Listen as speakers Ke Weiliang, Lee Shu Yu, Matt Lyon, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia share their thoughts about Singapore theatre in 2021, including observations and shows they found memorable.
Mentioned in this episode: ArtsWok, Brown Voices, Checkpoint Theatre, Double Confirm Productions/Sight Lines Entertainment, Drama Box, Eng Kai Er, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Fezhah Maznan, Hatch, Hasyimah Harith/Body Troubles, Impromptu Meetings, INDEX, Isabella Chiam, M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Nine Years Theatre, NOW Festival of Women, Pangdemonium, Rupa co.lab, Salty Ng Xi Jie, Singapore International Festival of Arts, STRIKE! Digital Festival, Teater Ekamatra, The Finger Players, The Necessary Stage, The Substation, The Theatre Practice, Wild Rice
This podcast episode was streamed live as part of Year In Review 2021 which took place on December 18 via Telegram. Year In Review 2021 was co-organised by Centre 42, ArtsEquator and Channel NewsTheatre in collaboration with ArtWave Studio.
Listen now on Spotify or stream it here:
Nabilah Said (NS): Hello, and welcome to the ArtsEquator Year-In-Review podcast. This is our podcast where we talk about the year in theatre, take stock of what’s happened in theatre and performance. And we’ve done this every year for quite a while now, so this year is no different. So as usual, I’m joined by Naeem Kapadia…
Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hi, everyone.
NS: …Matt Lyon…
Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.
NS: …and two special guests: we have Lee Shu Yu–
Lee Shu Yu (LS): Hi. Hello. Nice to be here.
NS: …and Ke Weiliang.
Ke Weiliang (KW): Hi, happy to be here for the first time.
NS: And Shu Yu was here last year. So welcome back.
So this year I think we do have a lot to talk about, but first I want to throw it to Naeem to tell us a little bit about how the pandemic conditions have affected theatre this year.
NK: Yeah, so when I was thinking about this year, the year in theatre can be summarised by the three ‘R’s: restrictions regulations and rituals—because that’s what the experience of going to the theatre has become for me with the pandemic and the ever-changing restrictions, at least in Singapore. It’s been about mask wearing and contact tracing and sitting in designated groups and leaving spaces between each other.
I think all of that has really made the experience a little bit more muted. And obviously theatre companies have had to scramble around dealing with this constant influx of changes. So many shows have been postponed or cancelled, and it has been frustrating, but I think it’s also been great to see the innovations that have come up. Because last year was everyone scrambling to retool when theatres was shut for more than six months—moving online, et cetera. And I think this year we’ve seen people just embrace that new format and run with it and explore so many different forms of theatre that we just never saw before, and so many different styles. So I think despite being somewhat fatigued by all the restrictions, I think it’s still very exciting to see the variety that has been going on in the scene. And I’m just happy to see what else is in store as we move back to hopefully slightly more regular conditions next year,
NS: Thanks for that. I was actually thinking about what phase we’re on currently, and I have no idea. Does anyone know?
KW: The stabilisation phase, I think; it’s not ended. At least the MOH hasn’t officially announced the end of it.
NS: Okay, so, stabilisation. I lost track after a while, because I was like, ‘They mean nothing to me anymore.’
KW: You’re not alone.
NS: Just tell me how many people can meet and when and where. Right?
Just to tag onto Naeem’s really, really great analysis (Naeem, you’re always so great at that!), audience numbers have basically been like either two or five the whole year. So that’s what we were looking at in terms of theatre-going behaviour.
Let’s start with a summary-type question for everyone. How would you describe this year in theatre for you?
LS: Yeah. I think my year in theatre is really defined by what Naeem was talking about: as a consumer, I’m very, very aware of the restrictions in place. And I kind of have to plan ahead also. So for instance, when we were able to go to the theatre in groups of four, I actually did that: I bought tickets for four, and then after that, the restrictions went back and then we could only go in groups of two—and then me and my friends, we had to really do this whole situation where we were like, ‘Okay, who’s going to sacrifice this time?’ And then I realised that as a consumer I started becoming a little bit laid back about the way I was watching theatre. So I knew that I wasn’t going to have these kinds of socialisations, and maybe dinners would be a little bit more casual, or maybe just for necessity’s sake rather than for socialisation’s sake.
