“It Takes a Village to Raise a Playwright”: An Interview with Ivan Heng and Alfian Sa’at

By Ng Yi-Sheng
From 30 June to 24 July 2016, W!ld Rice is presenting the Singapore Theatre Festival, a lineup of eight plays, all staged on the grounds of LaSalle College of the Arts.
Most of the works are already certified hits. Hotel just won Production of the Year at the Life! Theatre Awards—a deserving feat, given that it’s an epic five-hour work showing scenes of Singaporean history from 1915 to 2015 in a single hotel room. Alfian Sa’at’s political comedy GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet) also scored a nomination for best script.
Other plays are restagings of successful, low-key productions. There’s Johnny Jon Jon’s Hawa, about love and Islam; Nessa Anwar’s Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain, about biker culture; Rodney Oliveiro’s Geylang, about the infamous neighbourhood; plus Kenneth Chia and Mark Ng’s Let’s Get Back Together, about LGBT issues.
There are also two completely new works. Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue, which explores the loss of dialects, and Helmi Yusof’s My Mother Buys Condoms, a tale of sex and senior citizens.
I decided to sit down with Artistic Director Ivan Heng and co-curator Alfian Sa’at to chat about how and why they put the program together. We ended up talking about a lot more: their high hopes for the next generation of theatremakers, and their visions of where we’re headed in the arts scene.
TOC: So why are you putting together the STF again?
Ivan: Because we believe in new plays. New plays are really important. We really do believe that new plays are important for the life and blood of the theatre here in Singapore.
Alfian: There are already a lot of developmental programs, like Theatreworks, Centre 42, and Checkpoint Theatre. But they just end with a staged reading, or a tour of community centres, and sometimes a publication. A lot of smaller platforms just fall under the radar. They don’t have enough of an audience to make an impact.
Ivan: This remains a festival to put up fully realised productions.  And I think with the festival we’ve somehow managed to find a model in which we could put these plays together in a very compact way, in a strategy where we actually do one big marketing effort instead of marketing every play individually.
We created this idea of a Festival Pass, which is buy three plays and save. So you buy tickets to other shows so you can have 25% off Hotel. And that has proved very popular. More than half of the tickets of the festival are gone. Grandmother Tongue is completely sold out. Every single show has gone past the 50% mark.
TOC: How is this year’s festival different from previous STFs?
Ivan: What we learned from the Alfian Sa’at Festival [in 2013] was that when you occupy LaSalle School of the Arts, with shows in three venues, there’s a great deal of energy there. Because after the show, you would congregate at Lowercase Café and discuss what you’ve seen, which created a really wonderful energy. People were really coming out of the theatres, talking and buzzing. So there was a real sense of a festival.
Alf: And I think with previous festivals, we invited established companies to be part of the festival. But this time, we wanted to invest n younger companies and younger writers. So I went online, did my research and tired to look for theatre reviews of so-called obscure plays that weren’t reviewed in the main papers, trying to see who are the younger theatre companies that are making work. And I got down at least nine names: Couch Theatre, Red Pill Productions, Takeoff Productions, Hatched….
Ivan: Big Bird!
Alf: That one is very young. Our Company, One Man Riot… And I’d never heard of them before. But you had the sense that you have these amateur, smaller companies that are pooling resources and wanting to make work.
Ivan: The work was also very aware about a point of view of Singapore. That was very encouraging.
Alf: And a lot of the younger writers have been building up their writing. Johnny Jon Jon [playwright of Hawa] was from the Ekamatra Mentorship program. He staged a few pieces in Malay with Ekamatra and he also has a piece in the Twenty-Something festival. I think he’s one of those to watch out for.
Then there’s Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain, which is a doublebill in his work. That was something I caught in a very no-frills production as part of a 24-Hour show in the Singapore Writers Festival, What I Like About You is Your Attitude Problem. I liked that because Nessa Anwar, a female playwright is tackling this story about this very male milieu of motorcycle culture.
Ivan: And she’s got a very special sound.
Alf: She’s got a really good ear. And I think it’s very interesting because ehse’s captured a certain “mat moto” culture which is very current. During my time, and obviously I’m showing my age, motorcycles were very associated with the ‘80s, hair all permed, mat rockers, Deep Purple. But now it’s moved on: whereas in the past your bike was an invitation of your class background, now in this play they do come from different class backgrounds. Sometimes a bike is just a way to rebel against your parents.
Besides Nessa, there are a few other female playwrights active now like Nabilah Said and Sabrina Zulkifli. So it’s interesting, the rise of the female Malay playwright.
And we also have the premieres, the new works by Helmi Yusof [playwright of My Mother Buys Condoms] and Thomas Lim. And I think all our playwrights are not total unknowns, but they have been through mentorship programs. Like Helmi did workshops under TheatreWorks, and Nessa was mentored under Huzir from Checkpoint. I ‘d like to think this festival has all these tributaries
Ivan: It takes a village to raise a playwright. It’s so hard. And I think it’s wonderful. It’s a very positive thing.
ivan heng alfian
TOC: What about Hotel, your biggest production? Are there changes from last year’s staging?
Ivan: Hotel only had three performances! We were rehearsing for a whole year, and we basically rehearsed and tacked Part 1 for opening night and Part 2, and bang, the audience went wild. And bang, it was over. But I think even then we knew we would bring it back. Because it goes into a different phase when it meets and audience.
