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Art and Politics: The Necessary Stage and Drama Box’s Manifesto

By Kirsten Han

Walking into The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) black box, I’m faced with a flurry of activity even though I was told that it would be the lunch break. The crew are working on the set and the lights, and the actors are trickling in, getting into their costumes and rehearsing lines.

Alvin Tan, TNS’ artistic director, and Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Drama Box, are sitting together in the first row. They’re co-directing Manifesto, a collaboration between the two theatre companies.

Manifesto is the result of years of conversation between Tan, Kok and TNS’s resident playwright, Haresh Sharma. Initially meant to be produced in 2015 in time for Singapore's Golden Jubilee, the play is now opening on 9 March, right in TNS' black box.

Spanning different eras from the past to the future, Manifesto attempts to examine the relationship between the Singaporean state and its artists. "Can Artists be alternative voices for the marginalised or will they be silenced, subdued and ultimately, erased?" reads the last line of the production's official synopsis.

"[In the 60s,] theatre in Singapore tended to be amateur in their production. 'Amateur' not because they were amateurish, but amateur because they said, 'Our art is to serve the people, not to serve the system,'" says Kok. "If you're a professional theatre company during that time you're considered to be a theatre that's doing it just for entertainment. So actually, people who are artists actually preferred to be called amateurs."

Things could not be more different today. Artists can now be found in more mainstream spaces, and in many cases even co-opted into the system or establishment.

"I think in the past it was more obviously the state and the artist, and today's situation you have artists who are also in state machinery. So like artists being artistic director of a venue, and then the complications he or she would have when dealing with [other] artists and having to negotiate the power," says Tan.

The scrutiny could not be more timely; recent years have thrown up incidences of the state coming into conflict with artists and their work. From the Media Development Authority's refusal to rate Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore With Love, to the withdrawal of the National Arts Council's publishing grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, the close-yet-sometimes-uneasy connections between art and authority is still deeply relevant. Even Madonna, the 'Queen of Pop', did not escape Singapore's censors unscathed when performed in Singapore for the first time in February.

But that cannot be portrayed as the full story, as the reality is far more confusing and complex. The state, after all, is also the most generous funder of the arts, and theatre practitioners have sometimes managed to get away with a lot.

Sharma says he does not self-censor, and that the state usually does not try to censor his work. To him, Singapore is not the "bastion of censorship" that it is sometimes made out to be, because things simply aren't that clear cut.

"Here it’s like, you fund and you give a licence," he says. "Then on other days you decide you don’t want to give the licence or you want to say, 'Take this out.' Or you want to give a quiet phone call and say, 'Don’t stage that play.'"

All these considerations have gone into the play. Both companies are old hats at devising theatre, and the partnership with each other, as well as the actors, has been described as fairly smooth-sailing.
"Artistically it's not a problem because we have worked together as a team before. Heng Leun has directed many of my plays. Heng Leun and Alvin have co-directed before. And we started in 2013 so it was very natural," says Sharma. "You see the thing about a good collaboration for me is when you feel safe. And I've never not felt safe in this."

As Sharma and I sit around a table we hear faint voices singing in the black box – filming has begun for the multimedia segments of the play. He tells me that he had been inspired by an article I'd written about the Old Left's annual luncheon when writing this particular scene, and I can hear the familiar melody of the leftist's favourite anthem reproduced in the performance space.

It's hard to tell without seeing the whole play how the scene is going to fit in the overarching story, but Sharma promises that Manifesto will get people thinking: "You're not going to be spoon-fed. You have to work. You have to meet us halfway."

"In this day and age, especially the kind of works that we do at TNS, it's really about challenging audiences," he adds. "And I use the word 'challenging' not in a bad way, but it's to have a good, intelligent all-rounded experience where you want to talk about things after you leave... and not just talk about supper."