Theatre Virgins


Ring in June! Mid year is here and shame on you if you haven’t gone for at least one art event yet. ArtZine speaks with Haresh Sharma (The Necessary Stage), Loretta Chen (Zebra Crossing) and Charlotte Nors (Singapore Repertory Theatre) on introducing Singapore Theatre to Theatre Virgins.


AZ: Being so involved in theatre, does your interest in theatre rub onto your friends who are not so familiar in that area?

Charlotte: Yes, I have always – also before theatre became my professional life – organised theatre outings. I have always loved going to the theatre. Cinema is fun too but theatre has that element of being able to touch you much more because it’s all happening right there in front of you. Real people. Real stories.

Loretta: Absolutely. My parents had not been to the theatre but started going to the theatre since I made my debut on stage. My brothers, Edmund and Eric, have never watched me act on stage but have pretty much watched every show I’ve directed! My students have also been strongly encouraged to watch theatre. As for my friends, most of them are already in the theatre circle, for those that aren’t, rest assured, I’ve already made them pay their dues by dragging them to at least one of my theatre performances!

Haresh: I’ve been involved with The Necessary Stage since 1987. I think I’ve lost more friends since then than made new ones. In other words, after 22 years in the theatre scene, most of my friends are themselves involved in theatre. The only person I can safely say I have influenced or ‘converted’ is my father. He makes it a point to watch every play I write.

AZ: Have you tried to persuade a friend to watch a performance?

Charlotte: Too often to single out one… but rarely have my friends said they felt it was wasted time and money.

Loretta: Absolutely.  I’ve dragged all my friends to all my shows if i can help it. Most don’t need much dragging to be honest. I remember dragging some of my ‘ang mo pai’ friends to my Mandarin plays and they had tons of fun as they were surprised how I could incorporate MTV-esque and pop elements into the play. I also dragged some of my more conservative friends to The Vagina Monologues (many of them bankers, lawyers and accountants) and they had heaps of fun! In fact they had so much fun, they wanted to be placed on the mailing list so they could be the first to buy tickets even without me accosting them!

Haresh: Actually, no. As much as I do give out flyers of TNS’ plays, I never persuade anyone to buy a ticket. I leave it to them to decide.

AZ: First-time theatre goers we interviewed commented on the freedom given to theatre. However, those who frequent the theatre are accustomed to honest comments in plays.

Charlotte: Theatre companies all have different ways of telling their stories. Some provoke. Some make you laugh. Some make you cry. I believe that theatre is a slice of life and as such language and stories should be true to life. Singapore has changed a lot over the recent years so even our  staging of Avenue Q went by uncensored – we can’t expect audiences who have seen a play in i.e. London or New York to not notice if words have been cut. But at the end of the day – to me it’s all about telling a story and telling it well by working with great actors and choosing good stories.

Loretta: I definitely think that we get away with more in the theatre because like I’ve said before, it is niche enough to challenge controversial issues but widespread enough to reach out to a considerable audience.  Many first time theatre goers are indeed stumped by how we can say the word “C**T” or “F**K” or even make overt references to homosexuality and other racier issues. Moreover, I also do feel that theatre producers ie directors, playwrights, designers, actors also spend considerable time trying to evince strategies to articulate these controversial issues in a clever and refreshing manner through the use of strategic blocking, facial expressions, gestures, music choices, costumes and set designs that may not be immediately evident at first glance. However, to a seasoned theatre goer, they may be able to appreciate these visual, verbal or aural puns and appreciate the subtext, context and metatext more readily than a theatre virgin. So definitely, an open-minded person would be able to appreciate a theatre performance at more varied levels and be able to discern the cultural references that have been made.

Haresh: People often don’t realise how much freedom and space is given to the theatre scene in Singapore. It hasn’t always been the case. But recently we’ve had a fairly decent rating system, with clearer guidelines and advisories. So a lot more is ‘allowed’. I think our audiences come to the theatre because they want to embrace that openness and freedom which are expressed in the theatre.

AZ: What was the first performance you watched?

Charlotte: Growing up in Denmark I went to the theatre at least thrice a year – either with my school or my family. Children’s theatre is huge in Denmark – and we are getting there here as well – so I guess I was 5 when I watched a performance of The Nutcracker.

