Podcast 85: Singapore Theatre, Year in Review

In our end-of-year roundup, Nabilah Said, Naeem Kapadia and Matt Lyon take stock of the year in Singapore theatre, alongside guests Lee Shu Yu from Centre 42 and Max Yam from Arts Republic.

This podcast is published as part of Year In Review, an annual discussion and round-up of the performing arts in Singapore organised by Centre 42 and ArtsEquator. It takes place on Zoom on Saturday, December 19. More info here.

Stream Podcast 85:

Download Podcast 85 here. (Right-click and select ‘Save Link As’ on Windows; control+click and select ‘Save Link As’ on Apple)


Nabilah Said: Hi, everyone, welcome to the ArtsEquator Year-End Theatre Podcast, we’re at the year end! Yay! My name is Nabilah Said and as usual I am joined by Matt Lyon. Hi Matt!

Matt Lyon: Hello!

Nabilah: –and Naeem Kapadia.

Naeem Kapadia: Hello!

Nabilah: But today we also have some special guests joining us. First of all, we have Max Yam from arts website, Arts Republic.

Max Yam: Hello, yeah, I’m happy to be here.

Nabilah: And Lee Shu Yu from Centre 42!

Lee Shu Yu: Yay, hello, happy to be here with everyone.

Nabilah: We are so glad that y’all can join us. This month’s episode is a little bit different because we are trying to take stock of the year in theatre. And we really felt that we wanted to invite outside voices to talk a bit about maybe some of the things that we’ve observed as critics during this year, because I’m sure you all would agree it’s been a very unusual, exciting, interesting year.

Matt: Uh huh…

Nabilah: I like how Matt keeps groaning during this whole thing.

Matt: There’s gonna be a lot of that.

Nabilah: Maybe just to quickly take stock of some bigger shifts during the year. Earlier in the year, we did have quote unquote, “normal theatre” before theatre closed. So in March 27, the last show was Four Horse Road. Right? By The Theatre Practice. And then later on, I think there was also the National Arts Council Digital Presentation Grant (DPG), and that really allowed a lot of the theatre companies to do stuff online that would be funded. That was quite a big deal because I think initially, the first kind of response that theatre companies were doing was to put archived shows online. But with the DPG grant, it became, either new content that they were creating, especially for the digital space, or works that were postponed or past work that they could somehow repurpose or adapt for the online space.

And then we jump many, many months past Circuit Breaker and all of that. Finally in September, which was just like two, three months ago, live shows started up again. I think The Substation was one of the few spaces that started to do live shows with a very small audience of five. And then later on September 11th, very inauspicious date, we had audiences of 50 that the NAC was supporting with pilot performances, I think, at Esplanade predominantly. And it’s only recently that audiences have been allowed to be expanded to 50 or 50 times however many blocks of audience seats you had in the theatre. So that’s a very, very quick recap. So yes, let’s start with our first question. I’d like to invite Naeem to respond to the question of: how was your year in theatre?

Naeem: As you said Nabilah, it’s been a very unusual year, we had the first three months of the year, which were relatively normal. There was the Fringe Festival, there were a couple of bigger shows. And then there was this entire hiatus where everything went online. Obviously it wasn’t helped by lockdown where we were kind of very sedentary and all the entertainment we consumed was online. So it took a while for theatre companies to find their feet. But I think my first engagement back with theatre was through screenings of productions. So a couple of the bigger theatre companies in Singapore was screening footage from their previous shows, and that was online.

Nabilah: I think the earliest was TNS with Good People in April, ya?

Naeem: Yes, yes. And then there were a couple of plays by WILD Rice, as well as Pangdemonium. And then, I think after a few months, I started seeing new content being created. One of the first ones I watched was The Coronalogues by the SRT, which was done in a very quick time. I think for me, it was just getting used to — as an audience member and as a critic — watching theatre which I would normally consume in a live space with other people, in that very singular setting. So it was a strange year, because I’ve never seen so much theatre by myself. And, I think it’s a bit different, even if you’re not talking, the sense of being with people is very different. Because you hear people laughing and reacting, and you don’t quite get that when you consume things online.

I think that sense of watching a show in isolation was a bit different for me, and I found my attention just wandered a lot more. You could be watching something and let it wash over you. And you could be getting a cup of coffee or texting your friends, doing something else and not giving it your full attention. I don’t know, for me I felt a bit disengaged, if you like. It took me a while to sort of get back and fall in love with that theatre feel again, but I think it looks like live theatre is coming back, albeit in a very different set of circumstances, social distancing, and all of that. Yeah, it’s just been, I guess, in a nutshell, a strange and bizarre year of trying to adapt yourself and your viewing techniques to this particular art form.

