This article is one of three pieces on ArtsEquator this week focusing on the people, plays and processes of The Necessary Stage, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Aside from Archive Fever, we also feature Felipe Cervera’s profile of Alvin Tan, and Akanksha Raja’s personal reflection on Off Centre.
Shawn Chua and Edlyn Ng have been nose deep in The Necessary Stage’s collection of programmes, photos, audio-visual materials and other treasures gathered over 30 years of making art, as they build The Necessary Stage Archive, an online platform that will go ‘live’ later in the month. We spoke about the intent, process and function of the archive, and the potential for blackmail that old photos bring.
ArtsEquator (AE): We are here today with Shawn Chua and Edlyn Ng. Could you start by giving our readers an introduction to the Archive Project – what is it called, and briefly what does it contain?
Edlyn Ng (E): The archive project is called tnsarchives.com at the moment. It is an archival and documentation portal to be launched in conjunction with The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) 30th-anniversary celebrations. TNSarchives provides the public and researchers with troves of information, writings, recordings and visuals from the company’s activities over 30 years and beyond.
AE: What does the archive contain? Is it only online, or is there a physical archive too? Is the digital and physical archive open to the public?
E: The archive will contain information about our initiatives, such as production credits, festivals, TNS publications, workshops etc. The artefacts that will be made available for free online would be programme booklets, flyers, posters, selected production and publicity photographs etc. The show recordings would also be available via Vimeo and can be rented for a period of time to be streamed for a nominal fee.
Shawn Chua (S): The online interface will provide an overview of the resources available. For researchers who would like to explore further or request for our scripts, they may write to us, and come down to TNS to access the physical artefacts.
AE: Archiving is an interesting process. It often occurs at a certain point of an arts group’s (or art form’s) lifespan. The very act of it suggests institutionalisation – with all the positives and negatives of that term. How did the two of you approach the act of creating this archive?
S: This is a critical concern for us as well. I think before answering this question, I should make certain things clear first. The both of us did not ‘create’ the archives, or start it. The process of archiving has had a long history at TNS, with Alvin assiduously hoarding photographs, emails, letters, news clippings, programmes, flyers, director’s notebooks, and Haresh’s notebooks, research materials, etc. Subsequently, there were many individuals who were working on cataloguing and systematising the archives. People like Tze Chien, Yi-Sheng, and various staff members and interns, especially administrators have taken on this labour, formally or informally to maintain the archives at TNS.
What is perhaps more distinct about our role is that we were developing this online interface which is about making the materials accessible. With regards to the question about institutionalisation, I believe Haresh and Alvin were very cautious and aware about this, which was why they wanted to bring in someone who was external to the company (myself) to work on this archive.
In the design of the interface, there is a special function in which users can create collections out of the artefacts available. This was especially important because I was clear that the archive, while very rich in its resources, cannot simply be a repository of artefacts. It is designed as a kind of catalyst, an invitation, for users to make sense of these materials. In a way, it is perhaps also an invitation to create counter-narratives against particular myths that have calcified around the institutionalisation of TNS.
AE: In your mind, who are the potential users? Did you have multiple ‘categories’ of users, and how did these help you in designing the interface?
E: In designing something that is going to be made available publicly on such a large scale, we definitely had to keep in mind that we would have a variety of potential users. Our designers, RedAirship, has a useful term they refer to as ‘job stories’ which helps guide the way we customised the user interface.
There were a few main groups of people we were very conscious of in the design phases of the website. One of them was, of course, the researchers (academics). This guided the way we designed the specificity of the search function, down to the way we were categorising the various artefacts and projects in the website. Shawn and our other project partners were very helpful in pointing out what they found useful and/or cumbersome in other archival sites (we particularly loved the revamped NewspaperSG site, the clarity of how In Terms of Performance organises its materials and the user-centric features of Google Cultural Institute), and we have tried to integrate as much of their feedback into tnsarchives where possible. Of course, the website itself is still a work in progress and honestly, a lot of what we have decided to feature in the upcoming launch phase is still untested. Hence, we will rely a lot on the feedback collected during the user testing period to make the website as effective as possible.
Another group we were also excited about engaging with the website would be our audience. We imagined scenarios where, for example, an audience member would watch Being Haresh Sharma, and be curious to find out more about the plays that were mentioned/alluded to in the performance. Aside from purchasing the publication of the scripts, tnsarchive would allow them to access artefacts related to the aforementioned productions. They might even have the opportunity to gleam some new insights into those projects and plays. It provides the opportunity for the audience experience to continue beyond the physical boundaries of the theatre.
S: Just to add on to Edlyn’s point about the audience, I think it’s really about reaching out to casual users of the site who may not be very familiar with TNS or the theatre scene in Singapore. With this group in mind, we have curated collections based on some thematic interests that might invite users to be curious about the materials available. They are potential access points for users to navigate from, as we realised people can sometimes feel intimidated by the thought of an archive, often feeling disoriented about where to begin.