Going to the theatre was really more about just watching the show and then leaving because food stores would not be open when you’re done—it’s no longer about having a night out. I found myself going to more digital performances online, from the comfort of my home, where I was in my PJ’s and just having a little bit more of a chill time watching theatre. But I didn’t beat myself up over it because I think that a lot of us who wanted to go to the theatre, we weren’t able to because of restricted numbers: we just weren’t fast enough; there was always a lot of things going on. And I think also dealing with the pandemic, just feeling like you want to stay home, or just recover from the stress of going out into the outside world… I think that really took a toll on me. But that being said, I also had fun when I actually made the effort to visit the theatre and have these ‘online experiences’ with friends.
So I think we’re still recovering from whatever happened last year. And I don’t think that that’s going away anytime soon, unfortunately.
NS: Yeah, thanks for that. Weiliang?
KW: Yeah, it’s true. I really felt very strongly what you said in your earlier part of your response: the idea that the socialisation aspect of theatre-watching or theatregoing has really been taken away from us. I think we felt it most keenly during the first Phase Two Heightened Alert (that was when SIFA, the Singapore International Festival of Arts was opening), and it was just this very surreal thing where you couldn’t dine out, and you couldn’t have most social gatherings outside, but you could go back to the theatre because apparently most mask-on activities were still allowed. And it was one of those things where, you know, I was going to watch a show with my friend Adeeb, and then I see Nabilah and I’m like, ‘Hey, Nabilah!’ and then I realise we can’t go too close, if not, the SDA (Safe Distance Ambassadors) is going to catch us. And that was so awkward, and there was no way that I could safely or legitimately talk to anyone during FOH (Front-of-House), which has become such an ingrained part of the theatregoing experience for me that I really miss it.
And I realise that actually, even though I’ve watched, I think, still a decent number of shows this year, it kind of dipped towards the last quarter of the year because I just got so tired of the ever-changing regulations—I’m like, ‘Nah, I think I just want to go for something where I know I won’t be cancelled on last-minute by circumstances that I can’t control.’ So I totally feel what you said.
But if I had to describe briefly how this year in theatre has been – I mean, forgive me for using another COVID term; I know you’re tired of them – but I would say I say I see a lot of forced variants and mutations.
KW: In the sense that, you know, I see a lot of artist collectives and companies starting to present shows, whether forced by circumstances or willingly, in forms that they would normally not undertake. Look at Wild Rice, for example—they have presented 10 or 11 unique shows this year, and I think that’s really quite incredible, right? And the shows are not always directed by Ivan Heng or Glen Goei but there’s really a diversity—like Where Are You? (Singapore) was Yan Ying’s show, and then The Other F Word by Miriam Cheong, and so on and so forth. And I think that was really nice—even though I spent a lot of money on Wild Rice shows this year, but it’s nice to know that there are so many of my freelancer friends being employed in those shows, so I willingly spend money on those.
But also I think in terms of form, there are so many shows that really don’t adhere to the conventional, in-person, in-a-theatre-space kind of form that we are so used to. If you think about #THEATRE by INDEX where there are no actors onstage at all; it’s just us and the architecture. And if you look at Hatch, they had a WhatsApp play in which messages were delivered live on WhatsApp—but then how much of it was acting? That’s something I guess we could think about, right? And then of course another example is The Curious Case of the Missing Peranakan Treasure where it kind of teetered between theatre and gameplay for a bit, so that was really interesting. And I think these variants and mutations in theatre forms… that’s what really sticks with me now.
NS: Right. Thanks for that. When you said variants, I thought it was about Loki and timelines, so I was like, ‘When can we return back to the original timeline of theatre?
LS: I think we’ve kind of moved away from that, right? Like, I don’t think of it as going back to an original timeline. I actually think that theatre in Singapore and our consumption of it has really just diverged entirely. And I’m kind of excited about that, actually.
NS: Yeah, irrevocably changed.
NK: I mean there’s all these small little things, right? Like the interval, which used to be almost a standard part of the theatre experience where you would get ice cream or a drink, and then chat with people, and say like, ‘Oh, not so sure about that first half! Let’s see how let’s see what happens after this…’ And, you know, just that space to decompress, which has now been taken away from me. Every show was just this 90-minute or two-hour thing that you just have to sit through. That FOH interaction, which Weiliang mentioned, which you don’t have. It’s become more of a singular experience: you just go into this space, you watch the show and you leave, but the socialisation has gone away.
KW: For sure.
NS: Yeah. So I think for me (before going to Matt), I just wanted to tack on to some of what you’re already saying. So Shu, you used the word ‘laid back’? For me it’s similar, but I would choose a very different word, which is ‘anxious’. Um, so I have a lot of anxiety when it comes to theatre now.
