In 2020, The Studios released its inaugural digital season from 16 May – 12 Jun 2020 in response to the global pandemic COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019). The online season celebrates Singapore theatre and its development over the years, albeit without the visceral sense of community one experiences physically, in the hallowed black box filled with expressions of humanity.
Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, among many other national and entertainment institutions, shut its doors for the first time in its history, as measures to stem the spread of the disease, such as limiting the number of people who could gather in groups and physical distancing, proved insufficient. The closure of the arts centre and Singapore's two-month circuit breaker coincided with The Studios annual season originally slated for 25 Mar – 26 Apr 2020.
The online season featured six productions drawn from Esplanade's archives based on connections to the artists of the 2020 season, for their thematic threads that still resonate in our lived context, as well as for some of the wider conversations that have emerged from reflecting on COVID-19 and our society. In the last of the four-week period, The Studios released two new and original works caught in the heart of the COVID-19 situation, a recorded edition of Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan and an audio presentation of The Heart Comes to Mind by Checkpoint Theatre.
There is a certain poignancy in having ‘Lost & Found’ as the theme for what would have been The Studios 2020.
The year so far has been tumultuous; there has been great loss in every sense of the word, which has exposed the vulnerability and stark fragility of this globalised world – the only one we know. Normal life as we have known it has ceased to exist. It begets the question: how and to what will we anchor ourselves to when everything around us feels like it is falling apart?
The things that have really broken through the chaos are the stories of kindness. Civic organising to raise funds and resources, neighbourly generosity, a multitude of really funny videos (amongst many others!) are a testament to an important side of our humanity – that of a universal desire to dig deep, find good to cling on to, and pass that on to others. And that will be how we get through this, that will be how we will survive.
Before the circuit breaker measures here in Singapore came about, The Studios team was still working towards realising a physical season of theatre and part of the prepared house programme notes that you would have seen reads – "With all of that in the backdrop, why come to the theatre? Why does it still matter? Because theatre reminds us of our shared existence – our victories, our flaws, failures, our humanness. It brings us together in the same space; we laugh and cry together and are reminded that there is still beauty, there is still hope. And that we are more than the headlines we read. And that we are not alone.”
The Studios season has been a regular feature in the local calendar, and a place where artists are invited to play and explore forms, re-examine the art of constructing stories, work with new people and to present voices that may not always be heard. We truly believe in art and our artists. And in some small way, we hope that bringing it online passes on some of the goodness that we have experienced over the past 17 years.
We are very happy to be able to present two of the original works for The Studios 2020 – a recorded edition of Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan and an audio presentation of The Heart Comes to Mind by Checkpoint Theatre. Both these productions were caught right in the heart of the ever-evolving COVID-19 situations, and the modes of presentation are the results of this alchemy.
We have also dusted off our archives and selected six productions from past seasons to share, based on connections to the artists of the 2020 season, for their thematic threads that still resonate in our lived context, as well as for some of the wider conversations that have emerged from reflecting on COVID-19 and our society. For instance, the voices of the left behind and those existing in the margins of society in Harap (2017), To Whom It May Concern (2011), and Dark Room (2016) are particularly poignant; the explorations and musings on family in Family Duet (2013) are simultaneously uplifting and sobering in a time where families have to adjust to being separated or being together all the time; the meditation on life and loss, and the things that truly matter in A Good Death (2018) and Nothing (2007) are affecting as we are forced to pause these two months. These are the beginnings of a conversation that we hope will develop over the next few weeks, and that we must ask ourselves – how much have we remembered or forgotten?
We have also asked the artists behind all these works to reflect and to think about art-making in current times, as well as what will have/has changed for us as an artistic community. Together with the supplemental resources for each of the productions, we hope that the remaining days of the circuit breaker and the weeks after that will be a thought-provoking one for you as well.
Our deepest thanks to the artists who have agreed to share their work again in this format. A few practical notes: Two videos will be released each weekend and left online for a limited period to access in your own time. These were recorded primarily for archival and documentation purposes and not online broadcast. Some of the videos are also many years old, and the quality of the footage will not be as clear as we are used to today. We hope that you will pardon these shortcomings.
The closure of our theatres and the inability to gather in a darkened familiar space has left us adrift, with sobering ramifications extending to the livelihoods of those who work in it, and the lives of all who love it. So for now, we mourn, and we look forward to the day when we are able to live dangerously in this safe space again.