Nabilah: Yeah, I feel like picking up on what you said, a lot of theatre online became content that was kind of in competition with a lot of other things that were already online, including Netflix. So that was something that I thought about, especially in the earlier part of the year, when people are still trying to grapple with what to present online. Yeah, what about you Shu?

Shu Yu: This year has been really weird. And like Naeem said, there were many, many instances of different phases of experimentation from the companies, right. But I kind of saw my year in theatre as sort of, defined by these specific moods at first. I do recall being at that last showing of Four Horse Road, just that last session before they had to close everything, and it was very melancholic. I think there was an announcement at the end by Jian Hong, who was kind of like, you know, “thank you for sticking with us, and we really hope to see you soon!” And I really felt that sense of sadness wash over me just looking across at the audience members who had made time to be there for that last hurrah before theatres closed for an uncertain future. So I remember that beginning — in a way — of the end, no lah not the end lah right.

I think I was very excited because as someone who loves the internet and practically lives on it, I was very intrigued by the new possibilities, maybe certain conventions that we have in the theatre can be let go of, maybe we can explore the new ways to create new work. So that was the start of my excitement, I watched The Coronalogues. I attended some of these online screenings, archives. But I think fast forward, past all of that, I think I got tired really quickly. I think everybody can agree that there was also kind of an overload of content, especially when people realised, this is the time for me to do panels. This is the time for me to do the discussions that I always say I want to do but I never really got chance to. So I think I got tired after a while. And there was content overload. I started to think if I had to spend time on the screen, why wouldn’t I spend it on Netflix? Why wouldn’t I spend it on video games, if that could give me a sense of community when I play with my friends? I could use Netflix Party to watch at the same time as everyone, it gives me a sense of being there with them. I think that got me in a mood of, “Okay, what happens now, when theatres open?” Like, will I still feel like it’s a bit of a chore to go down? Will I feel like I have found ways to occupy my time, found new hobbies, new ways of experiencing community and liveness, that I may want to forego going to the theatre very often now? But I think we can take it one show at a time. And yeah, I’m going for a show after this. So I’m quite excited for that. 

Nabilah: Yay, live show!

Shu Yu: Yeah, we’ll see.

Nabilah: Yeah, it sounds like a relationship that you are scared you’ve grown out of, almost.

Shu Yu: Ya, ya. The way you put it.

Nabilah: And that’s also interesting, because I feel like especially at the earlier part of the Circuit Breaker, people kept talking about the closure of theatres. And you know, all this lack of live shows, in a sense of grief, grieving for something that’s lost. And I know a lot of artists who didn’t know what to do, and we’re kind of like, incapacitated by that whole fear. What about Max? How was your year in theatre?

Max: Yeah, I think both of you used “weird” to describe it, so I shouldn’t use it anymore. So probably I will describe it as interesting because there’s a new layer in theatre production that’s more obvious now. There’s the form of theatre, I think we face… With the question of what is digital theatre? I can see that the digital format, whether you replace theatre in physical space, it may add value to the existing form of theatre. But it deals with the liveness of theatre. So this is one type of digital theatre, but another type maybe is a new and independent form of performing arts in the new age. We have a very fast internet speed. So we can watch live feed video very easily. We can interact with people on the virtual space very easily. So this new digital theatre thing is like, maybe it’s like film, some are like a game. And there’s a lot more forms in between them. So I look forward to this new era with more new forms of performing arts.

Nabilah: Like more experimentation in form – that’s exciting for you. I like that, very positive. Now let’s go to Matt.

Matt: Well, I might talk about actually making theatre. I’m a teacher at SOTA and obviously we stage plays. And I’ve just had such sympathy with the theatre companies this year because the sands constantly shifted beneath you. I was supposed to put on Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin with a graduating class that was supposed to be on in May. And I pretty much blocked it, there was about 10 minutes of stage time in a two and a half hour show that remained to be blocked, and then the rules completely changed. And pretty much everything I’d done up to that point then had to be completely redone, because you were no longer able to get close to each other. And my entire first half of the play, the young couple who you’re supposed to root for, I’d put lots of physical contact in there. And if you remember, the school holidays came early, because everyone panicked. So it wasn’t where it would normally be. And I had four horrible weeks of thinking, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I do not know how to direct this play where everybody is two metres apart at all times.”

