It's play time!
English-language works are getting a boost in Singapore, writes Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop - and none too soon
SINGAPOREAN PLAYWRIGHT Haresh Sharma has written more than 50 plays, all of which have been produced - most locally and some internationally. Yet, schoolchildren don't study his texts and few will have heard of him - until now.
One of Sharma's plays, Off Centre, about the plight of mental-illness patients, has been selected by the Ministry of Education as one of a handful of Singaporean works to be included for the first time on the O-Level syllabus.
This recognition, and the fact that the works of five local playwrights are being premiered this month at the inaugural Singapore Festival Theatre, suggests that local English-speaking theatre is on the rebound - even though others, especially Putonghua-speaking theatre, aren't.
Singapore's local theatre scene has been up and down during the past 20 years. For much of the 1980s, troupes were mainly interested in producing foreign works. During the 90s came a resurgence of local playwriting - thanks, in part, to grants from the National Art Council.
'That was really good, because it changed attitudes towards local playwrights,' says Alvin Tan, artistic director of the Necessary Stage.
But the new millennium and the spread of globalisation brought back an influx of foreign plays, in large part because doing something Singaporean was viewed as parochial, Tan says.
Ivan Heng, artistic director of W!ld Rice, agrees. 'I think the community became quite obsessed with going global. And with funding very low and the cost of renting venues going up, most people were doing adaptations. Producers don't want to take risks on new plays. It's easier to take a western play and adapt it.'
For these reasons, Heng approached several local playwrights to commission works for his Singapore Theatre Festival, which runs until August 20.
'I wanted to nurture and develop a festival that would engage, relate to and resonate with audiences,' says Heng. 'What's interesting with the plays is that, because they're new, they're hot, topical and relevant to where we are now as a society.'
The inaugural festival, which involves several theatre companies, is presenting eight local productions exploring questions of identity, nationality and politics, and home.
Playwrights say the festival is giving them a rare opportunity to stage their works. Admittedly, there are a number of competitions and writing programmes, but playwrights say that winning these doesn't guarantee the play will get staged.
Wong Chen Seong is a case in point. The 23-year-old won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year award 2002 and the Singapore Young Dramatists Award.
'He's probably the most awarded young playwright that has yet to be produced - and that's symptomatic,' says Heng. 'A playwright can't learn unless he's staged in front of an audience.' Wong's Salsa, Salsa, Salsa! will be staged as part of the festival.
For many local playwrights, making a living from writing remains difficult. Only a few troupes have a resident playwright - the Necessary Stage has Sharma and W!ld Rice has Alfian Sa'at. 'It's important that we don't just produce a local play, but give sustained support to a playwright over time by sponsoring him,' Tan says.
Established playwright Eleanor Wong, who is a full-time lawyer by day, will have a new play staged during the festival. The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ, about former opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam, is a tongue-in-cheek look at 'the boundaries of fearless expression in Singapore', and comes with an audience advisory: 'Contains whimsy, satire, parody and copious amounts of exaggerated comedy. If you are on a strict diet of literal fare or are easily offended by irreverence, please consult your MP before attending.'
Whether the play will be passed by the local censor without any cuts remains to be seen. 'We've been warned that we should be wary,' says Heng. Given the timing of the festival - a few weeks before the opening of an International Monetary Fund meeting and Singapore's first, much touted biennale - the authorities may find it less embarrassing to let the play through.
If the new festival is expected to boost the profile of local English-speaking plays, something similar has yet to be established for Putonghua-speaking theatre, practitioners say.
Compared with a decade ago, only a few companies such as Theatre Practice and Drama Box now produce works in the language. Older Chinese companies such as the Singapore Art Theatre and Yi-Lien, which had their heydays from the 50s to the 70s, have become quiet.
Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of the Theatre Practice, says that, in terms of quantity of staged plays, Putonghua-speaking theatre in Singapore is fighting 'an uphill battle'.
'This has to do with the fact that Mandarin as a first language is a rare thing these days. The result is that there's a shortage of local writers who can write well in Chinese, and can write good plays as well,' she says.
'I'm afraid this situation will probably not improve, even if it doesn't get worse,' Kuo says. 'However, in terms of the quality of the work that is being done within Mandarin-speaking theatre, I would have to say that it's thriving.'
Chinese playwright Ng How Wee says that, although there are awards recognising the work of Chinese playwrights and grants are available from the National Arts Council, theatre practitioners and policy-makers aren't doing enough to promote play-writing in Putonghua.
For Malay theatre, the three long-standing local companies (Teater Ekamatra, Teater Artistik and Teater Kami) are still producing a regular, albeit limited, number of works. Ekamatra held its youth theatre festival, Pesta Peti Putih (White Box Festival), in July, at which students mentored by Ekamatra since March presented their finished pieces.
The companies have sometimes found it hard to please the Malay audience, even if boundaries are slowly shifting. Finding interesting new scripts is a challenge, especially because troupes need to appeal to the more conservative Malay community, while also attracting non-Malays to remain in business.
Singapore Theatre Festival, Drama Centre. Ends Aug 20. For programme details, go to www.singaporetheatrefestival.com