Singapore Arts Emerging from the “Great Pause”

The last two years have been significant for those working in arts and culture. In Singapore, this period has seen interesting initiatives focused more on creating meaningful shifts in the scene – from changing the ways we work, to improving and professionalising craft, and decentralising discourse and learning. Nabilah Said, Ke Weiliang and Lee Shu Yu outline some of these. 

On 18 December 2021, Centre 42, ArtsEquator and Channel NewsTheatre (in collaboration with Artwave Studio) jointly presented Year in Review 2021: JENG JENG JENG – a series of on-air conversations about Singapore theatre broadcast ‘live’ on Channel NewsTheatre’s Telegram channel. While Year in Review continued its tradition of reflecting on productions put up by the Singapore theatre community in the past year, time was also specially dedicated to discussing some issues that affect arts workers across disciplines – namely the practicalities of undertaking an arts education, integrating technology into creative practices and the ways arts practitioners care for each other in and through their work.

As we were wrapping up Year in Review 2021, another curiosity popped up in our minds: What are some of the tangible things that our peers are doing – or have done – to make working in the arts in Singapore more sustainable? We listed down some of the initiatives that we could remember off the top of our head, and were struck by how most (if not all) of them were organised from the ground-up. When considered collectively, these initiatives speak volumes of the industry’s desire to radically make arts work more equitable for present and future generations of practitioners.

Based on the (non-exhaustive) list of initiatives that we managed to collate, we observed the following four trends: 

Alternative, Autonomous Art-Making

Against a backdrop of pandemic protocols and restrictions, art-making in 2021 explored alternative avenues of inventiveness and displayed a fortified desire to connect to audiences. 

Some, like STRIKE! Digital Festival 2021, opted to ride the digital wave by bringing original content to various social media sites in their two-week long festival held in April 2021. Presented by seven independent collectives, STRIKE! was an entirely ground-up initiative made by a new generation of theatremakers for a new generation of audiences. 

The Last Gardener by Isabella Chiam was part of the It’s Not About The Numbers series. Photo: The Theatre Practice

Meanwhile, The Theatre Practice’s It’s Not About The Numbers (INATN) series continued a commitment to the live-theatrical, presenting six live in-person works for single or small audiences. Held in August 2021, the series was well-received for its intimate and soulful pieces. INATN reminds us that small efforts can go a long way to heal and comfort us in distressing times, when our day-to-day lives have become greatly impersonal.

Both programmes, amongst others, embraced the call of our new realities, exploring bite-sized works that acknowledged the fragmentation and fatigue of the theatrical experience in pandemic times. These unconventional approaches signal a desire to speak directly to audiences through personalised connection and novel experiences, bypassing the usual scale and infrastructures of performance-making. 

In fact, this desire to connect directly to communities of interest appears to be a streak not only in productions, but in developmental opportunities as well.

A rehearsal for Before You Go by Danial Matin, part of Playwright’s Commune Open Studio 2021. Photo: Playwrights Commune

Notably, another ground-up initiative, Playwrights Commune, launched an open invitation for building a community for playwriting in March last year. As part of their commitment ‘to turn nobody away’, the Commune invited professional theatre practitioners to contribute time and expertise where they were able, while various strands of playwriting development gave participants formal and informal support that matched their needs.

Then, in November 2021, Tunjuk Arah / இயக்குனர், launched its call for participants. Created and produced by Fezhah Maznan, the programme is specially created to develop Singaporean Malay and Tamil Theatre directors. It  boasts a curriculum of 17 masterclasses by prolific practitioners such as filmmaker K. Rajagopal, actress Jo Kukathas, lighting designer James Tan and set designer Wong Chee Wai. 

To round off the year, In The Round SG, founded by Adeeb Fazah and Isaiah Christopher Lee, launched Directors x Discipline 2021, a programme featuring mutual teaching and learning workshops for emerging theatre directors. Many appear to be names that were involved in Strike! Digital Festival too, signalling a trend of strengthening artistic practice beyond formal routes of training.

These initiatives exemplify a desire in our theatre community to make and hold spaces for those who may not have the same buffet of opportunities as others, be they people of ethnic minorities or the more inexperienced aspiring artists. Though the projects have received direct or in-kind sponsorship from larger institutions and the state, the common thread of mutual aid and artist-to-artist support makes for a heartening picture. Moreover, one notes that initiatives such as Tunjuk Arah / இயக்குனர் and Directors x Discipline seem to also respond to previous calls for the local theatre scene to have more robust support for the directorial role, especially for freelance practitioners outside of company circuits.