And they’re going to pay me anyway, as a teacher, so in some respects, it doesn’t really matter for me, like I could have artistically failed, and it wouldn’t matter. But real theatre makers, people for whom it is their sole job, that is a horrible, horrible situation to be in. But it also does spur creativity, because we found a way to do it. Actually, some bits worked better two metres apart, than closer up. So it’s been a year of being repeatedly hit around the head, and then working on your dodge skills, and putting on some helmets. You know, it’s not the situation anyone wants to be in necessarily, but I hope that the people who stick with theatre through this, who are able to – because obviously money is going to be a really big problem for lots of people in the performing arts – I hope that the people who are able to stay with it can retain that kind of positivity in that experimentation. But also not feel like they have to. Like if theatre companies want to go back to the same old, same old after this, yeah! We haven’t had that for a while, we should be really excited to see a well-made two-act play staged by Pangdemonium. Do you know what I mean? Or WILD Rice, or the companies that do that kind of thing really well.

Nabilah: Yeah. Maybe picking up on the whole idea of creativity and experimentation, does anyone want to start us off with shows that you watched this year that were particularly exciting, interesting?

Max: I participated in one, that was very early lockdown period. End of April. There’s this show called Touch You Later, by Tactility Studies. It’s done entirely on Zoom. Tactility Studies, maybe as you know, is a project emphasising on touch. But it faces a situation where we can’t touch each other. So the facilitator guides the participants to explore the surroundings. So you’re trapped in your room, but you are guided to explore your surroundings. It’s not just touch yourself, it’s touch your desk, you touch your things around you. And then you kind of feel your space. And then maybe it’s like, it prepares you for the next three months of lockdown. I think it kind of got me to reconnect with the space. So that’s one of the first Zoom production things I’d attended. Feels very interesting.

Nabilah: Yeah. So I went for that performance as well as a participant and I really loved it. And I feel like anytime you say like, “touch yourself”, people get very, like, giggly and all but—

Matt: We didn’t. We were very professional. Had to have a camera, everyone’s face kind of contorted for a second, but we didn’t let on.

Nabilah: But I think this idea of tactility during the Circuit Breaker was very visceral and poignant because, you know, we couldn’t go out. If we were outside, we didn’t want to touch anyone next to us even on the bus on the MRT right? But also the disclaimer is that I’m now part of that team and we are doing restaging pretty soon, so I’m just gonna shut up about that front. Yeah, anyone else—

Max: I’m not part of the team, so I’m not like, promoting it now.

Shu Yu: No, but I think Max pointed out something. I think I forgotten about like, Touch You Later because it was to me such a strange concept of saying, touch and tactilities over Zoom. But I think it was a very, I think it made me defamiliarise with the idea of touching and contact because now we’re like, don’t touch the surfaces. After you’ve touched surfaces you need to sanitise your hands and all that. But it was one instruction in the piece, which was the facilitator saying like now go outside, go to your washroom and wash your hands and make sure you wash for 20 seconds. And I did! I paid attention to the washing and I think for something that is an act of paranoia, safety in a way, I think it ended up becoming very endearing thanks to that work kind of reframing it as an act of love, act of caring. So that was actually a good point, Max.

Nabilah: Yeah.

Naeem: So for me, one of the shows that really stood out this year was Who’s There? by the Transit Ensemble. This was like a US, Singapore, Malaysia hybrid production that was co-directed by Alvin Tan from Singapore and Sim Yan Ying, who’s a Singaporean based in the US. And it was just probably one of the best shows I’ve seen that made use of the Zoom platform and so many different surfaces of social media, there was Instagram, and Snapchat, and YouTube and all of those things built into it. But at the same time, it was so urgent and powerful. It was released, I think, shortly after the elections in Singapore, and it touched on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of privilege in Singapore, the Chinese privilege issue, the Bumiputra issue in Malaysia, all of that, and it was just packaged in a very powerful way. And on top of that, in addition to the content, it was also very interactive. And it drew the audiences in through very simple means. So there were these polls that were sent out every couple of minutes during the show where we would be asked these somewhat uncomfortable challenging questions, and you see the response of all the participants in real time. For me, that was a very powerful topical show that used the challenges of this online environment, but still managed to really discuss important things.

Matt: Yeah, I’m with Naeem on that. That was the show for me this year, that really gave me hope that this isn’t just a year that we need to consign to the bin, remove from the annals of history, because it really spoke to me about the possibility of artists to deal with what’s in front of them with the tools that they have. And you don’t usually expect theatre to respond that fast to what’s going on in terms of the aesthetic options that are now limited by COVID regulations, and in terms just of what’s politically going on in the world, because plays take time. And it came out really fast, really nimble, incredibly intelligent, well thought through. And I thought, yeah, we can have more than just people putting their archival work online or people writing monologues. And I’m not saying that those are bad things, but they are not enough to sustain a vibrant scene. So yeah, I was really glad to see that as well. What about you, Nabilah?

