50 years of theatre
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."
WHAT TO CATCH
Beginnings: Selected works from the 1960s and 1970s directed by Tan Shou Chen
Plays: Mimi Fan (1962) by Lim Chor Pee; The Moon Is Less Bright (1964) by Goh Poh Seng; Are You There, Singapore? (1968) by Robert Yeo
Tan Shou Chen, an actor by training and a relative newcomer to directing, felt instinctively drawn to these three plays when he was first presented with The Studios' spread of 50 works. They were "the plays I was least familiar with and the most intrigued by", he says.
Mimi Fan is set in the swinging 1960s, sparked by a chance romantic encounter between two strangers. The Moon Is Less Bright revolves around the life of a farmer and his family about the time of the Japanese Occupation and Are You There, Singapore? looks at a group of students studying in London, drawing a parallel between their political and individual awakenings and Singapore's independence.
Tan will invite Yeo to read excerpts from his play, one of the early examples of scripts that tackled political issues. Other performers include Isabella Chiam, Shafiqah Effandi and Darren Guo.
Tan spent a lot of time researching the plays, drawing from sources such as Life!'s monthly Classic Singapore Plays series. He will treat the excerpts from the plays as a total work. "It's an homage and acknowledgement of the beginnings of theatre, the germ from which Singapore theatre started."
Where: Esplanade Rehearsal Studio
When: April 4, 6pm
Admission: $5 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg), $20 for a bundle of any five dramatised readings, $35 for a bundle of any 10 dramatised readings
Contemporary & New Wave directed by Edith Podesta
Plays: Nothing (2007) and Temple (2008) by Natalie Hennedige; Family (1995) by Leow Puay Tin
Actress and educator Edith Podesta has collaborated with Cake Theatrical Productions' Natalie Hennedige several times and is no stranger to the quirky director's psychedelic tastes. But she admits she had a "mini freak-out" for about three to four weeks after reading all three plays by Hennedige and Leow, a respected Malaysian playwright.
"I couldn't make threads between them, I couldn't see initial similarities - they were so totally different," she says with a laugh. It was the Esplanade which had matched Hennedige and Leow's scripts.
This set of plays are arguably some of the most experimental and boundary-pushing of the lot.
Hennedige's Temple sees a group of people, all at odds, locked in a sports hall in this exploration of human fear and weakness.
Nothing, also full of fractured narratives and surreal, lurid images, was a poignant treatise on love, relationships and death told through six characters. Leow's Family, first performed in a shophouse, traces the life of matriarch Tan Neo through non-linear vignettes and monologues as she tries to forge a family.
Podesta has been speaking with Hennedige and other former cast members for the three productions as part of her research and was thankful to be given free rein in tackling these works.
She will mark out three areas in the acting space where characters from each play perform simultaneously, using strong visual elements from each production, such as crocodile masks (from Temple). Performers include seasoned actresses Neo Swee Lin and Karen Tan as well as younger artists Amanda Tee, Erwin Shah Ismail and Benedict Hew.
She says: "I'm going to let the plays tell me what to do. I'm constantly looking at the work itself and trying to find connections and inspirations."
Where: Esplanade Rehearsal Studio
When: May 2, 6pm
Admission: $5 from Sistic (excludes booking fee), $20 for a bundle of any five dramatised readings, $35 for a bundle of any 10 dramatised readings
Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (1995) directed by Jeff Chen
Cast: Koh Wan Ching, Jean Ng, Timothy Nga, Nora Samosir, Najib Soiman
Director Jeff Chen is never one to shy from dark, edgy theatre, particularly work that does not fit into any particular mould. He immediately picked Descendants from the Esplanade's list of 50 plays, telling the programming team: "This is the only play I can do; the rest, I don't know how to do."
Chen says with a laugh: "My interest has always leaned away from the well-structured, 'well-made' play. I'm more interested in texts that are very open to interpretation."
Kuo's rich, prose-style script seemed the perfect fit. Written as 16 episodic and seemingly unconnected scenes, with no stage directions or specific characters, Descendants is a profound meditation on displacement, loss and a castration of identity - whether Singaporean or universal.
Chen had watched the 1995 English version of the production directed by Ong Keng Sen and also the Mandarin version directed by Kuo himself. "They left very strong impressions on the possibilities of theatrical performance."
He is also doing his own meta-theatre experiment of sorts - he is appropriating Wong Chee Wai's claustrophobic set for Nine Years Theatre's 2013 courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men (which he also used in his own 2013 production, LIFT: Love Is Flower The) for this production.
There is a strong sonic emphasis: He will be making use of voiceovers, featuring actors such as Janice Koh and Ivan Heng, who were in the original production, and has allowed them to interpret the text in any way they wish. Composer Chong Li-Chuan has also created original music for the production. Chen's team of cast members will be responding to this sonic stimuli.
As with all revivals of seminal work, Chen has his moments of anxiety. "I'm quite anxious about doing this piece because in our theatre community, when you ask a lot of theatre practitioners which of Pao Kun's texts they love the most, it would be Descendants."
When he was younger, he had interpreted the text as stories about the eunuch explorer Zheng He, then later a treatise on the desolation of the corporate world, then a little later yet, about Singapore politics and governance.
"As I grow older, I realise it's not only about all that - it's about the human condition," he says. "It's about all these structures that we construct around us, that sort of oppress us. All these systems of hierarchies."
He adds: "The text is so rich that when you come to it at different stages of your life, you get different meanings out of it."
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: April 30 to May 3, 8pm (Thursday to Saturday), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)
Admission: $30 from Sistic (excludes booking fee) Info: The production contains mature themes. Recommended for patrons 12 years and older
Tan Tarn How's The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate "S" Machine (1993) directed by Zizi Azah Abdul Majid
Cast: Crispian Chan, Dominique De Marco, Shafiqah Effandi, Gene Sha Rudyn, Prem John, Farez Najid, Rizman Putra, Lian Sutton Director-playwright Zizi Azah Abdul Majid was so excited to tackle Tan Tarn How's satirical play that she wrote "a super long e-mail" to programme co-curator Chong Tze Chien explaining why she wanted to direct Lady Of Soul, "so that nobody else would get it", she says with a chuckle.
Over the telephone from Connecticut in the United States, where she is based, Zizi is unabashed in her enthusiasm for the play, which wryly tackles Singapore's aspirations to be a nation with "soul", a tongue-in-cheek look at how the country sources for its campaigns for "vibrancy". Thrown into a mix is, well, a sex doll designed to get citizens hot and heavy with a bit more "soul".
One of the things that struck her about the work was its relevance. "It's as if very little has moved forward in 20 years. It's mind-boggling and a little sad, but at the same time, it's a testament to what a great playwright Tarn How is."
She will be reimagining Singapore in a "parallel universe" in this more "absurdist" take on the play.
Zizi says: "The soul of Singapore is something we're still looking for and it's still important to us, especially this year."
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: May 7 to 10, 8pm (Thursday to Saturday), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)
Admission: $30 from Sistic (excludes booking fee) Info: The production contains mature themes. Recommended for patrons 16 years and older
This article was first published on March 24, 2015.
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