So because of staying at home so much, now when I go out, I have so much anxiety about meeting people—which is really terrible considering the line of work we are in, I guess! But if I’m going to meet someone, I’ll be like, ‘What do I talk about?’ I forgot how to do small talk. Of course, the mask doesn’t help…
But also anxiety in buying tickets. So, you know, a little bit of what you were saying, Shu—so I now tend to buy tickets in twos or fours. And then I just hope that I can find friends who will be able to attend—I mean, I usually do, but I could easily solve that by buying one ticket. But if I go alone, I’ll also feel a bit not so great when I’m in the theatre. I don’t know. I don’t know what that’s about.
So to me, it’s a very kind of anxious thing. And I think something that we didn’t talk about was how a lot of actors are getting COVID, and shows are being totally cancelled. So Pulang Balik by Ekamatra was cancelled on the day it was meant to open. And I was meant to go for that show. And I had seen how they had made the set, everything was all done… And then they had to be like, ‘It’s cancelled. Someone has COVID.’
And yeah, I dunno the general sense of anxiety in the air. Also anxiety for the theatre makers, because anything could happen and then they would have to cancel months of work. So that’s how I would put it.
Matt, what about you?
ML: Yeah, similar to that idea of anxiety, I think in 2020 theatre companies were running on adrenaline, fighting for their lives. You know, you’re backed into a corner—you’ve really just got to do everything you can to retain your existence in the world. And I think there’s an extent to which that’s easier: you’re forced to make online work. It may be good; it may be bad—but you know that you won’t be judged for it permanently because it’s so excused by the conditions of the time.
As someone who makes theatre myself, I did two plays under COVID conditions and it was fairly clear most of the time what was required—well, it changed a lot, but you kind of knew you couldn’t have people touching each other, they would have to be maybe a meter apart. So if you direct your play according to the most strict version of the rules, and you only expect maybe ten people in the audience, then, okay, you can do a show under those circumstances. And there’s even a certain extent to which there’s a creative challenge in getting around those hurdles and still doing something that’s good.
But in 2021, so many of the obvious threats went away. Like we saw plays where a full range of blocking was available to directors. Theatre venues were allowed to have audiences in. But it’s still not the right number of audiences. And so your houses are incredibly cold.
ML: You have, as you said, such anxiety about whether something will change that will destroy everything you’ve just done. Whether that’s somebody getting COVID or suddenly your actors aren’t allowed to touch. And yet those who are lucky are able to make shows that look quite good and which may be judged in their permanent canon of work. So you’re also thinking, well, no matter what happens, I have to do something that will add to the legacy of my company.
ML: And the level of drain people must feel…
After The Mother, Adrian gave one of his customary little talks at the end. And usually, you know, he’s in full showman mode and he cracks jokes… And yeah, he did that as well—but this time he was also very understandably angry.
ML: Not at anyone; just furious at the way the world is. And this was despite having just produced a show to a very high standard. (I didn’t like the script, but the production was great.)
And I haven’t gone to the theatre as much as I usually do. And I’m realising that maybe it’s because I’m reading the wear in people—even though, as performers, they surmount it. But I’m inferring that it nonetheless exists.
NS: Right. I think you are also starting to cover something that we want to talk about next, which is trends and observations. I mean, some of what we’re talking about here have been the things that were out of people’s control, right? So especially either pandemic-related, government-related, or whatever-restrictions-related. But I also feel that there were some interesting choices and formats and things that came out that were maybe a bit more positive or which perhaps gave more agency to the companies and the artists who’ve managed to do a lot of very different work this year compared to last year. So my next question is actually what trends and observations did you all have this year in particular?
NK: As we mentioned earlier last year, everyone was scrambling to retool and move online. But I think this year, a lot of the companies approached it with a lot more awareness that this is the format that they have to work with, so obviously a lot of the shows we saw were designed to be consumed online and were done so in a very well-thought-out and well-executed manner. There were some filmed shows—I think one example that I’d like to raise is Keluarga Besar En. Karim by Checkpoint Theatre, which was entirely shot online, but yet you are aware that it is meant to be performed in a theatre space, and it functions as a beautiful 90-minute film. And that was so well-crafted and a wonderful experience to watch.
And then obviously the festivals: the Fringe Festival, the SIFA, the Festival of Women—all of these had hybrid shows clearly designed with that online audience member in mind as well. So I think it was nice to see that awareness and recognition of the situation where you know where your audience is going to be located and how you respond to that. So that was, I think, a clear differentiating factor from last year where it was almost like you’re just getting a poorer version of the stage version.
