by Ng Yi-Sheng
(1450 words, 10 minute read)
The year was 1999, and I was an awkward little eighteen year-old virgin, still sweating my way through National Service. I’d only recently become involved in the Singapore theatre scene, and in a similar vein, I’d just begun embracing my identity as a gay man. Both decisions were fraught with danger: after all, Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage (TNS) had narrowly escaped being charged as Marxists just five years before, and the idea of homosexuality was still inextricably linked with a spooky terminal illness called AIDS.
In this period of personal stress and transformation, I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the flyer I received in the mail, advertising a new play called Completely With/Out Character. Produced by The Necessary Stage, it was a monologue co-created and performed by Paddy Chew, Singapore’s first person to publicly identify as a person with AIDS (PWA).
I knew this show was important—my theatre friends told me of how it broke taboos of silence around sexuality and disease—yet I never got around to buying a ticket. Nor did I attend Chew’s wake at Mount Vernon Columbarium, held just a few months later.
Flash forward to today. I’m a mid-career artist-cum-queer activist in my late thirties, and I find I’m witnessing the historicisation of my youth: the study and artistic portrayal of the 1990s as a key era in the cultural development of Singapore. And though I rather enjoy the nostalgia, I can’t help but feel a level of frustration and regret. I was there, but I wasn’t there. Somehow, I missed out on some of the most important bits of our collective past.
I get the feeling Loo Zihan feels the same way. Born in 1983, the multidisciplinary artist has made a practice out of revisiting early queer Singaporean art works. In Cane (2011-2012), he precisely re-enacted and documented the censorship controversy surrounding Josef Ng’s Brother Cane (1993). In I Am LGB (2016), created with Ray Langenbach, he held a mass interactive performance, inspired by the oeuvre of Langenbach.
Naturally, he’s also been drawn towards Completely With/Out Character. But here he’s run into a quandary. How should he present a such a work when its content is so personal and autobiographical—and when the key artist is deceased? His solution has been to expose the conundrum for everyone to see. With/Out contains two versions of the same show: the original script, devised by Haresh Sharma after extensive interviews with Chew, and a video recording of the version that Chew ultimately performed at the Drama Centre on Fort Canning Hill, complete with his improvised segues and omissions.
In With/Out’s first iteration at Centre 42 in 2015, the work was less a play than an installation. In a rehearsal room downstairs, the script was performed by five readers, including Sharma himself, as a voiceover. Upstairs in the black box, video footage of Chew was screened amidst old props from the show. Audience members were free to wander between the two renditions of the work.
I caught the second iteration in 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Here, Sharma’s script was performed by actress Janice Koh, while large projections of Chew’s performance played alongside her. Again, the audience had to choose who to watch: we wore headphones, toggling between the audio of the two renditions, or a third option that layered both together, moving between benches and the floor as we decided where we’d get the best view.
I’m duty-bound to say something about the emotional heft of the script—the dark humour of Chew’s tale of shopping for a coffin and getting his funeral portrait taken, his heartbreaking confession of his regrets for not taking care of his mother, his moving portrayals of other PWAs who are less fortunate than him—memorably, one who justifies the fact that he knowingly risked infection from his Dutch lover.
But the fact is, you can get most of the wit and wisdom of the text by reading it yourself. (It’s up at the National Online Repository of the Arts, at this link.) For the purposes of this essay, what intrigues me far more than Chew’s monologue are Loo’s directorial decisions.
Why present the play both live and as a recording? Because it forces us to question which we should regard as the ideal Platonic version of the script. With/Out was staged in a festival dedicated to the work of Haresh Sharma—but does the text belong to him, or to its research subject and performer, Paddy Chew?
But there’s another reason for this format, tied to Loo’s triple role as archivist, artist and activist. The video documentation is evidence that there can never be another Paddy Chew, especially today, when AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Conversely, there must be another Paddy Chew: it is necessary that new generations learn about him and embody his bravery and eloquence.
So why cast Koh, a straight woman, instead of Sharma or a living HIV-positive Singaporean, such as Avin Tan? Because mimicry is not the point of this exercise, but empathy and emulation. It’s noteworthy that Koh is also an activist, having served as Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts and a Pink Dot Ambassador.
Dressed in a plain grey shift, she experiments with strategies to embody Chew’s spirit. She mediates herself through live video feeds on laptops and overhead cameras. In a scene in which Chew describes himself, she shifts from first person to third person, joining the audience in the benches, speaking of him as if he’s a friend. At one point, a recording plays on our headphones: she describes how she prepared for the role by re-enacting Chew’s shopping sequence: going into a funeral parlour and trying out coffins, thus confronting her fear of death.
We too are included. Just as in the original performance, a Q&A session takes place right in the middle, with a live online feed supplying questions from netizens tuning in. It’s a strange interplay of the impromptu: on video, Chew answers basic questions about HIV from the ‘90s audience, while Loo and Koh field our queries about their restaging. Then at the end, we’re asked to come to the centre to light a memorial candle. A small gesture, but one that forces us—like Koh—to take action to keep Chew’s memory alive.
While the tactics of With/Out could be applied to reviving almost any bygone artwork, I’d argue that it’s especially relevant for the work of queer artists. Across the world, it is queer work that has been routinely dropped from the record, hidden from the eyes of children and conservatives, or else infantilised beyond the point of recognition. This makes it deeply difficult to establish a queer collective memory, given that such heritage is rarely passed down from biological parent to child.
It’s therefore a small but significant triumph that this work was staged as part of the Esplanade’s own programming lineup, advertised to and attended by an audience of diverse ages and sexual orientations. With/Out takes the memory of Paddy Chew and Singapore’s AIDS crisis out of the gay ghetto, reminding us all of the importance of courage and art-making in the face of death.
Yet there’s a catch. As much as I share Loo’s passion for the queer past, there’s part of me that wants that it be made pertinent to activism in the present. Certainly, any awkward eighteen year-old version of me who attended this show would have been moved and impressed. But would they have been inspired to take action?
As the artists acknowledged during the Q&A, the issue of AIDS in Singapore is no longer as pressing as it was in the nineties. Thanks to protease cocktails, the disease is no longer deadly. The grossest injustices of that era—the travel ban on HIV-positive visitors, the refusal to lower the cost of medications, the rule that one must be cremated within 24 hours after an AIDS death—these are all gone.
As such, Chew’s struggle appears almost numinously antique, like that of a character in a Greek tragedy or a miracle play. All the pity we feel for him is released as catharsis. This is in stark contrast to Loo’s earlier work Cane, which filled audiences with rage as it revealed that many of the institutions and persons who censored Brother Cane remain in power, even today.
Does this make With/Out a weaker work than Cane? Maybe not: we cannot judge all art as agitprop. Yet I do believe that today’s audiences deserve work that convinces them that 2017 is a time for action and transformation, just as 1999 was.
There will never be another Paddy Chew. But there must be another Paddy Chew. What must we do to become him?
With/Out was conceptualised by Loo Zihan, based on Completely With/Out Character, devised by Paddy Chew, in collaboration with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma (1999), was staged from 23 – 26 March 2017 as part of The Studios 2017 at the Esplanade.
Ng Yi-Sheng (b.1980) is a Singaporean poet, fictionist, playwright, journalist and LGBT activist. He has written theatre and arts criticism for The Flying Inkpot, The Straits Times, Fridae and The Online Citizen, and has served as an online documenter for the Singapore Biennale, the Flying Circus Project and the Singapore International Festival of Arts. He is a co-organiser of IndigNation: Singapore’s Pride Season.