A Spotlight on Singapore’s Theatre Scene

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Theatre is one of those artforms that transcends boundaries. When Thespis first took to the stage enacting his poetry for an audience, he formalised a style of entertainment that parents and children had been experimenting with for generations. In doing so, for more than two millennia, he has enabled the likes of us to search for stories that people want to hear and create an entire industry around telling them. The concept of minority theatre takes this exact notion into account – how do you ensure that people who are not always represented get to see themselves being a part of culture? How do you support those whose language, background, or lived experiences are different from mainstream community?

Divided into three official ‘races’, four official languages, and the ‘Other’, the country of Singapore is a unique landscape in which to discover the performing arts. The key to understanding Singapore’s theatrical culture comes from understanding its history. When the country was founded in 1965, its three main ‘races’ were ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, and ‘Indian’ (mostly referring to the Tamilians of South India). This ethnic mix confirmed Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil as three of the official languages with English being the fourth (a useful common medium that no doubt also helped build Singapore’s current prosperity)1. But the country doesn’t just have these three ethnicities and four languages – the obliquely described ‘Other’ covers a myriad of languages and ethnicities from French and Japanese to Latin American, Caribbean, of African origin, and, tellingly, Indian (non-Tamilian).

To be considered a member of the minority in a country whose Indian diaspora is already only about 7.4% of the population2 is a unique feeling. Today, Tamilians make up around 50% of the current Indian population. Tamilians first came to Singapore around 150 years ago as labourers and traders under the British empire. By 1860, they were the second-largest community in the country after the Chinese3 (their numbers have since been surpassed by the Malay community4). As Singapore’s global financial might grew, more and more non-Tamilian Indians moved to Singapore. Many of these Indians did not speak Tamil, nor did they identify as closely with Tamilian culture. To simplify the census process however, these ‘fresh’ Indians were labelled as Indian, and the country moved forward with little complaint.

That is until I went to a lunch in 2018 where I met a professional dancer who is ostensibly a non-Tamilian but certainly believes that theatre and the arts are deemed too respectable and sacred to be tarnished by those “amateur theatrical groups seeking to provide entertainment for their own friends and family”. The entertainment in question is theatrical performances put on by companies supporting non-professional or professional unpaid actors, often with trained producers and crew. Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) generously provides grants to almost all companies that seek funds for a production regardless of language or background; however it does tend to promote professional theatre where possible, meaning that theatre in one of the four main languages is generally better regarded and better supported.

At the time of that conversation, I was the production manager for Singapore’s first Hindi theatre festival, DASTAK – an annual short-and-sweet theatre concept with ten 10-minute plays in Hindi, each with its own cast and director (a total of about sixty dedicated artists per production). To be told that my work, and the work of my fellow casts and crews in DASTAK and the five other stage productions I did between 2016 and 2021, was pandering, unprofessional, and unworthy of the term ‘theatre’ was a gut-punch. Since then, however, I have come to realise the one thing this professional-dancer-turned-public-servant for the Singaporean culture ministry may have forgotten: theatre is for the masses, and the masses seek stories they understand.

Then again, the definition of ‘masses’ in a place like Singapore is complex. Most people in the country either do not enjoy or are unable to afford regular trips to the theatre, thus whittling down ‘masses’ to those with disposable income – a luxury in and of itself. Personal preference dictates the genre and language of a show one chooses to attend, thus further limiting audience numbers. True theatre supporters will not, in good conscience, spend time or money on a show they know they are not interested in. Some may choose to support a performance because they know the actor or director, but that can be compared to watching the Broadway flop Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark if Tom Holland had played Spider-Man, simply because one knows his talents.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider ‘minority masses’ as the cross-section of Singaporean society that:

  1. Enjoys theatre
  2. Has enough disposable income to afford $40 tickets
  3. Knows of, or knows how to find, shows that interest them
  4. Is likely to speak at least one language other than English

To that end, shows like DASTAK, or indeed any other local French, German, or even Japanese productions, which are founded for minority audiences, are exclusively niche. That some have found wider audiences is in part due to the NAC’s insistence on surtitles (subtitles for theatre), but overall, the shows themselves are rarely professional in the traditional sense – oftentimes actors and directors have full-time jobs outside theatre or even the arts, rehearsals take place in the evenings and on weekends, and plays tend to be staged in Blackboxes or the more affordable small theatres in Singapore – the largest of which has 380 seats5.  Marketing budgets for these shows is equally limited, although Singapore does see some creative marketing targeted at those for whom theatre is not standard entertainment (flyers in local food centres, for instance).

