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For nearly three decades, Haresh Sharma’s plays have penetrated our collective consciousness with their honest and incisive social commentary. Much of why his heartfelt narratives and complex characters still resonate with audiences to this day could be attributed to his (and The Necessary Stage’s) collaborative style of theatre-making, and the amount of field work that he does—for every play he writes, the Cultural Medallion recipient spends many months observing real people in real situations and devising the script together with the cast.
We asked five of his friends and people who have worked with him to shed some light on why he is one of Singapore’s most influential playwrights.
Joanna Goh: In 2013, I retired from production and stage management work. I now work in Sydney as a Library Assistant.
JG: I started volunteering with The Necessary Stage (TNS) in 1998. The first Haresh Sharma play I worked on was Walking into Doors, which was about domestic violence. I was Lighting Assistant for that production and don’t recall having much contact with Haresh at that time. But his work made a lasting impression and influenced my decision to work with TNS a few years later. When I first met Haresh, I thought that he was a bit shy.
JG: Haresh collaborates very closely with the actors to find the right voice for the characters. You see him at rehearsals, which is a luxury, because we get to fix lines and even the structure of the whole play right there and then. Script changes can be very common during rehearsal. I remember one incident when Hossan Leong got a new page of lines on opening night.
JG: Haresh’s plays have helped pushed boundaries in Singapore theatre by touching on taboo subjects and challenging censorship.
JG: Completely With/Out Character. Paddy Chew’s story was so personal and brave. It showed an utmost trust between the performer, the playwright and the director.
JG: No, I would not want to be any character from his plays. There is so much pain and tragedy in the lives of so many of his characters.
Joel Tan: I’m a playwright who sometimes directs and performs.
JT: I feel somehow like I’ve always known about Haresh Sharma, even before consciously knowing about Haresh Sharma! I first saw him in the flesh at the post-show talk after Poor Thing. Our eyes met, and I remember thinking he looked incredibly intimidating. A year or two later, we ended up giving a school talk together and he turned out to be the sweetest human being alive. My first encounter with one of his plays was a community production of Off Centre, and I remember admiring how much freedom the team was given to innovate around the text.
JT: I’ve only really worked with Haresh on (the 2017 musical) Tropicana, for which he wrote the book, and I the lyrics. I came in pretty late in the process, so the first draft had already been written, and I remember Haresh at one creative meeting very earnestly asking for feedback and taking the critiques with grace and zero preciousness. He would later turn in a substantially revised draft that worked heaps better. I really admire his commitment to process, to collaboration, and keeping room open for new and diverse points of view on his work.
JT: Perhaps by opening up a range of possibilities for other playwrights and theatre-makers, an idiosyncratic palette of language, class, and ethnic diversity that’s challenged all of us to represent better and harder. And by letting audiences sit uncomfortably in the presence of the under-represented, the neglected, and the marginalised.
JT: Still Building, because of its subtle and elegant structure, its deep human tragedy, and for asking questions about our society, class, mobility, home, and immigration, that, several years on, we are still nowhere close to answering.
JT Actually, I wouldn’t hahahaha. I’d like my life to be as undramatic as possible.
Kok Heng Leun: I’m the Artistic Director of Drama Box.
KHL: I first saw Haresh’s Those Who Can’t, Teach. And then I saw him act in Still Building, which he also wrote. My impression of him then was that he was tall and funny.
KHL: It is a great joy working with Haresh. He listens, he is respectful of your contribution, and he is also very curious. Yet you also know that he has his views, and they are very open, very human. Where the human is at its core. The Centre.
KHL: The use of Singlish. He has made it a poetic language for theatre; Collaboration—he is a wonderful example of how a playwright can collaborate with directors; The marginalised voices featured in his plays, that Singapore theatre can become a public sphere about the marginalised.
KHL: Off Centre. Because that was the first play I worked with him on, as set designer and sound operator! Hence it was very memorable.
KHL: The Mosquito in Three Years in the Life and Death of Land. The character that understands the limits of time and space.
Vincent Lim: I’m an architect who also does interior and set design. I also write.
VL: I’ve known Haresh since we were 13. At that point, like me, he was a regular teenager until he wrote and showed me a limerick about furniture coming alive. I saw that he was special at that point.
VL: Haresh is receptive to ideas. The sets, like the scripts, are workshopped; and the iterative workshopping process is always a learning experience in itself.
VL: He gives visibility to the underdogs in Singapore without romanticising them.
VL: Best Of for its penetrating cultural insights.
VL: The Almighty in godeatgod, because he is vulnerable.
William Lim: I am a critic and writer who covers topics such as human rights, sustainability issues, the arts, and creative thinking.
WL: I have been following The Necessary Stage and their works for many years, especially after the group moved to the Marine Parade Community Centre, which I was involved in the design of. Haresh and his collaborative partner Alvin Tan have become good friends of mine.
WL: Haresh’s plays are always “political”, in the sense of dealing with broader critical concerns on many societal issues. Like Kuo Pao Kun before him, Haresh’s work is constantly challenging and looking to challenge. Together with Alvin, he has found considerable success in producing meaning and enjoyable experiences on stage.
WL: I have no favourite, but will continue to look forward to his new plays, which always promise novel, exciting and creative ideas.