Alf: Last year, the actors had to memorise whole new languages, so we had to change some lines. We had to learn phonetically: maybe this sentence is too long so we have to cut it own to a few words…
Ivan: Now the actors have actually been doing Cantonese classes and Japanese classes, over the past few weeks, so we can get over that. I was previously directing some scenes in which I did not know the language and the actors did not know the language! Everything was done through the interpreter! And the question was, is it convincing to the audience? So I was in the language classes with the actors too.
Ivan: Some costumes are being revised to be even more precisely. No one noticed it but we couldn’t find male platform shoes for 1975…
Alf: And then some of the epaulettes for policemen in 1925. You find a source photo and you zoom-zoom-zoom on it. Is that a rank? Is it a wrinkle? So really, the costume people, I don’t think they’ve ever done this kind of research for a play.
TOC: Some serious stuff now. What challenges do you face as artists?
Ivan: We’re in a recession, and I think that corporate sponsorship has dried up in this period. It has been very difficult. We used to have Man and OCBC, and now we don’t have a title sponsor for this festival. So what W!ld Rice has had to do is dig into our reserves to support this festival. This is possible because of our long-term sponsors, our angels. We’ve also put in an application for the cultural matching fund. We’re hopeful for the result.
Alf: For me, I’ve always thought about how we can make theatre more affordable. I recently worked with Dream Academy for Meenah and Cheenah. This is a company that receives no NAC funding, and I look at the price of the tickets [from $50 to $160]. This is what happens when an arts body does not subsidize ticket prices. It’s out of reach for so many people. And the frustrating thing is that the show is very accessible—it’s full-on comedy, but the ticket prices are so prohibitive.
Ivan: That said, Hotel may cost $120, but it’s a show that plays for five hours and you can still get a 15-20% discount on tickets.
Alf: So that has been a concern for us. Theatre has to be affordable. It really is a challenge for us. It isn’t just about entertainment. It’s about continuing civic education for your citizens after you leave school. I do think it’s great that entry to museums is free. I think the government understands that people do expect this as citizens.
Ivan: It’s about quality of life. Something to do besides work.
Alf: I think they understand you can subsidize art for many reasons. Education? Arts belongs there. Health? Arts also belongs there; it promotes psychological health.
Ivan: Yah, the Ministry of Health talks about how we shouldn’t eat white rice… So let’s eat Wild Rice!
Alf: We should do a festival called Brown Rice that only features Malay and Indian artists!
Ivan: Just something to finish up: corporate sponsorship used to be visionary, it used to come from higher place, a place of philanthropy. And then suddenly it got handed down to PR and marketing and communications, so it became very transactional. So it lost its way, I feel. It’s about ticking a box rather than a kind of vision. I think we really have to have a think about what is the value of art and experience.
TOC: What about the future? Any positive signs ahead?
Ivan: What we’ve started to think about is the younger generation. Looking out for younger playwrights, looking out for younger talents, actors, looking out for younger designers. And it’s very heartening.
Alf: There are a lot of young people wanting to do theatre. The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival had so many entries! Haresh [Sharma] was very impressed with thee quality of the writing. People are taking classes at NUS, last time it was under Huzir [Sulaiman] and now it’s Faith Ng. There are writers out there.
Ivan: Apart from younger actors, I feel more established practitioners are also digging deeper. I feel for myself, I’m at a place where I’m doing some of my most profound work, you know, significant work, because of having mid-life, being in Singapore for this period of time. And Alfian has now been with W!ld Rice since…
Alf: Since 2004. Twelve years.
Ivan: That’s a journey. Glen [Goei], fifteen years. And still, but not stuck, constantly wanting to look at something new.
Alf: I have hope regarding the regulatory regime. I do think change will come as a matter of generational change. I do have a feeling. Some people will retire, and new people will take over their place. And I think if you’re younger, your experience of the world is different. These people will bring different parts of experience into the bureaucracy, and maybe we won’t have so many paranoid knee-jerk repsonses when it come s to censorship.
I do notice that things are starting to open up, and the reason is that censors are having to deal with new plays they never had to deal with before. They are being challenged: the fact that these plays are being written. Writers are not so self-censoring anymore.
Ivan: We’ve come to realise we should do their own job and they should do theirs.
Alf: Because if all the scripts they’re getting are like this, maybe they’re the ones who have to change…
Ivan: Theatre builds community. Theatre gives you the opportunity to see different points of view at the same point of time. The issues of the festival are different aspects of politics and race and religion and sex, and they’re different from what previous playwrights said.
Alf: And also importantly that conflict doesn’t lead to violence. Like we’re so scared of conflict: our motto is consensus over conflict. But you can’t have consensus if you don’t first have conflict. The idea of being so conflict-averse also needs to be re-examined.
Ivan: And I think the work can go deeper. You’ve got the Internet and everyone is letting their ideas and opinions fly. And now people are unburdened, you have to think about what you actually want to say to an audience. That has given us a better variety of play.
Alf: So the play is not just a platform for grandstanding or soapboxing. People are already airing their views on different media, so you start paying real attention to what makes a good play.
For more information about the Singapore Theatre Festival, go to http://singaporetheatrefestival.com/. Tickets are available on SISTIC, with discounts if you buy tickets to three or more plays.

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