“Only Connect.” - E.M Forster
The Necessary Stage(TNS) is located in the basement of the Marine Parade Community Centre. Adjacent to the main building and tucked away in an unassuming little corner, patrons are first greeted with a selection of literary brochures and offerings, painstakingly arranged. It is perhaps a mark of good faith that this material lies unsupervised. As one turns the corner, one is faced with an incongruous white door. The door swings open, and the visitor is transported into another world.
Bicycles, wicker baskets, and newspapers; these are but a few of the random items that adorn the spacious room. Display boards detailing The Necessary Stage’s journey since its inception almost a quarter of a century ago sprout into existence in the centre of the room. The overall effect is at once quaint and overwhelmingly homely.
I am brought through this antechamber by a member of the staff, and led through a darkened corridor where I finally meet Alvin Tan in the flesh. Every inch the distinguished professor archetype, an air of slight preoccupation clings to him. Salt and pepper hair parted neatly on the side, he considers me for a moment.
“So, what can I do for you?” He breaks into a smile. The professor vanishes, and a grandfatherly figure, bearing the full weight of all its associated adjectives pertaining to warm, affability and patience, stands in his place.
And so we begin.
So, what is the Necessary Stage?
We are a non-profit charity organization that was founded in 1987. It all started in my second year at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I was a second year undergraduate doing sociology at that point in time, and I was doing some theatre on the side. We were, in fact, preparing for the National University of Singapore Student Union (NUSSU) drama competition at that point in time. We staged an adaptation of Woody Allen’s ‘God’, and managed to win the Outstanding Production Award. After the competition I gathered everyone and I went ‘hey guys, that was pretty good, maybe we should make this a long term thing, yes?’ Reception was generally positive and we first began as a club. Haresh (Sharma) joined me soon after in 1989, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was just the two of you at the start, then? Sounds difficult.
Actually, no it wasn’t as bad as you might have thought. In fact, I think that right now you’d have more problems doing something like that. You see, back then we did tend to run into a fair number of administrative and logistical problems; the arts scene was in its infancy and there was little hype and bustle. Funding was definitely harder to come by as compared to the present. Despite all of that, it was incredibly exhilarating. Every play we staged, every convention re-imaged, every idea we had; these were all great steps into the unknown. The arts scene was quite literally putty in our hands and we took full advantage of that. It was tremendously exciting to note that every single move we made was completely novel, and the knowledge that we were pushing the borders so rapidly instilled in us a great motivation.
Nowadays, there are so many theatre groups around. It has become difficult to distinguish yourself, and a lot of ground has already been covered. Most ideas have been explored, restaged, rehashed in a multitude of different incarnations; quite frankly, we now have the necessary infrastructure in terms of funding, awareness and support, but it’s become so much harder for a fledgling group to make its mark in an ocean of other similar groups.
You make it sound almost…easy.
Haha, yes on some level, I guess I had an easier time than most. For one, my parents were wonderfully supportive. They backed me up to the hilt. I had a partner with the same passion and drive as I did, and that made things a lot easier. Where challenges were concerned, we used to run into a great lack of space. We would use my house to store the props and university corridors and void decks to rehearse. We funded our performances primarily by taking part in lunchtime performances aimed at office workers that sadly, are a thing of the past. I remember there was one point in time when I had had to skip a term test because it clashed with one of my performances. Thankfully, my professor was very understanding and he allowed me to write an assignment to make up for it.
How do you think the local arts scene has grown since then?
To answer this question, I must take you back to 1992. That was when we first applied to be a company. The National Arts Council had a scheme back then. They would waive theatre rental, on the provision that you did 4 plays a year. Two of these had to be local, and the other two could be foreign, established ones. Initially, there was definitely a certain bias against Singaporean productions. People were of the mindset that foreign plays were of a superior quality. We did some brainstorming and realized a number of important truths.
As a fledgling culture, ours was a story of considerable brevity. Put this in contrast with countries such as the UK. Theirs is a richly woven tapestry. There was no way we could use the strength of our history as a selling point, because we had almost no history to speak of. Additionally, we were a melting pot of different cultures. Most other directors saw this as a weakness. They thought that this lack of a central identity was a great problem. We thought it could be a strength.