Nabilah: For me, shifting gears a little bit, and I think it’s probably a little bit of recency bias, but I was really touched by a live performance I recently watched and some of you might have watched it, it was An Actress Prepares, by Alfian Sa’at that was done at WILD Rice. And I found myself – in terms of that grief that I was talking about – that play for me really acknowledged a sense of loss that we felt this year, acknowledged the weirdness of creating theatre in this year. I think like in the early part of it, Siti K was backstage and then you saw her through a camera. And she was like, “Okay, guys, I’m going to do everything backstage, since we’re so used to watching things on video.” And people were like, “boo” or “no”, and then she comes out, and she laughs. And I mean, of course, we know that she’s not going to do that. But it just acknowledged the kind of things we’ve had to be okay with, right, like just watching through a— we had to be okay with it, and theatremakers had to put on a courageous face to be like, “yes, we’re going to try this new thing, this new frontier of performance and try to be good at it at the same time.” I just felt that – all of those things came out through the performance.

And, An Actress Prepares is a restaging. But it was reconceptualised. And I felt it gave new meaning during this time. So there’s one part where they pay tribute to people who theatre had lost – not from the pandemic – but over the years, and Siti K sang a song, a Malay song. And when I watched it, like two years ago, I was like, Okay, this is sad, but it washed over you. But when I watched it live, I was crying, because I felt that it was like all the losses that we felt this year that we’ve had to put aside, because we didn’t want to be too negative or too despondent. But for me with that live performance coming back to the theatre, seeing all the empty spaces in that WILD Rice theatre. And I think the whole idea of this, the new WILD Rice theatre, there’s so much loss in that because they opened it and then theatre shut, right? So I think like all those things just came out from me with just that one performance.

Matt: And because that theatre as well, like Shakespeare’s Globe style, is designed so that you see all those empty seats. And you wanted to put out the positive energies so that it would fill the space and then the other audience members would see that and respond and give it back to the performer. And of course, Siti’s such a huge presence on stage. She was able to inspire everybody. Yeah, I felt similar emotions.

Nabilah: Did you watch it?

Matt: Yeah.

Nabilah: Oh!

Naeem: Yeah, so I actually watched it very recently myself and the prologue at the start, where she talks about her life in Circuit Breaker and acknowledges that weirdness that we’ve all felt and everything is not part of the original play, and it kind of changes the tone. So it did change the tone a little bit for me because it almost felt like oh, this is a bit panto-esque, like you’re coming out and “Hey, everyone. Hey, everyone, we’re back. We’re back. But are we really? And like, oh, how come so many empty seats? And what did you do doing Circuit Breaker?”. And then the actual play’s a bit more introspective. It’s more like, you know, “this is my life, my journey, etc,” I felt that shift of gear when she launched into the play proper. And it felt a little, like it had been tacked on a little bit for me, but I was very happy to overlook that. Because I think for the exact reason, you see her behind the screen, when she comes on stage, it’s just so refreshing. This is exactly why I’m here sitting down because I want to see someone right in front engaging me and talking to the audience members. This is what I’ve missed. And I think seeing that made me feel in a very visceral way, like, oh, we’re back. And I just feel so happy to be part of this.

Nabilah: Shu, what about you, with a show that you watched and you enjoyed?

Shu Yu: I think over the course of that whole digitisation period, I think I was most interested in as a theatremaker myself, were innovations when it comes to form and medium. I think I was particularly intrigued by the productions that made use of unconventional or alternative platforms, instead of just Zoom, they will pair it with something else. So for instance, I think at the M1 Patch festival, they had Play With… Power by Accommodate SG. I don’t know if that was specifically made for theatres because I know that Accommodate SG, they do experiences that kind of do like civic engagement, and teach people a little bit about politics and community and all those kinds of things. But I thought it was… as an experience that was quite intriguing because they engaged the use of Discord.

So we’re basically split into ministries. And we had to decide on the use of land in these respective ministries. I was in the Ministry of Defence with a few of my friends. And then we also had Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of Environment, and people in these ministries will basically compete to fulfil their ministries’ goals. So for instance, if I was in the Ministry of Economics, right, I would try to like push for better businesses and things like that, if I was in Environment, I’ll push for like more green spaces. So I think that was really fun, because it demarcated the spaces of interaction. Like you will interact on Discord in a more informal way, but you would come on to Zoom to make bigger declarations of like okay, this is what’s the cost of our future on— in the country. So that was kind of one example.

But the other is also Murder at Mandai Camp where they had the Zoom platform for the videos and the story to go on. But it was accompanied with the Telegram chat group, which I was in, and I’m very used to being on Telegram on the side for anything that I do, basically. So I think seeing that chat come alive was quite a fun experience. People were screenshotting the images on the Zoom chat and then circling the ghost. And then everyone was just like, screaming, “Oh, my God, I can’t see it. I can’t see it. Where’s he? Where’s he? Is it coming? Is it coming?” And like, I was on a separate video call with a friend, because she was scared of the ghost. So it felt like I had direct connection with the other audience members.

