KUALA LUMPUR, June 5 — Imagine the mysterious tale of a young lady butler at a hotel as she goes about her job, encountering ghosts and guests from the hotel’s past and present. Now imagine this tale in the form of a play unravelling in an actual heritage hotel in George Town as guests walk through a pre-designated route within the hotel as actors play out scenes.
The play is Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental by the Singaporean team of writer/director Lim Yu-Beng and producer Tan Kheng Hua. Commissioned by George Town Festival and presented as a promenade-style performance at George Town’s iconic E&O Hotel, Pearl is the second of a trilogy of odes to Lim’s father’s hometown of Penang.
Lim, who has been married for 23 years to Tan, has been acting in community theatre performances since young and trained in theatre at Pepperdine University in the US. He says, “I was born and bred in Singapore. My father was born and raised in Penang, in a little place on Burmah Road, and I grew up hearing stories about it. In my later years I have felt a need to understand where I came from, in order to understand myself, and my place in the world better as an artist, and as a part of this Malay Archipelago.”
The duo had previously staged the sold-out and critically acclaimed 2 Houses in Penang as part of the George Town Festival in 2014. According to Lim, 2 Houses, the first part of his Penang trilogy, was his attempt to understand the socio-historical mix of Penang’s society and political passion in the difficult years before and after the war.
“Much of it came from interviews with people in Penang from my father’s generation, including my father himself,” he says. “It’s interesting to understand myself and Singapore through the looking glass of Penang. In George Town, we can walk through the streets and we can trace our heritage. I believe we share enough on both sides of the Causeway that the journey together to understand, will be understanding itself.”
Fast forward a couple of years and Lim’s latest play, Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, looks at the young Penangite today. Lim explains, “The idea is to let the audience journey with our main character. She is going through something, discovering things about herself and about the place she is in. It’s my hope that we as artists and our audience too will also discover something as we explore the play. Who are we? How do we choose to live our lives, amongst one another, and at the same time fulfilling our purpose in this world?”
The way the play is structured, close collaboration with E&O Hotel was necessary to ensure the play flowed smoothly, given the actors have to move from room to room as they perform. Tan, who graduated from Indiana University and has been producing and creating projects for theatre and television since 2000, enthused, “The E&O folks have been so generous, understanding and very supportive not to shy away from this unique angle.”
Lim adds, “Logistics is part and parcel of any theatre piece, and we have the best Malaysian production manager, Melissa Teoh, overseeing that. Our audience will get to be a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the characters’ private moments, much like the camera in a film set. And like that camera, they’ll move with us through the hotel as the scenes progress. “
Life as artists for the pair is a constant revelation. Lim sees his vocation as a way for him to to make sense of a chaotic world and hopefully make some meaningful contribution to it. For Tan, becoming an artist was more of a compulsion. She explains, “It was something I could not, and cannot deny. I need to do what I do as an artist not just as a profession, but as a person. Even if I held another job full time, I think I would still be an artist in some way and need to create something every day.”
Working together, the couple has also learned much from each other. Tan shares, “Talking softly, slowly and politely; listening without interrupting; waiting for the right time to say the things you want to say; making clear who makes decisions for which area; and entering into the project only with people you deeply and honestly respect and want to work with, goes a long way.”
Lim, on the other hand, had to get over his fears and assert himself as an artist. He explains, “One of my problems — well it’s not a problem, but it’s like having a really good right shoe; you need the other one too — is that I have always been able to hear and understand what others are saying. I am learning to listen to the voice within, my own inner voice, because if you don’t hear it and heed it, you can never expect anyone else to.”
Tan adds, “Yu-Beng is also very dependable and good with deadlines. In fact, he’s a great lighting designer too and I’ve used him in this capacity in my other productions. Whether he’s an actor, director, writer or designer, he makes my job as a producer very easy.”
Creating a play from scratch is always an illuminating experience. Lim says, “This year I had a long conversation with a taxi driver on the way from the airport and we talked about low cost housing in Penang. Two years ago my taxi driver talked deeply about how in his childhood, every race lived in each others’ backyard, sharing everything. Every conversation throws up new angles. Honestly, every piece of art is just that: a conversation.”
The allure of being an independent producer, for Tan, is the opportunity to produce original projects. She says, “Everything is new. We begin again. Work with new people. Try new ideas. We don’t know what will work and what won’t. It’s all a surprise and it is exhilarating.”
In researching Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, Lim was inspired by the way “that people will make it through somehow. The human spirit is truly indomitable. Kings may come and go, but in the end, figuratively and literally, it is the people on the ground who will continue. Those who till the land, who don’t really give a toss for politics but who just want to get on with the more important task of living. Life continues. We just have to find the best way for us to live it.”
Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental at George Town Festival 2016
Dates: July 28 – 31, 2016 and August 4 – 7, 2016
Location: E&O Hotel, 10, Lebuh Farquhar, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Purchase tickets at http://redtix.airasia.com/Events/Pearl_of_Eastern_Oriental/