4 Dec 2020: This is the little HDB estate that could. It started in 1979 with nothing much but a lone block – Block 101 – and a single main road leading out to civilization. From there grew a bustling, close-knit neighbourhood with a distinctive old-school charm. People come from all corners of the island for its hawker fare, and its Chinese New Year bazaar, the largest among all heartland bazaars, is also a huge festive draw. The centre feels almost like a time warp, and you will find lots of quaint businesses from the 90s. However, it will also surprise you with the hip new concepts sprouting amidst all the retro-offerings. Chong Pang is slated for a major redevelopment come 2022 – soak in the sights, sounds and experiences while you can.
4 Dec 2020: In some ways, Ang Mo Kio encapsulates the Singapore story. Once a densely covered swamp, the area became home to a few villages and rubber plantations towards the end of the 18th century, before the government established Ang Mo Kio New Town in the 1970s. Today, the neighbourhood precinct bustles with several popular kopitiams, malls, and green spaces. Whether it’s pausing to take a deep breath at one of the Ang Mo Kio Town Gardens or inhaling a putu mayam from a local hawker, there’s plenty to love about this ‘hood!
Sitting across from me at the café outside the National Library, Nabilah Said is relaxed, confident, and slightly giddy from the excitement and exhaustion of back-to-back rehearsals.
“Rehearsals are great! They have been sooooo fun!” she gushes. “It’s funny because I’m sure this kind of ‘I love rehearsals!’ feeling is something that everyone else in theatre had already gone through when they were quite young. But I think as a playwright, if you’re not doing it full time, there are so many things that allow you to build walls. But now those walls are no longer there.”
Three years ago, however, she was in a very different place. “My heart squeezes and I feel terrible,” she wrote in a reflection piece dated 15 June 2016.
Back then, she had spent a year trying to write a play called State Landunder Boiler Room, Centre 42’s script development programme, about people who used to live on Singapore’s offshore islands before being forced to move to the mainland. At the same time, as an associate artist in residence at Teater Ekamatra, she was also working on another piece called Angkat, about the common and informal practice of adoption in Malay families. (Anak angkat means “adopted children” in Malay.)
For various reasons, however, she just couldn’t bend or twist either of those projects into the shape and form that she wanted. That was when Robin Loon and Casey Lim – Boiler Room’s resident dramaturg and director respectively – suggested that she should take a six-month break before returning to it with more focus. She understood where they were coming from and gratefully accepted their offer, but nonetheless felt frustrated that it had come to that.
“It is a strange sort of heartbreak,” she wrote in another reflection piece on 1 July 2016 as she began her hiatus.
It turns out that the break was exactly what she needed. By January 2017, she was ready to pick up her Boiler Room journey where she left off, having decided to incorporate her ideas for State Land into Angkat.
“I want to look at both adoption, and the relationship between the former islanders and mainland Singapore. Because to me there is a parallel journey of how you started from one place and moved to another,” she says. “Even if you feel like you’re okay with the new place, there must be some feelings still tied to the former place. So I felt that the two journeys could be looked at in the same play.”
She finished her new draft of Angkat in September 2017, and held a test read at Centre 42 to conclude her Boiler Room journey.
Meanwhile, Teater Ekamatra had informed Nabilah that they would like to stage the piece in December 2017, but felt that the script still wasn’t quite ready. They came to a mutual agreement to allow the director of the production, Irfan Kasban, to devise new scenes together with the cast, taking the production in a different direction.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I totally understand some of the concerns they had, and some of the weaknesses of the script at that point in time, and why they wanted to simplify it. It’s fine that they [devised the play that way],” she says. “But I also felt that this story that I had initially wanted to tell – I still wanted to tell it.”
And so in January 2018, Nabilah reached out to director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, whose work she really admires, and asked if he would like work with her to further develop her original idea for Angkat. He said yes, and together, they submitted the piece to the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival open call shortly after. To their delight, Angkat was accepted for the 2019 festival.
Since November 2018, Nabilah has been back at Centre 42 together with Effendy, her dramaturg Zulfadli Rashid (aka “Big”), and the rest of her production team to further develop and fine-tune her play under our Basement Workshop residency programme. She has also extended the title of the piece to better reflect her story. It’s now called ANGKAT: A Definitive, Alternative, Reclaimed Narrative of a Native.
“I always felt that the title Angkat by itself didn’t fully capture the ambition of the play. It would have made people think that the play was only about the adoption story. Plus, I want to find a way to give people a sense that this play is going to be a bit siao siao one (Singlish for “crazy”)!” she smirks. “I did not want a boring title.”
Which brings us to the “I love rehearsals!” phase that Nabilah is enjoying these days.
“The thing about the play is that there are a lot of funny moments. Like, a lot. So sometimes in rehearsals we can’t actually finish reading it, because we’re too busy laughing!” she shares. At the same time, she’s also feeling more assured, knowing that she is well-supported.
“It feels really nice that even now, when it’s no longer about the script anymore – rather it’s about the production – that we can still work with Centre 42 to develop it. And it’s cool that Ekamatra is still a part of my journey as well; they’ve been very supportive. To me it signals that there’s confidence about the piece, which I really need as a playwright,” she says. She pauses, and bursts out laughing. “It sounds so terrible! I sound so needy! But for me, it’s really important that the people I’m working with believe in it.”
On top of working out the story that she wanted to tell with ANGKAT, Nabilah also spent the last three years trying to find her voice and place as a playwright. And now, she has not just one, but three plays that will all be debuting in January 2019: ANGKAT and yesterday it rained salt will both be staged at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, while Inside Voices will be performed at London’s Vault Festival. It may have taken her a while to get to where she is today, but the journey from idea to production was never meant to be straightforward.