KW: Yeah, but, you know, despite the companies being a lot more sure about the form that they want to present their theatre in, I cannot help but feel that some uncontrollable parts of the COVID pandemic seem to have knowingly or unknowingly seeped into the world of these plays that we are being presented with. The first thing I think about is Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre, presented at SIFA this year And I liked the show generally, but it was really odd because Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters is set in Russia in the 1900s, but then, because the actors from the SITI Company (whom Nine Years was collaborating with) couldn’t fly in, they actually projected the SITI actors onstage as these projections. And it was so odd! I was joking to people that it reminds me of, if you watch Power Rangers, Zordon the guardian of the Power Rangers that is stuck in this time warp kind of tube. It was so odd! And then you saw these actors holding iPads onstage, and I didn’t really know what to make of it.
And of course, the enforced mask-wearing during that Phase Two Heightened Alert period… and it made me wonder: now the stories in which these shows were set are informed by COVID aesthetics, and that distracted me a bit as an audience member. I still don’t know how to wrap my head around it.
LS: I think for me, trends are really hard to talk about this year because there’s just so many things that are happening—not just in terms of the phases, ‘Stabilisation Phase’ and whatnot, how many people are allowed in a theatre, whether or not you need to wear masks, whether you can touch your cast members and so on. I think in that sense, trends are really hard to spot, but I think that now at the end of the year, looking back at it, I really have to hand it to the artists and the creatives who were just a hundred percent ‘the show must go on’ and were finding ways to negotiate all these really weird things that we’re having to experience this year.
And I have to say that I was also very keenly aware that people were leaving 2020 thinking, ‘Okay, 2021 is going to be better. We’re going to be more innovative about the things that we put out. We’re going to also not let the pandemic stand in our way. We’re going to talk about the things that we want to talk about—format-wise, be that as it may, I will overcome that.’ So I really appreciate that. And I want to give a shout-out to all the creatives that have put out work this year. It’s just so hard to put out work. And I think no matter what they did put out, whether or not it was top-notch quality, by choice or by force, maybe they weren’t able to develop it the way they wanted to… I think that’s just worth applauding.
And I also noticed that there were a lot of adaptations being made to not only smaller cast sizes, but actually the format of certain series like 1t’s N0t 4b0ut 7h3 Numb3r5 really focused more on the experience, even if it was one-to-one or, you know, to a small group—they really cared more about what is the comfort and what is the relationship that we need to build with each other through art, rather than just inviting a big group of people.
Of course, it’s nice to have a big group of people, but I think we’re also realising that sometimes people need fun, people need comfort’ people need that connection after being isolated for so long. And I think every little effort counts when it comes to making work like that.
I think to that point, I found myself feeling like a bad critic this year, because anything that I watched that needed something out of me to forget COVID and just buy into the world of the play in live shows, I couldn’t appreciate because (a bit like what Weiliang is saying) I can’t ignore that there’s COVID. I can’t ignore that inequality has worsened during the pandemic. I can’t deny that certain stories are not being told. So when I see a particular piece of theatre that is asking me to forget all of this, I cannot appreciate it, and I get turned off. Which is why, for me, the smallest shows, the ones that acknowledge and confront the fact that we are in this thing together and it’s terrible and it’s shit—you know what I mean? I appreciated those a lot more. And it made me feel like a bad critic because I couldn’t engage with the other type.
I don’t know why, but that was a thing that I thought about this year—and a few of us have talked about not having watched a lot of shows this year, and feeling kind of guilty about that as well. And I feel that I almost wonder about that guilt, because in a sense, theatre is no longer theatre, right? The forms are bleeding as well. So we might have experienced things in a different manner, and maybe it wasn’t quote-unquote theatre, but maybe it was something else that artists were trying out.
And we mentioned a bit about the smaller cast sizes, the one-on-one experiences… I think a trend this year was solo audio, walking-type performance-art shows. So I think SIFA had quite a number of those. Checkpoint Theatre also did quite a number of podcasts and things like that… Audio walks—I did one—
KW: Yeah, you were involved in one.
NS: Tried not to mention that, but yeah, I did one.
Yeah, and I feel like those formats are appreciated by different kinds of audiences now who maybe (like me) don’t want to sit in a theatre with a hundred different—I mean, I don’t know about a hundred, but you know, many people and just pretend that COVID doesn’t exist outside of the theatre space. And the fact that we’re wearing masks already shows that we can’t forget—for me, at least, the mask physically reminds me that it’s no longer what it was before.
