Theatre and its Publics, and Everything Else

Richard Chua

The late Singapore theatre practitioner William Teo served tea to audience members in every evening performance. Kuo Pao Kun used to stand at the front of house of his theatre productions greeting and giving out programme booklets to audience members. These acts of hospitality are not just – in modern Singapore’s context – good customer service aiming to get returning audiences. They have deeper conviction in audience engagement, for they belonged to the generation of theatre practitioners who believed in engaging the public with their art, through the medium of theatre. Little has been discussed about theatre publics in Singapore theatre literature. In fact the word “audience” features more prominently than the word “public”, especially in government reports. To the government, the notion of publics seems to take on spatial significance, denoting “in the open”, devoid of people human beings. In Singapore, there is privileging of theatre audiences over theatre publics. The audience is simply assigned the role of a spectator, not someone who is likely to engage. There is also an economic quotient to it. Audience numbers reflect the level of success of an arts event. Recently, like any other post-election enthusiasm exhibited by newly appointed cabinet ministers, the new arts minister Yaacob Ibrahim has claimed that his ministry would focus on bringing more arts events into the community: an endeavour that is supposed to have been going on since the late eighties, with the blueprint to make Singapore a culturally and artistically rich city, which eventually saw the establishment of the National Arts Council in 1990.

Yaacob Ibrahim’s commitment in repeating the routine declaration of the pledge to bring more arts activities to the community reflects the inadequacy of Singapore government’s efforts in engaging Singaporeans with the arts. There is an implicit assumption that Singaporeans are not sufficiently savvy in appreciating the arts. This paternalistic generalisation is the fault line inhibiting further progress in the development of theatre audience in Singapore, quality rather than the quantity. For longest time, the Singapore arts community has been engaging the National Arts Council in putting more effort in developing public intellectual activities in arts and culture. No doubt, many activities have been carried out, but not many of them have steady continuation.

The theme of the 2011 Singapore Arts Festival, “I Want to Remember” has important significance to the Singapore arts and cultural scene. One part of the remembering process is to revisit Singapore theatre in the yester-years. The creation of the festival village and the re-staging of late William Teo’s work Conference of the Birds could serve as a form of stock-taking of the efforts put into arts development by the previous generation of artists and policy makers. It should also be a call to all Singapore artists to remember what their predecessors have done.

Hence it seems apt to revisit what William Teo and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed to the Singapore arts scene. What interests me most is the way they engaged their audience as publics, not merely as passive spectators.

Consciously or not, audience members gather in a common space called a theatre potentially to learn, not to consume. There is a need for audiences to digest what they have seen and encountered in order to make sense of it, even as a consumer coming to terms on whether the show was worth watching. Each and every one of them has the potential ability to lay claims on it. Some views get aired publicly, while most would go unnoticed remaining only as after performance chatter. William Teo and Kuo Pao Kun were acutely aware of this. They wanted their audiences to experience theatre aesthetically, if not intellectually. Usually on the outset, audiences would first be dazzled by designs; the set and the costumes. Those who engage theatre at an intellectual level would ponder on the story, the themes, the messages within. Undoubtedly, two of them were masters of their craft, able to work the two elements together to achieve a theatrical experience for audience members. However, to Kuo Pao Kun, this was still not sufficient. In his review of William Teo’s outdoor production of Medea, presented on Fort Canning Hill, Kuo Pao Kun spoke of William Teo’s form of theatre, where audience members were allowed to the backstage area to observe the actors getting ready for the performance. He was trying to figure out how to exactly describe the theatre he saw. Eventually he called it Total Theatre.

Teo’s Medea allowed the audiences to assume the role of a participant in the theatrical experience. They became part of the theatrical imagination. Unfortunately, Willam Teo passed away in his forties. He was then at his prime in theatre-making. He founded a theatre company called Asia-in-Theatre Research Circus, comprising of members who shared his belief in the new Asian aesthetic in world classics.

William Teo (1957-2001) was one of the pioneers of Singapore’s English-language theatre in the 1980s and 1990s. That was a time when English-language theatre in Singapore took off, with a new generation of theatre artists, playwrights and directors who grew up in the post-Independence era of the late 1960s–1970s exploring and expanding theatre styles, techniques and methods. He was also known for theatres of a highly visual staging, the influence of traditional Asian performance forms in the storytelling, acting, and staging, and a commitment to in-depth research and preparation and training of the actors.

Most importantly, he touched the lives – and indeed, the theatre practices – of many Singapore theatre artists. One of the hallmarks of his productions was the care for the audience’s experience of theatre, from the moment they entered the theatre building to the close of the performance through which the magic of Total Theatre emerged (The Substation).