Thank you for joining us.
Written by Haresh Sharma
Adapted by Zulfadli Rashid
Directed by Mohd Fared Jainal
A Co-production with Teater Ekamatra
Originally staged from 6 – 9 Apr 2017 as part of The Studios 2017: Margins
This version of Haresh Sharma’s Hope is adapted into Malay by Zulfadli Rashid, directed by Mohd Fared Jainal and performed by Sani Hussin, Siti Hajar Abd Gani, Fir Rahman, Hirzi Zulkiflie and Nur Zakiah Bte Mohd Fared. First written in 1995 as a response to the environment then, the play still finds significance today, 23 years later, as audiences follow the lives of five individuals caught up in a maelstrom of expectations and circumstances in Singapore.
When Haresh wrote Hope in 1995, he was responding to the desperation that he saw amongst people during that time. Fast forward to over two decades later, when we revisited the work in 2017, we saw that the reality remained unchanged. There are still plenty of people walking amongst us whom we don’t see nor hear. It makes it easy for us to ignore their plights, their frustrations and their lived realities. Sometimes, when people are walled up in their own houses, all clean and beautiful on the outside, we don’t see the cracks that exist inside. They become small, silent and lonely. Have we, as a society, failed our own?
The concept of gotong-royong was poached and was popularised a couple of years ago, becoming a heavily marketed buzzword that, I suppose, intends to galvanise a nationwide initiative to help each other, harkening back to the kampung era. Yet, considering the abject inequality that persists in Singapore and our collective refusal to accept and acknowledge it—it feels hollow, disingenuous and terribly misappropriated.
Reality comes, punches you in the gut and robs you of any chance of getting back up. You keep believing and having the faith that something good will happen. You continue to wait while you keep spiralling down. Harap chronicles the lives of five individuals, each navigating through their own nightmarish landscape of desperation, treading on a thin line of hope, which is all they have left. This aspect of the human condition has become especially pertinent and undeniable in the recent months, amid this pandemic that all of us are facing, each on unequal grounds. In thinking about Harap again, I am reminded that what makes us human is how we relate to each other. What are we doing now to be more human?
Read Art Equator's review here.
by The Finger Players
Written and Directed by Chong Tze Chien
In Collaboration with Esplanade –Theatres on the Bay
Originally staged from 14 Sept 2011 as part of The Studios 2011
This production is a dramatic monologue written by Chong Tze Chien (his first one), performed by Karen Tan, a frequent collaborator and one of Chong's go-to actors. The monologue leaves the audience to discern the truth from an unreliable narrator who conveys an explosive encounter between an internet scammer, a disgruntled housewife and a deluded Residents' Committee (RC) member.
Read Button in the Bread's review here.
I wrote To Whom It May Concern with Karen Tan in mind right from the outset. Karen and I go back a long way from our frequent collaborations over the years. The actor is the writer’s muse, and Karen is one of my go-to actors. It was only natural that I jumped at the chance to create a new material for Karen from scratch when we were approached to work together for The Studios in 2011. Karen and I had several conversations before I landed on an idea based on internet scams and the notion of an unreliable narrator/storyteller in a monologue. I thought the premise would be fertile ground for exploring multiple truths and deception, which are some of my favourite pet themes. It was my first attempt at writing a monologue but I didn’t want to settle for a straight forward narrative. Poor Karen had the unenviable task of tackling the unwieldy text that I had created in the process. But it still amazes me today that Karen not only rose to the occasion, but she was also such a tour de force in To Whom It May Concern. This monologue is a testament to her dedication and finesse as an actor, and I am glad we have this opportunity to watch this stage chameleon, and gem of an actor delivers what she does best.
Streamed live on 17 May 2020, Sunday
Mohd Fared Jainal, Director, Harap
Artistic Director, Teater Ekamatra
Chong Tze Chien, Playwright/Director/Set Designer, To Whom It May Concern
Core Team Member of The Finger Players & Independent Playwright/Director
Mohd Fared Jainal and Chong Tze Chien look back and reflect on these two works and their continuing relevance for us today.
For more information and materials on Singapore's performing arts and culture, you may like to visit the following resources or repositories.
National Online Repository of the Arts (NORA)
The Singapore Theatre Bibliography at LASALLE College of the Arts
The Necessary Stage Archives
National Archives of Singapore