50 years of theatre

50 years of theatre
The new cast of Off Centre includes (second from left) Erwin Shah Ismail, Joshua Lim, Neo Swee Lin, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Ellison Tan, Ebi Shankara, Myra Loke and Neo Hai Bin. They are framed by projections from the play’s first staging in 1993.

In what might be the Esplanade's most ambitious retrospective yet, the national arts centre is surveying the landscape of modern Singapore English-language theatre, from the 1960s to the present, charting its theatrical milestones alongside Singapore's journey from tumultuous pre-independence to gleaming contemporary city-state.

The Esplanade's special season of The Studios: fifty features 50 Singapore plays in just five weeks, from April 2 to May 10, at the arts centre's Theatre Studio and Rehearsal Studio.

This expansive line-up is part of the Esplanade's year-long efforts to commemorate Singapore's Golden Jubilee and will feature 21 directors bringing new perspectives to the works of 32 Singapore playwrights: from the late Lim Chor Pee's keen observations of relationships and gender in Mimi Fan (1962) to 27-year-old Joel Tan's tender coming-of-age convent drama The Way We Go (2014).

Esplanade producer Joyce Yao, part of the programming team for the season, tells Life! that contemporary Singapore theatre stands "on the shoulders of many giants".

She says: "We have a comparatively short history of theatre-making in Singapore, but it's such a rich one. "Many of the voices that have emerged from these few decades are fierce, brave and insightful."

The process of programming this season took well over a year, with playwright-director Chong Tze Chien of The Finger Players coming on board as a co-curator and theatre academic Dr Robin Loon as a consultant for the research phase of the project.

Chong says: "How do we ensure that the 50 plays chosen could accurately represent the history and character of dramatic writing in Singapore? That was on the top of our minds as we went through the list of plays over and over again."

He says it was "a near impossible task" to distil the initial list of more than 50 plays. "We wanted to be as inclusive as possible while keeping a discerning eye on everything."

The team also knew it wanted to reintroduce "works that might have escaped the mainstream consciousness" to the public.

The result is an eclectic sampler platter of Singapore's English- language theatre cuisine.

There are some instantly recognisable plays, such as those by the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, including The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985), No Parking On Odd Days (1986), The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree (1987) and Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (1995).

The work of prominent playwrights Haresh Sharma, Tan Tarn How, Eleanor Wong and Michael Chiang might be familiar to regular theatregoers - or perhaps rendered startlingly and excitingly unfamiliar in the hands of new directors with new perspectives.

It is this act of bringing a script to life that opens up great room for reinvention and reinterpretation - and also has the potential to turn a one-off performance into a seminal work.

Playwright Huzir Sulaiman's award- winning monodrama The Weight Of Silk On Skin premiered in 2011 at the Man Singapore Theatre Festival with thespian Ivan Heng in the lead role of a suave, seemingly confident man slowly unravelled by a lost love.

This year, it will be tackled by theatre power couple Tracie and Adrian Pang in the intimacy of a black box space, giving the dynamic of the performance a good shake-up - as the theatre is wont to do.

The other plays receiving a full-length staging are the iconic Emily Of Emerald Hill (1982) by Stella Kon, Off Centre (1993) by Sharma, The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate "S" Machine (1993) by Tan and Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral.

There are also some hidden gems, a mix of lesser-known plays and also those that might have faded somewhat from cultural memory.

Actor Tan Shou Chen, who has recently made forays into directing, will be overseeing a dramatised reading of work from the 1960s and 1970s, including Mimi Fan, the late Goh Poh Seng's The Moon Is Less Bright (1964) and the first part of Robert Yeo's Singapore Trilogy, Are You There, Singapore? (1968).

These works have rarely been restaged in recent years; the language used has the stiff formality of an earlier time and their structure hews to the conventions of the three-act, one-location play, as was popular at the time.

Another actor, Gerald Chew, will direct a dramatised reading of plays that focus on pivotal historical periods and figures, such as Mao Zedong's wife, the notorious and draconian Jiang Qing (Henry Ong's Madame Mao's Memories, 1987); and the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles (Ng Yi-Sheng's The Last Temptation Of Stamford Raffles, 2008).

The Cultural Revolution also gets an airing in Dr Loon's Watching The Clouds Go By (2001), where a schoolteacher makes a difficult decision.

Ms Yao says the programming team "looked at the plays that have shaped the scene, shifted practices in Singapore and considered some of the artistic trajectories that were more dominant in the past few decades".

The result: thematic groups of dramatised readings, such as one covering gender and sexuality, another where traditional art forms get a contemporary spin, and yet another examining the family nucleus and how fractious and tender those relationships can be.

The team also considered the oeuvres of various playwrights, as well as plays that had won the Best Original Script trophy at the Life! Theatre Awards, such as Machine (2002) by Tan Tarn How and Balance (2003) by Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan.

The selection process for the plays went like this.

The Esplanade first invited five established directors - Aidli "Alin" Mosbit, Oliver Chong, Tracie Pang, Jeff Chen and Zizi Azah Abdul Majid - who chose the five plays from their list of 50 that would be given a full staging.

The arts centre then invited another 16 directors to work on the dramatised readings, ranging from experienced hands such as Claire Wong and Samantha Scott-Blackhall to emerging directors including the likes of Thong Pei Qin and Tan Liting.

The season does its best to capture the broad sweep of Singapore theatre from the past half- century.

And while theatre in Singapore is often and increasingly multilingual, the line-up focuses only on English-language theatre and not on Singapore's other official languages of Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Ms Yao says this is because theatre from these language groups "followed different trajectories" and that the arts centre is working with practitioners from Malay, Chinese and Tamil theatre for other projects throughout the year.

She is careful to add: "These 50 plays are not purported to be the most representative works in Singapore English theatre. For us, they present a starting point for one to go deeper into understanding the plays and the playwrights and they give a sense of the breadth and scope of this history that we share.

"There will invariably be many different perspectives on what plays can be included in a season like this. And there should be." Ultimately, The Studios season works as a good primer and introduction to Singapore's theatre heritage, whether in terms of the writing - lyrical and abstract in certain instances, incisive and socially conscious in others - or as a live snapshot of the diverse group of practitioners at work in Singapore today, interpreting the work of their peers and predecessors.

Co-curator Chong Tze Chien says: "I hope this exercise will lead to more collaborations between the old and new generations of practitioners, generating more new restagings and new material between them. I'm excited by that prospect."

Director Chen, who will be taking on Kuo's seminal Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral, says his personal preference is for creating new work and that restagings can sometimes be "a waste of resources".

But he adds: "This is a different time. It is a good opportunity for us to take some time to revisit these plays and to allow the younger generation who has never actually encountered these plays before to take a look at our theatre heritage."

corriet@sph.com.sg

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