And just a quick shout-out to smaller theatre development programmes that are coming out. So, there’s something called Tunjuk Arah, which Fezhah Maznan is doing with Ekamatra, where they are trying to get Malay and Tamil theatre practitioners to improve in their directorial skills, which is something that I think we wouldn’t have thought about that much before the pandemic. And obviously it’s also funded by the SEPG grant. And I just wanted to talk about how, you know how last year the SEPG grant was all about creating shows, like production of so many shows online that we didn’t kind of ask for? But this year there’s a bit more consideration about like, ‘How can we use this funding to improve our work in a way that’s not about creating work?’ So I thought that’s something worth mentioning.
ML: Yeah, similar to what you’re saying about there being more podcasts and walkabouts, even if you’re the kind of person who does want to sit in the theatre, I think that was more text than ever last year. Maybe it’s just me, but everything I saw was very text heavy. And so many of my favourite shows throughout my (my God, I’m old!) history of being a critic have been rather more visual than that. And it feels like with the conditions we have, maybe theatre companies are shying away from overlapping with dance, from creating complex mise en scènes that involve people doing crazy things. And then there’s a reliance on text. Things like the impossibly long-named, non-capitalised a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, for example, even though it had a couple of lifts in it, it was so wordy. We had Pangdemonium doing what seems to be their first monologue…
And I absolutely understand why you would go there because the alternative is far more difficult and may not even be possible. But I think that also introduces, perhaps even more tiredness, because what do we do in COVID? What we’re doing right now: we sit around and talk about things. So even though OIWA by The Finger Players was actually quite texty, it was nice to see that visual scale. And there’s absolutely no blame for the people who couldn’t do that, because for all that OIWA was extremely visual and extremely physical, it was almost uniquely designed to fit into any COVID restriction. You know, they could have basically said ‘Theatre is cancelled,’ and OIWA would still have gone on, just because of this strange two-dimensional, puppeteering, yes-it’s-fine-to-wear-masks way that it was designed. So no blame on anyone who didn’t do that, but I’m eager to return to a time where we’re not quite as reliant on text.
NS: Interesting observation, I didn’t think about that at all, Matt.
Let’s go on to talk about something that I guess a year-in-review tends to do, which is look back at shows that stood out to us for any reason. And I think this year, the difference is that it’s not so much about looking at the best of things, because I don’t think we think about things in that way anymore, but really things that maybe stood out to you or did something new, did something interesting for us here in the studio. Yeah, maybe three shows that stood out to you this year. Naeem, do you want to start?
NK: Okay. Yeah, and I think it’s a very important point because I think on the whole, this was not a fantastic year of shows, and that might just be the way I responded personally to the shows. I didn’t think there were blockbusters left, right and centre, but I think there were shows that obviously resonated with me for whatever reason, and they could have been small or big.
And I think it’s important to just recognise that it’s still under very challenging circumstances; I wouldn’t describe this as being similar to my experiences pre-COVID. One thing that I did enjoy—the first one would be Pandan by Rupa co.lab. Only their second show. This was a show which was about gay relationships within the Malay Muslim community, and I think it was very bold because it involved a Malay religious leader as one of the characters as well. Again, just a very honest, raw, well-written, powerful and probing piece about people trying to live their truth and explore their identities, which we would really not have seen before. And it’s extremely bold obviously by Singapore standards. I was really glad to have seen it staged, and staged by a new collective at that. So that was something that really stood out for me.
I think Matt has already mentioned OIWA, which I think for me stood out purely in terms of the scale—it’s just such a beautiful show. Obviously it had a longer gestation period, but Chong Tze Chien just put together such a wonderful show that was full of visuals and costumes and sets—and it almost for a while made me forget that we were in this COVID era: it’s going back to the big, lush musicals and shows that we used to see. And I think for me, it was everywhere on par with the best you would see in the likes of your MBS and Broadway and all of those kinds of things. So it was really nice to be part of that. And I was fortunate to have also experienced it live, which just again created that sense of scale and everything.
And the other show which stood out to me, again more for its themes, was Straight Acting by Wild Rice, which was I believe the third play by Thomas Lim, and also incidentally a play about gay couples, but this time more about the issues they have with respect to Singapore’s housing policy, which is not a theme that has been explored very much in theatre. And just, again, a very sharp, funny, bittersweet look at all these heteronormative policies that inform our state, and how people who do not fit within a certain mould don’t really have a place to belong.
So for me, it was just the themes. It was very well acted. There was great chemistry in the cast; and well-directed—and Thomas Lim actually also directed the show. So that stood out for me. So, yeah, that’s my contribution.
