Tara Tan has packed a lot into her 27 years. After studying drama at Bristol University, she became a respected theatre and dance critic with The Straits Times, before quitting to devise experimental theatre-cum-art installation pieces (one ‘involved 100 chairs and a lot of throwing’) and shoot short films such as ‘Santha Bhaskar’, screened at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. She’s even started her own art collective, Studio Now & Then.
So her debut as a theatre director, Songbird, would be interesting even if it weren’t one of the more unique concepts seen in the city for some time. Tan has created a fully-grown fictional human being – a Singaporean singer-songwriter called Songbird who calls herself ‘Singapore’s answer to Feist’ and has a blog, email, Twitter account and even a (fairly decent) song online. On her cam-whoring blog (www.hellosongbird.com), she writes about her cat, her ex, her clubbing exploits and, of course, the ‘oh my gosh’ moment when she was discovered by a music producer.
The play is ostensibly billed as Songbird’s free debut concert at the Singapore Arts Festival – except there’s a catch. Songbird goes missing just before the performance, and it’s up to the audience to find out why, through an experience that will be part play, part film, part concert and part iPhone app.
‘You book a slot and download the app before your slot,’ explains Tan. ‘You’ll then be led to different locations around the area, where you retrace her footsteps and discover her story. Some content, such as the show soundtrack and films, will play on the iPhone. Some things will be revealed at the venue itself.’ Don’t worry if you don’t have an iPhone, because there will be a few on loan at the site.
‘We’re walking into new territory with Songbird,’ says Tan, who decided to produce, write and direct this radical project with Studio Now & Then. ‘We’re treading the digital universe as well as the physical universe, and also the fictional universe. It’s exciting but also really nerve wracking because we don’t know where the boundaries lie – maybe there aren’t any.’
Another boundary-pushing aspect of Songbird is that, other than stage and screen thespian Edward Choy, the entire cast is made of non-actors. ‘I was looking for a very particular type of rawness. Especially for the Songbird role, I wanted someone who is very innocent to the camera. So I literally cast people off the street, and asked them if they wanted to be in a play,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t know if the girl playing Songbird will act again after this project. I can’t tell you any more about her right now, though. She’s my secret weapon.’
There is the possibility that, given the nature of the show, audiences can give away the plot via their iPhones while they’re watching – but Tan is not overly concerned. ‘I don’t think this is like a Sixth Sense, don’t-reveal-the-ending type of thing. People who go for this show will probably be there for the experience of it, not the answers. Of course, that still doesn’t mean I can give you any hints now about what happens to Songbird… to the people who read this, do go see for yourself!’
Neither is she worried about her former critic colleagues coming to review Songbird. ‘Oh, I hope they do,’ she says earnestly. ‘I’ve never been reviewed before but I would like to see what my fellow critics and old colleagues say about me. In Singapore there’s a big divide between critic and practitioner, which I don’t think should be the case. I started off being trained in theatre and film, which informed my work as a critic, and vice versa.’
Though her new role means she hasn’t had a day off in weeks, Tan insists, ‘I don’t think there’s any difference between Tara the art critic and creator. After all, I’m my own harshest critic.’
Nevertheless, she does have some idea of how her ideal Songbird review would read. ‘It would be nice if someone would say, “Songbird was a brave experiment that took flight.”’
Songbird is at Esplanade Park on 24-27 May.