By Richard Lord
Performing Arts in the 21st Century: Creating, Critiquing and Consuming Theatre
Put together a passel of theatre practitioners, a crew of critics, a gaggle of academics, along with a number of pure theatre-enthusiasts curious to see what results from such an gathering of highly combustible materials and what do you get? Well, contrary to both fears and expectations, what resulted at the Singapore Art Museum one recent weekend was two days of enlightening, at times even weighty discussions, all leavened by good cheer, humour and a bracing amount of mutual respect amongst most of the participants.
This high-minded sound-off was, in fact, the Theatre Forum organized by the National Arts Council, one of its side ‘conversations’ at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival. Featured speakers came from as far away as Quebec City, New York, Bulgaria, South Korea, South Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Marine Parade and Toa Payoh. International, intercultural, interdependent, interdisciplinary, interactive – could this consistory work one more inter-trope and also be interesting?
The forum bore the slightly forbidding title ‘Performing Arts Today: Creating, Critiquing, Consuming Theatre Today.’ Would this weekend devolve into one of those boring exercises in group navel-gazing that forums of, for, and by such specialists too often turn out to be. No; this was, after all, a theatre forum, and the first rule of theatre people is to commit no act of boredom.
The sessions kicked off Saturday morning with a surprisingly refreshing discussion of theatre criticism – its role, its duties, its power, its importance, its impotence. Dr. Kalina Stefanova, an associate professor of Theatre Criticism in Sofia, Bulgaria and vice-president of the International Association of Theatre Critics, delivered the opening address on this subject, sketching out a sprawling landscape with many dips, curves and peaks for theatre critics to set up base camp within and then explore.
Stefanova began by posing a number of pertinent questions, such as ‘what is the difference between a critic and a reviewer?’ and ‘are critics parasites?’ (And although her spiel was peppered with good quotes, she missed the chance to accompany the latter query with Irish playwright-novelist Brendan Behan’s deliciously bitchy description of critics as being “like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’s done, they see it being done every day, they just can’t do it themselves.”)
Stefanova then passed the torch to her two panel colleagues who carried it along commendably – T. Sasitharan, actor, long-time Straits Times theatre critic and Life! arts editor emeritus; and Richard Lim, reigning Life! editor. Sasitharan and Lim disagreed strongly on whether a vital criticism of any kind was possible in today’s Singapore, but both made convincing arguments for their poled positions. That said, the very fact that they had this disagreement here may have tipped the balance towards Lim’s more optimistic view.
Following a lunch break, New York’s Richard Foreman led us through the labyrinth of his unique brand of theatre, with co-panelist Alvin Tan merely serving up a few lobbed questions for Foreman to hit back adroitly. Foreman, major icon and iconoclast both of American avant-garde theatre, proved to be witty, informed, articulate and chatty, just self-deprecatory enough to charm all the way through. Nevertheless, at the end I still had the sense that it is probably much better to read or hear Foreman talk about his theatre pieces than to actually sit there and subject oneself to them.
The first day ended with a playwrights’ panel featuring prolific local dramatist Haresh Sharma and Chay Yew, a Singapore native now based in Los Angeles. Sharma and Yew recounted both positive and negative experiences from their roles as writers – with all the knots of ego involved there – who must hand their works, their beloved children, over to directors and actors, neither of which group is known for drawing people with low-charged egos. Do too many star cooks spoil the dramatic broth? Neither panelist thought they did, though other playwrights present cited both perils and pains associated with the dramatist’s trade.
Chay Yew even warned against playwrights directing their own works, saying there needs to be a dialogue between playwright and director and “If you’re playwright and director, you only talk with yourself.” Others pointed out, however, that actors will talk back to you if you are searching for other perspectives.
The second day of the forum largely kept up the interest and tenor of Saturday’s opening rounds. One panel discussed the great potentials in the use of new media and technology in theatre, as well as the limitations of these new aids, while a second brought practitioners and critics head-to-head. The latter grouping, which closed out the festivities, gave the playwrights, directors and actors of two Arts Festival highlights, Occupation and The Morning People, the chance to hear considered analyses of their work from a trio of critics and then respond to these comments. Both criticisms and defenses stirred a further flurry of reactions from non-panel members, raising the forum to its highest emotional pitch. This volley of zealous opinions and counter-opinions only came to an end when the museum’s closing time forced an abrupt cessation of both that discussion and the forum itself.