“I started out being unsure, but now it’s a complete 180-degree change, you know. I’m like very, very, very sure,” she says. “And I feel like it did require those three years of work for me to figure out what it is that I’m trying to say.”
The past five years have been exciting for us here at Centre 42. Since we opened our doors in April 2014, we have been home to more than 150 artists and theatre collectives, and supported the development of over 170 new theatrical projects. But as we strive to do even more for the scene in the coming years, we need your help!
While the National Arts Council does provide us with some funding, we are still required to raise at least 45% of our annual operations costs in order to sustain the company. As one part of our efforts to do that, we are launching a fundraiser called “Grow the Cloud”, where we hope to garner support in the form of donations from those who believe in our mission. Our goal for this initiative is to raise $20,000 by the end of 2019.
We chose the symbol of the cloud for this campaign not only because it is such an integral part of our identity – it is the shape of our logo, after all – but also because clouds play an important role by providing shelter from the sun. And when the clouds get big enough, it rains, which helps things to grow. The idea is that by donating and adding to our “cloud bank”, you will enable us to continue supporting and growing Singapore’s theatre scene through our myriad of programmes and initiatives.
Breaking new ground
When Centre 42 was first conceptualised, its main purpose was to address “the lack of consistent new writings for Singapore,” as our co-founder and executive director Casey Lim once put it. Our suite of programmes were thus designed to provide different ways to support the creation and development of text-based works for the local stage.
One of our biggest and most public platforms that champions this cause is Late-Night Texting. Over the last three editions, we have brought bite-sized theatrical experiences to over 14,000 audience members as part of the Singapore Night Festival. The event is an opportunity for us to programme works by groups that we’ve built a relationship with. They include Dark Matter Theatrics, GroundZ-0, Main Tulis Group, and The Second Breakfast Company – all of whom have created or curated a series of 10- to 30-minute short plays for our annual shindig, some of which will be published in anthologies by BooksActually in the coming months.
“Centre 42 has been a crucial source of emotional, spiritual and physical support for Main Tulis Group. It’s been there for us from the start, from the time when [our group] was just a seedling of an idea in 2016, to becoming home of our meetings. It also gave us our first public presentation platform at Late-Night Texting, with ‘ETA: 9 MIN’ in 2017 and again in 2018,” says Nabilah Said, the founder of the Malay playwrights collective.
“Late-Night Texting afforded us the space and resources to continue our work on bringing to the fore old Singapore works and exploring new ways of looking at them,” add The Second Breakfast Company, who juxtaposed excerpts from pre-2005 and post-2005 local plays about love in “Lovebites”. “With the platform given to us, we were able to juxtapose old works with new ones, which allowed for meaningful reflection about the repertoire of Singapore works, how we have evolved (and how much) and what Singapore society is about.”
Indeed, another central part of our mission is to encourage artists to revisit plays that have come before. As such, we regularly commission contemporary responses to existing works in our local theatre canon under a programme called The Vault. For instance, in 2017, we worked with Alfian Sa’at and his team on a piece titled Absence Makes the Heart…, which was an attempt to trace the presence and absence of Indian roles in Singapore English-language theatre over the years.
“I was very inspired by the possibilities of creating work that was based on the archive, after watching works by Lee Mun Wai and Nelson Chia,” says Alfian. “We had a lot of fun with [Absence Makes the Heart…], while at the same time platforming issues such as ethnic representation in theatre and cultural diversity. Centre 42 gave us all the help we needed, from the budget to the rehearsal room and performance space.”
The piece was brought back for another dramatised reading during Wild Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival in 2018. On top of that, the experience itself also led to other opportunities, as the collaborators came together again this year to organise and conduct a playwriting course for Indian/Tamil writers.
Another work that was created under The Vault was Sau(dara) by Bhumi Collective, which was a response to Leow Puay Tin’s boundary-pushing 1988 play, Three Children. Its first work-in-progress iteration was presented in 2018, and it was recently re-performed as a double-bill titled Are You Game, Sau(dara)?, which was co-presented by Centre 42 and Malaysia’s Five Arts Centre.
“As a young company, the opportunity to be commissioned to do The Vault has helped increase our visibility within the industry,” shares Mohamad Shaifulbahri (aka Shai), the joint artistic director of Bhumi Collective. “If the arts industry had not yet accessed Bhumi’s works or know of us, this was a chance for them to do so, through their connection with Centre 42.”
In an attempt to encourage responses from even newer voices, we are currently working with students from the National University of Singapore’s Theatre Studies programme on another edition of The Vault. Their triple-bill, titled Gossip, Symphony, and Other Matters, is a response to Robert Yeo’s One Year Back Home, which will be performed at our Black Box on 20 April.
A place to play
But beyond programming showcases that are open to the public, we understand that it is also important to give artists the space and time to play and experiment, without the pressure of production. And that is why our Basement Workshop residency provides independent theatre practitioners and collectives a place to work out of, with heavily subsidised rental.
So far, we’ve supported around 30 projects under Basement Workshop. Recent examples include The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues: And Suddenly I Disappear – which was recently nominated for Best Ensemble at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards – and Making A Stand. Both works were co-created between 2017 and 2018 by Peter Sau together with a group of local disabled artists.
“Centre 42’s Basement Workshop provided an affordable and conducive space for me to work with Deaf and disabled emerging artists, which enabled a mentorship and performance training to happen,” says Peter. “It is an intimate and safe home that favours the birth of new works and encourages risk-taking.”
While we never stipulate that Basement Workshop projects need to be staged, many works did end up at festivals we’ve partnered with, including the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Esplanade presents: The Studios, and the Singapore Theatre Festival.