Audacious Art Talking

Speaking of alternative voices, it seems artistic discourse has found its way to the ground in more curious ways than conventional criticism or arts writing.

In the visual, museum and heritage space, two local Instagram pages have taken the arts scene by storm: @sgmuseummemes and @sgartfatigue. Notably, both accounts are strategically anonymous, granting them the freedom to be even more self-reflexive and sardonic about the arts and its relationship to society.

The more light-hearted counterpart, @sgmuseummemes, is a viral memestagram account that started in late 2020. With over 5,000 followers, the page’s potential to turn the stiff upper-lipped museumgoer into a self-deprecating sh*tposter is not to be scorned. By using works of art the base of various meme formats to comment on local news or to poke at the museum and curatorial profession, the account implicitly reminds us not to take art and ourselves so seriously.  

A meme posted on @sgmuseummemes on 28 September 2022, after Singapore introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill or FICA. Photo: @sgmuseummemes Instagram Page

On the flip side, 2022 has ushered in @sgartfatigue, an Instagram account launched in tandem with Singapore Art Week 2022 in a bid to expose the “wastefulness and flamboyance” of the local arts scene, calling itself an “obituary of the Singapore visual arts”

Since then, it has been posting submissions from local cultural workers and observers. Some of these include images of post-exhibition tear-downs while others include confessions from gallery sitters calling for better etiquette from patrons. While some laud the page for surfacing the harsh realities of art shows in Singapore, others question its efficacy in facilitating much-needed generative discourse.

Though @sgartfatigue and @sgmuseummemes differ greatly in tone, and are not about the performing arts per se, they contend greatly with adjacent topics of sustainability, self-critique, and an existentialism and crisis of relevance that has plagued the arts scene since the onset of the pandemic. 

Their strong social presence also reminds us that just as artmaking is in a time of decentralisation, so are its criticisms. What will performance criticism look like in 2022? What kind of existential questions will we contend with next? How will we express them? 

Year in Review serves as one minuscule, informal avenue for such an evaluation, but perhaps there are alternative ways to perform year-long, tongue-in-cheek engagements with our art in 2022, be they criticisms, reflections or letters of love? 

At Year in Review 2021, one such demonstration was through the submission of songs to our audio partner, Artwave Studio, in an attempt to diversify the means through which listeners could express themselves.

Sometimes, pain is better sung than said. Photo: Screenshot from Artwave Studio’s song submission Telegram channel.

Click here to listen to our Year in Review playlist!

The Care Revolution

While not specifically a 2021 thing, the clarion for care became louder ever since the pandemic.

2021 saw the formation of CITRUS Practices (Care, Intimacy, TRaUma-informed & Safer practices in the arts), a working group interested in better practices around care and intimacy in performance-making. Made of a loose collective of artists and arts workers, the group is presently developing an online resource to make care more readily practicable by arts practitioners. 

The roots of this group was from a 2020 workshop series, ‘Making Performances with Care’, as shared about in this recent podcast, but it also sprouted out of other developments happening on a global front, from the 2017 #MeToo movement and responses to it, to the growing awareness of the role of the intimacy director, and the conversations around the need for content warnings. (In Year In Review 2019, we dedicated a panel on Theatre & Depictions of Sexual Violence to discuss concerns around presenting such themes on stage.)

Consent Collaborative’s Intimacy for the Improviser workshop. Photo: The Consent Collaborative

Looking more specifically into the nascent-in-Singapore practice of staged intimacy is The Consent Collaborative. The group, which was founded by Prescott Gaylord and Lihong Chew, offers workshops and consultancy around areas such as intimacy choreography, intimacy direction and boundaries practice. 

The calls for care, on an individual and interpersonal level, are also indicators of fissures in an industry that had traditionally been focused on production and fulfilling reporting/funding requirements. The pandemic revealed gaps in the industry, such as the lack of protections for freelancers and the need to focus on safety – emotional, physical, interpersonal and more. This was the starting point for the Good Practices in Singapore Theatre Paper, published in March 2021, which outlines the recommended practices in the theatre scene.

