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From interviews with Mohd Fared Jainal and Shaza Ishak.
In 1988, dramatist Lut Ali and his wife Rubie Lazim founded Teater Ekamatra with a vision for a theatre that would blend Southeast Asian performance traditions with contemporary and experimental approaches. Today, the company is regarded as one of the pacesetters of Singaporean theatre, known for foregrounding underrepresented issues and stories from the margins of society. Its multidisciplinary approach to performance is evidenced by its many partnerships with collaborators working with diverse art forms from dance and drawing to sound art and poetry.
Mohd Fared Jainal, who was the company's artistic director from 2013 to 2023, joined in its early years when he was a young theatre student at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), while current artistic director Shaza Ishak joined soon after participating in one of its outreach programmes as a polytechnic student. Here’s what they would say to Teater Ekamatra if they could turn back time to the company’s early years.
You have always been home to me. I took on the role of artistic director not too long ago, but I’ve been with you since the days of first artistic director Lut Ali. I’ve watched you grow – and have grown alongside you – over the past 30 years.
I’ve learned a lot from you since my very first project with you, Kakiku (My Foot) in 1994, an ensemble piece directed by Lut. It was a physical piece with lots of movement, staged at Jubilee Hall in Raffles Hotel, which seated about 200 to 300 people. The funny thing about that venue was, if you opened the wrong door backstage, it would open into the kitchen of one of the hotel’s restaurants. After a few weeks, we took the production to Brunei for the Asian Theatre Festival, and because I was still studying at the NAFA at the time, I had to take a few days off school to go to the festival with the whole troupe.
I joined you because I wanted to learn. I was very new to theatre. I had some experience on stage, because I had been working since about 1988, but Kakiku was on a completely different level. I wanted to know how a physical ensemble piece like that would work – especially something that was non-linear and poetic. As a young man trying to learn, it was quite a tall order. Even to this day, there are still things I don’t understand about that piece. I just tried to learn as much as I could from the ensemble and from the production, like how to sustain one’s energy and work together as an ensemble on stage. It opened me up to working with non-linear plays, which I still enjoy.
Back then, my ambitions were centred around art-making: to discover what I could offer to you and to the craft, learning to work on the technical aspects, like creating an effective set design. It was a period of self-discovery and survivability. You offered a space for me to try and learn as many skills as I could to explore different jobs.
Now, as artistic director, my goals have expanded, and revolve more around the relationship between us and the community, our audience, our stakeholders and other artists. These goals have become most important to us. I feel that now, you are an entity that can do much more than just put up a show. I’m always asking what our role is in the arts ecosystem, what we are doing for the community. These questions stem partly from the fact that I had gone into education and I questioned how to use it to build a sustainable theatre scene. Creating new voices, new bodies – I can only do that by teaching and nurturing the young. I also bring those aims and ideas into my work with you. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can support those who need it, how we can nurture and develop the younger generation. Our care for community development is apparent in the fact that there is a lot more social engagement in the work that we produce now. We don’t shy away from taboo or sensitive topics. We approach them delicately, engaging more people in the conversation while working towards an end product, so that we don’t work in silos, and so that we work as responsibly as possible.
We’ve been through challenging times, times when we questioned who we were. These moments were transformative, helping us to redefine our identity. I’m thinking about a piece we did many years ago, Paradise, staged in 2014 at the Drama Centre Theatre. A few things didn’t go as planned, which we could have handled better.
It was a very crucial period in our history because the leadership had just changed, and we were gaining new audience members, but we were also losing some of the people who were always supporting us. We had to figure out what we could do to retain our Malay audience as we continued our commitment to working with people of all backgrounds and welcoming non-Malay audiences to our shows.
When we worked on Harap, the 2017 Malay-language adaptation of Haresh Sharma’s Hope, we – myself and fellow transcreator, Zulfadli Rashid – questioned whether we were segregating ourselves from certain Malays in the community who might be experiencing real hardship. In transcreating the English-language play, how could we decide what was culturally Malay and what was not? Harap was a story that deserved to be heard, so why weren’t we telling these types of stories? I had been immediately attracted to Sharma’s Hope because it was the oldest script among all the ones that were presented to us, and explored issues that were foreign to us, like sexual orientation and suicide. We knew that we couldn’t just translate it into Malay, we had to turn the whole cultural context Malay because the Malay-ness would have been integral to the story. That’s why Harap was quite ground-breaking in terms of our recent history because it showed that we weren’t scared to run away from difficult issues.
