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In Conversation with SK!N co-creator Govin Ruben

Ahead of their upcoming immersive theatre experience SK!N, we speak with Govin Ruben (right) of Malaysian-based theatre company TerryandTheCuz about the similarities between 19th century monastic sites and palm oil factories in Borneo, working with NGOs, and stripping people of their identity.

Not to give too much away, but at the beginning of SK!N the audience is ‘processed’ – the same way you might be if subjected to human trafficking. How do people typically react to this first phase of the performance?

To be clear, the processing element of the work is not based on how people are processed when they are trafficked. There are many ways how people are moved across borders, and whilst we have heard many horror stories, in our version of the processing we aim to agitate; causing our audience to re-evaluate their privilege. By processing them, we strip away their identity, belongings and mode of communication – reducing them to a number, weight, height and value. This outcome is what we feel has similarities to the stories and facts that we have heard and researched over the last few years. How people react? To be honest, most audiences are busy trying to immerse themselves in the experience that they just let it happen. As nothing is forceful or actually hard to do, the audiences’ step through each section without much complaining. It’s only when they come to the end of the section it becomes clear that they have been commodified and reduced to an object. But by that point they are in too deep to have any reaction and have little choice but to keep quiet, obey instructions and watch the performance.

Based on the outcome of the processing, audience members will have wildly different experiences of the show. Is that a key element of SK!N’s message? That people are not treated equally?

After the processing and based on their performance / answers / physical capability, we split the audience into three groups, each having a very difference experience / journey to and from the performance. The aim of this is to encourage conversation and provoke questions. These conversations and questions are a big part of the post-show section of the work, where we engage with local community groups and human rights NGO’s that can shed a bit of light about what goes on with their local community. Thus, by answering their questions and having a conversation about their experience the audience gets a sense and awareness for issues that affect new migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking in their locality. For the season in Melbourne; we will be engaging Welcome to Australia, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) and Preston Reservoir Adult Centre for Education (PRACE) to be a part of our post show conversation.

Did you have any reservations about the creation and performance of SK!N or were you always strong in your conviction that these stories needed to be shared?

We started this journey because of a few horrifying conversations with people that we thought we knew really well, from a Bangladeshi manager of an industrial laundry that we share office space with to a bartender that made our favourite cocktails. Their stories amongst many others caused us to explore this topic further – investing time and energy with organisations like Tenaganita and The UNCHR to uncover facts and the truth about the situation in Malaysia. We felt like creating a work that could / would / should shed some light and perhaps in a small way create an awareness about what was happening. I guess the deeper we delved into the work the less reservations we had. The first 18 months of the process was self-funded because no one wanted to help or go near the topic. Only after the work was finally commissioned at The George Town Festival as an Avant Premiere (Penang), people started to back the project and sing its praises. 

How did the Malaysian-based human rights organization Tenaganita become involved? How integral where they to the production and its storytelling?

We at TerryandTheCuz like making theatre. As soon as we realized this was the next project we wanted to explore, we knew we needed to consult experts in the field. Tenaganita has been fighting for Human Rights and helping victims of abuse and trafficking for more than 30 years. They are one of the most prominent names when it comes to NGO’s who live and breathe the cause. It was only natural for us to reach out to them. Perplexed at our initial proposal, Tenaganita soon got fully behind the project, providing us invaluable support, advice and more importantly gave us access to the community that they support and fight for. Tenaganita were invited to every showing and presentation of the work – consulting us along the way through the entire process. Our two-year relationship leading up to the premiere in KL (Kuala Lumpur) was integral in the shaping of the final product and the outcomes of the audience engagement in the work have been immensely beneficial to both parties. Throughout the two seasons of SK!N Tenaganita raised more than RM10,000 ($3,290) and recruited more volunteers and supporters in various capacity. TerryandTheCuz and Tenaganita still have an ongoing relationship as SK!N continues to travel.

You’ve performed SK!N in both Malaysia and Australia – countries with very identifiable problems with migrant policies and refugees. How has the performance been received by audiences in both countries?

Very differently, but encouragingly positive. In Malaysia the audiences were mostly in denial that some of these issues were actually real. It was more of a ‘NO WAY! Really?’ but as soon as the shock factor was out of the way we found that people were engaging in conversations about ‘OK! Tell me what I can do and where do I sign up?’ In Australia (South Australia to be exact) it was overwhelmingly accepting of the fact that these issues are prevalent and there was a huge sense of guilt in relation to the privileged first-world upbringing that they’ve had. The general reaction of ‘It’s a shame, we should do more!’ sometimes came across as being patronizing and genuinely lost for a solution. Whilst some great conversations were had, the Australian audiences left more affected by the work in private then engaging in a discussion that was public. For us this reaction was unexpected but definitely very interesting. The seasons in Bendigo and Melbourne should hopefully help clarify or sum up the Australian reaction further.

The production also takes place across multiple locations. How has the Abbotsford Convent as a performance site played a role in the overall feel of the performance?

The Convent is great location with a strong sense of history. The locations that SK!N will be happening in and around the Convent feel and look the part. The Industrial School with its peeling paint and rustic roof and floors could easily be mistaken for an abandoned palm oil stock room in the middle of Borneo. The beaten paths around the Convent that the audience take to get to the performance gives a sense of journey and an eerie reality to being herded into the unknown. This certainly helps with the experiential elements of the work and general feel of the performance.

Volunteers will be playing a significant role in the performance. Can you talk us through their level of involvement?

The volunteers give the local community / town / city ownership to the issues and conversations surrounding human trafficking, asylum seeking and forced migration. By involving local volunteers, we feel we can hone the conversation and make it relevant. With regards to what they actually do in the work; it ranges from task-based jobs like processing the audience, collecting their belongings and herding them around the Convent to performing in the dance itself.

How many people are involved in the production and its different elements?

One director / designer, one lead artist, one creative producer, one general manager, one stage manager, one head mechanist, one show operator, one OH&S manager, one post-show curator, three core dancers, 16 volunteers, three human rights / community organisations, one local producer, one dedicated front of house manager, one marketing / comms director, one community engagement director, one caterer, two traffic controllers, one pilot vehicle drive, one traffic management company, one VicRoads liaison, two Victoria Police officers, two Australian Customs and Border Control officers, one shipping / logistics company, one semi-trailer / truck hire company, two funding bodies, 124 victims of human trafficking across Malaysia from different parts of the world and an audience who are willing and able to partake in this production.

What do you hope people take away from the performance?

What they want. The work aims to ask the questions but not provide the answers. Thus, it is the audience’s responsibility (if they are compelled to) post-show to seek the answers for themselves and then take what they want from the experience. We hope it is something that adds to the ongoing conversation.

Do you have other performance plans for 2018?

We perform SK!N in Bendigo from 1 – 3 March before the season at the Convent. We are currently in discussions with various presenters for a season in Darwin for late August, Brisbane in early September and Merrigong NSW in late September. We then finish the Australian presentations and start discussions for European seasons in 2020.