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Theatre

Alvin Tan, the collaborative storyteller

Joining the dots between diverse and unheard voices

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Published: 27 Jan 2021


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Cover image by Tan Ngiap Heng, courtesy of The Necessary Stage.

On the way to my meeting with Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage, I wondered to myself what there is to ask about someone so frequently interviewed and who documents his thoughts and encounters almost multiple times daily on social media. What more can be said about a company whose milestones are so well-storied: the collegiate beginnings at the National University of Singapore, the early-90s proscription on forum theatre1,  their many brushes with censorship2, and their dedication to social change through theatre, among others?

The past year has been confounding for artists in Singapore. Between the closure of arts spaces for most of 2020, the conundrum of having to adapt to digital platforms, and the frustration of being written off as “non-essential” (and the questions of socioeconomic inequalities that that entails), artists have had to find ways to grow, cope and adapt. It’s within this new, continually evolving paradigm that I am speaking to Alvin, artistic director of the ongoing M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, to find out what he makes of the pivotal juncture we are in as a society, and how he sees his practice developing with the times.

Taking our seats in a café in Bugis, Alvin and I start to discuss these pertinent issues. He speaks clearly and at length, but with none of the affectations or grandiloquence that one might expect from a Cultural Medallion recipient. His voice is soft and even-toned; sometimes I ask him to repeat himself or clarify certain words over the hubbub of the crowd. His answers are deeply considered, and simply articulated.

Alvin Tan in rehearsal. Photo by Tan Ngiap Heng.

Alvin Tan in rehearsal. Photo by Tan Ngiap Heng, courtesy of The Necessary Stage.

Collaborative methodology

In July 2020, it was announced that The Necessary Stage would no longer be housed in Marine Parade Community Club (MPCC), where the company had been operating for the past 20 years. From a Facebook post3 in which Alvin addressed the news, it is clear he retains a firm optimism about the uncertainty of the transformations ahead: “It's not a bad thing considering the pandemic is not ending soon … It’s time for a revolution, so embrace it, rather than resist it.”

While TNS is preparing for a “nomadic” life in the near future, operating out of short-term spaces, every space it has operated from over the past 33 years of its existence has given something different to the company, often shaping the company’s practice in various ways. “We’ve always grown with the nature of the space given to us,” Alvin shares. The company’s early years were spent working out of Alvin’s house from 1987 to 1990, then at Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre from 1990 to 1992, followed by One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre from 1992 to 2000, before moving to the basement at MPCC.

The space at MPCC was big enough to house a black box theatre, in addition to office space, storage areas and meeting rooms. “What that has helped us to do is to develop our devising and collaborative methodology. We started with more multicultural works, then transitioned to intercultural works, and then to the interdisciplinary,” says Alvin.

The bigger space was more conducive for the growth of dialogues and collaborations with artists from diverse backgrounds such as dance, music and film, through the various phases of a production. Set, props and multimedia equipment for a particular production could remain in the Black Box for over a month, allowing the team to explore new directions, choreography or stylings as and when they wish, “helping us gain accuracy, competency and precision”, which wouldn’t have been as easy in a rented venue.

While the physical space and its provisions may have been taken from them, there are intangible fruits that Alvin, resident playwright Haresh Sharma and the rest of the company have gained from their time there. “I feel that our takeaway now is our practice of devising a collaborative methodology,” says Alvin. The nature of The Necessary Stage’s collaborative praxis has to do with co-authorship across the members of a production team, sometimes even the audience, and diluting the conventionally hierarchical structure of theatre-making. “It can migrate and be carried elsewhere. Without the physical space, we still have that wealth: that methodology, and the principles of it.” 

Who’s There?

It is that methodology of collaborative practice, Alvin says, which he has transferred to his work on Who’s There, a Zoom-based theatre production presented by the New York-based New Ohio Theatre, which he co-directed with Singaporean theatre-maker Sim Yan Ying (“YY”). YY, a former intern at TNS and recent theatre graduate of New York University, invited Alvin to co-direct the work with her. Amid the general ambivalence of most theatre-makers towards digitised productions in the early months of the pandemic, Alvin was enthusiastic, and willing to venture into making theatre using the new medium5.

“We had to fight the anxiety of people who felt that doing Zoom productions is an attempt to replace live theatre,” Alvin reveals. “Live theatre cannot be replaced, but I couldn’t sit around and grieve for the postponement of its return.”

Who’s There ran from 4-8 August 2020, and the entire process took just two months from devising through to the last show. “I was panicking,” Alvin admits, “because we usually take nine months to produce a brand new work!”