Nabilah: Yeah, I think it’s a good time to also talk about like, as an audience member, how did you feel because we’ve talked about Murder at Mandai Camp in our earlier podcast, and I remember Matt was like, I didn’t look at the Telegram—

Naeem: No, no, I didn’t do that as well. I mean, I’m a very traditional theatregoer. You know, like, I’m just gonna watch everything and “Oh, people are like, talking nonsense, here, oh okay.” I kind of looked at it as an afterthought towards the end. I’m like, Ooh what have I missed,” you know, that sort of thing? But other people were just like living for it. And like the memes were coming fast and furious.

Shu Yu: That was me man, that was me!

Nabilah: But how did y’all feel about this multiple levels of engagement, even within a production? Did that enhance it for you like in terms of audience behaviour, and your own audience experience during this time?

Matt: Yeah, I kind of like go the other way from Shu on that, because I’m old and my brain doesn’t work. So I like it when it’s just a little bit more curated. I don’t want to wade through a billion people putting some kind of scared emoji, pages and pages of that at a time, because if my brain is doing that my brain can’t do the other thing. There’s a certain amount of multitasking in me that if you just cleaned down that chat, to things that were a little bit more relevant, I would totally see the point of that. But of course, that would involve censoring your audience or something. I don’t know, because if there were people next to me whispering into my ear when I was watching things, I’d punch them. So I think for me, it needs to evolve past a general deluge of crap. Although there are clearly people who like that.

Nabilah: I like that.

Shu Yu: I quite like that. But I think it wouldn’t work if someone’s whispering in your ear, of course. I think yeah, I think that’s what I appreciate, like the fact that we’re online. If I was at home watching a play, and I was on my phone, nobody would know, nobody would scold me, but I might still appreciate the show in a way. So yeah, I think that I like that.

Nabilah: Yeah. So speaking of like, scolding people – and not really – but we were talking earlier about how, um, some of us watch two things at the same time, or try to do two things at the same time.

Matt: I couldn’t even if I wanted, let’s be honest.

Nabilah: So ‘fess up, who did that?

Shu Yu: Me, I did.

Max: Me.

 Nabilah: Why?

Max: I said yes to a friend who was involved in a production but oh, I forgot I said yes to another friend. So. Okay, I have—

Nabilah: Double booked!

Max: Ya, but we’ve got a computer. So I can have two windows on and I can watch both like that. I can do it side by side, but just mute another side. Yeah, at the same time, I can also like Telegram on the phone. So–

Nabilah: I feel like we shouldn’t even feel bad about it. Because I think it mimics whatever behaviour we already probably— I mean, I’m looking at Shu and Max only–

Matt: Yeah you’re not looking at me.

Nabilah: –but we already probably do that anyway, I think there’s also a sense of FOMO on my part. So for me, I’ve not really done it with productions, but I’ve done it with panels. So there’s been a lot of panels that have been coming up this entire year. I don’t know exactly why. Because I mean, we always used to have like post-show discussions and all but I think there was this desire to have conversations even more, I suppose.

Matt: I think it’s just about filling the space. Your production just got cancelled? Oh, let’s do a panel.

Nabilah: That’s true. I know, with SIFA a lot of the shows, because they couldn’t be online, they did a lot of discussion and panels for like, The Year of No Return and Three Sisters and things. So I guess I’d know why. But with the live panels, I always felt that I wanted to watch them live. So that’s why I ended up watching two at a time, like one on Zoom, one on Facebook.

Naeem: I did quite a lot of the panels as well. And then I felt like I don’t want to miss out. So I will be scrolling through all the comments. And then there will be these very juicy comments and then responses to the comments that are erupting while the panel is going on. And then I’m kind of torn as to whether I should follow and maybe come up with an intelligent quip myself, or just listen, it’s like you’re forced to kind of multitask. And you’re in an online space.

Nabilah: Yes. I just wanna say that. In the earlier part of “the panel time”, there was a – what do you call that? That person that comes and like, is an anonymous—

Shu Yu: Troll?

Nabilah: Yes, we had a troll! There was an arts troll. Yeah. And it was very exciting to watch some of the comments like—

Naeem: And sometimes the moderators would actually read the comments and flash them up on the screen. That was a new thing for me this year, where they were almost like—

Shu Yu: They name and shame!

Naeem: You name and shame, and then they were like so-and-so has responded blah. What do you think? And then you see the panelists—

Max: With your profile picture on it?

