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 Faith Ng
Directed by Cheng Yingxuan
An Esplanade Commission and Production
Originally staged from 29 Mar – 1 Apr 2018 as part of The Studios 2018
A Good Death follows Dr Leong, a palliative care doctor, as she journeys with her patients through their final days. As they open up to her about their hopes and fears, her own family begins to argue over what is best for their ageing parents.
Faced with an increasingly blurred line between her professional and personal life, Dr Leong finds herself asking: What truly makes life worth living? What is a good and dignified death? And on whose terms?
Poignant and insightful, A Good Death is a tender meditation on what it means to lean on one another, even on those you least expect.
I wrote A Good Death during a difficult pregnancy and workshopped it together with my director/dramaturg Chen Yingxuan and actor Karen Tan, during a time when they were each grappling with the loss of a loved one. Between the hospital visits and time spent at wakes, we occupied the space between new life and death, contemplating what that meant to us. What I’ll remember most are the conversations we had during the creative process and their generosity in sharing about not just their loss, but also what gives them joy and meaning. All of that made its way into the script.
During the year-long process of writing the play, I also spoke to and observed palliative care doctors, nurses, social workers and therapists on the job. I remain indebted to them for their openness in sharing their experiences and innermost thoughts with me. Dr. Jamie Zhou in particular was with us from the beginning, attending the work-in-progress runs and the final performances. Without her expertise and feedback, this play would have been a poorer thing.
In a time of pandemic, the anxieties and fears of facing the unknown are more real than ever. The loss of physical and emotional connection to those around us can make us feel so alone. Those in palliative care practice are no strangers to these issues, tirelessly journeying with each patient and their family members through them. They have continued to use their palliative skills to guide and support patients, caretakers and fellow co-workers through hard conversations about life and death. It is my hope that A Good Death brings to light the important and necessary work that they are doing.
by spell #7
In Collaboration with Esplanade –Theatres on the Bay
Originally staged on 31 May & 1 June 2013 as part of The Studios 2013
“It is a raw and quietly heartwarming work – a barrel of laughs for the children in the audience, whose reactions to the work were sometimes funnier than the scenes themselves – and also a tender study of parenthood and the transformative journeys that families must face together.”—The Straits Times
What does it mean to be on stage with your grandma? Perform with your sister, or dance with your child? In Family Duet, a multi-generational cast presents an off-beat mix of life experiences and perspectives on the world.
Two weeks before their first child was born in 2004, Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae performed Duets. Described by The Straits Times as ‘stylish, quirky’ and ‘enigmatic’, the show was an attempt to mark what it meant to be two in advance of becoming three.
Now we are four. Time for some new home truths.
Reflecting spell#7’s intimate and inventive approach to theatre-making, Family Duet highlights the questions that family living answers but rarely asks: What is it to live together? How did I get these eyes? Are we ever too young to fail, or too old to disappoint? Where are the emergency noodles?
Three generations aged 6 to 66 mix conversation, media and dancing toys in scenes that probe the passage of time, the meaning of responsibility, and how people overlap. The result is a family autobiography that audiences of all ages will find both instantly recognisable, and totally unique.
Family Duet was documented as part of Tan Ngiap Heng and LASALLE College of the Arts' performance archive. Photos and interviews can be found here.
Last December, we moved to a new house. It was directly across the road from the old one, so we decided to carry everything over bit by bit. One of the first questions we had asked when creating Family Duet was: if you had to move house one object at a time, what order would you take things in? For days through the scorching Melbourne summer, we found ourselves locked into a real-world version of the opening scene of the show – what we called the ‘picture parade.’ We were a rag-tag band of 'removalists' (to use the Australian word), trundling across the melting tarmac with a seemingly random assortment of pans, plants and pictures, books, boxes and booze. It brought memories of Family Duet flooding back. It reminded us that, just as our original goal was to find a way of bringing our family life into the theatre, so we have carried that show with us ever since. We remember it vividly. And the little rituals, emotional micro-dramas and zany improvisations return constantly; always changed by age and circumstance, but always cycling back through the same patterns of behaviour, relation, and love.
Streamed live on 31 May 2020, Sunday
Moderated by Lucas Ho, Associate Artist, Checkpoint Theatre
Kaylene Tan, Co-director, Writer & Performer, Family Duet
Paul Rae, Co-director, Writer & Performer, Family Duet
Faith Ng, Playwright, A Good Death
Kaylene and Faith 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