LS: Yeah, I want to echo Naeem’s thought on OIWA as well. I think that was something that really stood out to me, and it was bout two and a half hours long, or something like that. But at the end of it, I was like, ‘No! I want more! I want more!’ And I think that was something that defined my experience with theatre this year: shows that allowed me to really immerse myself in the experience of being with other people in a time when social interaction is something so limited.
And I think the shows that really reminded me of this were also things like _____ Can Change where being in a theatre made sense, and talking about certain things that you would normally discuss over social media made sense when you could see the people and have a town-hall type of setting to address those pressing concerns, and really just reflect in an accountable way, I guess, because when you’re alone, you tend to be only accountable to yourself. But I think when you’re with people, you’re reminded, okay, I exist in a community, I exist in a society.
And I think a few other shows that stood out to me and also followed these trends were stuff like Xiao Ming by Impromptu Meetings—
KW: The Chronicles of Xiao Ming.
LS: Right. That was held over Zoom. And I think they really utilised that chat function. It was about the struggles of learning a language and, you know, it was also more fun and interactive. It really didn’t have that much high stakes, but I think it was also just an entertaining night online with other people. It felt like a games night basically.
And I think I gravitated to some of the other shows like the shows in STRIKE! Festival. Although one could probably argue that some of them are not theatre per se (but that’s a discussion for another day). But I think the fact that they engaged with Instagram Live, TikTok, the YouTube tutorial format, Telegram… I think it gave us a lot to think about in terms of like, when we talk about digital, we’re not just talking about Zoom; we’re talking about all these different platforms, all these different types of attitudes. And again, I guess, engagement with a younger audience. I think that also sparked a lot of joy in me, experiencing.
And also 100 Advertisements…
NS: Tell us more about that one.
KW: Eng Kai Er.
LS: Eng Kai Er, yes. I still think about it today and I’m not so sure what I actually experienced– but we would start out on Zoom, and Kai Er would facilitate the movement across different platforms, mainly YouTube and a Google document. And on YouTube, there would be clips of her performing—doing pole dancing, but also rollerblading in an inflatable dinosaur costume.
And you would also be interacting with your fellow audience members on the Google document. And we were present as little colourful cursors on the document, typing our thoughts, replying to each other, annotating… And I know I’m probably butchering the concept of it, but she would facilitate you to interact, and then watch a segment of the performance, and then interact again, answer some questions, share your thoughts.
It was quirky, it was well curated, it felt like I was being led through an experimental journey through things that I interacted with on a regular basis. And I think that brings people together, and you are able to see things in a new light, and you’re able to establish connections that you don’t think you would have otherwise established.
And I think it was just that all these shows, what they have in common is that they hold space for you to have fun in a way that, you know, you don’t have to answer to anyone. You’re there in the present moment with your audience members, and you’re having fun, you’re free—you don’t have to wear your mask on Zoom! You can just do whatever you want, type whatever you want, but you also show mutual respect in that space. And I think I really appreciated that about these smaller shows because going to the theatre is a wonderful thing, but I think what’s more important is making connections and feeling like you’re actually within a community that cares for you, even if they may be total strangers.
NS: Actually, if I may jump in with my list, just because I feel that it tags on quite well. So for me, I also liked shows that were kind of… I don’t even know whether to call them shows to be honest—
KW: Or even theatre, right?
NS: Or even theatre. But for me, it was definitely about that idea of almost like communion with audiences, but not necessarily in the theatre space. So for example, the one I thought about was Both Sides Now by Drama Box and ArtsWok—but this was the Malay version, so it’s talking about how do you prepare for death? How do you take care—like palliative care, and all these arrangements you make for yourself or for your loved ones.
And this was the Malay version, so it was called Mengukir Harapan, which is about hope as well. So it comes in many different forms; it’s like its own thing, right? They took, I don’t know, more than a year to prep for this entire thing, but the one I really zoomed in on was something called Radio Dukacita, which means like ‘The Radio of Sadness’ probably.
And what they did was, they had a DJ who was Big, or Zulfadli Rashid, and he would encourage people to call in. And instead of like song dedications, they were calling into share stories that they had about loss or about people that they love and have had difficult situations leading to their final moments.
And I remember listening to that in Tampines 1 outside of Popeye’s or something. And I was like waiting for my Popeye’s burger but listening to this lady share a really, really intimate story about her mom and dealing with her mom’s passing. And this lady obviously needed therapy, but that moment was a way for her to process and talk about really difficult issues, and she was just crying and sobbing, and Big had to hold space for her.
And I think she maybe thought she would speak for like a short while, but she ended up speaking for half an hour or something. And, you know, how can you stop a person who’s really sharing things, which maybe she’s never shared before? And I was crying while waiting for my Popeye’s burger.