That’s also what made William Teo special, not so much the ability of his theatre to emotionally move his audiences, but his ability to engage his own public in his theatre company: the theatre-making public aspiring to make Asian theatre with excellent acting. His own brand of hospitality spirit – cooking for his theatre group members in almost every rehearsal – has not only earned him respect from his fellow theatre colleagues, but also people who have come to know him and his theatre troupe through attendance at his epic productions. His engagement with his peoples through the establishment of intimate personal relationships enabled him to ask his theatre members to do the most difficult of physical exercises, without them complaining in the least, not to mention demanding his audiences to wander around with his actors in his productions, or to sit on wooden planks outdoors, rather than in the comfort of a conventional theatre. There was trust between William and his audiences. They were no longer merely spectators consuming an artwork, but publics, who had invested interest in the process of his art-making, in the theatrical experience he offered them.

Government arts policies predicated on the assumption that audiences are people who merely consume theatre essentially simplify the complexities within the process of engagement between them and the artwork. By providing feedback to fellow theatre goers after the performance, and to write about it in blogs are claims laid on the artwork. Every artwork demands for a conversation. They should be discussed in the public sphere, with the participation of different publics. As much as the Singapore Arts Festival is trying to open up discussions in public space this June through its communal outreach activities, the recently concluded Singapore Biennale has proven yet again that more could be done in public engagement in the arts. A case in point is Singapore Arts Museum’s handling of public relations to the closure of Simon Fujiwara’s work Welcome to the Hotel Munber in the Singapore Biennale 2011.

Photograph credit: jusdeananas, “The Longue Durée …”, (click on photograph for link to source article)

The said British artist’s work is a critical reflection on the violent oppression of human freedom and the censorship of homosexual literature under General Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1970s Spain. The installation emerged from a series of short fiction stories and performances that were inspired by the lives of his parents who were proprietors of a hotel bar during this period. Presented as a detailed reconstruction of the 1970s Spanish bar, the installation fuses seemingly harmless nationalist symbols such as bulls’ heads, wine barrels and portraits of the leader with the very materials that were deemed ‘enemies of the state’ at that time: pornography, erotic literature and other traces of homosexual life (Martin 2011).

Singapore Biennale 2011 organiser Singapore Art Museum intervened in the artist’s conception in wanting to raise awareness of the historic injustices of censorship and civil liberty by censoring the artwork, without the artist’s knowledge and consent, removing some elements that are deemed unsuitable for the Singapore public from the exhibition. This created furore among arts practitioners, not to mention gay activists, who saw it as an impediment in making Singapore an open society for all, regardless of their sexual preference. In his media statement, the Singapore Art Museum director reiterated the usual government rhetoric of the museum having a responsibility towards its diverse audience and its stand on exhibitions with due sensitivity to specific local contexts. The Museum’s decision on withdrawing magazines deemed as explicitly pornographic to Singaporeans is high-handed and unreasonable, to say the least.

What begs for more discussion is the context of which the magazines were framed within. It was totally different from the general public’s perception of pornography. The museum’s proposing to re-open the artwork to the public using less graphic images, even to the extend to putting up a barricade between the spectators and the artwork is undermining Singapore publics’ ability to engage in artistic and political discourses. The so-called strong feedback received from the public can be a starting point for fruitful discussions. In addition, media reports could also be used to further these discussions, not merely serving as reportage to the act of censorship.

The role of media reports is to highlight public claims on the artwork. In fact most of the media reports on the censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s work revolves around Singapore Art Museum’s act of censoring it, rather than actively engaging the museum in clarifying their position in the decision to close the exhibition. Not much of public’s opinions of the artwork could be scoured either. The public has neither laid sufficient claims to the Fujiwara’s work, nor the Museum’s decision to close the artwork. Public’s feedback should be more than just “strong feedback”. Both the media and the museum should demand for more. However, being a government run museum, it would be suicidal for the museum to invite engagements on their decision to close the exhibition. Hence it is an art writer’s responsibility to engage them.

Censorship in the Singapore arts scene is not new. Singapore artists have grown to live and engage it. Government’s intention on censoring notwithstanding, it is the government’s implicit assumption that publics will not, and are not able to handle rigorous debate on conflicting claims that proves detrimental to policies aiming to develop the arts in this country. They should instead invite arts publics to lay claims on them, to demand from the artworks, to question the artistic intention and strategies behind these artworks. For publics’ claim to the artworks signals maturity in society, allowing constituents to gain confidence in putting forward their views to making a society a better place, rather than running to the government for policing. It has been said many times over in the arts circle that the most exciting period in Singapore arts development occurred during late eighties and early nineties, where public intellectual activities were beginning to take root in the Singapore arts and cultural scene, with Singapore’s independent arts centre The Substation’s two landmark arts conferences Art vs Art, and Space, Spaces and Spacing taking place; intellectuals from all walks of Singapore’s arts and cultural life coming together to critically reflect on the role arts and arts spaces (both conventional and non-conventional) take in developing artistic and cultural discourses in the country. That was also time when arts actively engage its publics in open forums. They allowed public feedback and involvement, audience engaging the artists on contentious issues, artists engaging the government on arts policies.

