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Theatre Nouveaus of Singapore

By Joie Goh

From left: Playwright Faith Ng, actor Andrew Marko, producer Mohamad Shaifulbahri Sawaluddin, and director Liting Tan.
 
Dominic Phua/ Pham Quang Tung
From left: Playwright Faith Ng, actor Andrew Marko, producer Mohamad Shaifulbahri Sawaluddin, and director Liting Tan.

The Producer

When it comes to producing theatre, 31-year-old Mohamad Shaifulbahri Sawaluddin had jumped straight into it, beginning at age 19 when he helmed his polytechnic’s drama production of “The Ides of March”, a self-written musical version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. It led directly to the formation of Yellow Chair Productions in 2005, a volunteer-driven community theatre group, where he served as artistic director for 12 years before stepping down. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama alum now co-leads London-based experimental multidisciplinary company Bhumi Collective with fellow Singaporean Soultari Amin Farid, a choreographer and PhD candidate at the Royal Holloway.

However, forming an international company was something that happened completely unexpectedly for Mohamad Shaifulbahri. “The plan was always to come home after [graduation] because there were gaps in the [local theatre] industry that I wanted to fill,” he says, referring to his background in teaching drama to youths as his reason for doing his post-graduate degree in creative producing. “But when I went there, I realised the potential of what could be with the industry over there.”

Dominic Phua/ Pham Quang Tung31-year-old producer Mohamad Shaifulbhari Sawaluddin.
31-year-old producer Mohamad Shaifulbhari Sawaluddin.

Since its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016, Bhumi Collective, named for the Sanskrit and Malay word for “soil” to symbolise a common ground for people from all walks of life across the world to come together to create art, has staged dance, spoken word and performance art pieces both in Singapore and the UK. “Our work focuses on diversity, not just for people, but in forms as well. Companies doing intercultural or transnational work aren’t new, but they tend to do stick with one form, such as strictly dance, or theatre,” Mohamad Shaifulbahri says. “But we’re breaking those barriers. We’re talking about a time when people want to build walls to separate people, but we’re breaking down these walls, these borders and barriers, and let artists from all over the world just come together.”

Citing the company’s latest London production, a dance collaboration between three dancers from Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Singapore, Mohamad Shaifulbahri points out that initially, “All of them were looking at [the project] at first as just a dance, as they specialised in different dance forms. Then they realised that they were all Muslim. Suddenly, we’ve got a Muslim from Southeast Asia, a Muslim from Central Asia and a Muslim from the Middle East, connected by faith but with vastly different experiences. And that was what they ended up exploring instead, and I think there’s beauty in that.” 

Coming up next for the producer is a solo show to be presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month, “Last of Their Generation”, written and performed by Mohamad Shaifulbahri himself, who based the script on his own recollections of the people, places and things in his life. 

The Playwright

The top hit of a Google search of playwright Faith Ng’s name is a Straits Times article calling her ‘over-achiever.’ Ng, however, detests the label. A former student from the Normal (Academic) stream in secondary school, Ng is an executive of engagement and associate artist with Checkpoint Theatre, and the author of “Normal”, the hit 2015 play based on her school experiences that had its second sold-out run earlier this year, and had counted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung amongst the audience. 

Dominic Phua/ Pham Quang TungPlaywright Faith Ng.
Playwright Faith Ng.

“It immediately shows bias,” she says. “I try to keep the fact that I came from Normal [stream] to myself because of the stigma, but sometimes when I let it slip, I get responses like, ‘Gasp, good job, you’re such a success story.’ I’m not. It makes me so uncomfortable, like suggesting that my ex-classmates and everybody else I knew didn’t succeed. But they succeeded in life, even if they are just homemakers or nurses. What matters is that they are contributing meaningfully to society.” 

Ng, who did a double major in literature and theatre studies at the National University of Singapore (“I did both because I couldn’t decide,” she says), discovered that the stigma only existed in Singapore after she went to the UK. A recipient of the National Arts Council Arts Scholarship for post-graduate studies, Ng is an alum of the University of East Anglia’s storied Creative Writing programme. “Nobody asked me what school I was from, and nobody cared,” she says. “But here, it’s the first thing we ask anyone we meet for the first time. It’s a conversation starter. So, I wanted to look at this particularly Singaporean thing with fresh eyes.” 

“Normal” was written throughout the duration of her course, and then completely re-written upon returning after graduation. “I had initially written it with an international audience in mind, but I realised how important it is to speak to the people I care about — Singaporeans,” she explains. “So, I went back to the speech patterns of Singlish, how students really talk, something I had forgotten until one day, I was at [a café] and overheard a bunch of students talking behind me, and oh my god, they were so vulgar! Their speech was so colourful, so visual and graphic, but it was so real. I re-wrote the whole thing to be true to the characters, the students.” 

The result: two successful runs and hundreds of fan letters from current students and older viewers who found the poignant struggles of the characters resonant with their own secondary school experiences. “People are just coming up to me and telling me things they’ve never shared before, things they didn’t even tell their parents or lovers about what happened to them in school. And I realised that when you put your heart out there and allow yourself to be vulnerable in your writing, you open a space for others to also talk about their wounds,” Ng says. 