Loretta: I remember my first theatre experience was when I played an Angel in a kindergarten nativity play. My first pseudo-adult memory of watching theatre was a very much bird’s eye view of Les Miserables — as a student who could only afford the very cheapest tickets practically on the roof of the Kallang Theatre.

Haresh: I don’t remember watching plays and arts events when I was younger. But then again, plays were not as common then as they are now.

AZ: Love for the arts should then be nurtured from a young age.

Charlotte: YES YES YES!!!! SRT’s The Little Company is doing amazing stuff for the 2-6 year olds. My son is 2 years and he so enjoys coming with me now. It’s such a great experience for a parent to see a child totally immersed in the play.

Loretta: Absolutely. I began to love theatre during my literature class. I had a zany, fun and almost ditzy teacher who made Literature classes very fun. I was also exposed to theatre throughout my primary and secondary school days. My fondest memory was performing in a play I devised with my other classmates called “Ah Mui’s Final Suitor” in which I played Ah Mui who was looking for a suitor from the twelve Chinese zodiac animals. It was a very simple story that exemplified the characteristics of the twelve animals but also played on modern day match making. It was the assembly play for the Chinese New Year festivities- and the piece went on to be selected for performance at the Singapore Youth festival. For a 13 year old, that felt like winning Olympic Gold! So yes, drama in early childhood education is seminal and integral in creating new artists.

Haresh: I totally agree that love for the arts should be nurtured from young. Our first formal experiences of the arts are usually in school. So I think schools should do more to promote the arts. They can invite artists to speak to students and present performances during assembly.

AZ: What more can be done for children to experience theatre?

Loretta: We must begin to break the myth that theatre only happens in a theatrical arena but that theatre happens all around us. It is always interesting when I tell young children (or adults for that matter), is that all that it takes for theatre to happen is an actor, a space, and an audience member. A lover’s tiff on an MRT can be theatrical, a man in a suit dashing for a bus can be theatrical, a baby in a pram can be theatrical. All that takes is for an individual to be more observant about life, and theatre happens right before your very eyes. But in more concrete, specific ways, schools can help by taking theatre to schools, by allowing for more performances to be staged by professional groups during curriculum time, and also by organising excursions to the theatre, or to backstage tours to the Esplanade etc. This can also be augmented by exposure to traditional modes of educational activities such as story-telling and drama competitions which have been superseded by virtual reality.

AZ: What is the greatest misconception about theatre?

Charlotte: You know, working in the theatre I have my heart and soul buried in my work. This is my life so I probably do not know what misconceptions people have. That is it for the elite? Rubbish – even tickets to watch Sam Mendes’ The Winter’s Tale at Esplanade starring Ethan Hawke can be bought at $40. Everyone can afford that.

Loretta: That theatre is only full of Shakespeare. That Singapore theatre is boring, uncreative, pretentious, of low standards and very ‘atas’ (only for the “ang-mohs” (expatriates and tourists) or overseas educated, upper middle class audience)

Haresh: I think some people resist theatre because they think it’s ‘cheem’. I think our audiences are more intelligent and analytical than they give themselves credit for. Sometimes an audience member comes up to me and says ‘I don’t understand’. But after a couple of minutes of speaking to them, they actually have very profound interpretations of the play. We have always been schooled to find the right answer. But theatre is not about the right answer. It’s about your answer, your individual and personal response.

AZ: Perhaps first-timers don’t feel comfortable watching theatre alone? Like people usually watch movies in pairs or groups, right?

Charlotte: I rarely do, but that is my loss. If you are keen to watch a play, then go buy the ticket and allow yourself a good inspiring evening out.

Loretta: Of course! Theatre is best savoured alone or with friends, family and loved ones. In short, theatre is best savoured – all the time!

Haresh: Yes!

Try this… start with any show you are interested in. Read the synopsis; find out more about the work. If you find anything that resonates with you, go buy a ticket”, advises Haresh while Charlotte talked about Much Ado About Nothing (read our review here) and Loretta suggested the musical Victor/Victoria which will run in November 2009.

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