5 important issues in Singapore tackled by the Singapore Theatre Festival 2018
Raise the curtains
W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival this year gives a big nod to brand new local playwrights and sheds a light on issues prevalent today
Doesn't conversation just flow each time you finish watching a play with someone? That's the power of theatre — it opens a can of worms you've kept hidden beneath the surface, or didn't even realise was there. The Singapore Theatre Festival (STF) takes this power of conversation to heart with its sixth edition this year. Tackling issues such as love and masculinity, representation in media and privacy rights, its lineup of eight original plays (with seven of those premiering for the first time) will introduce emerging local playwrights and 21 never-before-seen actors. If you've been a loyal supporter of local theatre, you'll be pleased to note that the likes of Janice Koh and Siti Khalijah Zainal are among the cast, while established directors like W!ld Rice's founding artistic director Ivan Heng and dramaturg Alfian Sa'at are driving the stories. You can also catch the plays of up and coming names like Chong Woon Yong, Thomas Lim and Neo Hai Bin.
"For playwrights in Singapore, there are many avenues such as residencies, masterclasses, workshops and competitions," said Heng during STF's press conference last week. "But when it comes to the crunch, the opportunity to have a play fully realised on stage with an audience, sets, lights and sound is still very rare. For a young playwright, coming to be a part of the festival is to be part of a community which is supportive and optimistic and really wants the best out of the play because in the end, we want these plays to have a shelf life beyond the festival." To keep true to that, STF has its eye set on youths, creating the W!ld & Free programme that offers 500 complimentary tickets for Singaporeans aged 16 to 25 to encourage a culture of theatre consumption.
"Theatre serves as a public forum in which today's issues, problems and possibilities can be freely examined and discussed," added Sa'at. True enough, we've seen theatre as a vehicle for driving conversation around issues that connect with a number of Singapore's population: Pangdemonium's The Father(dementia), National Theatre's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), and The Toy Factory's Grind (gay men).
Check out the issues STF are presenting this year, as well as the plays to watch:
1. On press freedom in PressGang If political satire is your thing, then this play is right up your alley. Directed by Heng and written by playwright and former The Straits Times journalist Tan Tarn How, Press Gang puts audiences right in the newsroom, where reporters of The Singapore Times contemplate whether to publish news about the government in a country with limited press freedom. Sound familiar? "Many years ago, I wanted to write a play drawing on my time as a journalist, but somehow went on to other things instead," said Tan, who's known for other satires such as Fear of Writing and The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate S Machine. "Last year, Ivan suggested it and I thought 'Why not?', since the situation has not changed in any fundamental way."
2. On Singapore's surveillance society in Supervision This takes spying to a new level. With its script penned by rising young playwright Thomas Lim, who also wrote the critically acclaimed play Grandmother Tongue in 2016, this will be his second play, where it brings to attention a person's right to privacy. Starring Farhana M. Noor, Koh and veteran Malaysian actor Patrick Teoh, Supervision follows a domestic helper, Yanti, who takes care of Teck, a retiree who suffered a stroke. With Teck keeping secrets from his daughter Jenny, she sets up closed-circuit television cameras around the house to keep an eye on them.
"Even though it takes place in a domestic setting, I think it's also a commentary on Singapore being a surveillance society," explained Sa'at. Directed by well-known theatre and film director Glen Goei, Lim said that this play also takes a look at caring for the elderly at this day and age.
3. On representation in the arts in BuildingA Character As one of three one-woman shows in STF, Building A Character stars Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai in a play on taclking racism and representation in Singapore — notably in the acting industry. Written by Ruth Tang and directed by United States and Hong Kong-based director Mei Ann Teo, the title is based on a book of the same name by Konstantin Stanislavski, who has written handbooks about acting. "We have been talking about doing this play for the longest time," said Sa'at. "We held a round-table at one time and were asking where are the roles of certain actors of certain ethnic and cultural backgrounds in Singapore? I felt that we should write this play with this wonderful Indian actress, and then see what we can do with her very versatile talents. I think this is a way to address the lack of certain kinds of representation."
4. On masculinity and modern love in G.F.E. If the title is triggering your inner FOMO, don't fret — G.F.E. stands for 'girlfriend experience. This play, written and played by newcomer playwright Chong Woon Yong, is part a double bill performed in Mandarin with When The Cold Wind Blows by Cut Kafka! playwright Neo Hai Bin. G.F.E. documents a man's experience with the women at Geylang, where people rate on their appearances, services and girlfriend experiences on an online forum. "It's a play on love, but it's also an exploration on love through a more specific perspective. So through this term, it's a commodity I wanted to use to explore on modern notions of love from a male Singaporean," said Chong. "We also wanted to look at masculinity, not from the #NotAllMen trend, but as men also being subjects of patriarchy. How does it affect men under this sort of societal structure?"
5. On gay issues through the eyes of a fag hag in Faghag Dating all the way back to when she was just 12 years old and had a crush on a man she saw on television who turned out to be gay, Faghag details the life of first-time playwright Pam Oei as a fag hag. "Faghag is a show that has been in the making for many years," said Oei. "It's something that I've always wanted to do at the back of my mind, and then as the years went by and as I became a more experienced fag hag, this was really dying to come out."
Revisiting moments when she petitioned and submitted 8000 signatures together with Heng and Sa'at during 2007's repeal of Section 377a of the Penal Code, Faghag serves as more of a memoir to Oei. It also tells stories of her proud moments at Pink Dot events. "When we failed to repeal it, that was when Pink Dot started," she recalled. We're also examining what are the reasons we still have that event today, and it's because we still have Section 377a."