Nostalgic memories of theatre studies

Nostalgic memories of theatre studies
File photo of Victoria Junior College Theatre Studies and Drama students posing with the main leads of Miss Saigon.

We tend to throw the term "nostalgia" around quite loosely in Singapore.

Over the past few years, we have stuck it on anything vaguely analogue or old- school, whether it's turning mosaic playgrounds or "five stones" into chic, stylish jewellery, or giving crusty conservation spaces a hip makeover.

The word nostalgia has its roots in Greek, taken from the words "nostos", which means homecoming, and "algos", which means pain.

In the late 18th century, the word was assembled in modern Latin to mean an acute homesickness, one so strong that it could even be considered a disease.

Nostalgia didn't start out as the gentle yearning for the past we now associate it with. It was a severe jolt to the heart.

Two weekends ago, I took part in a cosy panel discussion for the wonderful Theatre Memories project, co-curated by Jennifer Lim and Annie Jael Kwan.

The project aims to collect the personal memories of theatre practitioners and put them together in the form of an exhibition in conjunction with SG50 - arguably the most extreme embodiment of today's interpretation of "nostalgia", with its deluge of rose- tinted retrospective shows and exhibitions.

But the word struck me quite differently at this filmed discussion when it was used by Mr Rey Buono, the pioneering American educator who helped set up Victoria Junior College's theatre studies and drama A-level programme in 1989 - the first of its kind to enter mainstream educational institutions here.

He left the school in 1996, but not before influencing hundreds of theatre studies students, many of whom form the backbone of our cultural industry today.

They include actress and former Nominated MP Janice Koh, Cake Theatrical Productions founder Natalie Hennedige, prominent entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow, former artistic director of The Substation Noor Effendy Ibrahim, actress Michelle Chong, film-maker Kelvin Tong, Life! arts editor Clarissa Oon - the list goes on.

Mr Buono had an uphill task when it came to establishing that pilot theatre studies course, but many more schools carry the theatre studies programme today and the School of the Arts has also made arts education more palatable to the mainstream.

A few of us alumni had gathered to discuss the theatre studies programme and how it had added to the sweep of Singapore theatre history, as well as shaped our lives in the arts.

I confess: It is the singular reason why I do what I do as a theatre journalist and reviewer.

I had no prior contact with theatre as a teenager, but absolutely loved literature.

I obsessed over my battered copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which we studied at O-level, and had early existential crises over lines such as: "Men at some time are masters of their fates.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

When I discovered that Victoria Junior College offered a theatre course, I devoured every inch of its formerly poorly maintained website. I hardly slept that night.

I had to do this course, I thought. I needed to, even though I had no idea why.

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