And I mean, that thing didn’t come out of nothing. So they had done little skits about the topic, and then they opened up this radio thing—and it had happened for a few days as well. So it felt like, ‘Oh, this is what theatre is!’ Or ‘This is what the arts are!’ you know?
And after that, they actually got a therapist to speak to her. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!’ This is theatre bringing about change, you know? We did talk about _____ Can Change and things like that, but it was really powerful.
Another one was Not Grey by Salty Ng Xi Jie. So that was part of the NOW Festival of Women, which Naeem mentioned earlier, and that was a piece that was involving older Singaporean women talking not just about aging and the fact that aging equals old, but really about what they enjoy out of life, what do they do in life, what brings them joy? And it was on Zoom as well, so we got to interact with some of them live and speak to them live as well.
And I was like, ‘Wow, why do we not engage all these different communities when we create art?’ We always talk about theatre being a bit elitist, right? Or, you know, reaching out to a particular class of people mostly. So I felt that this was one of those shows that allowed me to think about a community that I didn’t usually think about. Which is really odd, because I’ll be that community soon. (I’m not that old but– okay!)
NK: No, no, and actually, just to mention, because I caught Rasanai: An Invitation to Appreciate, which was also part of the Festival of Women. And again, exactly the same thing: I think it was about a younger woman wanting to sort of inherit and appreciate the cultures and customs of her ancestors or her older relatives. And it was just so beautiful and nourishing really, because it was like the Singapore Tamil culture, which again unfortunately has just not been given that space in the scene so much. And I think it’s great that there are all these collectives now, like Brown Voices, which are bringing those stories to the fore.
So it was just so nice to be allowed to be part of that presentation and learn more about those cultures and those voices.
NS: Yeah, which does talk about the inequality and like addressing all those things that we were talking about earlier.
One last shout-out was to the Substation SeptFest. So obviously the Substation this year has had an interesting year. Safe to say. And obviously we wish Substation 2.0 all the best under Ezzam Rahman’s AD-ship. But SeptFest this year was billed as like the last SeptFest, right? And there were a lot of interesting smaller shows being done, you know, in the vein of Substation’s experimental personality or vibe. It was very experimental. I was watching shows and feeling like, ‘Wow, I almost forgot what fringe theatre was like!’ Because Singapore theatre has a polish to it sometimes – oftentimes – and for me, the Substation was a way to watch really, really, really new fringe things.
And because it was the last one, there was this feeling of like, ‘Oh, we may not ever have this again!’ And SeptFest was also done under pandemic conditions, so there were so many things that made it poignant and urgent for me. And so that’s why I wanted to bring up SeptFest.
There was a show called Brown is Haram, so also talking about minority experiences. So just these avenues and platforms for smaller shows to really have their time in the sun, so to speak.
KW: The first one I want to give a shout-out to is #THEATRE by Index, the design collective. I believe it’s Darren Ng, the lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, and the spatial designer Lim Wei Ling. They had this site-specific piece with no actors in the Esplanade Theatre. So basically audience members were ushered onto the Esplanade Theatre’s stage, which is massive, and then they just sit down there for 45 minutes, right? And they get this multi-sensory immersion into the usually unseen architecture of the Esplanade Theatre backstage, which you wouldn’t see if you don’t work backstage. And it made me really emotional. I think if you talk about pandemic-purpose works, I felt that this was the most pandemic-purpose work that I’ve experienced in the past two years.
I mean, the timing was very on point because it was staged in January, right? And it was just two months after we were allowed to start going to theatres live as audience members again. But for me, I have been a casual worker… I was a casual worker at the Esplanade for about six years (five years at the point #THEATRE was staged), and it made me question my relationship with not just the Esplanade Theatre, but theatre spaces in general, because I think that was a point of time when access into theatres, both as theatremakers and as audience members, was limited in a sense, right? You could no longer take it for granted anymore. And to see the Esplanade Theatre in its tabula rasa form, that was really moving for me.
The other two shows I would give a shout out to… I’m not sure if the makers of those shows would consider them theatre, but I going to say anyway: Daging by Body Troubles.
So Body Troubles is I think a performance series curated by the now-Germany-based dance artist Ming Poon. And Daging was actually performed by Hasyimah Harith of P7:1SMA. And so to give context for those who didn’t catch it, it’s a performance about the conflict that Hasyimah herself experienced as a Malay Muslim woman over having her body policed by the state and the religion.