“Centre 42 is a literal space that creates opportunities through programmes that can house works that are still in development,” shares Sharda Harrison, who has been in residence for several projects, including Bi(cara), which was developed and later performed at our space as part of 2016 Fringe Festival. “Often we watch finished products. However, it isn’t only the finished products that add to an industry, the process of theatre is equally important, and Centre 42 supports this.”
On top of offering subsidised rental, we also provide our artists in residence with documentation support through regular interviews, to help them chart their creative journeys at key milestones. These interviews – some of which are made public – can be viewed on our YouTube page and our blog.
“I really appreciated how our process of writing was archived and recorded by Centre 42 in different phases. It helped us clarify our intention of writing, allowed us to articulate what we wanted to talk about with the script, and also opened up a space for us to question and reflect on our writing process,” shares Neo Hai Bin, who wrote When the Cold Wind Blows in 2016 before the script was picked up by the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2018 at our recommendation. “For freelance artists like us, to be able to rent a space at an affordable price to work in, to devise, and to experiment different methodologies of creation is really, really precious.”
For works that need a testing ground for the artists to gather audience feedback, they could do so under our recently relaunched Guest Room presentation platform. This programmes provides artists with five days of free usage of the Centre’s facilities for rehearsals. On the fifth day, we would organise a closed-door dramatised reading and invite our industry partners and mailing list subscribers to attend.
“I see Centre 42 very much as an incubator of new works. Getting new work through the development stage is a long process, and particularly challenging without funding,” says Ivan Choong, a member of the team behind Guest Room: First Act(s), a four-part series featuring eight new works by a group of budding playwrights. “And it’s not just writers who benefit [from a programme like Guest Room] – the community as a whole benefits, as actors get a chance to practise, and audiences get a chance to see new works-in-progress. It involves the whole community.”
At its heart, Centre 42 is an intermediary that supports the creation, documentation, and promotion of text-based works for the stage. And over the last five years, we have increasingly expanded our role as a connector for different players within the performing arts scene.
We have, for example, been fostering a community of performing arts writers through our Citizens’ Reviews programme, which is currently in its sixth edition. We believe that critics are an essential part of any theatre ecosystem, which is why we’ve hosted several events in partnership with arts publication including ArtsEquator (with whom we presented In the Living Room: Year in Reviews last year) and Arts Republic (who we’ll be co-hosting a Plunge talk on 21 April). Recently, we also organised the inaugural Performing Arts Writers Social, which is a chance for journalists from different publications to meet in a more casual setting.
“Reviewers can often seem like faceless entities behind screens, but events like [Year in Reviews and the Performing Arts Writers Social] put faces to names and give physical, tangible form to this very nascent practice, and legitimise it in a way,” says Akanksha Raja, the assistant editor of ArtsEquator.
“Communities of practice are so important. Particularly because writing can be such a solitary activity, these socials and other programmes allow spaces for connection and support,” agrees performance writer and researcher Corrie Tan. “I’ve also observed how the team tries to finesse the format and structure of these events to make every meeting as inviting and generative as possible!”
Additionally, we have also been bringing together dramaturgs from both Singapore and the wider Asia-Pacific region as the principal organising partner of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN) since its inception in 2016. By presenting symposiums and labs in Japan, Australia, and Indonesia, we gave dramaturgs and artists a platform to share their knowledge and experience with one another. This in turn has led to an increased understanding of dramaturgical practices from around region, and we’re looking forward to bringing ADN home this May as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
“Centre 42 has supported the work of ADN in a range of ways, including skilled organisation, detailed documentation and most of all intelligent, generous and thoughtful management of the projects that we have done. This has enabled ADN to grow and become more adventurous in its scope, as well as gain critical and reflective capacity in relation to what has already been done,” says Charlene Rajendran, the co-director of ADN.
Other initiatives we have supported include co-hosting talks and panel discussions with organisations such as the Singapore Management University’s Arts and Culture Management Program, National Institute of Education (NIE), and Asia-Europe Foundation. Additionally, we have also been the venue host for networks like Producers SG and supported arts community activities like the Arts NMP consultations.
“Anyone could provide space, although not enough do; Centre 42 goes many, many steps beyond by making the blue house as fertile and nourishing a space as possible for these works,” says independent producer Mok Cui Yin. “Besides nourishing the work and processes of writers and theatre-makers, Centre 42 has also been incredibly supportive of the broader arts ecology, be it creating a safe space for arts advocates and community town hall meetings; facilitating and hosting meetings for arts management and producer networks such as Producers SG’s events, and visiting regional networks such as the Open Network for Performing Arts Management (ON-PAM).”
As a result of Centre 42’s involvement in such a wide range of initiatives and programmes, our beloved blue house has, over time, evolved into a safe space – a community centre of sorts – for everyone who work in or love the arts to come together. In fact, there are few things we enjoy more than an impromptu gathering of different artists who all just happen to be working on their own projects here at the same time.
“Coming to Centre 42 feels like coming home,” says Nabilah. “It’s like that tagline of the sitcom Cheers, ‘where everybody knows your name’, but much, much more. It’s biscuits when you’re having a long meeting, professional or personal advice, and vouching and fighting for you when it matters.”
“Support for C42 is support for an open space where multiplicities can meet, interact and bump into each other, leading to new synergies and possibilities,” agrees Charlene. “This is not about big productions and spectacular events with huge crowds and large audiences. It is about a variety of petri dishes being allowed to exist in conducive labs and then be observed and examined. It is space that encourages options to change, transform, invent, and innovate.”