When discussing these shows, I prefer the term ‘semi-professional’, given the child-like implications of the term ‘amateur’. As any practitioner will tell you, any craft, done at any level, requires dedication, time commitment, money, skill, and training. The unfortunate implication of theatre for the minority masses in Singapore is that because they cannot put on a performance with elaborate sets or professionally trained actors, the artform is not true, regardless of one’s calling to the stage. Seasoned performing art professionals in Singapore often forget that they themselves started on small stages – at school for instance – and chose then to make a living out of it. They are the comparatively lucky and tenacious ones who made their calling their life, unlike those in the semi-professional world who, for whatever reason, did not purse the arts professionally. The contrast in these circumstances, however, does not negate the passion, intensity, dedication, or even training that semi-professional practitioners have. Indeed, on Singapore’s smaller stages, at times the lines between professional and semi-professional get blurred – in DASTAK, for instance, many of our directors are professional thespians, who chose to direct one of the ten plays for a small honorarium fee and in exchange were given the freedom to be creatively experimental. Equally, the production value for a play like DASTAK depends on the quality controls one puts on it. Directors are handpicked for their character, creativity, and proven commitment, and while calls for actors, backstage crew, and scripts are made public, the core committee weens out the weakest of each of these using stringent criteria, resulting in only the best available being involved in the final production. This is a typical process in much of the semi-professional theatre in Singapore. Arguably this makes for an incestuous pool of talent, but it is hard to deny the quality available for a country so small.

All this is to say that the criticism of semi-professional theatre being of lower quality, pandering, and not true showmanship is not necessarily founded. Yes, there are those shows which are of lesser quality, put on by a group keen to bring a very specific story to the stage; but even there, the story and the audience are pre-defined. They feed into each other and provide entertainment for those niche audiences who are truly a Singaporean minority (Marathi theatre, for instance, can be hit-or-miss). But equally it is becoming more and more common for practitioners and the audience to seek value-for-money entertainment: potentially limited in style and finesse, but certainly with the appearance of a well-scripted, professional production. Ultimately, quality is the country’s artistic watchword: true practitioners know when a show simply isn’t up to the mark, and they seek to improve themselves the next time around.

At the heart of this discussion lies the question of why so much time, money, and collective effort has been put into semi-professional theatre. The answer is quite simple and goes back to the beginning: it is about expression, and the desire to see relatable stories creatively told. Theatre is universally immersive: two hours in the dark where one goes to hide from the world and experience the darkest, deepest, most intimate parts of human existence. How these stories are told changes with every show, and no artist or audience would have it any other way. Every single thespian says theatre is electric: being in that space, on that stage, owning it for those two hours provides an irreplaceable energy that cannot be found in any other way. It also travels: wherever you are in the world, you are likely to find some form of theatre, from puppetry to dance theatre to street performances. So, the desire to see stories one knows, in languages one knows, is entirely unsurprising. DASTAK was started exactly because its founders saw this gap in Singapore’s theatre scene: while Hindi theatre itself had been around for a while, its audience was small and generally through word of mouth, and the country lacked a platform that made theatre in this minority language publicly accessible.

Singapore undoubtedly has a long way to go in democratising minority-culture theatre and making it available for the general masses, but for now, it has found its audience. From direction to acting and production, Singapore’s push for quality theatre that speaks to the diversity, integrity, and genuine variety of its society is a testament to the country’s own history as much as it is to the ingenuity and passion of the practitioners keen to take a classic art form and put a unique cultural spin on it.

 

 

  1. www.population.gov.sg/files/media-centre/publications/population-in-brief-2021.pdf
  2. as above
  3. eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2013-08-12_114422.html
  4. www.britannica.com/place/Singapore/The-people
  5. buttonsinthebread.com/theatre-venues/

 

 

 

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