In 2020, The Studios released its inaugural digital season from 16 May – 18 July 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.
By Edith Podesta (Singapore / Australia)
An Esplanade Commission
Originally staged from 28 Apr – 1 May 2016 as part of The Studios 2016
"Imprisonment is as irrevocable as death."
George Bernard Shaw
Dark Room follows the lives of men housed together in a five-by-five-metre cell, 23 hours a day, every day, until their release. This original work, based on true accounts, explores the codes and regulations of society “on the inside”. It charts the prison experience from pre-trial to imprisonment, and the reintegration into society as “returning citizens”.
If “prison is the punishment that keeps on taking”, Dark Room gives voice to the incarcerated by staging their stories and making their experiences visible to a wider audience.
Dark Room was first presented as a work-in-progress as part of The Studios RAW in 2014. The development of this 2nd iteration titled Dark Room was supported by Centre 42’s Basement Workshop programme.
By Cake Theatrical Productions
Written and Directed by Natalie Hennedige
In Collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Originally staged from 26-28 April 2007
“What a deceptively modest title this spectacular multi-faceted play has. Nothing is about love and death. A lot could have gone wrong in such potentially hackneyed territory, but little did in this punchy, dynamic work with a bold DIY aesthetic....
With its kitsch-on-speed aesthetic and the gravity of its themes, Nothing provides no simple answers, but it pulls off a brilliantly crafted journey....”
Something out of Nothing: An ace script and brilliant cast tackled issues of love and death. Nothing takes the cake."—The Straits Times Life
See the laundry in the machine. It goes round and round. See your reflection in the glass you are a great sad clown. Hello Mister. Hello Miss. Where are you off to now? May I join you on your way into the great abyss? I won’t say a single word or get in your way I’ll just be a companion. Grey. It will be a grand nothing day. Say yes. Say.
Nothing is an intimate observation of love and death. Various characters, some obscure, some mundane, some elusive, in various situations under various circumstances connect, collide and inch forward, moment to moment, beat by beat. Someone lives. Someone dies. Someone laughs. Someone cries. Nothing else.
I was thinking about Singapore but in a dream-like manner, putting very specific and unusual pictures together. A picture of a woman living with two pugs in a four-room HDB flat. An Environment Agency inspector checking her flat for mosquitoes. How they would fall in love and how he was hiding a serious illness from her. I thought about a writer of erotic Mandarin novels who was also the sole care-giver of her aged father. I thought about how much they despised each other, insulted and riled each other and how when he soiled his diapers, she’d have to clean up the mess… and bear witness to his shame. I thought about how this toxic relationship would end in tragedy. I thought about a married nurse who was having an affair with a doctor at the general hospital where she worked. I thought about her husband who was once a national Taekwondo athlete and how he had descended into constant depression, constant sleep. I thought about how impossible it would be to save their marriage. I thought about other characters too; a soldier, a pregnant teenage toilet cleaner, an international aid worker who wanted to give up her important work, marry an unimpressive man and spend her weekends at VivoCity… and a mother reeling at the senselessness of her 25-year-old son at the prime of his life, dying in a hospice.
At the time I wrote Nothing I was running ragged, but these characters changed that. When they took form on the page and came to life on the rehearsal floor; through their sadness and buffoonery and hopes and fears and dreams, I was able to find a different kind of ground on which to plant my feet.
Streamed live on 27 May 2020, Wednesday
Edith Podesta, Director & Writer, Dark Room
Associate Artistic Director, young and W!LD
Natalie Hennedige, Playwright & Director, Nothing
Natalie served as the Artistic Director of Cake before her current position as Festival Director Designate for Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Edith and Natalie look back on these works and share their thoughts on how the themes still resonate 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