“Aiyah, I don’t want to ask anyone to ‘try theatre’ like it’s some kind of drug lah. But hey, please come watch my next show.” I’m speaking to Zachary Ibrahim, one of Singapore’s rising actors who’s set to star in Pangdemonium’s Peter and the Starcatcher at the Drama Centre this month. “The biggest misconception I think you can get with theatre is that you need to be educated with the Queen’s English to have a good time. I suppose it’s not a very Singaporean thing to be overtly physically or emotionally expressive and if you watch a play [like Peter and the Starcatcher] you’re gonna see people being exactly that.” There’s a pause as I see Zach typing. He stops, types again and then says: “There were great subtle pieces of work in The Father.” The sentence stands alone without further explanation. There’s no need. Last year’s adaptation of Florian Zeller’s play about dementia resonated with Singapore audiences in a terrifying way. It was a reflection of the experiences of many ageing parents and their caregivers in Singapore society.
A BLACK-AND-WHITE LENS
But many didn’t see The Father and many won’t see Peter and the Starcatcher or any of the plays put on by the 500 active theatre companies in Singapore. For them, theatre seems a useless art form that requires three hours of an evening, expensive tickets and demands a reaction from an audience that can make you feel oftentimes more wretched than entertained. “The arts in Singapore has a hard time because people want to just see the arts as somewhere to relax. But it cannot be. The arts is meant to be provocative, the arts is talking about issues in society.” Memorable words in an interview in 2015 of theatre veteran and recent ex-artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA), Ong Keng Sen.
He continued: “In Singapore, the arts is seen to be something which is external to everyday life. I find that quite insidious in Singapore, that basically there is no art if art is not useful. If the art is not useful,[the government] will not support it. They will then just say that well, you know, do it on your own. Find the support from the public, your public, who comes for your shows.”
But Singapore theatre doesn’t yet have that kind of support from the public. Some even think it’s not independent, that it’s what the government wants them to see, brushed over with a slick of censorship. With 85 percent of the arts scene receiving government funding, it may be clear why.
The problem is that people in Singapore tend to see the arts through a black-and-white lens when there’s a fantastical display of colour, vibrancy, and provocative and entertaining works that talented groups put on here.
Many believe the remedy would be to stop seeking out the ‘use’ in art and to see the value in art for art’s sake.
ART FOR ART’S SAKE
This is the value that’s been upheld by Singapore’s oldest theatre company, The Stage Club, for nearly 75 years. Started by a group of British army officers, the club and its 100 members consistently put on a rich mix of comedies, histories, mysteries, modern classics and pantomimes throughout the year. As I look around the clubhouse, walls heaving with photos of past productions, the legacy for creating art from the club’s numerous members becomes clear.
“The plays we used to put on were usually comedies, Shakespeare, mysteries and that sort of thing so they weren’t highly politicised or provocative. People could come and enjoy them for the sake of the experience,” says Nick Perry, who has been the artistic director of the club for more than 30 years. “What started to happen was that many members of local communities, local dignitaries and others came along to the club’s English shows to improve their English and to see an alternative to the local drama scene.”
Despite its expat roots, the club’s members now come from all walks of life. With Singaporean, British, Australian, American, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, German, Sri Lankan, Japanese and New Zealander being just some nationalities of its members.
Most importantly, no one gets paid. They’re purely an amateur dramatics club with the actors, stage crew, set designers and directors all volunteering and joining in simply because they love it.
“People have always been immensely welcome,” says Perry. It was perhaps this reason why “Singapore’s most-loved theatre stalwarts first passed through these doors”, says Loh Anlin. In her early 20s, she is the new president of The Stage Club, the second female president, the first Chinese female president and the youngest in its 73-year history. She points to one of the sea of past performance photographs that line the clubhouse walls. Following her finger, I see Ong performing in Dracula in May 1984. “There’s a photo of Adrian around here somewhere too. Was it Aladdin or Peter Pan?” She’s referring to Adrian Pang, co-founder of Pangdemonium.
