Academic journal article TheatreForum

Ong Keng Sen's Lear Dreaming: Humanity and Power in Process

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Ong Keng Sen's Lear Dreaming: Humanity and Power in Process

Article excerpt

Lear Dreaming, a production by TheatreWorks (Singapore), came to life for two days at the Singapore Arts Festival on 31 May and 1 June 2012. In March 2011, with a workshop in New York City, Singaporean Director Ong Keng Sen embarked on the mission to re-imagine his 1997 groundbreaking production of Lear. In the first rehearsal Ong described the original production of Lear as a "landmark intercultural Asian collaboration" and expressed that "the work calls us to come back to tell these powerful stories about humanity." With Lear Dreaming, Ong changed the fundamental premise of Lear by focusing the piece around musicians and a minimal text. This continued exploration of how contemporary performers encounter ancient Asian performance traditions is now Ong Keng Sen's legacy.

Lear Dreaming is a meditative allegory, which explores how the pursuit and attainment of power has the potential to destroy meaning in human relationships. The multiple characters in Shakespeare's King Lear and Ong's 1997 Lear were distilled into one performer and eight musician/performers, while the complex musical score, combined with minimal text, framed the storytelling. In the Director's Notes from the Lear Dreaming program, Ong asks,

What faces one at the end of life? How can we suggest the salvation, the humanity in a dictator, an authoritarian father, an oppressor?...How do we allow resistance to be ambiguous, real and problematic? How do we manifest this ambiguity in the work? For the human heart is more difficult to fathom than the bottom of the sea...

The new production abstractly explores the story of a daughter repulsed by a father who has lost his power through age and poor judgment. It charts how family bonds are influenced by the drive of one daughter to rise to the status of her father before he fell from dictatorial grace. Ong's decision to tell the story through various musical traditions, styles and rhythms, contributed to an innovative process and product.

Over the past fifteen years, the evolution of Ong's work has resulted in what he described to me in a 2010 interview as "deconstructing [his] role as a director," and this new method was clearly reflected in his approach to the Lear Dreaming rehearsal process. His energy focused on building an environment of trust and identifying connections between the collaborators, who hail from different nations and diverse disciplines, as equal participants in process. This was not the first time Ong explored the potential for intercultural collaboration between diverse Asian performers and traditions. In the 1997 production of Workhorse Afloat, which also marked my first collaboration with him as Production Stage Manager, he examined the role of Singapore's rickshaw coolies, investigating the cultural impact of Singapore's modern migrant workers, who are mostly of Indian descent. At the time, Ong was just beginning to bring together artists from a variety of backgrounds, incorporating their talents to create work with a stronger interdisciplinary core. As Singaporean theatre became more commercialized, Ong was increasingly attracted to more experimental and process-oriented work, and has migrated from the intercultural model of his early work toward an examination of transcultural collaboration. Within this transcultural approach, he focuses on process, laying the foundation for transformational creative collaborations by transcending the traditional framework of process.

Ong's unique approach to collaboration is closely related to his identity as a Singaporean of Chinese origin and can also be traced back to the law degree he earned from the National University of Singapore in 1988. In a 2010 interview that I conducted with him, he said,

I enjoyed constitutional law, interracial perspectives and the conflicts that arose when the laws of two different countries were involved. If I'd been trained in the arts, I'd have remained engaged with just becoming a better and better craftsman in my chosen medium. …

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