Twenty five years. Wow. The Necessary Stage has been around that long? You bet.
Last week, The RAT had an informal chat with its three biggies — artistic director Alvin Tan, resident playwright Haresh Sharma and company manager Melissa Lim — over at their Marine Parade HQ. Being the pesky, lazy bugger that I was, I made them tell me everything, right from the very beginning. Even though most of it was pretty much available elsewhere. But hey, straight from the horse’s mouth is always good right?
Here then is an uber-long post of them regaling us with the story of TNS and then some. Plus, some random photos (We’ve got some awesome early collaterals but we’ll have to sort that one out first)!
IN THE BEGINNING WAS GOD
ALVIN: In 1986, we adapted and staged Woody Allen’s God for the NUS Students’ Union drama competition where it won the outstanding production award. But as we were rehearsing it I already wanted to form a drama society. I was telling the other people who were participating in the competition that after that, can we gather and talk about a longer term kind of thing. There was the Varsity Playhouse, who had a lot of Law undergrads – (Ong) Keng Sen, Ivan (Heng), Claire Wong… The Arts students all started their own groups.
THE ARTISTS FORMERLY KNOWN AS !
ALVIN:! was the name we gave to ourselves because we wanted anonymity. So that the whole group be acknowledged. But later on, when we met to discuss how to carry on, people were saying that ! was very difficult to market. Someone mentioned The Necessary Theatre so we wrote it on a white board – and I kinda liked it. It was long and could occupy a lot of space in the newspaper. (laughs) We discussed it and felt The Necessary Stage had more layers of interpretation.
There was a lot of excitement; it was very dynamic at the university. There was no Theatre Studies then, but there was a hunger. People wanted to do it on their own steam, on their own accord. We volunteered, gathered and organised ourselves. I didn’t find that anymore after Theatre Studies was formed. (Outside of campus,) there was TheatreWorks and others that were already there. TheatreWorks was (led) by Lim Siauw Chong then. There was The Stage Club, Theatre Practice and Act 3. That was the scene that we grew into.
ALVIN: We did a lot of lunchtime productions. At university it was at LT 13 and sponsored by Esso. There was Shell Lunchtime at Shenton Way and a few blocks down, there was DBS Lunchtime. These encouraged a lot of us who were amateur and crossing into professional. It was kind of a semi-professional playground.
HARESH: From 1987 to 1990, because we were still very new, we didn’t have anything. We depended on platforms that could give us money. So Shell would give us maybe S$300 to S$600 per show, and NUS gave us S$70. We would save S$40 out of that because we’d just use S$30 to rent a truck to go to everybody’s hostel to get props and costumes.
ALVIN: There was the NUS-Shell Short Play Competition, which went on for a few year, where (winning plays) got staged. There was a lot of this kind of support and encouragement.
HARESH: You get a prize in the short play competition, then they would offer the plays to the newly formed groups — Action Theatre, TNS and all that, and then we would get a grant to stage a play. It was a very win-win-win situation. If you got a prize, not only would you have written a play, you would have had an opportunity to see it staged, get to work with a theatre company, the theatre company gets a grant to stage a local work, and the venue gets (a show).
HARESH: (The founding members also included) Valerie Lim, Low Kah Wei, Celine Chow, Andrew Koh, Josephine Peter and Elvira Holmberg… I was involved in other theatre things. I was acting in `87 and that’s when I met Alvin and he had also started TNS at that time. It was fun because the idea of creating a work as a group was very appealing. The idea that we would create the works, do the administration, the publicity, sit in the corridors selling tickets – it was a very fun thing.
ALVIN: We had to multi-task. I would do lights after I directed because we didn’t have enough people. I knew by heart the old lighting board at the old Drama Centre, which was manual. And the sounds were all by cassette! We had to rotate. In The Necessary Stage, that’s what I wanted. So if you act in one production, you’d be stage manager in the next.
