Catch Split Theatre’s Don’t Cancer Me Can at The Arts House
Split Theatre Ensemble performs Don’t Cancer Me Can at The Arts House from 18 to 21 Dec. (Photo: Split Theatre)

Catch Split Theatre’s Don’t Cancer Me Can at The Arts House

Theatrical groups in Singapore are increasingly exploring theatre to convey stories around mental health, coming to terms with one’s identity, and other societal issues. But rarely do the actors themselves unveil their own personal stories and memories, and receive healing in the process.

Don’t Cancer Me Can is a highly personal play devised by local non-profit start-up Split Theatre with support from the National Arts Council. It is the culmination of Split Theatre’s inaugural Work On The Self programme – a recurring 10-week initiative funded by the National Youth Council.

Split Theatre Ensemble, all of whom have been through the Work On The Self pilot programme and now serve as facilitators for the inaugural intake, includes a voiceover talent and stunt performer with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a circus contortionist, and current undergraduates at the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and LASALLE College of the Arts.

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No prior performing experience is required to take part in Work On The Self, as the rigorous curriculum not only helps participants overcome personal obstacles and fears to enable personal healing, but also hones their acting skills as they create theatrical ‘scores’ – a mix of drama, song and movement based on personal experiences. The programme is currently accepting sign-ups for its second run from 22 Jan to 26 Mar 2022.

“Through this process we hope to empower everyday people to boldly express their voice, boldly express their stories, and seek solace in the stage,” says Split Theatre founder and artistic director, Darryl Lim, whose recent brush with cancer inspired Don’t Cancer Me Can. The play opens at The Arts House on 17 Dec.

The A List spoke to Darryl about the genesis of the play, the value of Work On The Self, and the influence on his practice of Polish theatre director and theorist, Jerzy Grotowski.

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How would you say your own battle with lymphoma informed your approach to theatre?

Darryl Lim: It really got me to pause and think about what I wanted to do and to become as an artist and as a human being. 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 I was quite a conflicted person for a while. I was researching actor training at the time, and a big part of training in [Jerzy] Grotowski’s theatre is based on self-improvement. 

When people start to know themselves better they may, at times, come across some form of growth they dislike. How then can we move from a conflicted state into acceptance? That’s something I’m really interested in for theatre and actor training, and my journey with lymphoma gave me quite a bit of insight. That ugly growth was a part of me, and I had to accept it before healing could begin. I had to move towards acceptance so I could be emotionally and mentally ready for the rest of the journey.

Split Theatre’s Work On The Self programme trains ‘ordinary’ people in the craft of acting and, in so doing, helps to alleviate anxieties and painful memories. How can art forms, such as theatre, be used as tools for personal growth and social good, especially in these uncertain and stressful pandemic times?

There is a misconception that theatre and actor training stays on stage and in the rehearsal room. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A big part of training is to learn how to express truth, and that can help a person become more honest in their actions and relationships away from the theatre. Anxieties and fears arise because we begin to trust ourselves less during times of uncertainty, and a huge part of Work On The Self is about guiding participants towards knowing and loving themselves, so they can craft their place in society. It offers time and space for participants to understand themselves better. What do we really want? Who are we, really?

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You mentioned the influence of Jerzy Grotowski. He defined theatre not as a mere performance by actors for an audience, but more of a ceremony capable of opening the door into what Carl Jung called the ‘collective unconscious’. How do you apply these concepts at Split Theatre?

For me, Jung’s collective unconscious is closely related to the idea of ritual in theatre, though for Grotowski, the exploration of ritual was quite different. He wanted the actor to approach an encounter with their ideal or absolute self, and we work towards that in Split Theatre. Rather than put themselves in the shoes of a character, the actors ask how the character speaks to them. If I look at the story of Romeo and Juliet, it speaks to me in a way that reminds me of the wholeheartedness I experienced during a relationship. As we craft our roles drawing on past experiences, we re-live those experiences and begin to realise how much we have grown as people over time.

Your approach diverges from the Playback Theatre concept, in which members of the audience tell personal stories and watch actors and musicians improvise them. By contrast, Don’t Cancer Me Can is a scripted and rehearsed piece devised by you and Split Theatre Ensemble in rehearsal. However, do you agree there is the same striving for a shared experience for both actors and audience?

Playback Theatre approaches performance in a very specific way that is quite different from what we do. Don’t Cancer Me Can is a devised play based on texts and movements created by the actors and myself. We are not improvising on stage. The performance presents a diverse collective of individuals who are honest with themselves and their stories. When we look at a fellow human being in all their nakedness and vulnerability, when we look at them and have the courage and care to not look away, that’s when we become truly human; that’s when we realise we can be honest, too, and, to me, that is at the core of starting to heal.

Buy your tickets for Don’t Cancer Me Can here.

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