When talking about Singapore Theatre, one has to realise that it is a paradox. Although Singapore is smacked in the middle of Southeast Asia, Singapore is also uniquely very cosmopolitan and Westernised in its workings. From its economic progress to the style of governance, it is very much Western in styles that of a blend between its former British colonial master and the world’s sole superpower, the United States. In this respect, Singapore Theatre is no different that it is very much influence by Western notions and theories of theatre. Unlike the rest of its neighbouring countries, Singapore does not comprise of any indigenous cultures or theatre. More often than not, Singapore theatre is imported from the West, with its structure and performances based on western theories of theatrical performance. Singapore’s social milieu consists mainly of Chinese, Malay and Indians, with other races intermingled as well. Hence, given such a diverse society, there is hardly a common, indigenous theatrical style that we can call our own. That being the case, Singapore theatre since time immemorial has borrowed the styles of western theatre. This is also because the British once ruled Singapore and it was the only unifying force that we can rely on. The heyday of Singapore’s theatre is dominated by strictly western styles of theatre. Therefore, such ‘tradition’ has been passed down since the 1970’s. But to explore how Western theatre has impacted on Singapore theatre, we will need to take a look into some of Singapore’s theatre companies and their productions and styles. There are a three major theatre companies that are worth noting an exploring The Necessary Stage; TheatreWorks; and The Theatre Practice.
The Necessary Stage is more well-known for its version of Forum Theatre, which was banned by the Singapore government in the late 80’s to the early 90’s. However, with the relaxation of rules in the arts community and scene, it was later permitted, but with strict censorship not so much from the authorities, but more from self-censorship. Forum Theatre was first introduced to the world by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal during the 1950'ps and 1960's, Forum Theatre basically works from rehearsal improvisation to devise a scene of a particular issue(s), usually one that concerns the society at large. Although restrictions on its performances were eased, The Necessary Stage continues to stir theatre audiences with its thought provoking, or at times, controversial themes. For example, one of the most powerful play was “Completely With/Out Character”, which was devised by AIDS victim, the late Paddy Chew in 1999. However, whether its performances are more for shock value or merely to make a statement is still very debatable. But to the local population in Singapore, The Necessary Stage has definitely consistently raised an issue. The performance about the controversial AIDS issue in Singapore has brought the matter right into the hearts and minds of ordinary Singaporeans who may or may not have been aware of the much taboo subject of HIV/AIDS. Founded by artistic director Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma, The Necessary Stage soon transform into formidable form of theatrical exploration for a conservative society like Singapore. The Necessary Stage boasts its own hardcore following that comes from the underbelly of the Singapore society. I would refrain using the term ‘outcasts’ if I could have a better word to describe their fan base. However, this is exactly how Western theatre has impacted Singapore theatre and audience mindset.
‘What is Asian? What is Western? What is global? What is Local?’ these are the questions that are constantly asked by TheatreWorks Singapore’s one and only inter-cultural theatre company. A blend between Asian performances and Western performative styles, TheatreWorks explores the dichotomies facing these two distinctly different cultures. In fact, TheatreWorks’ brand of theatre is uniquely Singapore, in the sense that it was cultivated, born and bred in Singapore by a Singaporean renowned theatre practitioner Ong Keng Sen. But once again, we see how infectious Western theatrical theories can easily merge into our subconscious. Taught in intercultural performance theories in New York, Keng Sen brought with him a very Westernised notion of how to create a blend between the East and West a fusion of sorts. His first of a series of plays featuring ‘interculturalism’ was Lear. Based on the Shakespearean play King Lear, the performance engaged an amalgamation of different forms on Asian theatre namely Peking Opera and Japanese Noh drama. However, performance-wise, Lear might have seem to be uniquely Asian, but upon closer examination, one will see that it is a wholly a work of Western dramaturgy. The staging and the body of text were clearly a western concept. Lear was created to cater western sensibilities that exist in Singapore. Given its colonial underpinnings and the education system in Singapore, Lear was easily understood by the majority of Singaporeans. In fact, having certain Asian theatre characteristics playing the various roles, we once again see Asians subjugated and dictated by a entirely colonial text which definitely display the impact of western theatre in Asian theatre. Furthermore TheatreWork’s other intercultural performance, such as Desdemona from the Shakespearean play Othello and the latest Global Soul, which was first devised and initiated in Europe presented the very collision of Western theatre on Singaporean theatre.
The Theatre Practice is one of the major bilingual theatre company in Singapore. But more often than not, it is more known as one the major Chinese theatre company that also plays a major unifying force in the Chinese community in Singapore. Taking into consideration that there is no, in the strictest sense, of a Chinese theatre in Singapore, many of Theatre Practice’s performances had to rely on the commercial value and technologies of western theatre. It should be noted that in their website, The Theatre Practice wrote:
“While its bilingual sensitivity reflects the newly emerging contemporary culture in Southeast Asia, its eclectic approach to theatre-making expresses the intense struggle between tradition and modernity as it continually reinforces the assertion of local identity as well as provides ready access to influences of the global culture.”
And such are the techniques applied by Singapore Theatre as much as it is for Theatre Practice. The Theatre Practice was founded by the late Kuo Pao Kun. His plays, such as The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole (1985), The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree (1987), Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988), Lao Jiu (1990) and The Spirits Play (1998), etc, have become a landmark of Singapore theatre. Applying western performance sensibilities, staging methods and playwriting, Kuo’s plays manages to touch the hearts of the common people.
In conclusion, one has to know that through colonisation and now, globalisation, western ideals and ideas are always readily available, absorbed and utilised in almost all cultures, especially in Asia. Theatre is no different and given Singapore’s very diverse population, the only way to cross boundaries in a multicultural society is through a common language or way of life. In this frame, thus, Western theatre has become part and parcel of the Singapore theatre identity. In fact, Singapore’s most significant and expensive theatre venue The Esplanade is built to resemble, and rival, any western theatre venue. The Esplanade has the best sound system from Europe; its stages are made for any Western dance and theatre, but never for a typical, uniquely Asian dance and theatre. And because of this, Singapore Theatre is the very epitome of how Western theatre has influenced other cultures.