The proverbial show has shimmied on with brio, through personal loss and pandemic-related stopgap measures, for Emily Png and Stuart Wee. Despite their fathers’ passing – Png lost hers to Covid-19 – that cast a pall over 2020, the co-founders of theatrical dining company AndSoForth ploughed on in purveying wander and whimsy for the benefit of ennui-stricken Singaporeans.
Last year, they opened Restaurant Absurdities, a labyrinth of surreally designed rooms that diners walk, climb and crawl through to be served “wacky food in a wacky reality.” Wee reveals that they stumped up around half a million dollars to realise their quixotic vision. “It was a huge risk, but it paid off. We’ve always lived with the mantra that life is short and you can go anytime, so we just had a whack at it,” he said.
Rolling with the punches – which unlike their programmes, aren’t choreographed – isn’t new to the pair, who redesigned their Around the World in 80 Days show into a workshop in response to live entertainment restrictions.
The self-professed “experience junkies’, who gravitate towards immersive shows by London-based Secret Cinema, met while playing in a church band. “We found love in a hopeless place,” blurted Png, between giggles. Three years in, they contemplated pumping the breaks on AndSoForth, as “it was barely breaking even”. They soldiered on, as returning to the life of a paid employee was anathema to them.
Though the experience of working together hasn’t always sung like a hymn – Wee may not acquiesce to all his wife’s “weird ideas” – the quippy pair make business decisions together. “I usually ask her to provide references of similar concepts, and assess the manpower required to pull it off. I give the logical reasoning while Emily provides the emotional grounds, and we see what works,” shared Wee.
The former studio engineer handles the lighting, scriptwriting and coffee roasting – Absurdities operates as a cafe by day – while Png oversees marketing and administrative matters. With a team that has grown over the past eight years, Png put in place business communication apps such as Slack to ensure their employees’ work-life balance. “I message people in the middle of the night, and Slack allows staff to choose not to view messages when they aren’t working,” said Wee, who’s clearly the less inhibited of the pair.
They’ve also learnt to navigate an entertainment industry known for its mercurial temperament. “We’re both creatives, in a sense, so we understand that you need a certain kind of ego to do your art. Along the way, we’ve learnt that different collaborators have their quirks, and as long as we are moving in the same direction, we don’t let remarks get in the way,” said Png.
Wee, in turn, contends that presenting a united front deters “divas” from horning in on their harmonious relationship. “We’ve come across so many divas, with characters who talk behind your back, and realised that we’re actually stronger together. The moment you show a hint of weakness, they are going to try to get in there and eat you,” said Wee. He adds that they conduct rigorous background checks when hiring new staff.
The jocular duo fancy themselves as captains of a ship charting new lands. Their next conquest? HAUS217, a Japanese-inspired wedding venue that can be booked for high tea functions.