Working internationally on a Zoom production, however, meant that the workflow was entirely new and unique. The team was operating across five time zones, using Google Drive and multiple chat groups to share work and stay connected. “So at any given time in the day or night, one of us was working on some aspect of the project. That, in fact, amounts to more than two months’ worth of regular, conventional theatre-making hours. It became more democratic and collaborative than the usual process we go through in the black box,” he says.

“We also weren't burdened by costs for flights, per diems, and theatre rental. Yet there was a rich cultural exchange, because it involved artists from America, Malaysia, and Singapore.”

One aspect of this cultural exchange was the opportunity to open unexpected conversations about intersecting marginalisations—for example, the American artists, unfamiliar with racism in Singapore, found the concept of Chinese privilege uncomfortable because it is potentially contentious within America’s racialised social context, where the discrimination against people of East Asian origin has become particularly tyrannical in light of former president Trump’s antagonism towards China and the use of the term “China virus” for COVID-19. The confrontation, in the play, of a Black American woman against a Malay Malaysian man, prompted feedback from some audience members that the former’s “American privilege” eclipsed her Black identity, as she seemed to impose American cultural discourse onto the Southeast Asian characters. Such conversations, Alvin feels, can only be encountered in this kind of intercultural production presented on the international “stage” that the team had crafted out of Zoom. 

Socially conscious theatre and intersectionality

The Necessary Stage has always been known for tackling social issues—from mental illness, to homosexuality, to racism and classism. But while the moral compass of these issues may once have been straightforward (e.g. racism is bad, homophobia is bad), they are now more layered and intricate (e.g. what would the power differential look like between a gay Chinese cis-woman and a straight Indian transman?) Much more intensely than five years ago, we’re living in a world in which we are continually unearthing further complexities and dimensions in social issues, and there is an increasing awareness of and discourse about intersectionality.

“I enjoy these nuances and I think that’s where theatre that is socially engaged should be challenged to move,” Alvin remarks. “I enjoy working in an environment with younger people, because they analyse these social positions faster. They are not only more self-aware about the implications, but also know how to apply them to the universe of the play and its characters.”

“But sometimes, you do need older people who have some life experience to ask you questions,” he adds. He describes a script he is reading by a young writer, which describes an encounter between a young gay man and an older gay man, in which Alvin feels the latter needs more nuance. “Sometimes imagination can supply that, but most of the time it’s life experience, and you need to collaborate with someone who can provide that perspective, which can be very different from yours.”

When I was your age...

Outside of directing with TNS, Alvin often works with young, new and emerging theatre-makers, and it has given him a keen sense of their differing outlooks and where they come from. Some of the young artists decidedly mark their dynamic as one of mentor and mentee. But most of them, Alvin feels, prefer to regard themselves as equals working alongside him, and tend to be less receptive to feedback.

“I wouldn't say this generation has it easier than mine did,” he surmises. “I think they have a different set of challenges, because the [arts] scene is saturated. They need to find their voice and their position, and to negotiate with a world where we are still rooted in my generation’s politics—for example, dealing with bureaucratic institutions that have bureaucratic roots. They don't understand the way we dealt with censorship—they don't understand having to be strategic.”

Alvin cites as an example the censorship of sex.violence.blood.gore (1999) which the team resisted by re-enacting the censored scenes in gibberish and reading out the letter detailing the censored content. He feels that he doesn’t see today the kind of resistance demonstrated by the group then, as well as his contemporaries such as Tan Tarn How, Ovidia Yu, and Eleanor Wong. He wonders if it’s perhaps because of a general attitude among youth today that “they’d rather just leave; they are like, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with this’.” He is reminded of a young practitioner who shared with him that watching her friends talking about marriage and home ownership was causing her anxiety. “I was like, then you do your art for what? Why are you pressured by what people say when in your art you’re fighting against those things? For me, it’s not consistent when what you do in your art doesn’t transfer to your life.”

Alvin’s soft and measured voice grows discernibly passionate when he speaks of the need for resistance and the dedication to art-making.

“I can’t find people who are resisting like that today—or perhaps the resistance is of a different nature, thus invisible to my eye,” he admits. “But I think [the younger generation] will find a way by creating a climate where the bureaucratic institutions and all will have to change their policies because they become irrelevant.”

The director’s journey

Now and then, between lengths of conversation, Alvin pauses for thought while looking somewhere beyond my right shoulder. He becomes most pensive, and almost wistful, when he shares about the most formative pieces of literature that changed his worldview and shaped his thinking about sociopolitical issues and the human spirit. He cites, as inspirations and influences, the modernist authors D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and E. M. Forster—the latter’s A Passage To India having a particular profound effect on Alvin’s thinking about intercultural work. There are thematic echoes across TNS works of Lawrence’s bold and sometimes vulgar championing of passion and the human soul in defiance against the regulatory mechanisms of British society amid the Industrial Revolution. It is a recurring motif in TNS plays: the impassioned individual at odds with the static, unfeeling indifference of the institution. It rings similar to Thomas Hardy’s theme of fate being outside of one’s control, which is resonant with the experience of many characters from the TNS canon.