“Usually, in Singapore, theatre is quite politicised and there’s always a strong focus or agenda on what message the piece has,” she continues. “But ‘Normal’ is just asking a question, and it’s freeing to just ask without requiring an answer, to just acknowledge the pain that some people feel. As much as it is to show success and glory, it’s also important to look back on our failures.” 

Ng’s next work, “Whale Fall”, will be part of a double-bill production staged by The Necessary Stage next month. 

The Director

Dominic Phua/ Pham Quang TungLocal director Liting Tan.
Local director Liting Tan.

For Liting Tan, a career in theatre had always been her goal since taking theatre studies at A-levels during her days at Victoria Junior College. Back then, it was the tertiary institution that taught the subject. By the time she was in the final year of her honours degree in theatre studies at the National University of Singapore, Tan was already volunteering and interning at various drama companies during her summer breaks. “Other kids waited tables,” she chuckles. “But I did theatre stuff to build a base and network.” 

Upon graduation in 2010, Tan held various jobs such as teaching drama in secondary schools and junior colleges, and freelance stage management, before becoming a full-time production manager at Cake Theatre, an experimental drama company for three years. “I’ve always been inclined towards the technical parts of theatre anyway, but I’ve always felt this calling to do my own work,” Tan says. “But I went to work for others so I could pay my dues in this industry. I don’t think I’ve paid them off yet, but, well, you start somewhere.” 

Tan answered the call in December of 2014, quitting her position at Cake Theatre and getting involved with several director training programmes with local companies like the Substation and The Finger Players. “I used to call myself the whore of director’s training programmes because I was in every one that was available!” Tan laughs heartily. 

Sustaining herself financially through freelance work throughout the programmes, which ran between 12 to 18 months long, Tan’s efforts paid off when her graduating production was picked up by The Finger Players to be staged for the main season showcase. It led to Tan conceptualising “Pretty Butch”, a self-written play exploring gender expression. Based on her own experience as a butch-identifying woman, it wasn’t after a further 18 months of writing, research and rehearsals (“As well as blood, sweat and tears,” she adds) that the play was finally staged in January this year at the M1 Fringe Festival (where it promptly sold out). 

Currently in Taiwan for the foreseeable future, Tan is involved in a collaboration with a local company based in Miaoli County. “It’s a Hakka stronghold and I’ve always wanted to write a play about being Hakka,” she explains. “I’m half-Hakka and very proudly so, because Hakka women are extremely strong. I witnessed it recently, with how my mother and aunts came together and dealt with the loss of my grandmother. I had never seen them in that light before.” 

That’s not to say that “Pretty Butch”, arguably Tan’s best-known work to date, will be laid to rest. “I’m hoping to take it overseas,” she says. “It would be interesting to restage it in a completely different country and see how it applies to that culture and social landscape.” 

The Actor

Being only 25 years old and having appeared in a handful of productions did not stop Andrew Marko from bagging best actor at this year’s M1-The Straits Time Life Theatre Awards for his role as an autistic teenager in Deanna Jent’s “Falling”, staged by Pangdemonium — a role that fell into his lap unexpectedly. 

Dominic Phua/ Pham Quang Tung25-year-old actor, Andrew Marko.
25-year-old actor, Andrew Marko.

“Unexpected” describes Marko’s trajectory in acting. Initially struggling with “massive” stage fright, he had only joined the drama club at the Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) after he decided that he did not want to be a part of the rugby team. “I didn’t want to run around, and I saw that you could do backstage work in drama club, and very much preferred to sit in the darkness and do nothing,” he says. 

However, he soon developed a flair for drama when he began to entertain his classmates with dramatic prose readings in a British accent (Marko is incredibly gifted with accents and is able to switch between American, Australian, Scottish, French and even West African with ease — a skill he credits to “having no friends as a kid and watching a lot of television”). His drama teacher, noticing his talent, cast him in a small, one-line role despite his protests. The experience left Marko wanting more stage time, and he eventually joined Yellow Chair Productions where he appeared in several plays as a volunteer actor. 

“Then one day, I got a call from a friend, who asked if I could take over his role in a play he was doing because he had to drop out urgently,” Marko recalls. “Of course I said sure, and it turned out that it was the role of Piggy [a central character] in ‘Lord of the Flies’, staged by The Young Company!” Hosted by The Singapore Repertory Theatre, The Young Company is the country’s longest-running youth theatre training programme, which is highly selective in its intake. “And there I was, taking over the role when I wasn’t even a part of the programme!” 

Since then, Marko has tread the boards locally and across the border with W!ld Rice’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, Playground Entertainment’s “State of Mind”, Cake Theatre’s “Electra” and Bhumi Collective’s “Every Brilliant Thing”. Currently a sociology major at the National University of Singapore minoring in theatre studies, Marko scored the plum role in “Falling” by chance. “Pangdemonium was doing ‘Rent’, the musical, and I wanted to be in it so badly,” Marko says. “But I completely flunked the audition and did not get any part. However, Adrian and Tracie [the artistic directors] said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this other play that we think you’d be good for.’ And that turned out to be ‘Falling’.” Ironically, while rehearsing for “Falling”, a spot opened up at “Rent”, which was then offered to Marko. “So it all worked out in the end!”