“The first play I directed,” remembers Perry, “I cast Angelina Fernandez as the lead in As You Like It—I was teaching her sister and knew Angelina liked acting so I said: ‘tell her to come along’.” Though Perry has been with the club since 1985, acting in and directing multiple productions, he also teaches at Hwa Chong Institution.
Having a full-time career while being a member of the club is pretty typical. In fact, it’s the norm. William Laws, for example, has been with the club for a number of years while holding a successful career in public relations. He’s also directed Theatreworks veteran Justin Hill. “He was a sparky young man. He used to take the micky out of me.”
Even Loh, a theatre producer professionally, is inextricably linked to the club from a young age. Having grown up in a household that “didn’t really care” about drama, she first became curious in it when her drama teacher, Perry, introduced her.
“My first theatre ticket that I bought for myself was to see The Stage Club’s Allo, Allo which Nick was in. I think I didn’t get quite a few of the jokes, but it was an amazing production.” Loh laughs apologetically at this—as if a young Chinese girl should have any clue about the nuances of British 1980s jokes.
Perry cringes as he recalls the memory of having to salute as if to Hitler at one point in the play, knowing full well the president of Singapore was in the audience. Luckily, the show went down a storm. “People wanted to see something they grew up with and many were fond of it. It was one of those series that made everyone happy after the war,” he adds.
Another production that ‘brought the house down’ was last year’s production of One Man Two Guvnors, a classic comedy about a manservant trying to hold down two jobs before everything goes wrong. “Everyone loves a comedy,” says Perry, with a glint in his eye.
I ask him if comedy is his favourite genre. Without hesitation, he answers: “Yes. It’s the incredible reaction you get from the audience.” He touches on an important aspect of live theatre—the audience. Unlike film, the audience is just as much a part of the production as the company. How they react to what’s on stage in turn fuels the actors’ reaction. It’s a powerful relationship that has an intensity to it that isn’t often evoked to such a degree in other art forms.
SHOW ME THE MAGIC
“That impetus and love for the creation of theatre and the magic of what happens when you put a show together is indescribable” says Loh. The healing benefits of theatre have been well-known for thousands of years. You go to learn, to feel empathy, to understand more about the human condition than you did before. There is something about watching your fellow human beings performing in front of you, replicating real situations that you can recognise intimately, which enables theatre to hit you with a thousand knives. But in Singapore the entry point and exposure to theatre isn’t seen as valuable—it’s ‘external’ to everyday life, which means many grow up without understanding the powerful healing benefits or the impact it can have on their lives.
One entry point for many people—whether to watch or to get involved—has been amateur groups like The Stage Club “because its a safe, open space that allows them to create”, says Loh. The fact that no one is paid is a case in point—there is no risk for anyone to come and have a go. “We can put productions on that professional companies would be timid to do because of the expense,” says Perry. He’s referring to such productions as Jezz Butterworth’s Jerusalem, an ambitious play with a cast of 12 including live goldfish, children and a set involving a caravan, fully grown trees and on-stage mutilation.
Are such productions rare occurrences? Not at all. Loh tells me of their upcoming plans, such as a live reading of a new play by an Australian playwright about a police raid in a suspected terrorist cell in London in the early to mid-2000s that ended up becoming a Bollywood gay club. It turns out the playwright drew on real experiences as some of her influences.
I look again around the clubhouse and take it all in—the past productions, the plaques, the board with the history of every Stage Club president going back to 1945, the three members sitting in front of me.
There’s Perry and Laws, two British men who’ve been involved with the club for more than 40 years between them, and Loh, a 20-something professional theatre producer.
It’s an eclectic mix of old and new wherever you look. Legacy and history meets new ideas and change.
As just one of a myriad of theatre companies in Singapore— some that get much better airtime as professional companies like Pangdemonium, Theatreworks, Singapore Repertory Theatre, Necessary Stage and Wild Rice—The Stage Club represents a small part of the soft underbelly of Singapore’s theatre scene that people don’t always know about or get to see.
Yes, they’re a bunch of amateurs but everyone starts somewhere as Ong, Adrian, young Zach and many more have done over the years.
Singapore has the actors and the stage, but do they have an audience?
This article was originally published in the September issue of Esquire Singapore.