A new page for playwriting

A new page for playwriting

As the new Centre 42 eases into its home - the former Action Theatre premises along Waterloo Street painted a bright cerulean blue - it has become a touchpoint for a renewed focus on playwriting in Singapore.

The centre aims to document, promote and create writing for the Singapore stage.

Its name comes partly from its address - 42 Waterloo Street - but is also a riff on the historic, long-defunct Centre 65, Singapore's first multi-disciplinary arts centre set up by the late pioneer playwright Goh Poh Seng and his friends in the early years of independence.

The dearth of original English-language scripts, which troubled Goh and his compatriots, remains a sticking point to this day.

Theatre practitioners note that Centre 42, an initiative of the National Arts Council but run by an independent team of theatre practitioners, is a cog in a larger and more concerted movement to not only inject fresh content into local theatre, but also cultivate playwrights.

In Singapore's very productive theatre scene, professional playwrights are few and far between and theatre companies have set up ad hoc writing and mentorship programmes over the years to address that. Centre 42 is the first dedicated institution for playwriting.

Mr Casey Lim, the centre's executive director, says it will focus on "writing, research and incubating" new plays until they are ready to be staged.

He dispels the idea that the centre is a silver bullet to boost playwriting, but says it provides a much-needed platform for creation, outside the framework of a theatre company.

He explains: "I think the whole ecosystem has to look at allowing different models to exist. Because different playwrights and different scripts require different touches.

"You have the resident playwright model, which most theatre companies have. Then you have the institutions, which should have their own creative writing programmes - and not just Playwriting 101, it should progress beyond that."

At the moment, only the National University of Singapore (NUS) offers playwriting modules as part of a degree programme.

Theatre practitioner and academic Paul Rae, formerly of NUS' Theatre Studies programme and now with the University of Melbourne, feels there is greater emphasis in Singapore now on the craft of words and structuring a work: "I think there's an overdue revisiting of playwriting as a craft.

"Maybe playwriting wasn't the only, or most obvious, answer to the needs or expressions of theatre in the early 1990s. There were playwrights then, of course, but meanwhile, there were all kinds of things going on - devised theatre, intercultural theatre, performance art; people were trying to work out what this place is, what this society is made of, what it sounds or looks like when it talks to itself or presents itself.

"It was not immediately apparent that the well-made play was the best format for that," says Rae.

Several years ago, there was a whiff of despondency in the arts community about an apparent dearth of new playwrights. That tide seems to be turning, thanks to recent efforts by theatre companies and arts institutions to nurture the next generation and as these younger playwrights begin to make a name for themselves.

Playwright Faith Ng, 26, for instance, has been making waves for her keenlyobserved portrayals of Singapore life and living. Her professional debut, wo(men) (2010), gained a nomination at the Life! Theatre Awards for Best Original Script, and her sophomore outing, an intimate two-hander about marriage titled For Better Or For Worse (2013), was nominated for Production Of The Year.

Ng comes from the stable of Checkpoint Theatre's young associate artists and the company is beginning to reap the fruit of its dedication to grooming the under-30 generation of practitioners.

Its co-artistic director, playwright Huzir Sulaiman, started teaching a playwriting module - part of NUS' English Literature department - in 2007. It has since bred many new voices, including Ng, who has gone on to lecture at the university in Huzir's stead.

Huzir says: "I can really see the benefit in a sustained investment and relationship with writers. It's not enough just to give somebody comments on their work. It's about taking it to a full production, and this is something that tends to get left out of development discussions.

"It's about making sure that emerging writers are paired with established performers and designers, as opposed to leaving emerging work in a ghetto where everyone is just starting out."

Another associate artist with Checkpoint, 26-year-old Joel Tan, has had his work produced by Wild Rice, Take Off Productions and Creative Edge.

With Checkpoint's guidance, actress Oon Shu An, 27, will be staging an autobiographical work, #UnicornMoment, at the Esplanade's Studios season early next month.

Rae notes: "It seems that the younger generation are now - especially under the tutelage of people like Huzir, who has really put a lot of effort into developing them over time - really submitting their writing to the kinds of trials and tribulations of being staged and then writing another play, and not being a one-off."

Checkpoint also has plans to implement more playwriting workshops and masterclasses for both the public and the arts community.

Another theatre company jumping on the bandwagon is the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), which has recently refined its focus on original writing.

While it has created original children's work and has a youth wing for young performers, the company is often more recognised for producing international work such as The Bridge Project (involving actors Kevin Spacey and Ian McKellen) and its contemporary adaptations of the Bard for Shakespeare In The Park.

This year, however, marked the beginning of its Made In Singapore season, in which the month of April was dedicated to new local writing - including lesser known playwrights Dora Tan, 51, and Michelle Tan, 27, whose new works, after a long incubation process, were staged in a double bill and shaped by seasoned director Samantha Scott-Blackhall.

Michelle Tan senses that there is a general openness in the industry to new writers and writing. She is working on a Singapore adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House for an upcoming production by Our Company, a one-year-old theatre group.

She says: "It makes all the difference when a company is able to pull resources together - providing a venue for readings, engaging actors and even directors or dramaturgs - to workshop new writing, since a play is never meant to just sit on paper and the best way to tell what works and what doesn't is to lift lines off the page."

Even as the SRT is now working out ways in which Made In Singapore and its work with emerging writers can continue, its executive director Charlotte Nors is also keen to work with Centre 42, possibly in terms of producing new local work.

She says of the National Arts Council- funded centre: "I think it's encouraging. Everybody appreciates the fact that we haven't done enough as an industry. Centre 42 is a great example of the recognition from higher up, that this is where we need to put in more resources."

