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Intensity-free performance art

In Sand Castle Party, theatre groups' beach trip is an act of rebellion in disguise

A performance can sometimes feel like a celebration or a smashing party where friends revel in each other's presence, acquaintances deepen their bonds and strangers plunge into engaging conversations with one another. As a gathering, OTW Theatre and For What Theatre's Sand Castle Party: A Journey Performance succeeded.

The 12 performers and their fellow travellers boarded the train at the Hua Lamphong station at around six in the morning on Saturday. We had the entire third-class bogey to ourselves, which means no AC, just overhead fans and open windows. Food was passed around, strangers were introduced. Conversations swirled, selfies were snapped, songs were sung and a group of people started a role-playing game.

The train was heading south towards Suan Son Pradiphat Railway Halt in Hua Hin. The station is a few steps away from the beach, where the bulk of this "journey performance" took place.

Once we reached our destination and the matter of the beach chairs were settled at around 11am, the performers headed straight to the shoreline with their bright-coloured plastic sand-sculpting tools to begin constructing their city by the sea. We weren't instructed to gather around them or join them in building a sand castle. In fact, we were all free to do anything we wanted.

Some audience members approached the construction site to watch or help build the sand castle. Conversations flowed freely among performers and some of the audience members. Words that came out of the performers' mouths as they were building their castles were clearly loosely planned but completely unscripted. Words like country, nation and nation-building were mentioned a few times.

This could be read as just a beach trip and party. But For What Theatre's work has always been political. So the entire journey performance could also be read as an act of rebellion or invasion -- a bunch of free-spirited, fun-loving ordinary citizens travelled on the train to stake their claim and build a city on military property. The soldiers in this country, after all, have marched into the civilian space and laid claim on the rights to speak and to gather time and time again. So why not subvert this dominion by gathering and calling it a performance, by invading and calling it a train journey, by reclaiming the space and calling it building sand castles?

But during the four hours on the beach, I kept wishing that the whole thing had felt more like a performance. Sure, you can argue that what people do in public and with an awareness of an audience is a performance. But for the most part, what happened on the beach lacked the intensity of commitment in a performance.

As the performers were building sandcastles, I couldn't help thinking of land art and the way land artists create their work. Even though I wouldn't call the process of creating land art a performance, it's still enthralling, for example, to watch British land artist Andy Goldsworthy build sculptures in the documentary Rivers And Tides. His patience, focus and determination to push the edge of balance and create something beautiful are remarkable. We hold our breath in hope that every leaf stays in place, that the placement of a rock won't cause an entire structure to collapse, that he can complete an ice sculpture before the Sun rises and melts it all away.

The way Goldsworthy works teaches us the act of creating -- like performing or sculpting -- is sacred. It doesn't have to feel important in the grand scheme of things, but the audience needs to feel that it is important to the artist.

That's why the strongest moments in Sand Castle Party came when the performers focused on protecting their sand city from the rising tide and later when they gathered to sing and dance on the beach.

But most of the time, it felt like the performers were just horsing around. Some performers and audience members began building another sand city in a higher spot to avoid the waves, but that project was never completely followed through.

The performers may have succeeded in making us feel part of the gathering on the train ride to the beach and back, but once on the beach, it didn't matter whether or not we watched or participated. It was a great trip and party, but a performance that forgot its audience.

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