Local Content and Its Discontents
Failed experiments try the patience
By Richard Lord
Look at London, look at New York. Look at Paris, Sydney, Melbourne or even Rome. All these cities celebrated for their vibrant theatre scenes owe the health of their theatre not just to the big houses and subsidized companies with large-scale productions. It is frequently the grass-roots theatre groups who draw a swarm of attention in these places. It is also these smaller, more adventurous groups who feed the big theatres with talent, ideas, new directions.
The moral is, to have a thriving theatre culture, you need those smaller groups who are exploring various possibilities of the stage, taking chances, going to the edge. In Singapore, one can argue that big-house theatres do not really exist yet, that all local product is by small companies on limited budgets carrying out that valuable artistic exploration. When a big venue like Jubilee Hall, Victoria Theatre or the NUS Cultural Centre theatre is utilized, it is always a one-off event.
But with theatres here, there is small, very small, and extra small. From all three sizes, we get a fair amount of original material, in the form of new plays, ‘devised performances,’ and shenanigans on stage which defy all definition. From the smallest groups, we also see a range of acting talent, some of it which falls off the talent metre, though some is quite good indeed.
In the second quarter of this year, we saw an unusual amount of original content coming on stage. Unfortunately, much of it should not have come before the public, at least not until it had been worked over a good deal more and with a lot more artistic discrimination.
Of course, it is a truism that artists – especially young, developing artists – should suffer for their art. But where is it written that they should also make us, the audience, suffer for their art? And suffer we did this past quarter, for sometimes short, sometimes long stretches, or in one case, during almost the entire excruciating fifty minutes of one show.
The Necessary’s Stage first full production of the 2002 season was Beginning of the End, which also went under the title of BOTE, both an acronym for the longer title and the German word for ‘messenger’ (not ‘message’, as was erroneously reported in other publications).
So what message is this messenger bringing us? Maybe that devised performances such as this (where cast and director working without a text come up with situations around some theme and perform such) is the wave of the future? We hope not. The TNS itself dubs this an experimental piece that parodies life. Well, ‘life’ is a rather large topic, and since much of life itself often functions as self-parody, you can see where the TNS group, for all their talents, might have a little problem getting a proper focus on this subject. Ah - therein lies the flub with BOTE: largely without focus, it lurches or scrambles around from scene to scene, theme to theme, hoping that it will somehow all come together and provide a satisfactory theatre evening. But as this show again proves, hoping rarely works in theatre.
In attempting to parody life, BOTE often tracks its subject to domestic settings, and the more mundane the better. Thus we see a family gathered around a dining table, discussing what they can eat seeing as how the mother reacts strongly to MSG. We see a couple caught in the doldrums of domesticity seeking escape/release through TV and porn films. We see a group of young people recounting stories that go nowhere. We see… well, you get the idea. Or maybe not, since there is not much of an idea there.
In the Fifties and early Sixties, a lot of second and third-rate Absurdist theatre also set their sights on how boring and repetitive, how inconsequential much of domestic life can be. It may all have been a principled reaction to the sugar-coated sitcoms of those days, but these plays mainly proved one important thing: If you want to show how boring life is, you can not do it by making the action on stage boring, as that only produces tedious theatre. We can not walk out on life or decide not to show up for it. But that is exactly what we do with boring theatre. And far too much of BOTE was simply boring.
Though there was a good deal of humour in BOTE, it was almost entirely sophomoric humour. Now, sophomoric humour can be rather entertaining, as it occasionally was here. I confess that I found myself chuckling a number of times during the evening, but this alone does not earn a show high praise. Nor can the shows' co-devisors slip out from getting criticized because from time to time, the dialogue becomes self-referential, and even makes fun of itself, its lack of any real meaning; it is a cute device, but it does not get them off the hook that they have nailed themselves to.
Even the best moments of BOTE reminded me of the stuff I used to see back in high school or the first years of university... Hell, this is the stuff I used to do back in high school and the first years of university. It is not the kind of theatre that The Necessary Stage, one of Singapore’s leading theatre companies, should be putting on, especially as they have cut their production slate back significantly this year.
Finally, BOTE could have been called “Twenty Characters Desperately In Search of An Author.” Had there been one central text to focus on, the whole, even the sophomoric asides, would have come off better. Because the most irritating thing about BOTE is the way it squandered a lot of fine acting talent in the service of poor-quality scenes. For instance, Noorlina Mohamed showed fine acting ability throughout, almost saving a few of the more tedious scenes she fond in. Rodney Oliveiro also showed gust of strong talent, and when Nora Samosir was good here, she was indeed good.
In a number of scenes, Nathalie Hennedidge impressed quite a bit with her penchant for comic acting, and Serena Ho was close behind in showing off strong comic talents. I kept on hoping that some solid material would finally surface, allowing these strong talents to come to full fruition and create something worthwhile, but as I have said, hoping rarely works in theatre.
A few days after BOTE opened, a double-bill of new works by local writers, One Hot Light, closed its run at the Substation. These plays were the latest offering by Peel Arts.