Another source of inspiration came from the left-wing Catholic church that Alvin grew up with—its commitment to the disenfranchised and alleviating injustice. “Someone who was in the social movement told me before I graduated from NUS: If you want to go into a non-profit, you have to do it early, because if you don't, after five years in a mainstream career you’ll afford yourself a lifestyle you’ll find hard to give up.” This inspired Alvin to start running The Necessary Stage full-time after a two-year teaching stint, and to begin “crafting a life I am now content with. And I have no desires for a richer lifestyle.”

Galileo
Galileo

<i>Galileo</i>, 1997. Photo credit: The Necessary Stage

In 1995, Alvin embarked on a Masters degree in Theatre Arts from the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1997. There, he began to develop an interest in postdramatic approaches to theatre-making, reflected in the fragmented storylines of some subsequent productions by TNS: Pillars (1997), Galileo (1997) and Superfriends at the Hall of Justice (1998).

“That was where we lost a lot of our audience,” Alvin admits. “We had to recalibrate, and we realised if we were too esoteric we aren’t going to reach out to people. In Superfriends, we were taking more liberties with the fractures. We had a very bad review which was actually titled ‘Even Superfriends cannot save this play.’ That was when I realised if you need to challenge people, you need to be dialogic, not exhibitionistic of the artistic director’s postmodern calisthenics.”

Alvin likens the process of structuring a production to building a rock-climbing wall. Even if a play is episodic or meandering, “the footholds have to be clear and accessible: that is the framing device. But how you ‘join the dots’ is up to the audience. At the same time, we mustn’t sacrifice the complexity of the work. That’s how I arrive at a kind of negotiation between exploratory work of pushing the audience and still being able to have a dialogue.”

Social media

When I mentioned to my sister, a literature tutor, that I was interviewing Alvin Tan, she remarked by way of recognition, “Oh of course, I’ve seen him, he used to post in this Facebook group I’m in about literature education.” If you’ve never met the man, it’s very likely that you would have encountered him on social media. Besides frequently sharing inspirational quotes, memes and articles about current affairs, Alvin makes it a point to choose to follow, or add as friends, people who have extremely divergent points of view to his own circle of friends.

He finds this a meaningful part of his artistic process “in order to direct or create characters that are not like-minded and ideologically different, and humanise them. That material is information for how you can direct your actors, and talk about where they are coming from.”

The Necessary Stage production When The Bough Breaks (2010) is an example of a script that drew from experiences shared by people through social media. The play revolved around the topic of post-natal depression. “Haresh found a lot of case studies only from foreign celebrities, and he wanted local examples.” So Alvin sourced via social media for local perspectives and lived experiences on the issue. “Singaporeans are very generous—they write a lot, they just don't want to be identified and don't have to come down physically to TNS. But they wrote in and shared, because they don't mind that their experience is used to help other people.”

As the interview winds to a close and we leave the café, I think about how life informs the artist, and vice versa. In Alvin’s case, art is not merely a part of life, or a lens with which to interpret it. It’s a consistent and principled practice of empathy and care—for diverse and unheard voices; of resistance against hegemonic societal structures that negate the humanity of the individual; and of the transformative impulse to find newer and more dynamic and inclusive ways of telling stories and connecting people.

Footnotes

1 Teng, Siao See, and Hui Kian Kwee. “s/Pores: Interview with Alvin Tan.” s/pores, 25 Sept. 2011, www.s-pores.com/2011/09/interview-with-alvin-tan

2 Two examples are Off Centre (1993), which had its funding from the Ministry of Health revoked due to the play’s depiction of mental illness, and sex.violence.blood.gore. (1999) from which the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit censored three scenes due to “inflammatory content”.

3 Tan, Alvin. Alvin Tan | Facebook, 22 July 2020, www.facebook.com/alvintns/posts/10159547609610701.

4 To learn more about the collaborative methodology that TNS practices, watch this recording of a presentation by Alvin Tan given at the Asian American / Asian Research Institute (AAARI) at The City University of New York (CUNY) on 25 September 2015.

5 Thio, Celine Sara. “A Chat with Alvin Tan: Making Art for a Whole New (Digital) World.” ApART.sg, 25 June 2020, www.apart.sg/blog/alvintan-digitalartinterview.

Contributed by:

Akanksha Raja

Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.


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