Naeem: Ya sometimes, sometimes. So that was a newish kind of experience for me. I’m like, okay, maybe I better not say anything too controversial.

Nabilah: Yeah, just like and lurk, and then after that talk to your friends on Telegram about it.

Shu Yu: Ya ya, you screenshot and then like, chat elsewhere.

Nabilah: Yeah, maybe we can talk a bit about how we are transitioning, especially like to live and maybe more hybrid things. But Max and Shu, have you been watching stuff as theatres have kind of reopened?

Max: This term hybrid… theatre or hybrid performance is quite new to me. So I guess for now, it means there’s a show going on in the real theatre and at the same time it’s live streamed online. So this term also applies to ITI’s FIVE. So I watched that, but I didn’t watch the… They call it on-site theatre. So it’s on-site versus online. Yeah. So—

Nabilah: You watched it online?

Max: I watched online. But I’m very curious about the experience for the audience on-site, because they are watching the actors performing to a camera. Yah, so I’m still finding an audience member who was on-site to exchange our experience, and the show deliberately chose this format because it talks about lockdown and talks about the actors’ experience of lockdown and their feelings about other people in lockdown. And it mimics the zoom kind of – you have a frame on your screen, but actually is fake lah. It’s just somehow they did it that way. And it reminds me of like, in some countries, when people are locked down in their room, they come out to the balcony. No, it feels like that you see that you can sing a song here and then someone else clapping over here. Kind of pay a tribute to the lockdown period.

Nabilah: Right. Yeah, cool.

Shu Yu: I watched one thing, only one thing live. I watched Peepbird by The Finger Players in the Esplanade Recital Studio. That was interesting because it was in the Recital Studio, so there was a lot of distance between the audience and the performers and it wasn’t verbal performance. It was nonverbal puppetry, so I felt like in a way I was still watching it through something, like that distance felt like you know, it was very similar to watching it over Zoom. Obviously different but I think the moment where I, it really hit me that “Oh, hey, I’m back in the theatre” was the curtain call. When the audience was giving something back to the performer and the performers received that applause, then I felt that exchange. So I was like, “Okay this is what theatre is about.” It’s that exchange of energies between the audience and the performers over distances, which is very diluted through the screen. But I remember now, like, why this is important to me. And I think there was a lack of space outside the decompression to happen. So like people, weren’t mingling, people weren’t gathering in groups who have tea afterwards or anything, so there was a bit of a loss. But I think there was a sort of a muted “I’m happy to see you,” as people were walking through the doors or leaving the theatre. We were like, “We’ll catch up soon, sometime.”

Nabilah: Yeah, I went for that as well. And then I remembered trying to identify people by their eyes, right? ‘Cause of all the masks. And then just kind of like nodding and being like “hey”. And knowing that you couldn’t really go and hug someone, for example, and you didn’t even feel that you wanted to hug people, you kind of felt like you needed to be like one arm’s length, or at least one metre apart right? How do y’all feel about this whole, like, SafeEntry, Trace Together, like that being part of the experience now?

Naeem: I think, because we’re so used to it, it’s become almost normalised for us, you know, with everything else. But I think it’s also the rituals now like, you know, the seating apart from each other, and then when you exit the theatre, you have to do it in rows.

Matt: That’s what Shu was talking about right? It’s about that transfer of energy. And the problem is, you’re too far away from people. And that space in between people in the seating just kills that sense of an audience as a being that amplifies the energy in the room. I mean, I said that I thought in An Actress Prepares Siti did that as well as she could, and that the audience was willing to go with her. But it was not the same as a packed house. Yeah. And that is the greatest loss, I think, for me in the current situation where plays are open, but only a bit. And I really can’t imagine anybody staging a comedy at the moment. You know, maybe you can do a serious drama, you can certainly do something tragic. My play that I staged to seven people had large comedic elements. And, you know, I asked people afterwards, they said, It was great. It was really, really funny. But they weren’t laughing that much. Because you don’t in an empty space.

Naeem: There’s that almost-hesitation on the part of the audience, and then that doesn’t transmit over to the actors and bounce off them, so–

Matt: And in that sense, it’s almost better to be on a screen because unless we’re talking about the old school comedies with a laugh track, you don’t expect that laughter on a screen. So I think there’s a sense that watching a comedy through a screen at the moment, even if it’s theatre, is less disappointing than watching it in person.

Nabilah: Actually just to very quickly talk about that because I watched a stand-up comedy done by Sharul Channa in like, April. It’s called Am I Old? and it’s about aging and caregiving, for example. And literally they were the first live Zoom performance. They were even faster than theatre. But it was stand-up comedy, and we were all muted. So because we wanted to show her that we were laughing, we kept chatting and putting, “hahaha”, “lol”, and all the emojis because we wanted to send out energy across in some way. So that was an interesting experience for me. So maybe picking up on the fact that all five of us are critics. How did you respond to this year as a critic?