Engagement could take place at a personal level. William Teo was one of the rare practitioners who knew that, choosing to engage with his own publics. An active theatre participant in Singapore’s mainstream English Language theatre in the eighties and nineties (where English Language theatre appealing to middle-class sensibilities were on the rise) it was then unthinkable of to have someone who was involved in middle-class theatre aesthetics wanting to stage epic theatre classics with Asian sensibilities. I am not suggesting that English theatre practitioners at that time were stifling the development of other forms of theatre, but Singapore’s colonial history – and the English-educated – seemed to have directed English Language theatre towards a single predominant aesthetic deeply rooted in the Engish-educated milieu. William Teo’s Asian aesthetics, no doubt heavily influenced by the Southeast Asian sensibility, was a breath of fresh air in the English-speaking theatre scene in Singapore at that time. He made an attempt at creating theatre that simply is Singaporean-English spoken, coupled with an Asian sensibility. His intense and personal engagement with the Asian aesthetic has also been translated into unforgettable personal relationships among the followers of his theatre. Another under-discussed aspect of William Teo’s theatre practice was his public engagement within English-Language speakers in the Singapore theatre scene.

On hindsight, William Teo’s tea serving practice served more than one purpose in providing good hospitality.

The late eighties and early nineties saw the beginning of a process where Singapore could have developed something ground-up, but in late nineties, and into the millennium, the process seemed to have slowed down; or to some, even regressed. Public intellectual activities in the Singapore arts and cultural scene have waned, coupled with a lack of interest in developing the Singapore culture. Perhaps, according to Lee Kuan Yew, in his book Hard Truths, being Singaporean simply means “to join us is to be part of us” – the definitive characteristic of a Singaporean, as immigrants from other lands. Singapore culture is none other than a mixture of many different cultural practices.

With different culture practices contesting in this immigrant society, there are more than meets the eye. Contestation is further complicated by political forces relating to nation-building, social stability, and economic progress. Hence “to join us is to be one of us” takes on multiple dimensions, most of them appropriated by globalization of politics aiming to achieve stability and prosperity. The process of social shaping and alteration changes the dynamics in the process of contestation among different cultural practices. Practices are constantly informed by needs of late capitalism and desired models of political ideology. In Singapore the need to stay relevant in the modern world in order to survive is the dominant ideology. Publics have been conditioned to believe it. Usually they would not question it, but they know it might not be a good model, for the results of the recent election on 6 May has shown, publics are demanding for more active involvement in formulating government policies. They have a stake in the country’s development. To many, a new political process has begun.

But to me, it is nothing new, not only the process has started in late sixties, it has also archived some results. But to Singaporeans, everything seems new, living as if political engagement hasn’t got a history of its own. As I recall a comment made by dancer/artist Daniel Kok in response to my Facebook posting lamenting the new arts minister’s bringing – yet again – the arts to the masses/community, that Singapore is a country of beginning. We are always starting from the basics, treating what has been done in the past constitutes efforts of lost generation. With every new minister, new office-bearers in the National Arts Council, there should be progress in artistic development in Singapore, building upon efforts of the past generation of artists and policy makers. Art policy makers should be responsible of their decisions. Hence, the Singapore Arts Museum director and the curatorial team of Singapore Biennale 2011 should respond to calls by publics on the issue relating to the closure of Simon Fujiwara’s work in the visual arts festival, rather than merely outline their position for public information. With the increasing call for greater engagement with the government by Singaporeans after the recently-concluded general election, development of the arts should not be just an empty and simplistic call reiterating the need to bring the arts to the community in order to engage them.


The Substation. A View of Total Theatre: Remembering William Teo.

Martin, M. (2011) Singapore Biennale 2011! A Final Word from Our Sponsors [Web log message ].

Presently serving as editor and curator of theatre projects in online performing arts journal Theatrex Asia, Richard Chua aims to explore and eventually present new aesthetics in small experimental theatre movement in Asia, with a focus on Southeast Asian performing arts forms. As a theatre maker, he frequently collaborates with small experimental theatre artists to present performances that define new artistic methodologies and aesthetics. His most recent project being the presentation of Japanese theatre On Moonlight and Rain, presented by Japanese theatre troupe from Fukuoka, Japan: Space-GIGA theatre troupe.

3 thoughts on “Theatre and its Publics, and Everything Else”

  1. Hello. Enjoyed reading your article. I notice that you’ve used one of my pictures of Simon Fujiwara’s “Welcome to the Hotel Munber” in the piece. That’s absolutely no problem at all, but I’d prefer it if you could link to my blog in a clearly stated attribution, rather than embedding an invisible hyperlink in the jpg image. Thanks.

  2. Thanks jusdeananas for allowing us to use the photograph and to link it to your article and blog!

  3. i find this gallavanting-beat around the bush sort of style from stat boards really annoying. not wanting to take the bull by its horns, we’re adopting this manufacturing mentality of just producing things without attaching any emotions to our acts. it’s only NOW that the new education minister wants to introduce social, emotional learning in schools when they should have done it a long time ago. and when we produce undergraduates, we don’t have enough jobs to place them in. it’s only after we do something over and over again without stopping to think of its outcome that we come to a point of realising we’ve been wasting our time all along. same thing with culture, it’s just seen as entertainment, scrapping the surface, spineless acts of consumption and when one does it in abundance, you say they’re decadent and watching too much plays that is only for the priviledged.

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