By Ruby Pan
You don’t need more than one hand to count the number of full-time playwrights in this country. Haresh Sharma, however, has thrived as The Necessary Stage’s Resident Playwright for more than a decade – over which he has written more than 40 short and full-length plays that have been staged in Singapore, Glasgow, Birmingham, London, Cairo and Melbourne. He has published two collections of plays, Still Building and This Chord and Others. Another play, Off Centre, has also been published as part of Ethos Books’ one play series. What with his next play “godeatgod” seeing the stage in August, Ruby Pan decides that it’s high time she got the man himself to dish the dirt on his craft.
RP: When did you start writing plays, and why?
HS: I started writing plays in 1988. I was an undergraduate and had been part of The Necessary Stage for a year, doing some acting, backstage, sound, publicity, ticketing, etc. Then one day I went home and wrote three short plays. I think it was because I was part of a very open and trusting environment. It allowed me to try playwriting although I didn’t know whether I was any good at it.
RP: Have you ever tried writing prose or poetry?
HS: Erm, yes.
RP: Is it difficult for you as a playwright to switch to different forms of writing?
HS: I grew up loving literature and dreaming that perhaps one day I too would be a novelist or poet. But whatever attempts I made in school at writing were, well, bad. Or at least I didn’t feel “magical” about it (the way I did when I wrote my first play... and sometimes even now!). I think I was stuck with “rules”. When I started writing plays, no one could tell me what was right or wrong. Certain rules I made up.
When I tried writing prose/ poetry, I was too bound by what I’d read as a literature student. I’m slowly trying to break away from that.
But ultimately, I’m too comfortable with playwriting. Poetry is my private writing.
RP: Has writing prose or poetry helped you with your playwriting in any way?
RP: Which writers or artists in particular have influenced your work?
HS: I don’t know to what extent they have influenced my work, but these are some writers/artists whose works I admire and respect: Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes, EM Forster, David E Kelley, Gary Larson and the creators of Calvin and Hobbes and MAD Magazine.
RP: As early as 1989, when you wrote “Lanterns Never Go Out”, you said that you “didn’t want a naturalistic, linear play”. Why have you always chosen to avoid traditional linear narratives in your work?
HS: I didn’t avoid it in the sense of “rejecting” it. And I don’t “always... avoid traditional linear narratives in [my] work”. In 1989, when I was writing “Lanterns”, I felt liberated... to be able to write in any way I wanted. It was totally liberating. And the response was wonderful.
Yes, I later found out there are playwriting conventions, and intuitively, I was employing some of these conventions. But that sense of freedom I felt has motivated me till today... whenever I’m writing a play.
RP: Which is more important for you as a writer – developing characters and stories, or exploring particular themes and social issues in your plays? Or are these two aspects inseparable?
HS: Character is the most important thing for me.
HS: I feel the audience accesses the play most directly through people, i.e. character.
RP: A lot of your plays are created in collaboration with directors and actors, which has seen you working with personal stories related by actors, or with actors’ improvisations during rehearsals. Why have you chosen to work in this manner, as opposed to the more traditional formula of the playwright fleshing the script out on his own, then leaving it to the directors and actors to bring it onto the stage?
HS: Again, it’s connected to how I started writing. Alvin [Tan] founded The Necessary Stage because it was a “necessary stage” to create and stage works that were “Singaporean”. But none of us had any training in theatre. So we thought that the best way to create a play would be for everyone involved to contribute, then whoever was more interested in writing would go off and write the scenes, etc. That’s how our “devising” started. But we decided to continue working that way a lot because there’s a lot of positiveness that comes from that method of working.
RP: You said at a forum on play writing in 1996 (published in 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre) that if directors can “summarise one page of [your] lines into an action”, they should do that, “[b]ecause the writing itself is not really the point of the whole play”. How literary would you say your work is? Or is performativity always more important than the text in your plays?
HS: It has to be both I think. And for different plays, the balance is tipped to one side or the other.
RP: So where would you say your upcoming production, “godeatgod” stands on the “literary versus theatrical” scale?
HS: I’d like to believe that it has both. The text stands on its own, in terms of the layering of the different narratives. And the narratives have certain links to one another. But there’s also a strong performative aspect to the play, in terms of the multimedia, the choreography and overall direction.
RP: It struck me that you refer to “godeatgod”, as your “response to 911”. Does this mark a departure from some of the creative processes you have employed in the past, with you working from your personal response to a recent disaster, instead of from field research or rehearsal transcripts? Maybe you could tell us more about the process of creating “godeatgod”.