And I can’t remember how long the performance was, but basically it was her re-enactment of this birthing tradition called lenggang perut, where it involves the midwife massaging the pregnant woman’s abdomen. So for context, Hasyimah was actually pregnant when the performance happened. And, you know, with this birthing tradition, the midwife usually has to do a series of rituals, but in this case Hasyimah was doing it to herself by herself.
And I found that really moving because… we talk about site-specific, but this was time-specific to her pregnancy, right? And her doing it when she was actually pregnant rather than embodying a pregnant character really enhanced the explorations of sensuality that she was trying to bring across.
And it kind of reminded me of TNS’ and Paddy Chew’s Completely With/Out Character when Paddy Chew performed it months before he passed away from an AIDS-related illness, so that was really moving.
The last show (or maybe not show) that I would give a shout out to was presented as part of The Theatre Practice’s It’s Not About the Numbers series: The Last Gardener by Isabella Chiam.
So it’s actually a workshop performance, I would say, where Isabella is playing this autofictional character called Flo. And then it’s one to two audience members actually. And Isabella’s character guides you through the process of potting a plant from scratch. And as you’re potting the plant, Isabella’s character also talks about her own experiences with gardening and how her late father influenced that and how it has brought her comfort in her lowest moments of life. And also she talks about this tale of the last gardener of Aleppo (Abu Ward, I believe), the gardener who actually built a very beautiful garden in the midst of war-torn Syria.
And for me, I found that very moving because even though I don’t have a relationship with plants, to be honest, but it was really grounding. I could see how plants can now actually bring you comfort in your lowest moments, because ultimately it’s still a living being, but at the same time, it’s not like a pet where there’s a more two-way care-interaction that you give to the pet. But with plants, something I brought away from this experience was that even if you screw up taking care of a plant, the plant will still forgive you, you know?
NS: And thrive.
KW: Yeah, it will still thrive and you don’t have to be so guilty about it.
So yeah, those were my three picks of this year.
NS: Wonderful. Matt?
ML: Yeah, I liked some of the ones that have already been mentioned: Pandan, OIWA, and ‘Indians Can Change’ from _____ Can Change. A couple of other things as well, but that’s not even really the point for me.
I’ve mentioned that I am the senior presence in the room, and I think it’s fair to say I’ve seen as much 21st-century Singaporean theatre as anyone alive. And last year I saw less theatre than I have ever, ever, ever seen. And to bookend the show, one of the things Naeem said earlier, one of his ‘R’s was Ritual. And I think the ritual of theatre is somewhat broken for me at the moment. And I wonder if personally it’s because I can’t turn off judgment.
Judgment to me – even in 2020 – was part of what made me enjoy a play. It meant that I could think that a play was terrible but still come out having a positive experience because of all the thoughts it provoked. And you know, this is a room full of critics: people are nodding. And I think even in 2020, there was some value to that because the enemy was in your face. And no matter that the enemy was going to beat the theatre companies up, however they swerved or dodged or fainted, or just withstood being repeatedly punched in the face… that was something that you could judge with kindness, respect, and a certain amount of awe.
But now the enemy is not in your face, you know, he’s sniping from the shadows. And I wonder whether judgment is useful anymore. And I think I’m enjoying judging things less.
ML: And I can’t turn it off. So uniquely for me, the theatre I’ve seen this year has been Nabilah telling me what theatre to see this year.
NS: That’s funny!
ML: And hopefully it comes back because, you know, abstractly I believe in the benefit of criticism, but I honestly don’t know whether it’s any use at the moment.
And that’s how you end on a downer.
NS: Yeah. I mean, I’m going back to what I said about how we can’t go back to the original timeline anymore, and Shu, what you were talking about: the fact that that’s not even the point. And I’m also thinking about people like Naeem who do enjoy the kind of quote-unquote conventional big blockbuster shows. And I’m also wondering, like, what is a blockbuster anymore? And do I even want that?
We were also kind of guiltily talking about Netflix earlier, and how we all love Netflix, and how does that square with the fact that we are meant to be arts champions and critics—or arts lovers…
So let’s end this on less of a downer note, if we can!
NS: What is a word that y’all think of when we think about next year in theatre? I’m going to throw this to Naeem.
KW: Yeah, I guess for next year, I would like to see more asynchrony.
NS: Okay. Matt?
ML: I’m looking forward to the return of joy.
NS: Joy—ooh, I like that. Well, mine was kindness, but I kind of want to steal Matt’s joy.
ML: You steal my joy all the time, Nabilah!
NS: I think I give you joy. But anyway, thank you so much for joining us. I’m looking forward to what people think as well about our thoughts. So thanks everyone for joining us.
ALL: Thank you!
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