As the oft-repeated saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child – and to support Singapore’s growing theatre community. As a non-profit organisation, Centre 42 is committed to developing the scene in every way we can. If you believe in the work that we do, please consider making a donation to help us “Grow the Cloud”. Your gift will go an especially long way right now, as every dollar will be doubled by both the Cultural Matching Fund and the Bicentennial Community Fund. Furthermore, our Institutions of Public Character (IPC) status has just been renewed, which means that all donors will receive a 250% tax deduction. We hope you will join us as we continue to do our part for the theatre community, for the next five years and beyond!
“I’ve been getting goosebumps a lot,” says Soultari Amin Farid, the co-artistic director of young theatre group Bhumi Collective. For the past four months, he and his team have been developing a new work called Sau(dara), which will be presented under Centre 42’s Vault programme on 5 and 6 October 2018. It is a contemporary response to Three Children, a landmark play by Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin that was staged in Singapore 30 years ago. That production was co-directed by Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director of TheatreWorks, and Krishen Jit, the late founder of Malaysia’s Five Arts Centre. And the reason Amin is getting goosebumps is that he has been learning about some unintended parallels between Sau(dara) and the original productions of Three Children.
“I had very little to work with in the beginning except the script,” explains Amin. “But then I had an unarranged meeting with Puay Tin at a conference recently, then I read the programme booklet of the 1992 production just two weeks ago, and then I watched the video of the 1988 production a few days ago, and I saw that I have incorporated quite a bit of the original staging into the piece. It’s like fate!”
Three Children is a play about childhood and memories. Through a series of disjointed vignettes, two sisters and a brother revisit their childhood home on Kappan Road in Malacca, recalling the games and incidents that they experienced as kids. In his director’s message for the 1992 production of the play, Keng Sen mentioned how important it was for his cast to draw from their personal experiences for their roles.
“One thing we were very clear of: the final production of 3 Children would spring from the imagination of the actors,” he wrote. “They would build the world of the children, viewed through children’s eyes. The directors would act as catalysts, pushing them to explore and confront themselves. The process was built on experience, memories; felt by the body rather than rationalised by the mind.”
Similarly, Sau(dara) is created based on the team’s own childhood memories. The title of the piece is a play on the Malay words “saudara”, meaning siblings or relatives; “sau”, which is the sound of wind; and “dara”, which refers to young women or virgins. It is collectively devised by an all-female cast – dancers Lyn Hanis Rezuan and Syafiqah Shaharuddin (Syafiq), singer and actor Suryana Norddin (Sue), and musician Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin (Syaf) – with Amin facilitating the process.
To get them started, Amin encouraged everyone to draw objects and memories from their childhood, which led to some very frank – and at times painful – discussions as they slowly opened up to each other. The team is honest in admitting that this was initially a challenge, as none of the cast members knew each other prior to this project, and none of them had ever devised a work from scratch before. Lyn, for example, struggled with the exercise because all she could recall was the verbal abuse that her mother hurled at her when she was young.
“At the time [of the exercise] I was like, hey what the heck, it’s not like they’re all gonna know how negative my earlier years were!” she says. “But then when Amin presented his stories first, I guess it helped that he was so sincere and honest about it. Which gave me the courage to open up a bit. And I’m glad we all did, because all our different memories helped to create genuine content for this piece.”
Each of the actors then went on to build their own monologues around particular themes or topics that they would like to explore. Lyn bravely followed through by delving into her difficult relationship with her mother, Sue questioned what it means to be a good friend, Syaf explored feelings of not being good enough, while Syafiq examined what it’s like to appear invisible to those she cares about. These are difficult things to work through, but Amin is grateful that everyone has embraced each other’s experiences with open hearts and minds.
“I remembered how we all felt that day listening to each other’s stories,” says Amin. “And in one of our recent runs, Lyn broke down whilst dancing to her voiceover and the others came to comfort her. That for me meant a lot more than focusing on a perfect product.”
Another parallel between the TheatreWorks production of Three Children and Bhumi Collective’s Sau(dara) is that both companies decided to incorporate traditional art forms into their performances. In the case of Three Children, the cast took lessons in voice, Chinese opera, and tai chi, as Krishen was a firm believer that mastering these techniques is crucial to good acting. For the Sau(dara) team, they became fascinated with the idea of wind and how it can sweep one’s troubles away, so Lyn suggested infusing elements of an Indonesian dance called Pakarena into the piece. She had learnt the dance when she was studying in Jakarta from a teacher who came from Sulawesi, the island that Pakarena originated from.
“The philosophy of the Pakarena dance is about hollowness and emptiness. It contrasts drastically with the traditional music that accompanies it, which shows that no matter how violent life can be, the wind is always there to guide you,” Lyn explains. “It’s hard to learn as it is mainly about patience and maintaining composure for the duration of the dance. But I’m trying my best to share my experience and knowledge with the girls in Sau(dara).”
The Pakarena dance in Sau(dara) will not be accompanied by drums and flutes like traditional performances, however. Neither will there be “an orchestra of percussions, flute, guitar and gu-zheng” like the 1988 production of Three Children. Instead, Syafiqah will be playing her accordion, which is, fittingly, a wind instrument.
To bring things full circle, there are also plans for the creative team to further develop this iteration of Sau(dara). In March 2019, Centre 42 and Bhumi Collective are hoping to bring the work across the Causeway to none other than Five Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur, for yet another cross-cultural exchange between the two countries. Just like the good ol’ days back in 1988.
“I feel like we are reliving history by partaking in this cross-border collaboration, especially since Three Children also was part of a transnational endeavour by two prolific figures, Ong Keng Sen and the late Krishen Jit,” says Amin. “My hope is that we continue to remember our history and the links we share between the two countries. I think cross-border exchanges will continue to influence our performance practice and I think that’s really wonderful, because it keeps us dynamic and quite attuned regionally and globally. I’m excited for the conversations and future aspirations!”
