Dramatised readings of Tan Tarn How's in Esplanade's The Studios: fifty


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by Tracey Toh

Titled The Studios: fifty, the ongoing season celebrate Singapore’s fiftieth birthday by bringing back 50 local scripts by playwrights who have moved and shaped the theatrical arts scene in Singapore. With a cast for the dramatised read consisting of versatile actor Andrew Lua, a familiar face on local tele-movie screens and stage; freelance theatre practitioner Amanda Tee; Corporate Brand Consultant turned theatre actress/singer Zee Wong; and familiar face Terence Tay of the well-known sitcom “Living with Lydia”. The production was ran at the Esplanade Rehearsal Studio on 8th May, and Campus Magazine got a glimpse to it all, including a short email interview with the cast too!

Q: What are some of the opportunities and challenges in presenting these plays through a dramatised reading instead of a full-length production?

Zee Wong: First, I need to clarify that our director Boon Teck chose to push the envelope with this read, by getting all actors to go off-book. This meant we had to memorize everything, and could not rely on scripts in-hand. So the read we did was more like a fully staged production than a read!

Having to be way more familiar with the text in such a short time frame was a key challenge, but this also unlocked an opportunity for us actors to inhabit our characters deeper, and opened up a lot more playing possibilities since we knew the lines by heart (and could focus on meaning, subtext, colours etc).

In general though, for dramatized reads, another challenge is the limited rehearsal time – this means less time for the creative team and cast to develop rapport and deep trust. In a read, we have to do actively work toward building this by the end of first rehearsal. This is a great opportunity for the team to push themselves to focus, and contribute more actively, so things go as seamlessly as possible.

Less rehearsal time also means less time to experiment and explore both the breadth – and depth – of staging / scene / characterisation possibilities. This presents us with an opportunity to go with our first instincts, and run with it… there’s something refreshing about that spontaneity, that sometimes gets a bit lost during a lengthy production process.

Q: How has the group been personally influenced or inspired by the works of Tan Tarn How?

Amanda : Tarn How’s Fear of Writing shines the spotlight on the issue of censorship. This issue of censorship is a very relevant one whether we are talking about 10 years ago or today, especially in an infant state such as Singapore. It definitely made us more aware to the scope of ‘restrictions’ that we face on a daily basis, and from there we also discussed the various types of censorships. State censorship, racial censorship, religious censorship, self censorship etc. It has also certainly provoked us to do our own research into the more political part of our history in Singapore.

Fear of Writing also questions relationships. Personal relationships, relationship with the state, relationship with other people as a result of the state etc. We found that Tarn How’s Machine also raises this same issue. In this day and age where technological advancements, narcissism that comes as a package with social media reigns, people are looking towards ‘objects’ for self gratification. We questioned our relationships not just with each other, but the possibility of us, in actual fact, having or substituting human relationships with objects.

Q: Tan Tarn How said on Fear of Writing that “there is no danger, no real change enacted by our works”. What is the point and purpose of making political theatre in Singapore?

Andrew :  There are different definitions and references to what Political Theatre actually entails but allow me to be simplistic and address just 1 of them. Theatre performed with political commentary. I believe that the Theatre we create is dependent on our personal beliefs, shaped by our experience through our interactions with our surroundings. When we choose to create Political Theatre, we either choose to passively present a mirror for society to reflect upon itself or choose to actively address pertinent issues that our society is dealing with. Theatre however doesn’t end with creation, Theatre cannot exist without an audience to interact with. Our responsibility as artists is to create and the audience needs to respond. When Tarn How wrote that “there is no danger, no real change enacted by our works”, this is not to dismiss the gravitas of our works but the responsibility is passed on into the hands of those who witnessed them. That is beyond our jurisdiction. We can only hope to create dialogue and challenge the audience to engage. It is crucial for a society to keep creating these works, to create self perpetuating dialogue, discussions that expand and continue beyond the performance space. How dangerous or life changing It is, is up to you.

In this revisiting of the works of Tan Tarn How, their continued relevance and importance in the canon of Singapore theatre is put beyond question. The choice of the two plays for the dramatised reading demonstrated the full range of subject matter in Tan Tarn How’s oeuvre – Machine laid bare a wholly utilitarian and unsentimental approach to modern relationships, while Fear of Writing explored the phenomenon of self-censorship in Singapore.

Seemingly disparate, these two plays were not only shown to be complementary but served to highlight the common themes that underlie both. The frustration of the four lovers as they came up against issues of trust was presented alongside the anguish of the playwright as he confronted his writer’s block, such that the overtly political was intertwined with the intensely personal.

The performance ended with the four actors marching in a circle around the stage, separated by an equal distance at all times, their footsteps forming a percussive backbeat to their dialogue. An allusion to the mechanical, cyclical motions of the machine, it underscored the ceaseless – if ultimately futile – nature of our attempts to make genuine human connections, and to make a difference in society.

(image credited to Toy Factory Productions Ltd)