Interview: Sim Yan Ying 'YY' Chats About WHO'S THERE? Debuting at This Year's Ice Factory Festival in NYC

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New Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory Festival is one of the most exciting summer festivals of its kind in New York City. And while it may look a little different this year, this festival still brings a solid line-up to the digital stage. One of the must-see shows this year is Who's There?, co-directed by Sim Yan Ying "YY" (I Love White Men and Without Reason). It is a relatable story of today targeting racism and inequality, the global pandemic and the power of Zoom. I spoke with Sim Yan Ying "YY" about her new show, the virtual space, and the role the pandemic plays in theatre today.

Tell us a little bit about the idea behind the show. Where did it come about and why?

Having grown up in Singapore and then living in the United States for the last five years, I have been craving to do an international collaboration with artists from both countries, to explore our differing value systems and cultural sensibilities. This pandemic and the halting of live theatre, while terrifying, was an almost perfect excuse to jumpstart this project-I was driven by my excitement of virtual creation as a way of bringing together people across geographically distant communities during a time of isolation and grief.

New Ohio Theatre offered a valuable opportunity to present Who's There? as part of Ice Factory 2020. I reached out to my mentor and friend in Singapore, Alvin Tan, about co-directing this work with me and we began first by talking about my somewhat contradictory identities as a privileged Singaporean Chinese woman in my home country, and a disadvantaged immigrant in the United States. This expanded into questions about racial conflicts that exist within and between individuals across countries, and how these issues are perceived through different cultural lenses. Can understanding them from the vantage point of "the other" help us continue our struggle towards racial justice with greater clarity and hope? How do we work towards negotiating our complicated diversity and reimagine this "New Normal" that everyone is talking about?

How have recent events, such as the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, impacted your work and creativity?

It has led me to become more intentional with my artmaking. For the first five weeks of the lockdown, I was grieving the "loss" of live theatre like many others and rejected the shift to the digital medium, because I largely perceived it to be driven by a fear of unproductivity or a desperate attempt to cling onto some semblance of normalcy. I mostly took a break during that time and instead read books, reconnected with old friends, and had nightly Netflix sessions with my glass of whiskey. It felt almost like a palette cleanser from artmaking, and slowly but surely, I started feeling a desire to create art again. Subsequently, with each new project that I undertook, I asked myself why--and made sure that I was doing it out of genuine curiosity and excitement.

All that was, of course, necessarily thrown into chaos when the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront. I refocused my energy almost entirely towards the movement, and when I eventually returned to the art, I needed to make sure that the work I was doing was critical, urgent, and spoke directly to this moment. It was important to me that the three hours I was putting into rehearsal on any given day were just as necessary as protesting on the streets.

There is a framework conceptualized by Deepa Iyer that lays out the different roles in a social change ecosystem. It was immensely helpful for me in understanding the social justice movement as a multi-faceted process that is dependent on various roles and skillsets, and it gave me a renewed sense of faith in the work that I was doing.

What do you hope the audience will take away after watching the show? What is the message you hope to get across to your viewers?

Firstly, that there is still much untapped potential in virtual theatre, territories that are still unexplored and gems that are waiting to be discovered. I understand the resistance that some may feel towards virtual theatre because of a myriad of reasons-Zoom fatigue, mediocre experiences with digital work, grief of "losing" live theatre, among others-but I hope that our rigorous investigation into and commitment towards virtual theatre will spark some excitement in our audience. I hope that they will be able to feel themselves sharing the space in real-time with people who are half the world away-or in the country next door-together engaging with complex and difficult issues around race. As the world becomes increasingly polarized and conversations seem harder and harder to have, I hope that Who's There? will offer a new way of having these challenging discourses particularly with people who share seemingly opposing points of view or who grew up with a radically different set of experiences from us.

The Ice Factory Festival is a staple in New York City. This year it looks a different. Talk to us about the challenges going from in-person to digital in the performing arts. Were there any good surprises along the way?

Absolutely. For most of us on the team, it's our first full-length virtual production and the learning curve is incredibly steep, while the schedule is incredibly short. Everything had to be re-learnt yet also given time and space to explore-from how character interactions can take shape, to the stage manager calling cues, to what the roles of a director/dramaturg/sound designer/multimedia artist/stage manager/intern entail in this digital space. After eight weeks of working together, with rehearsals 3-4 times a week at 3 hours each, it does feel like the roles have blended into one common effort, with everyone contributing in multiple areas.

The first thing the team readily embraced was that virtual theatre is not a replacement of live theatre, but rather an art form in and of itself. While we approached the work with our theatrical sensibilities, we also brought in cinematographic ideas, design explorations, technological quirks and more. Rather than lamenting what we lose by not currently having live theatre, we shared an intense curiosity about the digital form and the new possibilities that it affords us.

Because everything happens online, it feels like the work never stops. As of now, I am counting 27 Facebook group chats we have for different permutations of collaborators, based on their area of work or scenes involved. Thirty minutes after we end a rehearsal, we get a question from a performer, an audio sample from our sound designer (Jay Ong), a new "crash course" video from our multimedia designer (Jevon Chandra), a tentative schedule for upcoming small-group rehearsals from our stage manager (Manuela Romero), a notification that a scene is edited and ready for review from our dramaturgs (Cheng Nien Yuan & J.Ed Araiza), and the list goes on. My co-director and I are sending out messages too: transcriptions that the interns (Priyanka Kedia & Ryan Henry) should complete asap, notes on a virtual background, preparation work for the actors (Camille Thomas, Ghafir Akbar, Neil Redfield, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Sean Devare, and myself).

It is a constant race against time-always plenty to get done before our next rehearsal in 24 or 48 hours. This is virtual, but also one of the most time and energy-consuming projects I have worked on.

The pandemic has hit us all hard, but especially within the performing arts. What have been some things that have helped inspire you during these strange times?

EVERYTHING. Everything happening over the last five months have been faster than I can process and they all feel like either something to question, challenge, or honour. In Who's There?, our Facebook group is constantly flooded with articles, videos, images, infographics, status updates about the present moment across the United States, Singapore, and Malaysia. We are engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 General Elections in Singapore, the political instability in Malaysia and addressing new developments in our show up till the week before opening. I am inspired by the interconnectedness of these events and am constantly surprised by the number of parallels and ripple effects that I am seeing. There have been so many times where I've heard a collaborator say, "This perspective is so important; it needs to make it into our work." We've also shared four pages worth of these resources in our digital program for audiences who are curious to learn more about the themes, ideas, and events presented in Who's There?.

How can people help indie theatres and their artists right now?

Show up! Come see the works we put out online, even as they may be raw or rough around the edges (metaphorically and literally, like a virtual background). The digital medium is new for most of us so be patient as we continue to develop our skills and hone our craft. Better yet, engage with us, have conversations about our work (did it offer a new perspective? impact you in any way? made you feel something you can't quite articulate?)--and keep coming back. Most of us are in a development phase not just of a new work but also of learning the ins and outs of online theatre, and it will take time for us to be able to confidently create it.

That said, I think it's important to ask the artists you know how they are doing and what they need. Some need a break from artmaking. Others are dreaming up new ideas. And others just need to vent. All are legitimate responses that we should support. And finally, in the most tangible way--donate to indie theatres and artists if you are financially able. It was a struggle for most of us to stay afloat even before the pandemic and the current situation is even more dire and anxiety-inducing. But I continue to be inspired every day by the willpower and perseverance of the industry and the artists, and I believe that we will only grow stronger and better from this.

WHO'S THERE? runs online from August 4 - 8. Find more information here.

(Photo courtesy of DARR Publicity)


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