We also think about theatre practitioners, whether veterans or people who might be curious about pursuing theatre (students, etc.) Many of the programme booklets and publications available would illuminate the rich devising process and unique methodology of TNS and the often complex work of collaboration, that are sometimes not so apparent from the usual traces of performances (scripts, show recordings).
AE: Archiving is having a moment. Especially, archiving of visual arts, performance. Why do you think there is this interest in turning materials collected over time, into more formally categorized, publicly available resources?
S: I think especially with the performing arts, there is a critical sense of ephemerality in which there are often very little traces or remains available. Others have already pointed out how in the visual arts, a lot of resources go into things like catalogues that document an exhibition, in a way that there isn’t really an equivalent in the realm of performing arts. I can’t really speculate what is the exact trigger for the current archive fever, but I think part of it has to do with a maturing of the scene, where people are beginning to realise that the discourse surrounding the work needs to be sustained, and this is perhaps as critical as producing the work itself.
Personally, as a younger person navigating the scene, I’m also trying to contextualise and learn about how I am situated in this present moment. So more than a kind of nostalgic yearning for the past, the exigency of archives lies in its historicization of the present. I’m invested in making these materials available not so much to guard a particular imagination of the past, but to approach them as tools to understand and navigate our present moment, and charting our pathways beyond.
AE: Technology has taken archiving out of the hands of the state. The obstacles of resources such as time, physical space, reproduction are now more easily overcome. It seems like your point about making these materials available is about opening up rather than ossification. For example, thinking of the behemoths of National Archives, Library collections – in the hands of both colonial and national governments – the way that archives were as much acts of exclusion, based on what is not archived, as they were acts of historical records.
S: Ostensibly yes, but I think there’s something much more complex happening here about who bears the responsibility of archiving. What kind of support and resources are necessary, as well as the conversations that are had across various institutions, etc. I’d have to think more about this, but I would hesitate to make such an optimistic claim about technology too quickly.
AE: There is a pleasure in looking back of course. Can you each tell me about an item, a piece of info, a photo, that you came across that gave you some kind of personal thrill as someone who is involved in the present?
E: Definitely Staged News, The Necessary Pages and The Programme. The aforementioned were newsletters by TNS which featured not only information about upcoming productions, but also precious writings, thoughts and reflections by the artists and audience. We were very excited to unearth them, as every issue is a treasure trove of insight and fresh perspectives. The ambition and vision of those publications were very moving and though each were short-lived, they were projects of passion that made me feel humbled and inspired.
S: Oh, this is such an impossible question, and rather cruel to force me to pick an item! I think people often have in their minds the figure of the lone archivist secluded in the archives, slaving away. This is true, but there are also many passions that abound in the archives and a lot of affects that transpires. What I’m especially thrilled by are reading the letters from audience members who’d watched the 1993 production of Off Centre, offering their support, their intimate and thoughtful reflections, etc. This was a time when people felt so moved they’d write letters to the company, and it seemed to occur quite regularly. Unfortunately, these letters will not be available online, but I had the privilege of going through these materials. In some ways, I often feel that every artefact in the archive feels like a kind of letter, a kind of correspondence, not some inert object on the shelf, but a kind of letter addressed to the future, waiting for a response.
AE: No embarrassing photos of today’s theatre giants resplendent in 1980s fashion?
E: I would like to stay in employment!
S: There is plenty of blackmail material. Plenty. Enough for a few fundraising events.
AE: We’d bid in an auction for that! Thank you for joining us today. In closing, tell us when the archive will go ‘live’.
E: Phase 1 launch should begin sometime at the end of this month (July). You can access the archives at tnsarchives! Phase 1 of the launch will reveal about 60% of the website features, and after further user testing and development, we aim to fully launch it sometime in August/September 2017.
There’s a lot of testing to be done, and feedback to be gathered. In fact, I doubt that the website will ever be ‘complete’.
S: Yes, the building process will never end!
AE: We can definitely identify with that! Thank you both for your insights today, we are all very excited for the launch of tnsarchive!
A corporate video for The Necessary Stage, created in 1996 for its 10th anniversary. Courtesy of The Necessary Stage.
Shawn Chua is a researcher at The Necessary Stage. He holds an MA in Performance Studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and is a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Arts Scholarship (Postgraduate).
Edlyn Ng is a Project Manager at The Necessary Stage (TNS). She began her career in Arts Management after graduating from LASALLE College of the Arts and has been with TNS since 2012.
The header image depicts Noorlinah Mohamed Under The Last Dust (2000). An exploratory piece of work, Under The Last Dust was conceived and directed by Jean Ng with collaboration with 16 female artists. The artists included Elizabeth de Roza, Goh Guat Kian, Natalie Hennedige, Hsieh Nizhen, Fanny Kee, Koh Leng Leng, Kuo Jian Hong, Noorlinah Mohamed, Serena Pang, Luanne Poh, Gillian Stephens, Patricia Toh, Melisa Wee and Cindy Yeong.