The conversation has started to deepen into how to care for the community in a meaningful yet also sustainable way, and how carers can avoid burnout. Most recently, the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival dealt with these topics through its theme of “The Helpers”. It is hoped that these explorations of better care practices will continue and grow, even as Singapore starts to loosen its pandemic regulations.  

Spotlight on Behind-the-scenes Labour

We have spent a great chunk of this article spotlighting initiatives that boost the sustainability of audience-facing creative work. But what about the labour of those who toil tirelessly behind-the-scenes to make said creative work possible in the first place? 

In the spirit of democratising information sharing that tends to be circulated only amongst closed circles, stage managers Jeanette Chong and Gillian Ong – who met while working together on The Commission by Pangdemonium, Singapore Repertory Theatre and Wild Rice in 2021 – set up the blog Backstage Aunties. Thus far, Backstage Aunties has invited several guest contributors to publish articles that range from the informational (“Types of Spike & Gaffer in SG” and “Getting Into The Industry”) to opinion pieces (“Stage Managers as Artistic Collaborators”).

Lam Dan Fong, Carolene Ruth Liew and Evelyn Chia of The Backstage Affair aim to professionalise the industry for backstage personnel. Photo: The Backstage Affair

Senior theatre practitioners will be all too familiar with the rite of passage of learning on the job – which has conventionally involved newbies getting their fingers badly burned due to the lack of structured mentorship, and safety nets for experimentation and failure. Carolene Ruth Liew, Lam Dan Fong and Evelyn Chia – who share over 50 years of backstage management experience between them – set up The Backstage Affair, a company that not only provides for-hire production and stage management services for live performances, but also endeavours to nurture up-and-coming backstage practitioners through educational programmes.

While we collectively figure out how to make an immediate livelihood, it is also equally important to also reflect on the long-term sustainability of artmaking. How can we create work in a manner that is responsible not just towards each other, but also towards the environment? Junior Foong, Feng Kexin and Lam Dan Fong co-founded The Props Collective, a company born out of a shared desire to enable environmentally friendly ways to share props within the theatre and film industries. With a physical library of more than 5,000 different items, arts practitioners now have a one-stop haven for their prop rental and/or storage needs.

Backlogues is a podcast series about arts management practice in Singapore. Pictured: Arts managers Goh Su Lin and Clarisse Ng, with host Serene Chen. Photo: Centre 42

The abovementioned initiatives are manifestations of hands-on advocacy, where practitioners directly create tangible solutions to problems on the ground. However, amidst the immediacy of remedying these problems, we tend to not have time to reflect on and articulate the thinking behind these efforts in the first place. Backlogues – presented by Centre 42 and Sing Lit Station in collaboration with Dr Hoe Su Fern and Dr Cheryl Julia Lee – is a podcast series that ruminates on the oft-under discussed, yet ever-evolving practice of arts management. With eight episodes currently in the pipeline, Backlogues aims to “foster an understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the conditions of artistic production” in Singapore, and how the arts manager contributes to developing said conditions.

Some people call the pandemic “the great pause”, but it is in this time that arts workers have come together to actively shape the kind of industry they want, the kind of work they find meaningful, and more desired ways of working and operating. Building on Year In Review 2021, this article allows us to continue to consolidate and critically reflect on efforts in the arts scene that sit outside the bounds of audience-facing work, and make more visible these efforts that often take place outside of the spotlight. 

We are so used to the ‘doing of things’, that it is nice to be able to take a step back and connect the dots, to see how people are responding to similar impulses. Even if the overall picture, or impact of these initiatives, only emerges later on, we believe that it is worthwhile to take stock of and honour them – that even small disparate efforts can coalesce into something meaningful and mighty.

This article is a collaboration between Centre 42, Channel NewsTheatre and ArtsEquator as part of Year In Review 2021. It is also co-published on Centre 42’s website on 29 March 2022.

Header image by Katherine Allera, with thanks to the artists and arts groups featured for the images. 

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

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.

Ke Weiliang (he/they) is curious about how living beings hold space for each other through asynchronous and/or physically distanced interactions. By day, he works remotely in customer support for a fintech company. By night, they run the Telegram community Channel NewsTheatre and occasionally write about the arts on Gee Dock Convos and ArtsEquator.

Lee Shu Yu is in the business of curating ideas and stoking imagination. She sometimes conceptualises, manages, documents and critiques for the stage. She enjoys crafting at @washutape and making funny shushapes as an amateur dancer.

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