In the meantime, as part of Centre 42’s commemorative activities for the 30th anniversary of Three Children, we will also be holding a Living Room event here on 7 October. Audiences can hear from playwright Leow Puay Tin, actors Claire Wong (from the 1988 and 1992 productions) and Loong Seng Onn (from the 1992 production), who will reminisce about their experiences working on the play with theatre academic Robin Loon.
Rehearsal rooms are typically patriarchal, according to Rei Poh and Zee Wong. The director, playwright, or producer is the king who sets the rules, and everyone else are the followers who carry out the instructions given to them. This may be the conventional way of getting the job done, but the pair wanted to find out whether there are other approaches to the process.
Their chance came in the form of Attempts: Singapore. Rei had created and staged the first iteration of the piece in Melbourne in 2016, when he was studying for his Masters in Theatre Performance & Directing at the Victorian College of the Arts. The work was inspired by Martin Crimp’s 1997 postmodernist play, Attempts on Her Life, where the audience is presented with 17 unrelated scenarios that give clues about the possible identity of a woman named Anne. Rei was commissioned to restage the work as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018, and as director, the first thing he did was to bring Zee on board as his dramaturg. After all, she was a big part of the reason that he started examining what it means for him to be a feminist, and it’s a topic that the couple would often discuss.
“I think it was a very natural progression [for me to dramaturg for Rei’s work] because we have always been aligned in terms of our interest in feminist theatre. And examining the male gaze is something I do in my own work as a playwright as well,” says Zee, who is also an actor and singer. “As a dramaturg, my role is to help the team look at patterns, and to help them find meaning in the images they come up with. I’m also there as a second pair of eyes for Rei and the team.”
At the time of this interview, the team has had about five rehearsals, and Rei has already been learning a lot.
“Zee has taught me many things, such as how to relook my position as a man,” says Rei. “I’ve learnt that even in my practice of creating works, I am still subconsciously abiding by the laws of toxic masculinity.”
Together, they have been making a conscious effort to create what they call a “feminist rehearsal room” for the Attempts: Singapore team.
“One of the ways we’re attempting to subvert the patriarchal hierarchy of traditional rehearsal rooms is by focusing not on the product, but on the wellbeing of the team,” Rei explains. “Because of my training in Forum theatre with Drama Box, I also see myself as a facilitator rather than a dictator. So in the rehearsal room, we replaced comments like ‘you should have done this’ with ‘would you consider doing this?’ This has somehow made a very strong impact on the progression. I no longer feel the need to dictate, and the collaborators are now owning their parts in this project. In a feminist space, everyone has their own role that they are interested in. It is a space where they can challenge themselves and at the same time feel safe.”
To build on that, Rei invited the cast and creative team – including the stage manager, sound designer, and intern – to devise the content of the piece from scratch, even though he had already staged the work before. In each rehearsal session, the team would look at one or two scenes and come up with a series of images based on the text, which they will then expand into a performance. Rei and Zee would encourage them to incorporate local context into the piece, and tackle issues that are relevant to Singapore.
Naturally, the resulting work is similarly feminist in its nature and structure. Attempts: Singapore is set in a fictional world governed by a corporate conglomerate called ARC. The company provides an Artificial Intelligence system called JOAN, which predicts and caters for the needs of the population. But when a mysterious database containing the memories of a woman named Anne is found within JOAN’s code, the audience members – or “players”, as Rei likes to call them – are tasked to deduce Anne’s identity by exploring a series of spaces. As the piece is rooted in the genre of participatory theatre, players are given the agency to make a decision, and thus determine how the play ends: a feminist element in itself.
But while the team will take every care to create a safe environment for participants to feel empowered to speak out and make decisions, Rei and Zee hope that those who attend Attempts: Singapore will confront their own biases and prejudices, too. For instance, the players will have to decide whether they would be willing to relinquish certain powers that they might enjoy in a more patriarchal system, in exchange for more feminine values. They will also be meeting quite a few complex female characters.
“In Singapore, there can be a sense that women have achieved full equality, and we don’t need to fight for women’s rights anymore,” says Zee. “This sort of thinking is dangerous, because it means that the women who quietly live with spousal violence, unfair treatment and sexual harassment at their workplaces solely because of their gender are ignored and forgotten. As an artist, I hope to get people to see that there really is something wrong with the way we’ve defined gender today. And really, we need to stand up for each other a little more.”
In the blink of an eye, we’re about to enter the fifth edition of Citizens’ Reviews. The programme invites aspiring theatre critics to embark on a one-year journey where they’re given tickets to watch shows, write about their experiences, and have their reviews edited and published on Centre 42’s website. It was conceived as a way to document Singapore’s ever-growing theatre landscape, as well as to provide a platform for dialogue and discourse.
“I have always believed that specialist feedback and commentary such as theatre reviews are critical for the development of a healthy theatre scene,” says Centre 42’s consultant Robin Loon, who helped conceptualise the programme in 2014 and has been serving as its English editor ever since.
But while the theatre scene has certainly come a long way in the past 50 years, the arts criticism scene has arguably grown at a slower pace. Unlike in places like the UK where there are critics like Michael Billington, who has written for The Guardian for more than 45 years, the theatre reviewers at our national papers tend to get swapped in and out every few years. It was also a great loss when one of Singapore’s longest-running independent reviewing platforms, The Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance, closed shop in 2015, even though Centre 42 still maintains the website in its existing state as an archive for members of the public to access for research and education.
“Theatre reviewing has not quite caught up with the quality of the shows by some of the more established theatre companies in Singapore,” says Christian W. Huber, who used to be a theatre director and producer, and joined the Citizens’ Reviews programme in 2017. “Arts reviewing here primarily communicates what the show is about, and not much else.”