HARESH: It’s more about getting to understand the different aspects of work. `Cos if you just acted all the time, you might not appreciate all the work that goes on backstage. It was socialism. (laughs) Even in 1990, when I started working fulltime from Alvin’s bedroom, I had to do administration. I write the play, then the press release, then fax it to the media, call the media, photocopy the script, go to Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre to rehearse (in our room there), then go back to rewrite. Then the next day it all starts all over again. You cannot say “No, I don’t want” because who’s gonna do it? You just do it lah. And there’s nobody who tells you how to do it. (laughs) We didn’t start a theatre company to do accounts, but you have to do it!
In 1992, we registered as a company. And when you register as a company, there’s more accountability. You cannot just, like, don’t file your annual returns – which you could do as a society. (laughs) We also got our premises at Cairnhill Arts Centre (where we were based) until we came here (at Marine Parade Community Building in 2000). That year, Alvin quit teaching at RI and joined full-time, together with Julius Foo and Clarisse Ng. So we had four full-time members.
ALVIN: Four people that appeared at our office space everyday. It was a new phenomenon at that time — coming to work doing arts. (laughs)
HARESH: I mean, before that, for two years, I’d wake up, shower, change into shorts to go to his house and working from a room. So it was nice to dress up.
ALVIN: We had two toilets (at my house). One wasn’t functional because I was putting the props there. Our sets were in the backyard, and the hall was used for rehearsals sometimes. And my room became our office in the morning and a bedroom at night. For two years.
FROM LANTERNS TO OFF CENTRE TO FORUM THEATRE
HARESH: Lanterns Never Go Out was, I guess, important because after two, three years of doing the lunchtime performance route, we were picked up by the Singapore Festival of Arts to restage it as part of the main programme in 1990. Three months later, we staged Those Who Can’t, Teach, which was commissioned by Kuo Pao Kun for The Substation’s opening. Suddenly, TNS became not just a university group or a lunchtime group.
In April 1993, we attended the forum theatre workshop in New York, came back and did a production at the Substation in July – Mixed Blessings and MCP. Two months later, we did Off Centre, then there was a bit of controversy because the Ministry of Health, who offered (to fund it) wanted to change the play. So we didn’t take the S$30,000. Then we heard there was, like, people talking about us from higher up. Then the “Josef Ng Incident” in New Year’s Eve (happened). By January (the following year), you had all these write-ups about performance art and performance art got banned. In February, the TNS article (in Straits Times came out) and the ban on forum theatre.
ALVIN: It wasn’t sudden in a way, lah, to be honest. Because I’ve had a background in liberation theology with the Young Christian Students and we all knew, when 1987 happened, I was associated with some of the people (involved). The YCS office was next to Vincent Cheng’s office and we knew each other and things like that. So when they were detained, I was wondering whether we’d be the next tier. So a group of us stayed at my place wondering whether the next swoop would be us.
I knew that if anything (happened regarding TNS) it would be my “record” or whatever that they were looking at. In 1987, when (members of theatre group) Third Stage were detained, we were in the process of registering our group from ! to The Necessary Stage. I was asked why we had so many Catholics in our exco, why we were doing these local plays and if we were related to Third Stage. So the suspicion over the company I started was already there. It might be a surprise for the public but it wasn’t as huge a surprise for me.
FROM THEATRE FORUM TO FORUM PAGES
ALVIN: We were in New York on a holiday (when we saw the advertisement for the forum theatre workshop in 1993). We though, since it’s the capital of capitalism and all that, it would be fine. We just wanted to learn something professional. `Cos at first, when we saw his name in the Village Voice, we thought Augusto Boal was already dead – we didn’t know he was alive and giving lessons! So we thought, since we were there, it was an opportunity to attend his workshop. It was just one week and it was filled with social workers, educators, and theatre practitioners. We were concerned, when we looked at the doorway, that it said Brecht Forum at the New York Marxist School, but we thought, ah come on, National Arts Council would be more open than that.
