Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Essay: Sinking roots, or trying to

Audrey Wong reflects on how far Singapore theatre has come in the last 50 years.


Published: 28 Dec 2017

Theatre in the first quarter of 2015—Singapore’s 50th year as an independent nation—seemed to be off to a brilliant start with a strong showing by a number of local theatre companies. The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival attracted excellent audience numbers, and the demand for tickets to new productions by Nine Years Theatre (Tartuffe), The Necessary Stage or TNS (Pioneer Girls Generation) and Checkpoint Theatre (Normal) saw these theatre companies adding extra shows.

The tone, style, and approach to theatre demonstrated in these three productions were also quite different: Tartuffe was a Mandarin adaptation of a European classic, Pioneer Girls Generation was based on the collaborative method of creation that TNS is known for, and featured members of the Theatre for Seniors group, while Normal is a script-based dramatic work, written by Faith Ng and directed by Claire Wong. It seems that all of these forms have an appeal to the Singapore audience, and perhaps indicates the growing sophistication and level of appreciation for a diverse spectrum of theatre among the theatre-going public. Are these signs that theatre-going has now become an accepted leisure habit for Singaporeans – something that theatre practitioners had long wished for?

Or could we also say that these are indicators of a growing cultural confidence?

Looking back to the early years of independence when groups such as Experimental Theatre Club, Centre 65 and the University of Singapore Society worked hard to prove the validity of local subjects, stories, characters and languages on the stage, it does seem that we have come a long way. We would do well to acknowledge and remember the pioneers of Singapore theatre in the 1950s and 1960s; those such as Chandran K. Lingam, Goh Poh Seng and other theatre-makers—not just from the English-language theatre stream but from different language streams—who, collectively, created plays and productions for Singaporeans at a time when there was no conception of theatre as a profession. It was not until 1984 that the first professional company in theatre was established – ACT 3.

In 1989, the report of the Advisory Council for Culture and the Arts (ACCA Report) noted that among the limitations facing the arts in Singapore then, in terms of ‘Cultural Facilities’, our performing arts venues though well used, were inadequate in number and in terms of technical provision; that there was a severe lack of rehearsal spaces and that specialised facilities were needed for the arts; training was also noted to be lacking as there were no specialised degree courses in the arts then. These were the days before Esplanade, The Substation, the upgrading of LASALLE College of the Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and even the National Arts Council. It is certainly difficult for us to imagine life without these institutions and programmes today – and indeed, without a structured system of government arts funding and support.

Trailblazing productions

For me, the iconic work that demonstrates the ‘then and now’ of theatre before and after the increase in state support for the arts, is Emily of Emerald Hill, Singapore’s first bona-fide global hit from 1985, which today continues to charm and win audiences wherever it is performed. The year 1985 was actually a significant year for Singapore as it was when the nation experienced its first post-independence economic recession – an event which prompted a serious review of the government’s future strategies for Singapore, eventually leading to a place for the arts, cultural and creative industries amidst in the dominant ‘economist’ discourse of Singapore.

How did we start to ‘mature’? I would speculate that there are two vital reasons. The first is related to the development of a Singapore identity. We need the arts to tell us stories about ourselves, to make images that help us make sense of ourselves and our relationships to the world around us; not just to reflect ourselves in a self-congratulatory manner, but also offering critique and observations of social and human relations. Here, the language heard and performed on stage is one aspect of the struggle.

I remember how, in the 1970s and 1980s there were many attempts to arrive at a ‘Singaporean’ language in local drama, and the various experiments that were attempted; a successful trailblazer was Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988) which featured English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew while offering a social observation on the marginalisation of the older generation who were affected by the bilingual education policy and the banning of Chinese dialects in the mass media.

Corresponding to the search for languages and stories that matter, was an intense search for the appropriate forms in which these could be expressed, narrated, performed. The Asian bodies on stage, even when performing the Western canon, were ours – different from the western texts that we studied in Theatre and Drama classes. How could we embody and discern on stage what was deeply rooted in our Singaporean /Asian experiences, histories and habits? This was also present in Mama Looking for Her Cat.

The same year saw the production of Three Children (1988) by Leow Puay Tin, a Malaysian writer, which was directed by Krishen Jit and Ong Keng Sen. A visual and physical language had to be found to match Leow’s evocative, non-linear script where characters move in and out of historical time – a time rooted in a Malaysian / local reality. One of the performance idioms adapted to tell this story was traditional Chinese opera. A little later, The Necessary Stage’s Lanterns Never Go Out (1989) also adopted a non-linear style, with sparse staging, using the actors’ physicality and the words—full of local references—to tell a coming-of-age tale about a young girl transitioning to adulthood.

Searching for a ‘language’

In the process of searching for the ‘right’ language to express themselves on stage, the theatre groups evolved distinctive styles. The search took on different shapes – ranging from what was seen in the above-mentioned plays, to ‘epic’ and traditional Asian-inspired staging, the use of actors’ ensemble work such as seen in the late William Teo’s Asia in Theatre Research Centre, to the Grotowski-inspired physical theatre of Ang Gey Pin and Theatre OX in the 1990s, and others.

