To open the NUS Arts Festival 2019: A Game of Numbers, the Centre For the Arts sought a production that was steeped in the mathematical theme, that hadn’t been performed in Singapore before and, above all else, challenged the student artists involved.

The resulting production was A Disappearing Number; an award-winning play from the UK theatre company Complicité, originally conceived and directed by Simon McBurney and staged for the first time in Singapore with their kind permission. It was directed by Edith Podesta and featured both professional and student actors.

Staging such a major work for the opening of NUS’ largest arts event was a huge challenge, but it was possibly most frightening for the NUS Stage team themselves. Following the successful production, we asked NUS Stage’s Public Relations Head, Ariane Vanco (year 2, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) to describe the experience.

Over the course of six weeks, following closely after the group’s annual internal productions, NUS Stage launched into rehearsals for A Disappearing Number.

The first part of the production that was frightening was the initial read-through of the script as it is an intense piece that transcends time. The second shock came when we discovered that we would be sharing the stage with professional actors Koh Wan Ching, Pavan J Singh, Remesh Panicker, and LaSalle acting student Krish Natarajan.

Theatre de Complicité is well-known for using multimedia and large ensemble casts to create a striking and bustling stage image, and these elements fit with Podesta’s style of directing ensemble pieces. For our part, NUS Stage members were mostly part of the ensemble cast, playing a multitude of characters such as students, World War II nurses, passengers, and more. 

Against the beautiful and dynamic backdrops conceived by multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan, the ensemble worked to create the numerous locations and time periods that the play jumps to from, weaving multiple stories together in an appreciation of Mathematics and patterns in nature. 

Being the first time working with professional actors on a scale as large as this, the task was definitely daunting for us, especially in the tight timeframe of six weeks. With so many scenes to devise, refine and then practice to work out the kinks, Stage found itself hard at work at rehearsals three times a week, with some members rehearsing more if they had larger roles as recurring characters. There was also the pressure to be more professional and make as few mistakes as possible so as not to disrupt the seasoned actors, which some members had little prior experience with. 

Stars of A Disappearing Number: Pavan J Singh, Remesh Panicker and Koh Wan Ching
Stars of A Disappearing Number: Pavan J Singh, Remesh Panicker and Koh Wan Ching

We soon realized that we were more than just stagehands bringing set pieces such as beds and whiteboards across the stage. Rather, we played characters that existed between the different planes of time and reality as narrated by Aninda Rao (played by Remesh Panicker). As such, the ensemble was responsible for creating and morphing scenes on stage as Aninda imagines and conceptualizes them for the audience. This required a great deal of coordination and practice which allowed us to move into place onstage and offstage again as smoothly as possible, ensuring as few breaks in the narrative for the audience as possible. 

On top of all this, balancing school-work is always an issue for student actors. Over the course of six weeks, the average NUS student would expect to have multiple presentations, exams and assignments to prepare for, an already tough workload to handle without also having a production to rehearse for. Especially in the last week leading up to the show, where actors have to be in the theatre every day for technical runs, full runs and rehearsal in the space, which usually entails missing lessons throughout the week. Nonetheless, our members pulled through with mutual encouragement and perseverance. It is probably the hallmark of a university student’s life to spend a few weeks each semester being swamped with balancing school work, classes, extra-curricular activities and personal commitments; one does not go through this alone and the bonds formed between a club’s members during a time like this are always particularly strong.

Working on a production like A Disappearing Number was an incredible experience for NUS Stage. Learning to work in a professional environment with the pressure of getting the show ready in a short time provided us with many invaluable lessons learned along the way. As with any major production, we also had the chance to learn more about theatre and to create meaningful theatre with like-minded, passionate individuals along the way, making every missed deadline and every sleepless night spent studying fully worth it. 

NUS Stage is currently taking a well-deserved break, and hope to rejuvenate before launching once more into the next show!

[Photos by Kuang Jingkai]