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  • Writer's pictureZim Ahmadi

'Big Girl, Little Girl' - Panas Panas Theatre [REVIEW]

A theatre collective's foray into experimental audio art, 'Big Girl Little Girl' embodies the cacophony of lost childhood dreams and the fragile act of recalling the past.


Listen to 'Big Girl, Little Girl' by clicking here

Zoom calls are the heart of society now. It’s easy to think of them as fleeting tools, often packaged as the temporary present - whether that be your work, classroom, or your weekly virtual hangout with friends & family. Zoom calls are not treated yet as an important subject of history or memory. But 'Big Girl Little Girl' utilizes the video call medium (part of it at least) as a chaotic account of the past by splicing together bits of conversations the performers had back in December 2020. Under the direction of Hana Nadira and featuring the performance of Sandee Chew, conversations on Zoom become a more permanent collage of experiences.

The project is led by Panas Panas Theatre, a recently established independent theatre collective based in Malaysia. 'Big Girl, Little Girl' is an offshoot of an ongoing project between the two collaborators.

A preview

Essentially, ‘Big Girl Little Girl’ is made up of several overlapping monologues; most of the time fighting for attention before tapering into gradual silence. They mostly circle the topic of Wawasan 2020 and the Voices’ changing relationship with that national ambition throughout the years - but there are also recurring references to things Disney and dreams, made by intimate by touching upon other adjacent subjects such as aging, mortality, and control. The piece is a contemplation about the future through the lens of a child, recollected again by an adult trying to remember what that felt like. Thus begins my mixed feelings about this project. After the sound of a dial-up Internet connection establishes the setting - possibly a nod to the unreliable memory-based relationship between present You and past You (also, the 90s), pieces of monologue start to vie for attention. This sometimes becomes overwhelming in a negatively disorienting way, however. Instead of being evocative or disruptive - ‘Big Girl Little Girl’ has a tendency to distract itself from...itself.

If the purpose wasn’t to make the words or the thoughts themselves the focus but to hone in on the shaky uneasiness of the musings as the main artistic point, the piece does that but only to a very limited extent. The description of the audio as Wawasan 2020 on the website is one of the culprits. If uneasiness was the intention, laying the context down too explicitly makes it hard to not try and listen to each word, after which you eventually surrender to a half-baked version of the message because it's not too easy to pick out.

Never mind that. Another way to experience ‘Big Girl Little Girl’, possibly, is to consider it as something you’re supposed to revisit. A piece that means something different each time you listen to it. A different introspective seed. A different echo to resonate with your own. Personally, even that borders on the tedious - a triviality. It’s not that trivia is always a negative considering that I’m the type who likes to find the tiniest Easter Eggs in things like TV shows, but the subjects discussed are so varied (after all these are samples of casual conversation; unscripted) it needed a device to help bring those things back. If not to the center, at least to a more curated selection of emotions.

Yet, Big Girl Little Girl does try. Some of the brilliance in the project is the small amount of direction it has, which contains some poetic merit. The layers coming together sequentially teases you. Sometimes they standalone, other times they battle for airtime. Giving you the impression that you were on to something and when your attention finally finds a rope it can grasp, that illusion of control fades away. All of this happens from the very beginning of Big Girl Little Girl, transitioning into a wonderfully apt musing about power (“Maybe I want to be powerful, but what does the word power mean...Maybe it’s related to control ”)

Every instance of manic childhood naivete also contributes to this attempt at focus, depicted by childish mumbling and singing, e.g. “I’m looking for clues, I’m looking for clues”. The pitched rendition of the famous Everly Brother’s track “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and then the calming lullaby of Cinderella's “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” - both have goosebump-inducing potential.

Yet everything in between is only as profound as static (like the dial-up one that starts the clip). Yes, these are personal confessions and encompass a person’s actual life, but not one that stands as a memorable experimental art project. I kept asking myself whether the dialogues could just exist within a more conventional and clearer theatrical setting, without stirring them in a bowl of dough for the sake of floppy creative expression.

An ideal version in my head of projects like this is a metaphorical circus where the performers are your ruminations, musings, introspections, doubt, hope, and ambition. Each with their own colourful personas, making every conflict of ideas a collision. There's not much colour here, whether abrasive or alluring.

All in all, ‘Big Girl Little Girl’ is still a great example of how we can talk about chaos in art, music, or “audio experiences” in general. How do we assess the artistic credence of chaos? In what way must chaos exist for it to send clear messages? Does chaos become pretentious when it tries too hard to mean something? To what extent is vagueness a legitimate basis for underdone pieces? The big questions that I don’t have the real answer to. All I know is that I liked this audio clip better when I didn’t know it was supposed to be about anything.

Maybe then that process of recollection of dreams and memories becomes self-evident.

Maybe if I wasn’t trying to figure out every thematic facet from the past 5 minutes,

then the chills from that final Cinderella song would manifest a guardian angel trying to comfort me - leaving a starker, proverbial scar on my brain.

Panas Panas have many paths they can follow and even bolder choices they can make. You see hints of that here, and nothing more. 'Big Girl Little Girl' doesn’t know whether clarity or chaos matters and attempting to do both robs it of emotional impact.


3 / 5


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