In the late 1980s through the early 2000s there was a surge of daring experimentation, to the extent that it was said that in Singapore, the ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ had become the ‘mainstream’. Some of these proponents may or may not ring a bell to most readers, but they were fairly active once: the small theatre, Page to Stage Productions, The ETCeteras, Stages, Theater Kami, Ravindran Drama Group, Teater Ekamatra.

The search for a performance language and for forms to capture Singaporean experiences mirrors the emergence and development of the voices of different segments of the population, particularly offering alternative perspectives to the dominant nationalist and economic-driven narrative of Singapore.

I would offer this as the second reason why Singapore theatre became vital and vibrant. Interestingly, much of Singaporean theatre deals with socially-driven themes that often focus on the darker or more negative aspects of life in the city-state. Raising awareness of issues of social injustice, prejudice, or unexpected policy outcomes have been part of our theatre history, and theatre embraced its role as a space for discussion and reflection of these social and cultural issues.

In some cases, theatre practitioners found themselves stepping beyond the ‘OB markers’ and raising the ire of the state – we remember of course, Third Stage whose members were among those arrested in the so-called ‘Marxist conspiracy’ of 1987; and the controversy surrounding Forum Theatre, which The Necessary Stage had introduced and offered a forum for audiences to think about and discuss social issues such as mixed-race marriages.

Keep our artistic integrity

Fast forward to 2015 and it seems that Singaporean audiences have accepted our local theatre as our very own voice as well. Yet there is a lingering feeling of insecurity that undermines the assertion of cultural confidence. We complain too often of the difficulty of attracting sufficient public support – whether this is from audiences, sponsors, or funders. We worry about competition from other, more spectacular productions imported from overseas. Young practitioners still complain about lack of opportunity, about funding going to all the major, established companies, and worry about sustaining a future in the arts. New playwrights are struggling to get their works produced. And censorship, of course, remains a constant.

It seems we have attained some of our dreams but others are still out of reach. The seeds have been planted, but there is no time to rest on our laurels: rather, making space for Singapore works, talents, voices, forms, is a continuing work-in-progress. And this is work that involves a large pool of people and institutions: from formal institutional structures such as the NAC and Esplanade, to the education institutions, to the media, the major established companies (who should now be in a position to lead younger generations), to the smaller theatre groups and independent practitioners /theatre-makers and production and arts management personnel.

We are now moving away from a nation-building phase, from focusing on making ‘Singapore / Singaporean theatre’, to simply making ‘theatre’. And that means ‘theatre’ of all kinds and forms, because Singapore is diverse, multicultural, multi-lingual, and becoming even more so. Excellence and experimentation—two terms that are often held in opposition—are both necessary. In an age when the arts has become commoditised, marketised and a showpiece for the governing establishment, the space for both excellence and experimentation can be threatened. If we have had a history of searching and putting our voices into theatrical form, that at least, gives us a foundation to build on. In a sense, it is our cultural responsibility, as suggested by Goh Poh Seng in these words from 1966:

a nation which ignores and does not encourage its theatre is, if not culturally dead, culturally pitiable; just as the theatre which ignores the drama of its people and fails to register their trials as well as their triumphs, their tears and their laughter, has little right to call itself a national theatre, but merely an amusement hall, a place for those who attend merely to kill time.1

If we see ‘national theatre’ not as a monolithic entity, but as a theatre that articulates the people’s views and concerns, and if we see ourselves as the nation, then it is our responsibility, as theatre people, to insist on putting artistic and cultural integrity at the heart of our theatre, for the sake of our future.


1 Cited by Max Le Blond in “Singapore” in The World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific (eds Don Rubin, Chua Soo Pong, Ravi Chaturvedi). UK: Taylor & Francis, 2001, p. 401.

Related Reading

Transcript of Acting Singaporean: Back Story and Fore Play

What are the qualities and characteristics that make Singapore theatre “authentic”? What elements contribute to the Singaporean-ness in our theatre and its representation, in the way theatre is written, played and performed?

In this forum, theatre educator T. Sasitharan discussed what makes up the identity of Singapore theatre, how we got here and where we are now, with playwright Alfian Sa’at and actors/theatre directors Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, Claire Wong and Lok Meng Chue.

Contributed by:

Audrey Wong

Audrey Wong was artistic co-director of The Substation from 2000 – 2009. From 1996 to 1999, she worked at The Substation in various capacities. In 2009, Audrey was nominated by the arts community for a Nominated Member of Parliament post. During her term (till May 2011), she championed the cause of freelance artists in the arts and media sectors in Singapore, as they sought to improve their working conditions. She is currently Head, School of Creative Industries and Programme Leader of the MA Arts and Cultural Management programme at LASALLE College of the Arts.

Acting Singaporean – Forum Transcript

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