The author-director of Hot Spring, Pua En, notes in his own bio profile that since co-founding Peel Arts, he has created “vital works of rare insight and immense social reach.” If this self-acclamation is anything more than pumped-up PR mega-hype, and if Pua actually believes this, then this fellow suffers from delusions of grandeur bordering on clinical psychosis. From what I have seen of his work, Pua’s métier is more a compendium/scrawl of overheated but still somehow tedious pieces filled with alternately trite or forced observations and stumbling social concerns. Hot Spring is an excellent example of the Pua approach/oeuvre.
Fittingly for a show by Peel Arts, Hot Spring never probes much below the surface, though it makes pretensions to such. (The programme warns us that we must “be prepared to look beneath the surface to uncover the layers of meaning built upon the jumbled timelines and incoherent dialogue”.) True, the dialogue is often incoherent - though frequently that came from the poor enunciation and projection of the actors - and the timelines were jumbled, but that certainly does not equal profundity.
A local TV personality arrives at the spring with her friend, the latter possessing a dark secret - she has AIDS. Seeking the medicinal benefits of this hot spring, they run into a rehabilitating convict and a refreshment stand operator who has the desire to become rich and powerful. Chance encounters such as this are laden with opportunities for strong dramatics, but here all such opportunities fizzle out into the banal and the borrowed.
No real life breathes in this play, and as it plods along, we the audience find ourselves as frustrated with these four people as they seem to be with their own empty lives. Heck, some interesting dialogue would at least have allowed us to enjoy this trek-to-nowhere special. In the end, Hot Spring was a lot of hot air, nothing more. The “biting satire” the programme promised us turned out to be pathetically toothless.
Of the four performers here, only Erwandy Bernama turned in a decent performance. Bernama strikes a score of interesting notes in trying to find a place for his character, suggesting that he is capable of truly praiseworthy work if given a solid script and concentrated direction. The other three performers show varying levels of inexperience, and all have to hone their craft much more before they aspire to accomplishment on the stage. The two woman here can begin by working on their projection and enunciation.
A much better effort, and thoroughly more engaging play, was Hot Spring’s companion piece, Got A Light? written and directed by Eleanor Tan. Got A Light? has some major flaws and still needs to be reworked, but its many strengths make it worth attacking again to come up with a truly admirable play.
Like its companion piece, Got A Light? works on the principle of chance encounters between people and the consequences these encounters can have. Unlike Hot Spring, however, the consequences here are indeed consequential.
Adria and Mark are an engaged couple, but their forthcoming marriage does not promise to be a happy one. Adria is having an affair, while Mark sometimes fills his empty evenings by seeking the solace of prostitutes. Faith is one of those he bonks. Faith has taken up selling her body to support a heroin habit. She gets her heroin from Keenan, who still has fond memories of past kindnesses by HDB neighbour Lucien. Lucien, meanwhile, is a quasi-reforming alcoholic, about to leap off the wagon because his non-smoking mother is in hospital dying of lung cancer, while his unrepentant alcoholic and physically abusive father, a heavy smoker, has seemingly gotten off without penalty.
Getting a little confused, or even groggy with calamity-overload? Imagine how we in the audience felt sitting there watching all this. About halfway through, I started wondering where Eleanor Tan was going to work in AIDS, world hunger, and the Middle East conflict.
In fact, yet to come are a fatal hit-and-run accident, a disruption in the heroin supply, lots of guilt, and the saving grace of human kindness to strangers. Thankfully, Tan is a fairly talented dramatist who has a knack for creating believable dialogue and fairly believable characters (even when the piled-on coincidences in her plot wrench our credibility). When things work in Got A Light? - and they do work quite often - author-director Tan manages to keep us strongly involved with her characters and their various, though wildly criss-crossing, dilemmas. To be fair though, Tan was helped in no small measure by a solid young cast who kept the play from tipping over into the dreary depths of melodrama; at times, it comes hazardously close to the edge of such a plunge.
Top kudos to Karen Goh as Adria, Felicia Oh as Faith, and Kenneth Karasu as Mark. As Lucien, Du’c Hoang was quite effective when scaling the character’s emotions, but not very convincing as a drunk. Julius Sim also turned in a nice performance as Keenan.
Let us be quite clear: Got A Light? is not yet a good play. By no means. But it does seem like a middle draft in what could become a powerful piece of drama. What Eleanor Tan should now do is trim the piece, rework some of the plot twists, take out those that still dangle, replace the heavy portions of saccharine with vinegar and starch. I mean, it is nice to see a play that reminds us of the enduring powers of human kindness, and how easy yet rare that quality is. But, dammit, when you pull this kindness out of a hat like a rabbit, or twist a plotline into a knot to get us there, we begin to doubt the message even when it is meant to be authentic.
Also, both Tan the writer and Tan the director have to either do a lot of research on areas they know little about, or drop these themes from the play. Case in point: Her ignorance of heroin addiction is embarrassing, considering the key role it plays in this story. Okay, we can maybe overlook her being unaware that junkies rarely have hunger cravings (heroin strongly dulls the appetite), and when they do eat, they find normally savoury food intolerably bitter. More important, you are not going to find a junkie decide to give up heroin, and be in high spirits the next day. Has Tan never heard of withdrawal? And has she never seen an alcoholic deep in his cups? Someone who has just rapidly downed a half bottle of hard booze is not going to jump up a number steps and land like an acrobat or engage in a serious conversation.