Jocelyn Chng – a freelance arts educator and performer who has been a Citizen Reviewer since 2016 – agrees. “The arts reviewing scene here is very disparate,” she notes. “Reviewing is not discussed often enough, and when it is, it tends to be viewed in a sceptical light.”
That is why Citizens’ Reviews aims to cultivate a pool of well-informed and articulate reviewers who can contribute to the arts criticism scene, and it does so by nurturing new voices. The pilot cycle of the programme in 2014 comprised only four reviewers, all of whom were students who took the Theatre Criticism module at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which Robin teaches. One of the reviewers who have been with us from that very first cycle – and continues to write for us now – is Isaac Tan. He used to review shows for The Kent Ridge Common, the online NUS student publication, prior to joining Citizens’ Reviews at Robin’s invitation.
“The programme has allowed me to find my voice as a critic without having to worry about very tight deadlines or readership. It has allowed me to focus solely on my writing,” he says.
Citizens’ Reviews started inviting members of the public to apply for the programme through an open call since 2015 – a process that is still in place today. For the first two years, we took on as many reviewers as we could.
“But after two cycles focusing on the ‘reviewer-on-the-street’ approach to selection, I wanted to focus more on the quality of the reviews and give Citizens’ Reviews more direction,” explains Robin. So starting with the 2017 cycle, we decided to up the requirements for the selection process, and introduced a new criteria where reviewers now have to watch at least one performance that belongs in each of the following categories during their tenure:
1) A community production that’s performed in community centres, libraries, or other communal spaces
2) A non-conventional or multidisciplinary performance
3) A production by an aspiring or semi-amateur company
4) A production by an established company
5) A play that’s performed in a different language to the one reviewers write in
While this certainly challenges our reviewers to venture outside their comfort zones, they have risen enthusiastically to the occasion, and reported that it’s been an eye-opening and rewarding experience.
“From applied theatre productions to intercultural pieces, reviewing as part of the programme has piqued my interest in forms of theatre I never knew I would enjoy, like Mandarin children’s musicals,” says Cordelia Lee, a second-year Theatre Studies and English Linguistics student at NUS who joined Citizens’ Reviews this year.
Some of these findings and thoughts will be shared with the public at a new event that we’re presenting this year, titled Living Room: Year in Reviews. Held at Centre 42 on 14 December, it will be a chance for our reviewers to gather and discuss the local plays they have watched this year, together with theatre reviewers from arts website ArtsEquator. The event will be divided into several parts, and reviewers will be invited to discuss and debate categories such as the best and most disappointing productions, performances, and design. It will not follow the format of award ceremonies and no particular productions, companies, or practitioners will be picked as the winners (or losers). Instead, these topics will serve as cues for conversation.
“I wanted to share this discussion with the public because I hope it will generate more awareness of the theatre scene in Singapore,” says Robin.
We hope that as Citizens’ Reviews keeps growing, the programme and the reviews written by our aspiring critics can also continue to serve as food for thought and discussion for audience members, readers, and the public in general. As for our reviewers, we will keep posing new challenges to them, too. “The marks of a great reviewer are wit, heart, sensitivity, being informed, and being thick-skinned,” says Robin. “For the next cycles, I am looking at perhaps assigning reviewers to focus on either a certain genre of theatre, or perhaps even track a theatre company’s work during his/her tenure.”
Over the last few months, local theatre practitioner Peter Sau and his team have been using Centre 42’s Meeting Room as a safe space to get to know individuals with lived experience of disability. So far, they have met and interviewed 20 people from the Deaf and disabled communities and will be meeting and interviewing at least 20 more.
This is the research phase for a project entitled The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues – the stories gathered from the interviews will ultimately inspire a series of fictionalised monologues. The piece is a collaboration between several artists in both Singapore and the UK. The lead collaborators are Peter, who has taken on the roles of associate director, researcher, and performer; Wales-based playwright Kaite O’Reilly, who has worked extensively with Deaf and disabled actors; and Wales-based director and Kaite’s long-time collaborator Phillip Zarrilli.
“This would be the first time stories from the ground belonging to those of the Deaf and disabled community will be heard, collected, and archived,” says Peter. “And from them, a theatrical narrative of spoken, visual, captioned, recorded languages and mother tongues would be weaved together and presented with diverse physical representations on stage.”
As Kaite puts it on her blog, she hopes that “the performance will open up a much-needed discourse of disability in quality, accessible disability-led work”. It is commissioned by Unlimited – a UK project that supports work by disabled artists – and its development is supported by Centre 42’s Basement Workshop programme.
Peter, Kaite and Phillip have known each other since the mid-2000s, when they were all involved with Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in different capacities. They stayed in touch over the years, and the trio came up with the idea that would eventually become The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues when Peter attended a Summer Intensive programme led by Kaite and Phillip in Wales in 2015.
By that time, Peter had already had a prolific career in the Singapore theatre scene as an actor, director, and educator. He was the recipient of the Young Artist Award in 2011, and his name had already cropped up several times at The Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards. But he decided to take a break in 2014, and spent a year in the UK to reflect on his practice.
“Basically, I was rather bored with the work that I have been doing, and perhaps even with Singapore theatre,” he explains.
He found his new direction on a cold spring day in London, when he caught a production of The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Graeae, a theatre company that champions Deaf and disabled actors. The play, written by Jack Thorne (who’s also behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), is about a couple trying to work through their grief after a stillbirth. The wife is Deaf, and the husband has a stump on his arm.
