SINGAPORE - With National Day around the corner, it's the time of the year when theatre companies put on works that ponder, celebrate and also query the Singaporean identity and the making thereof.
Alfian Sa'at's recently staged Cook A Pot of Curry started the pot simmering, so to speak, and now Singaporeans get to further explore their identities and national happenings in Stages' much-loved Chestnuts as well as Drama Box's Newsbusters!.
Chestnuts 6.9: The Less Miserable White Paper comes hot on the heels of Cook A Pot of Curry, acknowledges its main creator Jonathan Lim. "But our stance is that we want to be affectionately satirical," he adds.
There has been a lot of cynicism and harshness recently, and "everyone is shouting a bit loud", he notes, so Chestnuts' latest edition would be answering to that. It's a new chapter for Chestnuts, given that it's the 16th edition, but the satirical show has developed its own brand of "quirky patriotism" - using comedy to defuse tensions.
"And while we poke fun at everything, it's still evident that we're happy to be here," says Lim.
Chestnuts 6.9 will set its tone, and tunes, to the several blockbuster musicals that made it to Singapore this year, like Les Miserables, Jersey Boys, The Phantom of the Opera and
The Addams Family, using the international musicals to reflect Singapore.
"That's always fun," he quips.
In the same breath, it will also tackle hot-button issues like the haze and the Population White Paper. "But we'll draw the line between the spinning and the spitting ... that's not what we're about. We want the audience to walk away happy," Lim notes.
Lim continues to direct and star in the show, along with Judee Tan, Dwayne Lau, Judy Ngo and its first-ever ang moh, or foreign guest Tim Garner.
Reflecting on the audience, Lim recalls how when Chestnuts first started - primarily as a Christmas show, hence the name Chestnuts - it parodied the Christmas stuff.
"Way back in 1996, the audience was just looking for a laugh because there wasn't a comedy scene. And we didn't spoof movies much, because the audience wasn't so savvy. But then there was YouTube and more started watching Saturday Night Live, and there was more pop and entertainment, so we've been walking in step with the audience."
The political "awakening" started about five, six years ago, he thinks.
But this year has been an especially odd year, with the numerous sex scandals as well. The General Elections featured big in the last Chestnuts, in January 2012, so there's a lot of ground to cover as well.
Given the show's strong fan base, the company even managed to raise over $15,000 from its fans to help pay for the production costs, says producer Terence Tan.
Meanwhile, a community-based drama based on actual news and happenings in Singapore is a genre which it started in 2004. "We started the first one as a way to end the year with a bang," explains Li Xie, who is directing the "mockumentary", News Busters!.
News Busters! ran until 2009, until its cast of co-creators and actors - Tay Kong Hui, Koh Hui Ling, Doreen Toh and Neo Hai Bin - took a four-year-hiatus. News Busters! is now making a comeback - and more significantly, returning to its original format of a community presentation.
"So much has been happening, it was time to revisit the piece again.It's a very meaningful work - because it looks at news from our perspective and also the people's perspectives. It's about understanding the news in a layman's context and we keep it interactive," she explains.
Drama Box's "mockumentary" doesn't spoof as much as it dissects, however, simplifying headlines and news content. Their show will have elements of Italian Commedia Dell'arte, variety shows and family soap operas, and caricatures current events that affect the people of Singapore.
Its creation is drawn from Newspaper Theatre, a practice under the Theatre of the Oppressed method, where a theatrical scene is devised from a piece of news or any other written materials.
"The cast spends weeks discussing issues, before we formulate the piece, come up with our lines and start rehearsing. Like the Population White Paper - we talk about our identity living in Singapore, sharing our perspectives and opinions about it," shares Li.
Other issues they raise will be the haze and corruption, and also integration.
"It is a comedy, but we also dramatise it using a family as the analogy to address national issues. It's a very grassroots performance, where we also use the vocabulary of our audience," she notes.
Doing their rounds in the community, Drama Box goes a step further - by not organising an audience, but just allowing the crowd to gather and grow spontaneously to watch them perform. They will perform in three venues this year - in the heartlands.
"People walk past and do stay and watch because they are curious. And we attract a very diverse group of people as well."
In its last performance held at The Arts House, the show felt "too polished and proper," and "lacked a certain organic connection", says Li . "It became a theatre performance, shown to a selective audience because of its space. But when we go to the ground, it's a very different dynamic as we establish a certain dialogue with the people."
Stages' Chestnuts 6.9 will run from Aug 16-25, 8pm and 3pm, at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets from $45 to $65 can be bought from Sistic. Drama Box's News Busters! will be performed in Mandarin (without surtitles) from Aug 15-17, starting at 8pm nightly at Tiong Bahru Plaza (Aug 15), the open space in front of Blk 449, Clementi Ave 3 (Aug 16), and Chinatown Kreta Ayer Square (Aug 17). Free for the public.
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