(Aug 25): Companies, individuals and artists have been challenging the way we perceive our lifestyle, work and biology. The lines separating science fiction and fact have become so blurred that it is almost imperative to investigate this phenomenon through the lens of theatre.

Khairul Kamsani did that in 2014 by writing and staging his acclaimed Human+. The play touches on transhumanism technology — the synergy between machine and man. It revolves around the ethics of people allowing themselves to become dependent on machines and systems, an increasingly crucial issue in the last three years.

Human+ is a very mature piece of work for someone who is only 25 years old and this may have stemmed from Khairul’s having lived in different parts of the world while growing up, as his father worked in an international oil trade consultancy.

Human+ will return to the stage from Aug 30 to Sept 3.

Options catches up with Khairul, who is also the resident assistant director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, to find out more about the playwright himself and his work.

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This is the second time Human+ is being staged. Has there been an update of the play?
I am quite happy to say Human+ has shaped up to become a very different show from what it was in 2014. The script was workshopped over a period of time with a new collaborative cast that breathed new life into the story. A team of designers are collaborating to fashion a fresh set, lights and sound design. As much as I’ve used this opportunity to consolidate new skills and networks from my artistic perspective [to boost] the production value, the biggest update is how relevant the subject matter is.

Hypothesising a device that can connect our brain to the internet (and, by extension, each other) is an idea that used to exist only in science fiction. But recently, companies have begun developing such a device — for example Neuralink, helmed by Elon Musk. For this run, I’ve collaborated with The ArtScience Museum and its current exhibition, Human+, The Future of Our Species, which explores the same topic using various media in its galleries, to create an immersive experience for those who visit the museum or watch the play.

What can the audience expect to take away from Human+?
Each character in the play moves through the world deliberating the mantra of “perfecting humanity through technology” as he or she deals with an experimental device that can ‘evolve’ humans into the next species state. Our goal is to represent varying opinions on the subject matter, which the audience may have, through each character. I hope that viewers will, at some point, identify with the opinions and goals of a character, be open to opposing perspectives and leave the theatre to have a fruitful debate on the implications of evolution beyond being human.

In Human+, the underlining question is: What lies beyond humanity? What is your answer to this, as a person, not as a writer or director?
The concept of “humanity” is quite contemporary in the timeline of geological eras. The universe has been through (as far as we know) 3.8 billion years without such a thing as “humanity”. Who is to say the next 3.8 billion years will involve the human race too? It took many evolutions of hominids to get to us, homo sapiens who have existentialist issues, and who write and watch theatre to debate our fate as a species.

I’d like to believe that however humanity or civilisation is manifested, our perception of it in the next five millennia would have descended from our version of humanity/homo sapiens. That is, if we don’t wipe ourselves out through global warming or a nuclear war.

Human+ examines a rather deep topic for someone your age. What was your inspiration?
It all started in 2013 when I was riding in a bus. I looked around and noticed that everyone was glued to some kind of electronic device. One person had his phone really close to his face and I had this funny thought that he might as well put the device inside him if he wanted to get so close to it.

I started imagining a device that could allow us to see what we see in phones just with our mind. How that would implicate us as a species fascinated me, so I started sketching the monologues of two characters, one for and the other against having such a device. One of them survived all the drafts and is in the play as Dr McCaine. The sketches became the launch pad for me to invent new characters with differing perspectives on the device. These became scenes and I workshopped them into a story, which eventually became a play.

Which do you prefer: being behind the camera directing, in front of it acting, or just writing?
Acting is a very tough process and I have very high respect for what actors do. It takes certain characteristics to hone the craft and I know I will have difficulty meeting the demands acting requires, especially knowing what I expect from actors as a director. I feel my instinct for directing and producing is more natural and that my personality grounds me in a way that makes producing/directing/writing an enjoyable grind.

What were your growing up years like? How did that shape you as a person?
From the time I was born, I rarely spent more than two consecutive years in one city. Being raised in Texas, the US; Jakarta; Kuala Lumpur and Singapore; and going back and forth in various periods of time, it was hard to attach myself to any relationship besides my family — change being the only constant. Even in the later years, family stopped being a fixed feature. I suppose the number of times I’ve had to let go of people and places has made me stoic in navigating life on my own, which perhaps is reflected in my choice of being an independent producer.

What is your role as resident assistant director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre?
My primary role is that of assistant director for all productions that the Singapore Repertory Theatre produces. I assist in casting, and in the rehearsals and maintenance of each show. My 18-month residency programme with the theatre is designed to immerse me in the inner workings of a professional theatre company, to cultivate skills and a deeper understanding of acting and the local arts landscape. From working on child ren’s musicals to [doing] Shakespeare in the Park and ending my stint with Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, I feel empowered to stride further in building my career as a practitioner, locally and abroad.

In support of my endeavours, SRT has generously provided me with the space and resources to produce Human+ as a way to wrap up my residency and send me forth into the world.

What words of encouragement would you give aspiring thespians, directors and scriptwriters?

• Don’t wait for others to tell you that you are “ready”. Nobody ever is, so just do your best and continue learning.
• There is always something in your craft you can improve on, so listen to criticism objectively. Not all criticism is useful, so find people you trust, like a mentor.
• Take yourself seriously and others will too. Singapore’s arts scene is bursting — catch the wave and be part of the growth.

HUMAN+
Aug 30: 8pm (preview)
Aug 31 to Sept 2: 8pm
Sept 3: 3pm and 8pm
Venue: KC Arts Centre — Home of SRT

Tickets available from Sistic (6348 5555)