“That performance haunted me for weeks,” Peter remembers. “It was so authentic and heartfelt, I cannot remember seeing anything like that before. I guess it was the performance form which was unseen in Singapore that woke me from my slumber of conventional theatre-making.”
Through Kaite, Peter became more involved with the world of disability arts in the UK. And through a National Arts Council officer, he was introduced to a blind Singaporean called Lim Lee Lee.
“By spending time with someone I don’t feel conveniently similar to, I realise I was again experiencing myself and my relationship to this society and environment called ‘home’. Everything I thought I knew turned against me,” says Peter. “Through Lee Lee, [I learnt] to tell temperature through my skin; to investigate tactile markers (those protruding black or silver strips on the floor); to understand how foolish the ATM machines are – especially the amazing touch screens I used to love.”
Having this new world opened up to him has made him even more determined to do The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues justice.
“When Unlimited Festival called for international proposals, I leapt at the opportunity and expressed my keen interest to Kaite and Phillip,” says Peter. “They said yes, and I knew that whether or not we got the commission, I’ll just have to make it work with the belief that good luck, good hearts, and good things are meant to be.”
Lee Lee ended up joining the project as a researcher and performer, and most of the people who Peter interviewed are her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. And the team take great care to emphasise that they are doing this not for the community, but with the community. Because really, The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is a story about all of us. It’s about what it means to be human.
“At this moment in Singapore, disability equals to charity. Our governance seems to call for judgement when dealing with groups or societies different from the mainstream. Negotiation is short-lived and difference in viewpoints are mostly glossed over without depth,” says Peter.
It is his hope that by actively connecting with those who seem different from us, we can all collectively find common ground. He recalls that one of the most important philosophies his former mentor, theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, imparted to him was that “all cultures share the same roots even though the appearances look different”.
“People with visible and/or hidden disability are also trees like you and me. We share the same roots embedded in the soil of humanity where we begin and end our mortal journey,” says Peter. “Since we are all connected deep down, I am driven to make theatre work which begins to remove all labels, stigmas, baggage and assumptions that come with disability, oppression and marginalisation, and to celebrate diversity and embrace differences.”
Nelson Chia is a busy man. Just last month, Nine Years Theatre’s production of Fundamentally Happy – Haresh Sharma’s 2006 English-language play – hit the stage as part of the Esplanade’s The Studios 2017 season. It’s the first time the piece had been performed in Mandarin, and Nelson was responsible for both translating and directing it. He also gave a few talks: one at the Esplanade with Zulfadli Rashid (who had adapted another Haresh Sharma play, Hope, into Malay), and one at Centre 42 with actress Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit and researchers Wong Chee Meng and Shawn Chua as part of the Living Room series.
But there’s no rest for the wicked – or the artistic.
In the midst of everything mentioned above, Nelson has been taking part in Centre 42’s Fellowship programme, a grant scheme awarded by invitation that supports the research and development of a project proposed by the artist. In Nelson’s case, he embarked on an epic journey between March 2016 and August 2017 to adapt Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon’s seminal Chinese novel Art Studio into a stage play. The story follows various characters who lived through Singapore’s tumultuous post-independence years.
On top of being recognised for his award-winning work as an actor and director, Nelson has developed a reputation as a translator in the local theatre scene over the years. He founded Nine Years Theatre with his wife Mia Chee in 2012, and has since adapted nine classic plays – including Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men – into Mandarin.
Seeing as Yeng Pway Ngon’s novel and the script that Nelson is working on are both in Chinese, the endeavour may sound like a departure from the latter’s recent work. But he has a confession: “Translation is not my personal interest,” he admits. “I never studied it and I have no real methodology – I do it more by feel.”
What he is interested in is language. Which explains his enthusiasm for the Art Studio project. He had wanted to explore cross-genre adaptation, and settled on the task of converting a local novel into a play. “Reading is quite a private activity, but theatre has an audience. You’re reading aloud, and it’s a [physical and visual] performance,” he explains. “I want to see what the novel and the stage can do that the other cannot.”
He divided the process into four stages. Phase one took place in May 2016, when he recorded six actors as they took turns reading the 496-page Art Studio out loud over the course of three days. Then, in July, he began phase two by running a series of workshops with the actors to begin exploring the text. One exercise involved them creating a physical timeline of the story – which is stuck on the wall of Nine Years Theatre’s Aliwal Arts Centre home like a tapestry – so that they could visualise the structure of the work. Phase three saw Nelson pack his bags to spend two weeks holed up in a hotel room in Bangkok to write. He came back, as promised, with the first draft of the script, which brings them to the currently on-going phase four: the test reads.
Nelson is not required to stage the work as part of Centre 42’s Fellowship, which is more concerned with the developmental process. However, his project caught the eye of Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). “Keng Sen met me and said he wanted to do something with Nine Years Theatre, so I told him about the projects I’m working on. He’s interested in Art Studio because it’s something we’ve never done before,” says Nelson. “Technically, it’s our first original work, and it’s pushing the company to do something that’s out of our comfort zone.” The play will be opening this year’s SIFA and performed at Victoria Theatre from 17 to 19 August later this year.
Adding to his already-full plate, Nelson is also directing a Vault presentation for Centre 42 on 5 and 6 May this year, in reciprocation of his Fellowship grant. Titled Dialects & Dialectics, the showcase is a double-bill featuring The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days, two of the most famous monologues by the late local theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun.
Both plays have been staged numerous times in English and Mandarin since they were written in the mid-1980s, but Nelson has decided to work with actors Tay Kong Hui and Hang Qian Chou to adapt Coffin into Teochew and No Parking into Cantonese. As Nelson puts it, “it’s a translation from one Chinese to another”.