HS: Last year, Alvin and I created “ABUSE SUXXX!!!”. That production was totally devised. We started with actors and no script. So I told Alvin that for this year’s work, I wanted to write a script. I finished a first draft in February 2002. Then we had some discussions, etc., and I wrote a second draft soon after. We casted, and then started doing some “workshopping”. “Workshopping” is a good way to try out the text, performance vocabulary, etc. Some aspects of the play went through editing, some were drastically changed, and some totally thrown out. In May, we started rehearsing with the full cast, composing the work in its entirety.
The first part of your question: I don’t see it as a departure. A lot of my plays are concerned with the goings-on in Singapore or around the world. I usually don’t verbalise it because people would tend to then see the play as “about that”, which often I don’t want. I mentioned it here because 9-11 started me thinking about a lot of stuff, which have all gone into the play, and also because I was in NY in Dec last year, surrounded by “post-911”, and I started writing “godeatgod” the moment I came back.
RP: Is it more satisfying for you as a writer to create a play from scratch (I assume “BE”, which you wrote as part of your MA in Playwriting Studies programme at the University of Birmingham, is one such work), to create a play based on field research (e.g. Off Centre, “Pillars”), or to create a play in the collaborative mode (e.g. Still Building, “Galileo”)? Do correct me if I have made an artificial or inaccurate distinction between these works.
HS: Yes, “BE” was created from scratch. But... for that matter, “godeatgod” was also created from scratch. Sometimes I like to write a play, without anyone telling me what to write, e.g. “godeatgod”. But after that, there’s still the collaboration of getting the play staged. And I like that aspect of the process as well. But I have no preference – in terms of how I create plays. I just like the variety.
RP: Have you ever felt that having to work with given research material, improvisations, or specific themes and audiences in mind (such as with a commissioned play like Off Centre, or a play for school audiences) limits your writing? Why or why not?
HS: Not at all. Research is wonderful. Limitation is wonderful. When I do an “issue-based” play, I try to look at all sides of the issue. I approach it as a layperson... so that when I’m writing it, I’m writing it for an audience that’s “me”. So when I get surprised by some research fact, then I know the audience is likely to. If I get angry about some domestic violence story, then the audience is likely to.
But at the same time, I also want to see how I can “push” the audience further – whether by complexifying the issues, or by confronting them, etc.
RP: So how successful do you think your plays have been in “pushing” audiences?
HS: Well, it’s really a question for the audience. And sometimes the problem is that there’s no one audience. Some are “pushed” by strong images or so-called “taboo” issues. Some are pushed by certain points of views expressed in the work. For example, in “ABUSE SUXXX!!!”, we had a segment that featured a young gay man who came out to his mother. But when he saw how upset she was, he decided to change. By the end of the segment, the boy had talked to a priest, gone for “treatment”, broken up with his boyfriend and found a girlfriend. He tells the audience at the end that he has changed and he is happy. Many in the audience were not happy with that.
RP: The press release for “godeatgod” includes a dialogue between a “puzzled theatre audience” and “theatre company”. Are you accustomed to, or anticipating such hostile audience response to your “cockamamie, pieced together, difficult” works, as the “puzzled theatre audience” put it?
HS: It’s not that difficult lah. Anyway, Singapore audiences are so used to watching “difficult” works. I don’t think it’ll be a problem.
RP: Do you read reviews of your work? Do bad reviews bother you?
HS: Yes, I read reviews of my work. Bad reviews don’t bother me. Unintelligent reviews do.
RP: What keeps you taking these risks in your work, instead of creating more palatable pieces?
HS: I wish I knew. The problem is that once I write in one form, the next time, I want to try another form, another process... In 2000, I directed a restaged version of This Chord & Others [first staged in 1991] for The Necessary Stage’s M1 Youth Connection. Everyday the theatre was packed and the audience was enjoying every moment of the play, laughing and clapping. After three shows I was bored.
That same year, in May, I wrote “untitled women number one”, which Jeff Chen directed. Some people told me they liked it, some said they hated it, some didn’t “get” it, and others just wanted to talk about it. I found it a far more exciting experience.
RP: What form or process do you want to explore after “godeatgod”?
HS: I want to do more movement-based work – incorporating more choreography and multimedia, and less text.
Having said that, I would also like to write a very “conventional, beginning-middle-end play”, but with a very high level of complexity.
But these are just thoughts. At the moment, I can only think about “godeatgod”.
“godeatgod” will be performed at The Necessary Stage’s Black Box from 31 July – 3 August, 7 – 10 August ,14 - 17 August at 8 pm, with 3pm matinees on 10 - 11 August and 17 - 18 August. Tickets cost $26 and $21 (concession).
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002