectives of their stories.''
The play marks TNS' return to the Fringe line-up after five years. It is directed by TNS founder and artistic director Alvin Tan, who will also be reclaiming the mantle of Fringe artistic director from Sean Tobin, who wraps up his six-year run next year.
Kebaya Homies jumps through time periods from the 1960s to the 2040s. Similarly, it also moves through the theatre history of its creators, piecing together scenes from plays by TNS resident playwright Haresh Sharma that Siti and Aidli have acted in.
These range from Pillars, an obscure 1997 play by TNS and Teater Kami that has not been restaged since, to Rosnah (1995), a play with special significance for Aidli and Siti. Both have played the lead role, with Aidli directing Siti in a 2006 Fringe revival and later translating Sharma's mostly English script into Malay for a 2016 iteration, directed by Tan and, again, starring Siti.
''It's quite fun,'' says Tan, 56, who, like Sharma, is a Cultural Medallion recipient. ''You're reappropriating your own work and hijacking it for a new one.''
Siti, 34, says: ''It feels great to be able to go back and unearth the past scripts, like going back through time, walking down memory lane. I bet it's going to be a treat because it has never been done before — where you get to see different versions of Rosnah on stage, combined. It is a passing down from generation to generation.'