#HelloTFP: Hairi

by fingerplayers

#HelloTFP is a series of anecdotes where we introduce and share more about the members of the TFP family; from core team members to office interns. In this latest #HelloTFP feature, we speak with our TFP Fellow Hairi, about how he got his start in theatre, his journey in the industry, and what his experience has been like in The Fellowship Programme so far.

Hairi in his childhood, pretending to be a musician.

“I have always loved dancing since I was a kid. My mom was a dancer, and used to appear on TV programmes on the old Mediacorp. I grew up around her friends who were all professional dancers, hearing stories of them doing shows with international artists, and going overseas just to train. So that kind of influenced me and made me love dance at first. But then growing up, it wasn’t an ideal job choice. So I kind of just had dance as a hobby at first, joining CC groups and shows just to entertain my interest.

The first SYF Hairi participated in during Secondary School.

In 2010, I met an old primary school friend who was going into theatre, who told me that a theatre group needed more dancers for their show. At the time, I didn’t know about the bigger world of dance and theatre out there. I only knew bits and pieces of it. That show was Merah Pawanah (2010), which was produced by Teater Ekamatra. That’s where I met other practitioners, and where my first big group of contacts of theatre-makers and playwrights came from. Till now, some of them are very good friends of mine. That show was what sparked my interest in going in-depth into theatre. 

Hairi with his fellow castmates in Merah Pawanah (2010), by Teater Ekamatra.

At first I was just doing more dance, until after Merah Pawanah ended, and that’s when I started asking them, “Hey, what kind of shows are you guys watching? Or what are the things I can go for?” So that’s where my love for theatre started to come out. I wanted to know which part of the theatre world I can be in, how I can contribute to this world and make it more lovely and rich. I got some jobs through friends – back-end jobs, technical jobs, and a lot of other things. I tried almost everything and my love grew even bigger. So I’ve been in it till now.

The memory that stuck to me for that show, is my mom coming to support me, and giving me the thumbs up. Because she’s been in the world of professional dance, she knows the struggle of being an artist. So she didn’t want that for me. So because of that show she came and support me and she gave me the thumbs up and give her blessing. “Okay, as long as I can see you perform on this kind of stage and do it well, then go on.”

I’m still searching for where I can be in the theatre world. I am constantly searching every day for that answer. Because I have touched on a lot of things in theatre. Like performing, and then doing technical work, but I have not yet explored whether I can be a playwright or a director etc. So I’m trying to find the right lane to be in, and then excel in that lane.

A quote that resonated with Hairi on his Yogyakarta trip.
A performance Hairi watched in Yogyakarta.

There definitely was a point in time where I questioned why I’m doing what I’m doing. I had to take a trip overseas to answer that question. I went to Yogyakarta for 10 days to visit a friend, and to really question myself whether I really want to do this. The experience in Yogyakarta was very fruitful because I got to see the arts scene there, and how happy the people are; they just do the art because it’s part of them, part of life. So art and life shouldn’t be separated. That kind of answered my question. I mean, I always knew the answer, because of my traditional background practice, because my teacher always said that the arts and life is never separated. It has to be together. So I understood it, but I’ve been questioning it. The Yogyakarta trip really helped me answer those questions.

A performing artist group Hairi watched in Yogyakarta.
An encapsulation of Hairi’s takeaway from his Yogyakarta trip.

A few years back, I made a decision to find full-time work that allows me to be a craftsman, where I can have a space to make props or sets etc. I found a company called Mascots and Puppets. I worked with them for one and a half years. My love for puppetry came out when I was working with them, because I got to learn the artistry of different puppets, and how to make them. When COVID hit, I had to leave the company, but I still told myself that I need to find something for me to go on experimenting with the ideas I had in the company. 

At that point in time, just nice TFP had the open call for The Fellowship Programme. I saw The Makers Lab and I saw The Fellowship Programme, and I had to make a decision whether I should continue the road of just being a maker or do I want to explore more and find another lane that I want. So it took me quite a while to make a decision, and talking to a few good friends that I’m very close with since the Teater Ekamatra show, and that’s where I decided, okay let’s go for TFP and go through The Fellowship Programme. Because if I don’t try, I won’t know whether I will get it and whether it will open doors to my answers. 

Hairi in the Puppetry in Performance Masterclass by Oliver Chong (2021).

For my journey so far in The Fellowship Programme, I can’t find the right words but I feel that my spirit is very ‘up’. Especially after going through Oliver’s class. Because Oliver’s class broke quite a few limits of mine. I have a fear of public speaking, you see. So to go through exercises to remember a monologue and present it to a group of strangers was very tough for me, because a long time ago I made the decision that I can be a performer but never an actor. So I guess that mindset stopped me from doing certain works. But Oliver’s class was a safe place for me to try things out. And he asked me an important question – which route do I want to take, the route with no words or the route with words? That just hit me very hard, like wow, this is what I thought of when I was wondering whether or not TFP would open their doors to me. So, I confidently said to him that I will take the road with words so that I can expand my craft. It’s been a short but very fruitful experience so far. 

Hairi presenting his individual monologue to the class, during the Puppetry in Performance Masterclass 2021.

My favourite part of performance-making is to see what comes out from the process of it – to see the end product and how it turns out, and to even be shocked by that. I try my best to come into a process being “zero” – not knowing anything, so that I can learn and re-learn certain things that I already know, or find different perspectives on them. Sometimes the process gives me a different perspective on life itself. That is my favourite part of performance-making. It’s very rewarding for me because, process, to me, is very important. Be it learning lessons for the process, or picking up learning points for me in my life. Let’s say, one time I was making props for a certain friend, and while making it, the process of making and learning was also a chance for reflection – in making these props, what am I making and fixing for myself? What am I learning? Is this a lesson in patience, or something else?

Hairi in the Puppetry in Performance Masterclass 2021, rehearsing for the group puppet manipulation presentation with his classmates.

The jamming sessions that I have been involved in for The Maker’s Lab were refreshing because it’s been a long time since I have really fully utilised my own body. Getting to play with exoskeletons and puppetry during the jamming sessions made me question, “Am I really practising my craft or am I falling into old habits of mine from being a dancer?”

For now, my plans for the future is to dive into puppetry as much as I can. After working at Mascots & Puppets for one and a half years, I saw a lot of ideas and possibilities. And the friends who I met through the company showed me the possibilities that puppetry has. I always felt that the general public thinks that puppetry is always a kid’s thing. I guess the older generation would think puppetry is only Sesame Street. The current generation, I don’t know whether they understand the level of simplicity or complexity that puppetry can reach. When I talked to some younger ones, they think puppetry is just sock puppets and very simple rod puppets, and it’s always for kids. But when I asked them whether they could see puppets addressing very serious questions or even political questions, they say, “Cannot ah very difficult”. So that’s where I want to push my puppetry.

Hairi during a jamming session for The Maker’s Lab (October 2021).

One area I want to explore is whether puppetry can close the gap of mental health awareness. Because every mental condition – depression, anxiety and others, has its own monster or creature. So how can I sharpen that image? How can people talk about it and show the image of their creatures more clearly? So that other people who don’t have mental health struggles, or cannot understand mental health struggles, can understand it, and we can be on the same page so that we can talk about it.

To my younger self, I would say to him, trust your trust your gut a lot more. “If you feel the love for dancing is that strong, then follow it. Don’t hold back. That’s what I would tell him.”