It was a bit of a shock, what happened (in 1994). We knew there was a crisis in the performance world because the 5th Passage board of directors jumped ship. But our board of directors – all of them strong influential women — stayed put. (Then-NAC chairman) Tommy Koh was able to come out and say that TNS is fine, it’s just the form that is in trouble and they will not fund it but will still continue funding The Necessary Stage.
On the day (the story by Felix Soh came out in the Straits Times), people called, wrote in. It was like a wake, you know? (laughs) I wrote down who called, what time they called, who sent their condolences, said words of support. Some sent faxes. Four people wrote in to Forum page to support us. We called Apple, who were our first sponsors, and they just laughed at it.
But yes, at that time, there was a long shadow (cast on TNS). Memos were being sent to schools, and even though later, after Tommy Koh’s letter (of support) came out and it became alright, there were still schools where the memo to not to take in shows from The Necessary Stage were still going around.
HARESH: Actually, there was no arrow pointed towards us before the article came out. So for me, it was, “Why is this evil man writing about us?” And I didn’t find a reason for it. We didn’t even do anything that warranted it. I felt it was very self-serving.
ALVIN: Friends in SPH called us saying they didn’t agree with the article and that it was the kind of journalism that got Josef Ng into trouble. They said they talked to their editor and was told it had to go through because it came from the “top”.
THE LEARNING CURVE
HARESH: You see, from `87 all the way to `93, it was actually very positive. We took it slow, had full-time people and could afford things. We were doing well consistently and were given a new space. So when this thing happened, it was really a bit difficult sometimes. That’s why I decided to go overseas. In June `94, I had left. I was on the British Council Fellowship for three months in the UK then I started my MA in Playwriting at Birmingham University with an NAC-Shell scholarship. The difference between a writer being away and a director being away is that the writer can still write while he’s away. So I continued writing while I was there.
ALVIN: Our board of directors didn’t want both of us to go. They wanted one to stay back, if not, the company would be in coma. So work continued. The play Hope was faxed to (Kok) Heng Leun, who directed it.
HARESH: Alvin started his post-grad in `95 and finished in `96. So by the time we all came back to Singapore, it was already almost `97. And that’s when we began a new phase. Post-modernism. (everyone laughs)
TNS IN POMO MODE
ALVIN: We did a whole series of plays where, during the talk-back, people would ask us for our artistic responsibility. Like, how come we were just putting up things and the audience had to make up their minds on how to read them. If you thought Singapore was post-modern, this was more hardcore. (laughs)
HARESH: Reviewers of today’s generation ain’t seen nothing! (everyone laughs) They think, empty space and a few empty armchairs here and there, wah, very innovative…
ALVIN: It was really exiting work then. Not to say it’s not now. It was performatively exciting. It wasn’t just text-based, linear, one actor-one character. Forum theatre was banned, but we did it in Pillars, where the other characters came in for a scripted forum. In Galileo (I Feel The Earth Move), we used Powerpoint, overhead projector — we used multi-media pre- the technology in `97. There are remnants of these in Sofaman. godeatgod too had these kinds of elements.
THE TWO-YEAR GOLD RUSH ERA
HARESH: NAC’s two-year grant was launched in 2000. Before that it was annual, which was S$100,000-ish. When they launched the two-year grant, we got one million dollars over two years. One. Million. Dollars. And so, we went insane. We published books – FOCAS (Forum On Contemporary Art and Society) with Lucy Davis. (Chong) Tze Chien wanted to do an arts zine, which was the cool thing at that time, so we did The Programme. Jeff Chen was artistic director of his little outfit called [names changed to protect the innocent].
All these artists came and did stuff. There were all these things. Amanda Heng did her Let’s Walk performance as part of [names changed…], Jonathan Lim’s Stages did performances at the longkang outside. And then we had our Marine Parade Theatre Festival, The Necessary Community Festival, Famfest – which is a family festival.
