As we approach the end of 2021, we find ourselves evaluating the progress we made on the resolutions we had set — back when we harbored high hopes that this could be our year. Resolutions are often centered on improving ourselves, whether they are about picking up a new skill or unlearning an old habit; working towards a specific financial goal or achieving general health targets; letting something go or intentionally keeping someone in your life.
Split Theatre takes our desire to better ourselves a step further by providing a structured process of self-improvement with its Work On The Self program. Offering a safe space for participants to explore healing through theatre, it adroitly blends actor-training and theatre-making with personal development coaching. Participants are guided over ten sessions to create a theatrical “score” based on their personal memories. Using a mix of drama, song, and movement, participants will be able to make sense of their real-life stories and discover truths about themselves.
In 2021, Work On The Self had a successful pilot program, before launching its inaugural run with eight participants from October to December. Participants of the program may choose to become facilitators for the next intake of participants; four more program runs will take place in 2022.
While facilitating the program, Darryl learned that he was — and still is — a little afraid to disclose what he wants because it makes him vulnerable. He had internalized that relationships had to be an exchange and wanting something in return often led to disappointment. “I had to unlearn the habit of giving in hopes of an exchange,” Darryl said. “When we give wholeheartedly, we put ourselves out there. But paradoxically, such a giving also empowers us because without expectations, there’s no way we will be shortchanged.”
Accessing his vulnerability was exactly what Damien was searching for when he joined the program. He acknowledged that looking at the self is uncomfortable but learning to be vulnerable was important in developing his craft as a freelance actor. He also added that this skill was not just for actors. In fact, just “being human requires an understanding of the self.” Damien believes that: “We are all broken but it’s how we can embrace the brokenness and live with it that’s important.”
For Joash, the program empowered them to recognize that they had been presenting male for most of their life with a twisted form of stoicism. “For me, my own little gift from the process was my own identity. What surfaced during the journey was my own feelings of being beyond my prescribed gender,” Joash said. “I’m beginning to feel confident enough to say I’m gender-fluid.”
The Work On The Self program works towards a final showcase where a script is devised based on the performers’ real-life stories. Featuring permanent artists of Split Theatre who have undergone the Work On The Self pilot program, Don’t Cancer Me Can is the actors’ collective response to Oedipus. In this production, they explore the dichotomy between personal truths and objective truths in the context of Singaporean society.
The idea of this production started when Darryl had a brush with lymphoma this year. “I remember looking at the growth on my left cheek and wondering why it was there. It was a part of myself that I did not want, and it made me into quite a conflicted person for a while,” Darryl recalls. He had to accept that this growth was a part of him before his healing could begin. This allowed him to draw a parallel to the process of self-development.
He added: “When people start to know themselves better, we may, at times, come across some form of ‘growth’ that we dislike about ourselves. How then can we move from a conflicted self into acceptance?” Darryl shares that many more of these ugly sides of the actor’s self will be revealed as Don’t Cancer Me Can discusses the parts of ourselves that we try to hide.
Showing these ugly sides and taking inspiration from her life made Sreya feel more vulnerable during her preparation for this production as compared to others and she “felt the need to censor the more unsavory parts… and make [them] palatable for public consumption.” Sreya acknowledges that she was strategic in choosing which story she wanted to share with the audience.
Clement, on the other hand, finds that drawing from his own stories is not that much different than taking on a character. He remembers previously taking on a role where there was almost a direct relation between the character and himself. A scene where his character was on the phone made Clement recall a moment when he was afraid to say something over the phone. “Strangely enough, the specific scene then allowed me to say it by offering me that safe space,” he continued.
The line between fiction and reality is also blurred in Jun De’s personal anecdotes used in this production. He uses the character of Oedipus as a personal telling of his own story. “When I started devising for Don’t Cancer Me Can, I found myself not performing as the character Oedipus the King, but Jun De — The King, Oedipus,” he shared. “Oedipus was just like me or that I am Oedipus or that we are both the same person, but not the same person.”
Oedipus’ hubris and his need to seek out the real truth led to his destruction. Similarly, Jun De finds that he has a consistent obsession with trying to identify which events in his childhood have led to his current behaviors and this “has led to a lot of pain, resentment, and bitterness”.
He finds that being a part of this production has allowed him to build another reality for himself and to see his experiences in a different light. He said: “It is always empowering to be able to retell your past in your own terms, and define your present and future on your own.”
Having empowered the actors through facilitating the Work On The Self program and staging Don’t Cancer Me Can, Darryl encourages audience members to actively look for what speaks to them during the performance. He continued: “I just hope that the searching begins in the theatre and continues for you outside the theatre as well.”
Looking at ourselves can be daunting, especially in a culture preoccupied with comparison. But the actors at Split Theatre have inspired me to look inward anyway and celebrate whatever I find. We live in an age of self-improvement, after all.
Photographs by Split Theatre; feature collage by Sherryl Cheong