These are a couple of the areas where the playwright has obviously latched onto certain themes solely because of the power they have, but she has yet to fit them properly into her script.
And she has to be careful of overwriting, especially when it undercuts her clear strengths as a writer. The best example of this comes at play’s end. The penultimate scene finds Faith (miraculously recovered in one day from her addiction) and Mark together on a playground, Mark pushing Faith on the swing. Both are resolved to set their lives on an upward course, Mark in a marriage with Adria, Faith free of drugs. Both realise that unexpected kindness and love have given them this resolve. The visual image, the dialogue, everything here makes a perfect closing to the play. But then, just to be sure that we get her message, Tan adds an extraneous scene where another character strolls out and delivers this message in prosaic terms. This is unnecessary, believe me.
At least these two shows could be said to have been taking bead on some worthwhile targets and in some moments actually succeeding hitting the mark. Neither claim could be made for 7x7: spell#7 remixed, which was played out in an upstairs space in Little India which would seem to defy adequate staging of a play.
A recent I-S guide to Singapore theatre headlined this show as one of four over the last two years that had its reporter asking, “Why, God, why are we watching this?” As I have gone through a number of religious crises in my life and am now reluctant to question why a benevolent, all-loving, all-powerful God would allow productions like this to be done in a universe S/He created, I pursued a more profane line of inquiry, asking, “What the f*** am I doing here?”. Repeatedly. For the better part of a very bad hour.
The above title supposedly refers to the fact that it is 7 playlets of 7 minutes each. Well, it is true that the action runs roughly 49 minutes, which in this case proved to be about 47 minutes too long.
The piece is constructed - excuse me, slapped together - almost as if to prove that this kind of free-association theatre is intrinsically dreadful. I doubt that was the intention, but it was the clearest impression I left the show with. Eschewing craft, character and construction, the script snatched bits of dialogue and emotion from various sources, pasting them on to original text. It poached Pinter at his bleakest stretch of self-parody, before shepherding Sam Shepard well past his evocative ambiguities into utter obfuscation.
The acting here - and I use the term advisedly - did nothing to help the seven pieces rise above their own severe limitations. Indeed, in almost every case, the performances only shone a harsh light on these limitations.
As 7x7: spell#7 remixed is a selection (I’d hate to have seen what didn’t get selected) of past works from spell#7, the seven snippets theoretically might have made more sense in the context of their original packaging. If so, then it is irresponsible, quite irresponsible, to throw these bits together, then ask a general audience to travel across town and pay $15 to witness this rehash.
This kind of show must be why so many people I talk to here tell me they do not go to local theatre anymore because they find shows so bad or incomprehensible. This show was both, and it hurts the overall theatre environment by driving people away from local productions, back to the safety of the TV set or the much cheaper escape of the cinema, where you know that at least you’ll get good visuals and something fairly coherent.
But, happily, not all is dreary on the local contents front. To give us a peek at what this focus could produce, in late May, TheatreWorks held a free presentation of the Discovery Stage from its Hidden Voices project. This project seeks to uncover and reveal the “thoughts and feelings of marginalized and often voiceless people” which rarely or ever make their way to the stage or the TV screen. The nine writers involved in this project went around finding and then interviewing marginalized, usually unnoticed people whom they sensed had their own interesting tales to tell.
This first stage of the project served up dramatized readings of scripts crafted from these interviews. The playwrights’ job was to shape and edit the actual words of the interviewees, though in a few case, the writers cheated and added a few sparkling phrases of their own to drive home a point more effectively.
What we got were glimpses into lives lived in the corners, the cracks and crevices of Singaporean society. The accounts were alternately touching, humane, uplifting, at times depressing, almost always interesting. The most encouraging aspect of this reading was how the monologues were able to focus on the simple poetry of the quotidian that these real-life characters could bring out in detailing their activities, fears, hurts and joys.
The standout pieces of Stage One were Tan Suet Lee’s portrait of a wet market merchant; Edwin Roberts’ look at the discomforts of a Singaporean Malay who feels like an outcast in his own country, especially since the war on terrorism got roiling/churning; Verena Tay’s look at the dedication of an older woman making her family’s favourite dishes; Daphne Chang’s interview with a social worker who deals with the deaf talking about her work and the different degrees of silence she encounters; and Ng Swee San’s sketch of two Singapore-based Filipinos in very different situations, but with achingly similar difficulties. The writers and their subjects were ably supported by a four-person cast under the direction of Lim Yu Beng (who also apparently lent guidance in paring down some of the longer scripts). Considering that some of the actors involved did not even get to see these scripts until two or three days before the first reading, their skill in giving flesh and blood to these voices was particularly commendable. Both praise and gratitude are due Chermaine Ang, Margaret Chan, Herwan Abdul Saman and Godfrey Yeo for this work.