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Theatre

Max Le Blond

An important Singapore English-language theatre director and academic.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I wanted to see local experience on stage, not as exotica or something condescending. I think the way we use English is a vital thing, there is a lot of history behind it, and I wanted to see whether we could create viable theatre out of our own lives.

Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey, 2002.

Max Le Blond is an important Singapore English-language theatre director and academic. He was instrumental in the creation and development of a Singapore theatre that featured a Singaporean identity and character, showcasing Singaporean actors in locally written plays and local theatrical adaptations that contained Singaporean narratives and vernacular. His efforts encouraged other theatre practitioners to embrace their Singapore identities, and inspired the formation of English-language theatre companies such as ACT 3 Theatrics, TheatreWorks and The Necessary Stage. In 1987, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Born in 1950 in Singapore, Max Le Blond developed a love of English literature and drama in his childhood, influenced by his father who introduced him to works by Shakespeare and poetry. Le Blond attended St. Joseph's Institution where he became a member of the school debate team and the drama club. Acting in plays in primary school, he went on to become a member of production crews in secondary school.

In 1969, Le Blond started attending the University of Singapore. There, he met Chandran K. Lingam, whose enthusiasm and unrelenting commitment to theatre inspired Le Blond to go into theatre, and he acted in theatre productions while studying at the university. During this period, he had his first taste of directing. While involved as an actor in a production of the musical Kismet, Chandran, the director, fell ill and could not attend a rehearsal, and asked Le Blond to stand in for him as an assistant director. Le Blond found that he enjoyed the role immensely.

Le Blond went on to obtain his Ph.D at the University of Birmingham, UK with a thesis on contemporary British drama, whose revolutionary working-class playwrights and sensibilities informed his views on Singapore theatre. After which, he began his academic career, becoming a senior tutor of English Literature at the university. Around this time, he was asked by Reginald Hugh Hickling, a visiting law professor at the university, to direct a legal drama that he had written for the opening of the Law Faculty’s moot court. From there, Le Blond continued pursuing his passion for theatre as a Singapore theatre director.

However, his early experiences in Singapore English-language theatre troubled him. Colonial mindsets lingered in Singapore’s early post-independence years, with Le Blond describing it in 1986 as "a world shackled by a colonial consciousness and a colonial view of reality".

Although the '60s saw the beginnings of a Singapore English theatre with works by writers such as Goh Poh Seng who introduced Singlish to the stage, the number of locally written works staged remained small and were paid little attention by expatriate and English-speaking audiences and critics. English-language based activities such as English-language theatre were still dominated by expatriates and an elite minority detached from the social realities of the vast majority of Singaporeans.

In both his academic capacity and in his theatre practice, Le Blond started advocating "Singaporean-ness". He called for Singaporean theatre practitioners to embrace their Singaporean identity and emphasised Singapore’s potential for the creation of a great dramatic tradition. He started staging the original and adapted works of Singapore playwrights and casting Singaporean actors in productions, infusing the English-theatre scene with a colloquial sensibility and flavour.

It was in the '80s that his directorial efforts truly took shape. The decade saw the emergence of an English-educated middle class that had developed from working class origins. This new community was rooted in its local heritage and social reality and fostered a generation eager for local dramatic works.

During this period, Max directed numerous plays. These included Asian-American works such as F.O.B. (1982) by David Henry Hwang, Singapore adaptations of English works such as the comedy Nurse Angamuthu’s Romance (1981) based on Peter Nichol’s National Health, as well as original works such as Robert Yeo’s One Year Back Home (1980), Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill (1985) and Eleanor Wong’s Peter’s Passionate Pursuit (1988). One Year Back Home, featuring "localised" dialogue, was a hit with theatre audiences and enjoyed full houses for every night of its run. The following year, the similarly well-received Nurse Angamuthu’s Romance was celebrated for its naturalistic use of Singapore English.

Le Blond’s staging of Emily of Emerald Hill at the Singapore Drama Festival in 1985—the play’s Singapore debut after its first staging in Malaysia the previous year by theatre director Chin San Sooi—brought him much acclaim and went on to bring Singapore theatre to the international stage. The play enjoyed a successful run at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1986, and was invited back to the city for another run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the same year.

A monodrama focused on the recollections of Emily Gan, a Peranakan matriarch, Emily of Emerald Hill broke new ground with its story of a traditional Straits-born woman living through rapid societal changes, all related in Singapore English with all its colourful, hybrid expressions. The production resonated deeply with audiences and, together with Le Blond’s other academic, literary and directorial efforts, paved the way for an emerging theatre that could truly be called Singaporean.

A newfound belief and enthusiasm for Singapore English-language theatre arose, inspiring the formation of several English-language theatre companies in the '80s including ACT 3 Theatrics, TheatreWorks and The Necessary Stage, and heralding the growth of the English-language theatre scene in Singapore.