And on top of that, we had our main season. And then we had Playwright’s Cove and Exchange, which was a one-year programme where Jean Tay, Ng Yi-Sheng, Matthew Lyon, Kenneth Kwok, Alfian Sa’at, everyone was involved.
We did that for two years la. It was the craziest, craziest two years we’ve ever had. But it just showed what you could do with money. And what other people should be doing but were not doing. You want documenting? We’re doing. Training? We’re doing. You want platform? Everything.
And we had no manager (at that point), so I was interim manager for two years. That was the craziest period in my life. In March 2000, we did the M1 Youth Connection and for the first time, I decided I wanted to direct my own play. So I did This Chord And Others. And around the same time, the Singapore International Film Festival asked me to be a jury and I’m like “Oh, sounds good.” So I’d watch a movie and run back!
ENTER THE YOUNG `UNS
ALVIN: Around that time, we also had Jeff Chen, Chong Tze Chien, Natalie Hennedige, Sean Tobin…
HARESH: They were all grown up already. We first met Tze Chien when he was acting in one of our shows when he was 13. Alfian, I met him at the Creative Arts Programme when he was 14. I was mentoring him then. Natalie, we knew her when she was in JC. She did Lanterns. Jeff Chen acted with us when he was in Sec 2. He was the enfant terrible of the theatre scene back in the early 2000s. We already knew these people when they were still kind of in school. But by the time we reached 2000 and we were here and got a boost in funding, we employed them.
HARESH: We did a play called Mardi Gras in 2003, where we almost didn’t get a license. It’s about a group of GLBT Singaporeans wanting to stage Singapore’s first Mardi Gras parade. We did get a license eventually. But our two-year grant fund was cut. It’s very difficult because every two years, we would meet and have an evaluation and after four years, the evaluation was we were too scattered. That as a theatre company, we’re doing too many things.
ALVIN: There were too many facets. We did not put a hierarchy on how we dispersed our funding. We gave funding equally to all. All of us had equal presence. It was too pomo for NAC. It was schizophrenic.
HARESH: After that we scaled down la. And around then, people started leaving. The last ones were Natalie and Sharon (Tang, ex-company manager), who left in 2005 (and formed Cake). That’s when Mel came in. Since then, we just focused on doing smaller works.
ALVIN: Chamber plays. Boutique plays. Small-is-beautiful plays. (laughs) (Before that,) we’d have a show at Drama Centre, Victoria Theatre, Jubilee Hall… Honestly speaking, when we did our works at Victoria Theatre, we didn’t feel at home. The biggest we’d do (comfortably) is at Drama Centre.
HARESH: When we were around ten years old, I remember a meeting at NAC where one of the directors said, “Now you’re doing small venues. But 10, 15 years time, you would do at Kallang Theatre!” And at first, it seemed natural to say that. But then I realised, that is his version of what success is. Bigger. Whereas our version of what success is deeper. So maybe I should call him and say, “Hey, your wish didn’t come true but mine did.” It’s not who we are. We’re not the razzmatazz big musical. What, you want to stage Fundamentally Happy there isit? It doesn’t make sense.
MODEL CITIZENS, GEMUK GIRLS AND THE NEW REALISM
ALVIN: In recent years, we went into New Realism, which is also part of my (MA) thesis on Caryl Churchill, The Wooster Group, where they were reaching post-modernism, bringing social theatre to the contemporary era – but one was through a playwriting trajectory and the other through a performative trajectory. It’s just that lately, with New Realism, we have gone more into the playwriting trajectory. Our new Croatian project, Cro-Sing, is going to be performative. That’s why there’s no Karen Tan, no Siti Khalijah. There’s Sharda Harrison, Bani Haykal, Loo Zihan, Najib Soiman, who are more physical theatre-based and not the usual people we use for New Realism.
