The Art of Strangers is an independent performance collective led by husband and wife team, Felipe Cervera (director) and Fezhah Maznan (producer). Its artistic mission is to produce collaborative performance work that investigates contemporary issues related to education, globalisation and human co-habitance. Commissioned as part of 2014’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, The Mountain is their first project in which they seek to bring a wide range of people to create an intimate piece that discusses climate change.
As a lead-up to the performance, the library@esplanade interviewed Felipe to find out more about the new collective.
1) I understand that you started out as ‘Nuestro Living Room’ in Mexico back in 2011. What made you bring it to Singapore as ‘The Art of Strangers’?
Both Fezhah and I have been doing theatre for more than ten years. You could say that our practice is more or less what has moved our lives from here to there. We even met doing theatre! Throughout 2011 we were based in Mexico because I was directing a commission for the Mexico City Theatre Festival (Muestra de Artes Escénicas de la Ciudad de México) and leading the academic program of a new arts school at the National University of Mexico. Back then, we were living in a huge apartment in a very centric zone of the city and we were interested in opening alternative spaces for emerging artists to show their work. So we put both things together and decided to convert our living room into a performance space. “Nuestro” in Spanish means “our”. So, ‘Nuestro Living Room’ was born. We had fabulous performances like the flamenco fusion work of Casilda Madrazo and the multimedia storytelling of Pablo Martínez.
One day, towards the end of the first season, Fezhah got an offer to come back to teach in Singapore. I was about to end my work in Mexico City as well, so we decided to move. By January 2012, we were both here, she with a full-time post at Republic Polytechnic and I with a full scholarship to do my PhD in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). By the end of 2012, we were again itching to do something and we decided to continue our practice but now under the name of ‘The Art of Strangers’. Back in Mexico, we had a lot of space so we used that. In Singapore we don´t have as much space but we have a lot of diverse people, so we shifted our focus from providing a physical space for people to meet towards an artistic platform where people can find new partners to collaborate creatively.
2) Could you share with us your inspiration and purpose for The Art of Strangers?
The Art of Strangers was mainly inspired by two hunches. The first one was to establish a platform for Fezhah and me to develop our interests and practice; each in our own ways. But more than that, The Art of Strangers was also inspired by the wish to create a talent network through which artists can interact with other artists at an international level. So you can say that the inspiration is to find ways to work. Isn’t that always the case?
3) What kind of works do you see The Art of Strangers doing? Any particular style or form?
I think that we are still very young to define an artistic profile and I am not too sure that we want to do that anyway. I am not too sure that we are interested in saying that we do this or that type of work. We do the work that we consider necessary to do and we seek people that share that wish and we go and do it. However, our interests are broadly defined around issues relating to globalisation, sustainability and education.
4) What are your roles in The Art of Strangers and your personal input towards the collective as the founders?
I would say that both of us lead the collective but that doesn’t mean that we have stable roles. For The Mountain, Fezhah is producing while I am directing. But that doesn’t mean that if later on Fezhah wants to direct, I can’t produce her work, or that someone else could take those roles. Our interest is to maintain a fluid creative environment where each one of our collaborators, ourselves included, has an important agency in the creative process. I would say that our input as leaders is the interest in nurturing a collaborative environment where we all become authors of the work, both in creative and financial terms (though the latter is always more difficult). At a more personal level, I think Fezhah has a strong sense of grounding the team while I usually fool around much more during rehearsals.
5) Let’s talk about your first work The Mountain. What was the inspiration behind The Mountain and why did you pick this piece as your first showcase for the collective?
The Mountain is a short story that was included in a keynote delivered by Amitav Ghosh at a conference organised by the Asia Research Institute of NUS in November 2012. I attended that conference and was struck by Ghosh’s story. I somehow felt that it would be a great story to be performed. I wrote to Dr Ghosh and he very kindly gave us the rights to work and adapt his text for the stage. By January 2013, along with Sharon Frese and Rebecca Lee, we began having sessions, trying to investigate how to stage this particular story. By then, Fezhah and I had already begun to think how we could begin doing our practice in Singapore. We decided to launch The Art of Strangers and at the same time we also decided to do The Mountain with 15 performers, from all around the island. So it sort of worked as a solid way to present ourselves, with a collaboration done between many strangers.
6) What are your plans for The Art of Strangers in 2014 after The Mountain?
I think that The Mountain has much to give and throughout 2014 we would like to tour it. The production is thought to be travel-friendly and I think that the team deserves a great adventure for all the hard work that is being put into the piece. We are also thinking of doing two monologues, one directed by Fezhah and one directed by me, but I think that project will begin taking shape towards the end of the year.
The Art of Strangers is always looking for new platforms and opportunities for collaboration. If you think you can do something together, do drop them a line at http://www.facebook.com/theartofstrangers or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Mountain
What will happen once the mountains melt? Who will we blame? How will we tell the story of the end of the world?
These questions are some of the main points that The Art of Strangers wishes to address in The Mountain, the company’s debut production. Based on a short story by Amitav Ghosh, this piece brings 15 performers together in a mix of storytelling and role-playing that sets out to be a unique and intimate experience for the 15 spectators, featuring one-to-one interaction between audience and actors to co-create the work. With this performance, producer Fezhah Maznan and director Felipe Cervera aim to put forward a reflection about the relationship about art, people and global warming that ultimately will leave the spectator with a reflection about the end of the world. A hopeful, intimate and simple experience, this performance is a must-see.
The show runs from 16-19 January 2014 at The Substation Theatre, but tickets have already been sold out. Do follow their Facebook page for their upcoming shows.
The First Theatre Series is a series of articles based on “firsts” in the Singapore theatre scene.