Matt: Well it’s the year of kicking people when they’re down, isn’t it? It’s just horrible. Because you can’t flat out lie. And say, “this was great” when it wasn’t. But you really do owe, not just the theatremakers, but I think humanity at the moment, you owe a focus on the positive if you can possibly accomplish it. Because we’ve had enough bad news and we want to have the sense that people can adapt and succeed and find new things – and they can – so I have this year found myself celebrating what is celebrate-able, more than I usually would. And that’s something I probably do want to take forward.

Nabilah: Nice! I didn’t expect that.

Matt: No ’cause I’m horrible. But you know, anyone can change.

Nabilah: Yeah, I was just thinking this morning about how the act of criticism for me this year was as if I’m judging a baby that’s learning to walk. You know, it doesn’t make sense to be like you’re not walking correctly. Like what Matt is saying, like you celebrate the baby steps. However, you know, imperfect it is and that’s how I kind of thought about it.

Max: Yes, because I think critics face this challenge of whether do we understand this new form enough and decide whether we will face the question of what is digital theatre? You definitely face this question whether you like it or not, and if the show is adapted from an existing one, it’s even more so that we need to ask ourselves whether the digital format adds value or how, what it does to the original format.

Matt: Again, I kind of think that’s something I want to do when I can say something nice about it. There’s plenty of shows, especially at the beginning of the lockdown period, where clearly they did not intend for it to be an audio play, or to be done over Zoom or whatever compromises they had to make. And it seems a little bit of a harsh thing to even phrase that question when it was so far from what they had originally intended. And everybody’s going in with that idea of compromise.

Nabilah: Shu what did, how did you feel?

Shu Yu: I felt I couldn’t even be a good audience member, like, you know, watching two things at the same time, listening to audio play while playing Animal Crossing. Yeah, that kind of thing. Right? Like, how can I be a responsible attentive critic when I can’t even be the responsible, attentive audience? I think even if I wanted to say something, I felt like maybe I didn’t have the right language to assess or describe a piece that was on the screen. I think we tend to use a lot of filmic language to describe things that we see on screen. But I don’t think that theatre makers are making with film in mind. Right? So how do we begin to even crack open the ideas of mise-en-scène on the screen with whatever limitations they have in their own houses, for instance.

I think Boom was a rehearsed read that was completely done over Zoom. And people were still in their own home. So they had to make do with whatever they had, like they printed certain props, for instance. Since then, we’ve been able to be in studios and stuff lah, but I think so for circumstances like this, like how do you even begin to find the right language to describe and then to critique. So that’s one. But on the other hand, I also feel like maybe criticism doesn’t just have to be kept to publishing written posts, or articles about like what you see, I think they can also exist in the form of conversations. And I think, to some extent, we’re allowed to have those conversations about something we don’t like, while taking to account that you know, that we should give concessions sometimes. But I think we are also doing that in these weird times as a manner of coping. Like, yeah, I’ve dedicated my time to watch something, I don’t like it. So I’m gonna have my usual reaction, because–

Nabilah: Because you’re human?

Shu Yu: –yeah, because I’m human, because I want to have that fun of being able to say something bad, but also say something good, but have good conversation. And if that’s what the world wants me to have, then I’m gonna be 100% human about it. Because I’m also going through it, you’re also going through it, we’re all going through it, but we can acknowledge that there’s fun that remains in that conversation and that criticality.

Nabilah: Now that you mentioned it like that, I’m like yes, it has been less about the craft of the critic, and more about being true to how we are experiencing as humans, or as audience members, and empathising with the artist quite a lot more this year.

I wanted to bring this to a close, in terms of talking about maybe some of the losses in the critical space, I would say, speaking on a more personal level, like, you know, ArtsEquator, we kind of like lost some funding this year. I mean, in tandem with there being less shows, we also had less money to pay people to even write reviews. And because of that, I feel we were a bit quieter this year. I think for Shu, we are talking about how, you know, you kind of came up through the Citizens’ Reviews arm of Centre 42. And that’s no longer there. I think, Arts Republic, you guys used to do your Plunge physical events, decompression spaces for audiences. And so how do ya’ll feel about some of these? I call them losses, but maybe they’re not losses? How do you feel about that?