But you see, my bias towards people who (categorise us) is I feel a lot of them are very literary-based. Very British system-based, whereas I had a taste of the American system. Performance Studies was invented in New York University. It took theatre out of the literature department and made it stand on its own, where the literary device is not the primary signifier.
(AND NOW FOR SOME RANDOM STUFF)
THE CELEBRITY FACTOR… AND THEN SOME
HARESH: Kit Chan acted in our school assembly plays in the early `90s. We went through a phase where we were working with TV personalities. Mark Richmond, Patricia Mok, Norleena Salim, Kumar, Nick Shen
ALVIN: We were one of the first groups who used celebrities in our experimental work. It was our strategy to get people to come. They did come and they didn’t know what the f**k was going on! “I came because of Pat Mok. What’s this?!” (laughs)
HARESH: We also did some fundraising events called Starlight where we got these socialites or very established CEOS and wrote sketches for them to perform. People like Dr Jannie Tay, Jennie Chua, Shabnan and Tara Melwani, Woffles Wu, Wendy Jacob… We would have it at the Raffles Hotel. We’d have a one-hour performance at Jubilee Hall then we’d go to the Ballroom and have supper. Stressful but quite fun.
For me what was also interesting was the number of visual artists that have walked through TNS. In 1998, we did a project called Brain Storm where we worked with the Singapore Art Museum and basically had control of the space. We invited theatre artists, visual artists to put up works. We had Ray Langenbach’s Lan Gen Bah, Tze Chien did a play at the cargo lift. We had dance performances from Tammy Wong. We had Kai Lam, Heman Chong… multi-media artists. For two weeks.
Our [names changed] also had so many visual artists. When we did the Marine Parade Theatre Festival, Lucy Davis curated an art exhibition event all around Marine Parade. We had one artist who carved things from those old yellow soap bars and putting them into all the toilets in Marine Parade. We had one who wrapped the columns at the Marine Parade building. I was quite surprised we did as much as we did. And not to mention the people who wrote for FOCAS, your commentators, your artists, academics, critics.
In that sense, not everybody may have performed in a play by us but a lot of people did get to do things. Even Amanda’s Let’s Talk was first done at Substation as part of our show in 1996. October, which was performed by people 50 years and above. A play by seniors many, many years before our Theatre For Seniors. We invited her to put up a work and she decided to take a table, two chairs, get taugeh and every day she plucked it and talked to people who were there.
OFF CENTRE AND OTHER QUIET HURRAHS
HARESH: My proudest moment was when Off Centre was selected as a literature text for ‘O’ and ‘N’ Levels (in 2007). And it was a continued proud moment `cos it’s not just the selection but the fact that you go to school and you meet them. And I get emails and messages from people, like “My child, student, got A for their ‘O’ Levels” and it’s not because of Off Centre (per se), but when they enjoy something, find relevance, then you can do well. And that’s what Singapore writing is about. It’s not about being the best. That Off Centre is better or not better than A Midsummer Night’s Dream or whatever. But it’s just that it has more immediate relevance.
ALVIN: That’s when arts, culture, nation, all come together, in a sense. When I started Necessary Stage, I said we were inspired by all the classics I read. But in literature, the envy was that we did a lot of work because we had to read the footnotes (of foreign literature). I remember going to Oxford for a conference and it was cold and we had just seen Ran, the (Kurosawa movie version) of King Lear. And there’s a text that says “Oh, I’m really cold” and I studied King Lear for my ‘A’ Levels.
And then I realized what cold is about. Because that was the first time I had traveled abroad. Before that, my idea of cold was putting my hand in the fridge. So I felt really culturally disadvantaged studying Shakespeare and all this English lit without knowing a lot of things. That was when I felt, if we had our own literature… So when we came out with Off Centre, the Cambridge markers had to read our footnotes. Isn’t that what it’s all about? That it’s a more even playing field?