The weekend’s only disappointment was a panel discussion which ironically had seemed one of the most interesting topics – ‘Intercultural Enterprise: Collaboration or Co-option.’ Unfortunately, neither of the two featured speakers on this topic was able to attend. Dr. Kalina Stefanova stepped in to read the longish, jargon-heavy report by her Spanish colleague Manuel Vieities, while a Korean critic-academic gave a presentation in place of the originally scheduled Korean speaker. Vieities’ paper was loaded with thought-provoking ideas, controversial claims, and slightly murky remarks, but Dr. Stefanova was of course not in a position to clarify the obscure points or defend the Spaniard’s more challenging theses. The second presentation here suffered from an understandable lack of preparation along with a verbal presentation which was often hard to understand.
All six panel discussions were moderated by Professor K. K. Seet of NUS, who did a highly admirable job of chairing the entire forum. Seet saw to keeping the pace while maintaining forum decorum, deftly sprinkling the talks with ready wit. When the occasional tedium started to creep in, Professor Seet carried out a moderator’s main duty and directed the discussion down other fresher paths.
This forum has to be judged a praiseworthy qualified success overall, and as a bonus, the discussions contained many small gems worth taking away and saving for the right occasion. Just to note a few: Richard Lim, casting a critical eye on many local artistic efforts, duly reminded us that “Good effort does not equal good art.”
Lim also served up a wonderful metaphor for a Singapore arts scene emerging from the shadows of censorship, by recalling the grand jewel theft scene in the film Entrapment with Catherine Zeta-Jones, in which Sean Connery carefully guides his lithesome accomplice through a maze of criss-crossed laser beams invisible to her.
Singapore’s arts censorship is like this field of unseen laser beams, suggested Lim. We are not really sure exactly where they are, though we know they are there somewhere. Moreover, the government has been progressively switching off the beams one by one, adding the problem of discovering which beams are no longer operative, and which ones are.
Lim then extended his metaphor to take a deserved jab at certain Singaporean artists. Sometimes, he lamented, when we discover that a beam is no longer operative, that we can in fact use certain words or pursue certain themes, we keep hitting that cold beam again and again until it becomes absolutely tedious.
A little later, Richard Foreman admitted that many aspects of his works flow from instincts and circumstances, that events beyond his control use him, almost forcing him to put a notion, an image into a piece. But this is true not only of art, Foreman asserted: “Life, to a large extent, uses all of us.”
The forum also produced a number of moments that came off so well that they almost seemed rehearsed. For instance, K. K. Seet asking Huzir Sulaiman, author of the play Occupation which went through 17 drafts, when he finally decided that this 17th version was the one. With perfect comic timing, Sulaiman thought for a moment before replying, “They were handing out programmes in the lobby.”
One point that former SPH colleagues Lim and Sasitharan did agree on was that in arts reviews, gossip is valuable. As this report is more like a review than a critique, let me then lard it with some interesting Forum gossip:
* Richard Foreman does not go to many plays other than his own.
* He also received the crucial insight for his groundbreaking theatre when his first wife’s extended preparations in the bathroom deprived him of his expected conjugal nooky and, throwing himself on his bed in abject frustration, he underwent a mystical experience.
* Haresh Sharma does not mind when TNS collaborators change his works because as a resident playwright, he draws his monthly salary whatever.
* Despite having been a university classmate of the ‘distinguished-looking’ T. Sasitharan, K. K. Seet has not had a face-lift.
* Federico Garcia Lorca’s estate-keepers, having learned that Chay Yew was planning an Asian adaptation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, gave him their blessing, then insisted on 50% of all royalties and that Yew’s adaptation never feature male actors in any role as the original House called for an all-female cast. (Lorca himself was murdered by Spanish Fascists at the start of the Civil War, primarily because he was gay.)
* Currently sleeping with each other are – no, no, that’s getting a little bit too gossipy for a staid and weighty publication such as QLRS.
At 6pm Sunday, many of us left feeling that the questions raised at the forum had only begun to be answered, that there was, as Dr. Stefanova remarked in the first hour, so much more to explore. There was also a sense of renewed faith in the theatre, of belief in its magic, its truth. For many of us, the creative potential of creating, criticizing and, indeed, consuming had been confirmed. And ultimately, no forum can hope to achieve anything better than that.
One further closing note on this year’s Arts Festival theatre menu:
I managed to catch just one performance of the Festival’s fringe programme, the Late Nite Series. This was Lying Within, an exercise in devised theatre by magic8ball, an ad hoc name for a group of Theatre and Drama grads or current students at Victoria Junior College. This quintet devised, directed and performed the piece. They were, by far, strongest in their performance skills. There is clear acting talent here, well worth developing, the best work coming from Sylvia Lim, Dwayne Lau and Sylvia Low. As all five of the company apparently see themselves as actors first, I would offer this advice: Next time out, they should seek a much more tightly scripted work, and also a seasoned director who can shape their talents positively. The loosey-goosey framework they chose here was not a good way to hone or showcase their young talents.
The forum was held at the Singapore Art Museum on 8-9 Jun 2002.