Political theatre – why we can’t just be the passive audience
It is often said that theatre holds a mirror to society and compels audience members to ponder hard-hitting topics in ways unparalleled by television or film. In recent years, Singapore’s theatre scene has blossomed and matured exponentially, opening dialogue and defying convention in bold attempts to push the proverbial envelope of artistic expression. From Wild Rice’s staging of The Importance of Being Earnest with an all-male cast to Pangdemonium’s chilling depiction of a serial killer in Frozen, no one can argue against the progress we’ve seen.
Despite these refreshing additions, local theatre remains painfully restricted by the limitations set by governmental bodies such as the National Arts Council (NAC) and the Media Development Authority (MDA). The productions highlighted before were mostly made possible through the contribution of sponsors and donations, a luxury that most companies do not have. It seems political theatre has stagnated into a series of lighthearted, barely satirical allegories performed by the same theatre companies. With the liberty to artistic expression inhibited by these regulations, can theatre truly be considered an accurate reflection of society?
The gargantuan cost of supporting a single production would send any independent theatre company into bankruptcy. Enter NAC, which uses this opportunity to swoop in and lift these struggling companies from their predicament, into the waiting arms of self-censorship. Companies are promised the council’s support but in turn, they must refrain from addressing sensitive issues lest they face the risk of financial liquidation. In 2010, W!LD RICE experienced a cut in NAC’s annual grant from $190,000 to $170,000 on the grounds of being “incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society”. In the same year, Theatreworks experienced similar funding cuts as it lacked “local presence”.
These punitive measures against leading theatre companies have set a clear precedent — the government will only support art if it is agenda-less, non-international and pro-establishment. By that logic, the only form of performance art that should be left untouched is the annual National Day Parade, but one can only handle so many renditions of Count On Me, Singapore. What we need is a readiness to put society under a microscope and call attention to its inherent flaws.
Admittedly, playwrights and theatre companies have much greater leeway to explore controversial themes than before. Renowned playwright Tan Tarn How started the ball rolling in 2011 with The Fear of Writing, a play about self-censorship. Chong Tze Chien followed this with Charged, which addressed interracial prejudice, the first of its kind. Two years ago, in light of the SG50, the Esplanade featured 50 Singaporean plays, which included works by playwright Kuo Pao Kun such as The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985) and The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree (1987).
This was the same Kuo who had his citizenship revoked and was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) due to the “increasingly political nature” of his works in 1976. Having his plays featured in a nationwide celebration of theatre is indicative of the government’s willingness to view political theatre as something more than pernicious endeavours for reform in the guise of pantomimes.
Despite these encouraging developments, theatre companies still face several obstructions. While NAC uses funding to restrict the kind of content presented onstage, the MDA has the responsibility of giving advisories and licenses to performances, to allow “consumers to make an informed viewing choice”. Companies are also compelled to comply with the conditions attached to the license or risk not being able to stage the performance.
On this matter, Chong Tze Chien, company director of the Finger Players said: “We are one of the very few countries in the world where arts groups have to apply for a licence before we can put on a performance… that in itself is already a form of censorship, and a more insidious one, actually.”
From heated debates on new reforms between pot-bellied men in coffee shops to hushed discussions among first-time voters on the train, politics has been an ongoing conversation for years. Unfortunately, it is a conversation that barely reaches the stage these days. What local political theatre desperately needs is a vocal, enthusiastic community backing it. If we want stories onstage to reflect the day-to-day realities of life, we need to ask for them. If we yearn for the cathartic, all-consuming experience of honest uninhibited theatre, it is our responsibility to demand it.
There is an admirable fearlessness to political artists who have an insatiable desire to stimulate dialogue. The sense of personal responsibility among these individuals is certainly encouraging. In a 2011 interview about Fear of Writing, Tan Tarn How says “Is political theatre raising questions about the state, nation and society? Artists have held up the mirror to society but the gaze from the audience isn’t a gaze of reflection and transformation. What we’re getting is a contractual return of time of consumption and entertainment: a lifestyle of mere spectacle.”
Five years later, more theatre companies are beginning to address pertinent issues and the increased accessibility of various news platforms has made Singaporeans more politically aware. I believe we have arrived at an extraordinary time where both artists and audience agree that entertainment should not supplant the engagement of real issues. This is an invitation to Singaporeans of all walks of life and political views to grasp this opportunity to make a mark on the history of local theatre. It is time to walk the talk and while you are at it, break a leg.