Matt: I’ve missed practical in-person theatrical design. People have been doing really good cinematic photography. We saw that, for example, in Checkpoint’s Two Songs and a Story. But film lighting is not the same as theatre lighting, and I miss it, and I miss theatre sets. Even the sound design of it being in a live space. It’s very different. And even though we’re going back into theatres, an empty auditorium has a very unpleasant acoustic. Sets are constrained when the actors can’t be close to each other. Lighting design also ends up being a little bit more distant and unable to necessarily reinforce some of the drama. So it’s been hard for everybody, but I think it’s been overlooked how problematic it’s been for designers.

Nabilah: Yeah, thanks for that. I didn’t think about that actually. Like just thinking about design as also being kind of influenced by like, physical distancing. And yeah, that loss as well. Max, how do you feel?

Max: Yeah, Plunge as a physical conversation space. Suddenly, if you want me to do it in a digital space, I still don’t know how to, you need something in between the participants.

Nabilah: Yeah you said you need a table for Plunge.

Max: I need a table to put food on it. While you eat, you drink, then you talk, but on Zoom, I don’t know how to do it. Since I started writing review, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time the format of review, instead of just writing and publish it as the article on a website. What else can we do? Like you set up the podcast like this, it’s an active move to talk about bigger issues. Yeah.

Shu Yu: I think for CR, right – Citizens’ Reviews – we decided to kind of halt it because of reallocation of resources. We were also aware that a lot of the writers that went through Citizens’ Reviews, they are trained, they are comfortable with the form already. So we were like, maybe it’s time to retire that programme for a bit. But I think this is something we’ve talked about, right? The moment like we kind of halted that it seemed like there was a big hole in the criticism space also, because it’s already very sparse, but then you lose something and you’re like, “Oh, it’s even more sparse now, it’s even more quiet than before”. And I think it is a great loss.

Because I feel like more than ever, we should have these voices in place so that we can record the diversity of experiences, and the range of emotions that people feel so that it isn’t all sad and gloomy if one person feels upset and writes a piece about it. You know, we can record people feeling happy, people feeling angry at a performance and not hold any one writer to a certain authority. I think that’s for me like a big loss. But I think it’s not just pandemic circumstances. I think it’s something that’s bigger than the pandemic. It’s also about our attitudes towards art making or art making as a gift. Are we allowed to critique a gift? Are we allowed to say we don’t like something? And I think all these questions that we’ve been talking about for a long time, already have almost come to a head here. Yeah. But at this point, I feel like maybe criticism isn’t really the most important one thing that needs to happen everywhere. I think maybe we just need to stand up on our own two feet for the moment learn to walk, learn to crawl like the baby, before we can even start to run.

Naeem: I’m just thinking, especially in this climate, where you have 50 people in, and presumably anyone who wants to watch the show would already have gotten tickets? What’s the purpose of the review? Not doing it for commercial reason to get more people in? And then are you doing it for the artists? What’s the point of, you know, being excessively critical about something you don’t like? Should we just not say anything, but then like, as Shu said, it’s not a pandemic issue, this erosion of the critical space has been going on for a few years. TODAY stopped coverage – I used to do reviews for TODAY, they stopped coverage a few years ago. I think Business Times mainly does industry pieces and interviews and occasional, like highlights of arts events, but they don’t really do reviews on a regular basis. And it’s only ST. And they’ve severely downscaled their arts team as well. So you know, that’s all we have in terms of mainstream media. And then in terms of the blogs, again, there’s just literally a handful. So there’s hardly anything, there’s so many shows – they just pass out of the consciousness because there’s no one to write about it. And it’s something which I think if you don’t review, or deem something important enough to write about it, then who’s going to remember it? Do we not want to memorialise it in some way? And I think for me, that probably is one of the benefits of having a critical space to be able to revisit something to archive it.

Nabilah: Yeah. Even in preparing for this podcast, I realised that I forgotten some of the shows that I watched, like earlier in the year, I almost forgot about M1 Fringe in January. And I mean, we did write about that. But yeah, this idea of like forgetting and the guilt of what if we don’t remember all these efforts to continue doing theatre? I suppose that’s just a confession of guilt on my part.

I think we have to round this up, but thank you so much for this wonderful discussion. I feel like there’s a lot more to be said. But it’s okay, maybe you know, we could do this again next year. And I also wanted to do a little shout out. So ArtsEquator and Centre 42 are co-presenting Year in Review by Centre 42 this year, that’s on December 19.

Shu: Yes.

Nabilah: And in that we’re gonna be basically looking at theatre of this year. And people can actually talk about different you know, different threads or different issues that they want to talk about this year. We are actually keeping it to an audience choice sort of thing. So that’s going to be very exciting. But otherwise, thank you so much for listening. And that’s been ArtsEquator’s  Theatre Podcast for this year guys!

Max: See you online.

Nabilah: Thank you so much and bye-bye.

Everyone: Bye!

Check out information on Year In Review on Facebook here or register online.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top