HARESH: One of the most important things for me also is that it’s in English. We’re comparing English texts. Around the world the English texts we’re taught is from the UK, US… in terms of contemporary theatre in Asia, it’s not in English. And in Singapore it is. So to be recognised for writing the English in your own way, to give a platform to our own voices, our own Englishes, that’s what we’ve been wanting to do since the beginning.
ALVIN: I think the big things (personal accomplishments) are not the mainstream ones. Like Haresh’s Goldberg Master Playwright award (last year) and my Chevalier (des Arts et des Lettresby given by the French Ministry of Culture in 2010)… We don’t trumpet it. Haresh just finished his hundredth play, Don’t Know Don’t Care, which is on hospice care.
ON ACSR, RCP… AND SELLING OUT
ALVIN: If we don’t split hairs, it has been a supportive platform, the RCP and all that.
MELISSA: How many other art groups around the world would get space like this? Arts housing? It’s not common at all.
ALVIN: The infrastructure and all that la. If you want to find fault, there will be. But when we compare notes with other artists in other countries, it’s just how you get your grants and what you do with it. I think that is also a proud thing on our part as artists and arts administrators. How we support ourselves and emerging artists over the years.
We count our blessings but are very aware that we shouldn’t be bribed and be complicit and lose your integrity along the way. We will be able to cooperate, negotiate, without feeling compromised. But if it reaches a point where we do feel compromised, then we will make a choice. But our tolerance, our threshold is much higher I would say, than other artists. That’s why we can work within the system and we don’t feel compromised. Even though some people might feel we’ve sold our souls or what.
But we also have a view point that’s reflexive. We don’t just always blame the authorities or government in our plays. Like in Singapore (the play), it is self-flagellation what. That is the viewpoint that is strongest in the latest version. We always point fingers at the government and we now pin all our hopes on the opposition party. But (we seem to have this) culture of hierarchy that we’re relying on, that whoever we trust and vote in should solve our problem. We ourselves are not finding a way of working together and working out our differences – and that’s why there’s no People Power in Singapore.
Actually the worst culprit is that we can’t work with each other. And the government knows that. You pin all your hopes on the opposition party for what? The PAP was an opposition party. If an opposition party now enters into power, they might be the same as PAP what. So let’s say we liaise with PAP but also have a relationship with the opposition parties, but we also have a relationship among ourselves – I would be fine. But there is no strong civil society to celebrate.
HARESH’S LADY GAGA NDP BIT—FOR THE RECORD (AND WHY ALVIN HASN’T DONE ONE)
HARESH: The Lady Gaga one is a misunderstood thing la. It’s very difficult to talk about it because it was exposed to the public without the public seeing the context. So there’s a fine line, I realized, between stupid and camp. (everyone laughs) But the whole experience of being involved in such a big event, that was interesting. So in a sense, my play reached out ot four million people. (laughs)
ALVIN: They approached me before this. But my idea didn’t fly with them. It was really fragmented, forum theatre-type. So of course cannot fly la.
WHAT’S NECESSARY 25 YEARS ON
HARESH: The point was it was necessary at that time (back in the `80s) to give a platform for Singapore voices. It’s not to say that we are necessary. It’s necessary to give voice to reflect our hopes, dreams, or aspirations.
ALVIN: And it was also the necessary stage in the history of Singapore theatre to house, nurture a playwright fulltime. And we were the only group, besides Pao Kun at that time, that had a full-time playwright, until Alfian came on at W!ld Rice.
I still feel, what we stand for, the long term nurturing and sustenance of an artist (is relevant). We have the playwriting competitions, and now NAC wants to do these playwriting platforms, which I’m still cynical about. I still feel that the four people that came from here – Jeff, Sean, Nat, Tze Chien – they had four years of solid sustenance here. And all their failed productions were cushioned by us. They built a vocabulary, a methodology, an audience. What we represent, there’s no publicity. There’s no big bang. What we stand for is not the mainstream quality kind of thing. What we stand for remains underspeculated. So we remain necessary.
HARESH: And lights.