As a result of the government’s 1979 Speak Mandarin Campaign, Chinese dialects have been on the decline, which Nelson believes has also eroded Chinese Singaporeans’ sense of identity and roots. Since both monologues are centred on an individual confronting the larger system, he hopes that “returning them to dialects and using a grassroot language will help bring out the plays’ sentiments”.
In playing with language in so many ways, Nelson has proved that he has come a long way since his first attempt at translation for The Theatre Practice’s 2002 production of Oleanna by David Mamet. At the time, The Flying Inkpot reviewer Adele Tan had called his translation “competent albeit sober”, and questioned why he “aimed for a straight translation and not a rewrite or adaptation”. By 2013, he’s already become a lot more confident, and he was praised by former Straits Times arts writer Corrie Tan for his “refreshing” translation of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men “that is as lyrical as it is incisive”. And judging by the way things are going, he’ll be pushing himself to try yet more new things for years to come.
But as for taking a break? Nelson shakes his head: “nothing planned yet,” he says. “Maybe a holiday at the end of the year!”
11 Jan 2017: This January, with three important art events in Singapore, it’s a great time to think about buying art.
“Nowadays, we have economic crises worldwide,” declares Art Stage Singapore founder and director Lorenzo Rudolf. “It probably would be a good time to invest in art.” That may be a general statement, but for Singapore denizens, the time is more ripe than ever to reach into their wallets, particularly when it comes to investing in local artists. The art market here in the past 10 to 15 years has grown – with more exhibitions, art fairs and art spaces popping up – allowing individuals more opportunities to engage in the scene and learn about artists and their works.
To be sure, the opening of National Gallery Singapore just over a year ago, coupled with the opening of many commercial galleries – such as Art Asia X or AC42 Gallery, both of which specialise in local artists, as well as online platforms such as The Artling – has raised Singapore’s game on the world stage.
The high-profile auction titled Convergences: A Special Sale Of Singapore Art, held by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2015 to celebrate SG50, saw total sales meeting almost 97 per cent of its high estimate, with works by the late pioneers of Singapore modern art such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee setting records decades after they were created.
For Seah Tzi-Yan, the director of local arts association T.H.E.O. Arts Professionals, this interest in older Singapore artists’ works indicates that the market is looking inwards to find “good things within our own shores”.
SPOT THE WINNERS
For the layman, it takes time to develop a nose for “good art”. And there are no shortage of opportunities here, with Singapore Art Week taking place from Jan 11 to 22. Art fairs like Art Stage Singapore, from Jan 12 to 15, are “a good one-stop shop to look, in a short period of time, at a lot of art”, says Audrey Yeo, the owner and director of gallery Yeo Workshop and arts association Arnoldii Arts Club. “They’re also a great place to get to see a lot of galleries, and identify the ones whose style you like and for the price points.”
To supplement the visual feast, T.H.E.O. Arts Professionals is holding the third edition of The Art Week Conversations, from Jan 12 – 21, that cover the art markets of the Philippines, South-east Asia and Singapore. The Art Week Tour on Jan 21 is worth checking out too – the full-day event takes participants from galleries to artists’ studios and collectors’ homes to give them an overview of the art scene. In addition to talks, discussions and panel debates with collectors, artist-curators and museum directors, Art Stage will this year present Collectors’ Stage 2017. The programme showcases 19 works on loan from six Singapore-based art collections, whose owners include Hady Ang, Michael Tay and Talenia Phua Gajardo (MT Collection), Michelangelo Samson and Lourdes Samson, and Kenneth Tan. Some of them will be present at the exhibition to talk about their collection.
OWN A PIECE OF CULTURE
However, while there’s money to be made in the arts, most people working in the industry look at investing from a cultural point of view, and that’s why the role that collectors play today is arguably more important than ever.
“I’ve seen collectors who are really specific in their collections,” says Yeo. “For example, they collect only works by the young generation of contemporary Singaporean artists between the ages of 25 and 45. This is very savvy as they can pick up works at good prices, and my guess is that they are attempting to define a generation in their collection, and that they will eventually publish a book or loan their collection out.”
Yeo believes in investing in an art scene and its local culture, rather than investing in objects. She says: “It is the act of collecting art that contributes to a person’s understanding of their culture and heritage.”
Seah agrees. “I think that when buyers start investing in heart-quotient, they start to take ownership of a precious cultural commodity that you won’t get anywhere else. It’s always worth investing in local artists if you choose to call this city your home. No other art will document and hold the same meaning for you,” she says.
That’s the philosophy with which a collector, who wants to be known only as Mrs Tay, began her journey. “We were living overseas and wanted to showcase the work of local artists, and to show another aspect of Singapore,” she remembers. The first work she purchased was by contemporary artist Tang Da Wu, one year after he founded The Artists Village group.
Today, her collection has expanded to become a survey of contemporary Singaporean art, with pieces by painter Heman Chong, photographer John Clang, sculptor Han Sai Por and installation artist Michael Lee, among others. But she also no longer buys art just because they’re made in Singapore.
“Now, we think of them as artists whose work we appreciate,” she says. “We don’t buy art as investment. We buy what attracts us, because we enjoy it and we want it in our home. Twenty years ago, we bought a few Toko Shinoda prints when we lived in Tokyo. Did those prints appreciate in value? Yes, they did, but we’re not rushing to cash in. We love them in our house.”
“There isn’t a formula to good buying and it’s fine to be a little eclectic if that suits your personality,” says Seah. “Know that your taste changes over time, and that’s fine too. Buying art should be an extension of your personality and character.”
Muses Rudolf: “All the best collections in the world are very, very personal ones. Not one was built up with thoughts of investment. But in the end, all these personal collections became the ones with the highest value. What you should do is buy (art) with your eyes, your brain, and your soul.”