Coincidentally enough, I was doing sociology in my university days, and Haresh (Sharma) was doing sociolinguistics, so we decided to take a look at language. The plays back then could broadly be split into two types: Anglophile-Type plays with your perfect British English, and your typically Singlish plays which abounded with local vernacular.
We decided to play with language and identity and locate a middle ground. This resulted in a conglomeration of different character stereotypes that were both familiar and strange. It was by all means, a success. The scheme managed to improve the reputation of local productions, and people were going ‘hey, actually these productions are pretty good’. It helped that the audience could also relate to what was happening. Foreigners were now the ones looking at the footnotes in our work in a bid to get a better grasp of our colloquial and the cultural baggage that each character brought with them!
Did you have to compromise between high art and popular culture?
Well, that isn’t always the case. Oftentimes, theatre becomes a medium for politicizing and propaganda. We’re not like that. We don’t push a hidden agenda. The main purpose of art should be to highlight certain issues and frame it in a perspective that isn’t always so apparent to the general audience at first sight. We don’t moralize; we make people think.
To digress, conflict is necessary in helping people understand each other. When conflict is encountered, it is suggested that one or more of the parties involved disagree on a certain matter. With this conflict, both parties are forced to engage one other and more often than not, gain a better understanding of each other.
I feel that art can aid in this process. We can highlight conflicts prevalent between, for example, different races, social groups or religions and bring it into sharper relief.
So to answer your question, Yes, and No.
We bring these relevant issues to the purview of the audience, which is fine, because that is the way we want to use our art, and through this, we help them to explore different ideas. It may not necessarily be the case that theatre has to be dichotomized into high art and popular culture.
It does appear that TNS then becomes a platform upon which ideas are investigated. With that being said, do you feel that an artist should take a stand upon certain issues? And should this stand be apparent in his/her work?
There’s no hard and fast rule to this one. The artist may take a stand, and this perspective may be evinced through one of his characters in any play; not necessarily the main character, but one character may serve as his mouthpiece. With that being said, it’s perfectly fine for the artist to not take a stand, but this means that he/she must be willing to accept any interpretations that are forced upon him/her. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
I understand, and from the internet, no less, that you used to be a teacher at Raffles Institution. Why the eventual switch in career?
Oh yes, this is interesting. As a student in the National University of Singapore (NUS) I was offered the opportunity to sign up with the Ministry of Education(MOE) as a teacher. However, one of the terms of the contract was that I specialize in a teaching subject such as History, Geography, or English in NUS. Unfortunately, I had had begun my love affair with sociology and was forced to push this opportunity away. After I graduated, I did a brief stint as a relief teacher in Raffles Institution, and I taught English and Literature to the Gifted Education Program (GEP) students. Ironically, what I had learnt in sociology came in very handy.
By this time, I was already pretty sure of what I wanted to do in life, and it was a toss-up between teaching and theatre. At this point in time, teaching had had already started to become a little more privatized, and I didn’t really like it, because I didn’t think that teaching was about treating your students’ parents as clients and being excessively profit-driven. This was perhaps one of the more conclusive factors that resulted in my eventual choice to do theatre.
I’m not sure if you can call it a switch because I was always directing or doing theatre in my spare time, but eventually I decided to devote all my energy to The Necessary Stage, and here I am today.
Do you have any advice for our readers out there?
Don’t be afraid to experiment in your youth. I was very fickle as a child. I had a large number of CCAs and always took a long time to come to a decision. I flitted from interest group to interest group and I remember my mother used to be very concerned with my vacillations! Today, as I look back upon my past I realize that all this indecision helped shape who I am today. My variety of experiences actually assisted me in eliminating the things that I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life.
Interestingly enough, I had initially intended to stop studying after my Junior College days. When I shared this sentiment with my mother she merely looked at me and nodded her approval. Alarm bells immediately began going off in my head. For what it was worth, I was a teenager back then and she had conveniently removed any rebellious tendencies I had harbored with that simple nod of her head.
Quite plainly, I now had nothing to rebel against. This was rather confusing, all things considered. I eventually decided to continue with my bachelor’s degree.
In summary, take your time, figure out what you want in life, and then make your way towards it.
– Profiled by Chan Huan Jun