Another theatre group TheatreWorks, organiser of the annual 24-hour Playwriting Competition, has also made a strong effort to stage shows written by the winners, with long-running community tours of Serunding (2010) by Ahmad Musta'ain Khamis, 27, and Marco Polo by last year's winner, 17-year-old Jovi Tan.

Playwright Chong Tze Chien, who is also company director of The Finger Players, has a more cautious view of these developments, and feels that the industry has lost precious time that could have been devoted to younger writers: "I think what we're doing is catching up. The present generation of writers, who are still writing, have benefited from the many different writing programmes in the 1990s."

These writers, now in their 30s and 40s, include Robin Loon, Alfian Sa'at, Jean Tay, Natalie Hennedige and Chong himself.

These programmes included TheatreWorks' Writers' Lab, which still organises the 24-hour Playwriting Competition but is less active compared with its heyday in the 1990s, and The Necessary Stage's Playwright's Cove, which ran from 2001 to 2002.

Loon was an alumnus of Writers' Lab while Tay, Alfian and Chong had stints with Playwright's Cove.

Chong adds: "While it may take a long time to write a play, it takes a longer time to develop a playwright."

This is one point that has gained the industry's unanimous agreement: Emerging writers should be given platforms not just for that one outstanding play, but also afforded the opportunity to continue to hone their voices - and perhaps even wrestle with failure and iron out the kinks in their work.

Freelance theatre practitioner Ellison Tan, 24, was part of the play incubation scheme Watch This Space, organised by Chong over two years from 2011 to last year, and she will be going a step further with a new commission from The Finger Players to write a piece for their 2016 season.

She was moved by the response to her play at Watch This Space, saying: "The house was filled with practitioners who cared about the industry, giving you feedback, which is very encouraging for a young playwright whom no one knew."

While this edition of Watch This Space has ended and the next edition looks set to focus on incubating directors, the resurgence of playwriting programmes allows for a more diverse approach for writers seeking to achieve different objectives or to work in different ways.

The Necessary Stage's resident playwright Haresh Sharma, who headed the company's Playwright's Cove, says: "I think it's good that there are playwriting programmes that are going on... It's a lot of responsibility and a lot of work, and it's good that people like Huzir and Gaurav Kripalani (artistic director of SRT) are continuing that tradition. I think you need to take turns, because it's a big task."

But, of course, more can be done.

Huzir says: "The bulk of a lot of companies' seasons are foreign plays and I feel very strongly that this needs to change. Until we begin to value our own artistic output and prioritise it, we're giving up the chance to build a canon of amazing work.

"I'm not saying we should turn our back on the classics, but it's a critical period now and, as theatremakers, we should not just pay lip service to emerging playwrights by just having workshops and readings. We need to be programming them for the main stage."

Chong is also keen to see more ambitious, urgent writing from these young writers. He says: "A lot of playwrights end up writing what they know - it becomes very insular and almost inconsequential. It's just about writing my own personal experiences about this and that.

"But then there's a lack of investigation in whatever themes they are interested in. It becomes almost like a blog in the form of dramatic writing."

Actress and Nominated Member of Parliament for the arts Janice Koh feels that, aside from a playwriting centre such as Centre 42, an essential step forward would be the creation of producing houses and programming venues dedicated to staging local works. These could provide a performance fee or box office split with emerging arts groups or independent artists "who may struggle with high rentals, who may not have a large enough audience pool or whose works are niche and have a smaller box-office potential".

Now, arts centres such as the Esplanade, the Substation and the Arts House only have a limited number of home-grown commissions.

She notes that many of the highly successful productions on Broadway and the West End "are often the result of works developed and discovered through the subsidised theatre circuit", citing the box-office hits War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford, and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, adapted by Simon Stephens. They both premiered at London's National Theatre before moving to the West End.

All the same, there is a general consensus that Centre 42 is a promising start and Ellison Tan is looking forward to the centre's activities.

She says: "The idea of an entire building devoted to playwriting is an indication of just how much is being invested in emerging playwrights.

"I do hope, however, that whatever work that gets out there eventually reaches the community and not just the same audience members whom we always see in the theatre. Because if art is not for the people then who is it for?"

Creating new works, documenting the old 

Centre 42 is run by a team of theatre practitioners and administrators - Mr Casey Lim, Mr Robin Loon, Mr Chiu Chien Seen and Ms Michele Lim - who won a three-year contract to run it following the National Arts Council's open call for partners in May last year. The centre's general manager is Ms Karen Loh.

It aims to document, create and promote writing for the theatre, and is funded by the council to the tune of $3.4 million over the next three years.

Part of the backbone of Centre 42 is the creation of new work, which includes The Boiler Room programme. Under this initiative, the centre is holding an open call (closes June 7) for unstaged scripts or ideas for plays.

Shortlisted writers will go through nine to 12 months of incubation, which focuses on a rigorous process of research, construction and writing. They will get to work with professional playwrights and dramaturgs to put up a trial presentation of the work. Interested members of the public as well as industry players will be invited to view the new work and possibly pick it up to be produced.

Apart from the creation of new work, the centre has several other initiatives related to the promotion and documentation of writing for the stage.

Later this year, it will kick off The Living Room: a series of lectures, talks and workshops related to writing, local theatre and art-making. There will also be a series of readings of classic Singaporean works as part of The Vault.

As part of its documentation function, Centre 42 will build The Repository, a Singapore theatre archive that will gather information, and visual and audio artefacts (such as programme booklets, ticket stubs or original manuscripts) dating back to the 1960s. The Repository will be ready for public use only next year.

And finally, the centre will invite members of the public interested in reviewing or writing about theatre to publish their opinions online. These Citizen's Reviews will get editorial support from the Centre 42 team to further develop their writing.

For more information, go to www. centre42.sg.


This article was published on April 22 in The Straits Times.

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