In 1987, Le Blond received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Besides his directing work, Le Blond contributed his expertise as chairman of the drama sub-committee of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts and a member of the Arts Resource Panel for the National Arts Council. He also served as president of the Experimental Theatre Club, and as artistic advisor of Practice Performing Arts.Centre (now Theatre Practice), The Substation and the Singapore Repertory Theatre. He also wrote and published scholarly articles on theatre and edited compilations of plays, including Prize Winning Plays: Vol. 1 and Modern ASEAN Plays, Singapore.

He currently resides in Sydney, Australia with his wife and two daughters, working as a part-time English Literature teacher who teaches drama occasionally.

Timeline

30 Sep 1950

Born in Singapore.

1962 to 1966

Attended St. Joseph's Institute, Singapore.

1967

Received U.S. Information Service Scholarship, Camp Rising Sun, Louis August Jonas Foundation, New York, NY, USA.

1969 to 1973

Received Bursary Award, Christian Brothers' Old Boys' Association.

1970 to 1973

Attended University of Singapore. Graduated with BA Hons. In English, Philosophy and Economics.

1973 to 1975

University Research Scholar, University of Singapore.

1974

Actor, Are You There, Singapore?. Playwright, Robert Yeo.

1975 to 1978

Attended University of Birmingham, UK on a British Council scholarship. Graduated with PH.D.

1976

Graduated from University of Singapore with M.A. (American Literature).

1978 to 1982

Senior Tutor, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Singapore.

1980

Director, One Year Back Home. Playwright, Robert Yeo.

1981

Director, producer and adaptor, Nurse Angamuthu’s Romance, Experimental Theatre Club, Drama Centre, National Drama Festival, Singapore. Adapted from Peter Nichols’ National Health.

Singapore Delegate-Observer, Strindberg International Seminar, Stockholm, Sweden.

1982

President, Experimental Theatre Club

Director, The Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter, World Trade Centre, Singapore Arts Festival. Adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and Bertolt Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptmann's The Threepenny Opera.

Co-director with David Henry Hwang, F.O.B., Drama Centre. Commissioned for Singapore Arts Festival.

Co-director with David Henry Hwang, F.O.B., Hong Kong Arts Centre.

Critical Biography: Edward Bond and Critical Biography: Trevor Griffiths published in British Dramatists Since World War Two. Editor, Stanley Weintraub

Graduated from University of Birmingham, UK, with Ph.D. in English (Modern Theatre)

1982 to 1988

Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.

1983

Director, African Double. Playwright, Athol Fugard.

1985

Director, Emily of Emerald Hill. Playwright, Stella Kon.

Speaker, Theatres East and West – New Directions, organised by the Practice Performing Arts School (now Theatre Practice) and Lianhe Zaobao.

1986

Director, Emily of Emerald Hill, Commonwealth Arts Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Director, Emily of Emerald Hill, commissioned for Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Scotland.

Editor, The Trial and Other Plays.

Editor, Prize Winning Plays: Vol. 1.

Drama in Singapore: Towards an English Language Theatre published in Discharging the Canon: Cross Cultural Readings in Literature. Editor, Peter Hyland.

Singapore Literature in English: Drama published in Singapore Studies: Critical Surveys of the Humanities and Social Science. Editor, Basant Kapur.

1987

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Fulbright Scholar, School of Drama, Yale University, USA.

1988

Artistic Director of Singapore delegation, Festival of Theatre, ASEAN, Philippines.

Director, Peter’s Passionate Pursuit, Festival of Theatre, ASEAN, Philippines.

1988 to 1992

Senior Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.

1990

Director, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Playwright, Eugene O’Neill.

Chairman, Drama Sub-committee, Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, Singapore.

Chief Judge, Awards Committee (Drama Section), National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Consultant and associate editor, Editorial Panel, ASEAN Anthology of Drama.

1990 to 1997

Artistic Advisor, Practice Performing Arts Centre (now Theatre Practice), Singapore.

1991

Editor, Modern ASEAN Plays: Singapore.

1991 to 1997

Artistic Advisor, The Substation, Singapore.

1992

Member, Arts Resource Panel, National Arts Council, Singapore.

1992 to 1997

Senior Lecturer, Division of Literature and Drama, School of Arts, National Institute of Education, Singapore.

Coordinator, Drama and Performance Programme and Twin-track Honours Programme, National Institute of Education, Singapore.

1993

Director, Emily of Emerald Hill, Charity Command Performance at Jubilee Hall Theatre Playhouse, Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

1993 to 1994

Coordinator, School of the Arts, National Institute of Education.

1994

United States International Visitor, American Studies, at various institutes, USA.

Drama: Singapore published in Encyclopedia of Post-colonial Literatures in English. Editor, Eugene Benson.

2000

Graduated from University of Washington School of Law with a J.D. (Juris Doctor).

2005

Graduated from Macquarie University, Australia with Graduate Diploma in Education (Secondary Teaching: English).

Present

Part-time teacher, Sydney, Australia.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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