You've probably heard of the "Anthropocene" – the era we’re said to be currently living in where human activities have become the driving force behind the earth’s systems and processes.
But what comes next?
In her full-length play Symbiocene, playwright-director Lim Sheng Hui explores just that, stating, “We cannot remove ourselves from our environment, as it can nourish us as well as destroy us.”
The experimental theatre production will play at the Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) from Dec 1-3.
Billed as an ecopunk play, the term "symbiocene" was coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the period of reintegration between humans and the rest of nature, a time of living together and companionship.
Set in 2025, Symbiocene begins when a mysterious and highly disruptive force ruptures the boundaries between humans, plants, and animals.
Under the banner of "Expedisi Harapan Sembilan", three outcasts – a world-weary park ranger, a psychic, and a fungal traveller – are sent into the epicentre of this rupture, Penang Botanical Gardens, to investigate.
The play organically grew from a script written by Lim that had been inspired by Annihilation, the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and the New Weird genre, which combines science fiction, horror, the supernatural and weird fiction.
Though inspired by the book, Lim says that after several workshops, the team realised that the Annihilation’s premise was outdated.
“The objectivity of science could never capture the expansiveness and possibilities of nature, so we went through the process of decolonising the play, which included re-looking at Western influences and incorporating our cultural roots,” she says.
A living play
“Just like how nature writes itself through complex ecological relations and their emergent properties, Symbiocene is a living play that emerges from a collaborative process with the ensemble and our larger world,” shares Lim.
The play’s three main leads were each able to collaborate with Lim on fleshing out their respective characters.
“There was a lot of discussing and listening to each other’s opinions. It was a bit difficult for me to get into character because the character had so much history and I would find myself a bit scared of going to a place where I wouldn’t go myself, but Sheng Hui always made me feel safe when I did," says Camillea Benjamin, who plays park ranger Kas.
“The more I learned about Kas’ history and the more I learned about why Kas is the way she is, it gave a lot more understanding and I think everyone has gone through what Kas has gone through at least once in their lives. She’s very human in a sense that you can see the struggle she has behind the wall that she puts up and I think that it’s beautiful to share in that vulnerability,” she adds.
Tharanii Karthigesu, who plays the psychic Fern, shares that the team’s camping field trip while refining the story’s ending had a big role in the play’s creative process.
“We were exposed to the vast space and the wilderness’ influence, which played a huge role in enhancing our characters' grotesqueness, making them more intricate and compelling,” she says.
Aila Azizul, who plays Sen, an environmentalist with the ability to connect to the mycelial network, tells us, “Being part of this play has really challenged my anthropocentric ways of seeing and doing things. It reminds me that nature is all around us – not just in the forest – and that there are smaller and bigger beings all around me that are well and alive, that move to their own heartbeats.”
“If this play has achieved to rouse my inner being, as a performer and direct collaborator, I hope that it will do the same for the audience members who come to watch our play."
Borrowing from nature
Lim explains that with the characterisations of each actor and the main premise in mind, it made sense to weave together a narrative that explored the before, during and after.
“The play is presented in three acts – as we journey from Act 1 to 3, the audience will be able to track the transformation of the world, which will be conveyed through transformations in acting, costumes, set, sound and light.”
Set designer/artist Liew Chee Heai chimes in, “Given the play is set in nature, naturally the set had to involve forest-y elements. A big portion of our set is foraged from jungles and rivers, though much care was taken to ensure we don't damage the environment while doing so.”
“It would be hypocritical to do a show inspired by nature without being mindful of the waste we produce and ensuring no harm to the environment,” says Lim.
“When we go foraging for fallen leaves or wood pieces from a fallen tree for our set, we use recyclable bags instead of plastic, and instead of buying sand for our set, we will borrow soil from the earth and return it to the earth after the show.”
Symbiocene plays at Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPac) in Petaling Jaya from Dec 1-3. More info here.