Since the beginning, you were very welcoming and open to accepting everyone and anyone. People who had no experience or no understanding of what theatre was, were all included. It didn’t matter if they were a painter, a sculptor, a sound artist, or an actor because everyone was connected by the fact that they all wanted to create something together. You never had a strict definition, rules or boundaries for what theatre or art should be, and that feeling was very liberating. We all found an organic way of functioning in your space. You gave us the liberty and opportunity to expand. I know you are primarily, and will always be, a theatre company, but there are also so many other ways to engage with you: collaborators come in with diverse ideas. I’ve never seen artforms existing mutually exclusively from each other. To me, a sculptural exhibition or a sound artist’s presentation could all be part of theatre.
Having a physical space – like our Greymatter studio – really contributed to us opening up and showcasing different kinds of work. We were lucky enough to have a space for a while, and we opened it up because artists needed places to present their work and we could provide that for them. We managed to partner with so many individuals who have created so much work within the space, and have also continued to collaborate with us. It’s integral to me that I’m always looking to learn something, so having a lot of artists come in and do things gives me the chance to learn things from all of them and grow.
Ekamatra, I am constantly in awe and inspired by things that I see in this space that you provide. I have this really strong childlike feeling, when I see a great piece of work that inspires me, I feel so happy, a real joy. That is so important to me. Thank you.
Dear Teater Ekamatra,
I remember the day I first met you.
To be honest, I had never seen or heard of you before Pesta Peti Putih (White Box Festival) 16 years ago. I was 17 and studying Hospitality and Tourism Management at Temasek Polytechnic. The festival was an inter-tertiary outreach initiative to encourage us students to get involved in socially-engaged theatre: there were talks, workshops, masterclasses and friendly (and sometimes not so friendly!) competition between tertiary institutions. I was immediately floored by how cool you seemed. A bunch of us students were waiting outside what was then your office at the now-demolished Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre when Mohd Fared Jainal arrived, sweating and panting. He had just completed a 5km run around the Central Business District, training for an upcoming production for the company – I was so intrigued! Although I had been involved in theatre since my secondary school days, I had never watched a professional theatre production and did not know the dedication required to make things happen on stage.
The group of students split up to take on various “roles” such as actor, director, and playwright. Each group attended masterclasses that were relevant to their role. The whole time I was there, I kept wondering why you were doing so much for just a bunch of students and for free! You were so dedicated to sharing everything you could to help us with our growth as amateurs in the scene. My group won the competition (by a landslide, haha!) and started working more formally with you. A group of us who had shown a lot of promise during the competition were given opportunities to involve ourselves in smaller scale projects such as library tours, school shows and outreach programmes. I remember spending more time in the office and just being so overwhelmed by this peculiar sense of ‘home’ that you gave us!
In 2011, I officially took on the role of company manager. Back then, I was simply happy to feel heard and seen, to have finally found people who felt the same way as I did about the lived experience of an ethnic minority in Singapore. I am wholly committed, as an individual, to pushing for diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts and beyond. Our works put more ethnic minorities on stage, discussing local and global issues through the ethnic minority perspective and this absolutely shapes how we approach productions. I held on to this affinity very tightly: I never expected more from you. Of course, as the company manager, I became more privy to the challenges that came with the kind of work we do, and I formed a vision for us for the next five to 10 years. I wanted us to be debt-free, to steadily grow our savings, produce good quality work that reaches beyond our echo chamber, and gain more visibility locally and internationally too.
We are interested in exploring the issues that intersect across different experiences of ethnic minorities in Singapore. Art should explore breaking barriers and blurring lines – we have so much to learn from other art forms, languages and perspectives.
Beyond my role as managing director and now artistic director, I’ve learned something from every production we’ve worked on, especially because it’s always a different combination of artists and there’s always something new to discover. Some of my most inspirational moments have come from simply manning the front-of-house table as your representative. People have told me how they resonated with what they had watched, and how for the first time in their lives, they felt seen and heard. Others have shared their disagreements. Every single conversation with members of the audience has made me a better person and a better arts manager.
Potong by Teater Ekamatra, commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay as part of Pesta Raya 2023, runs from 18 - 21 May 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.
The good vibes continue
Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara.