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Theatre in the Age of Authoritarianism

One side effect of repressive regimes is great art

Kirsten Han
Apr 10, 2017 · 8 min read
‘Manifesto,’ a coproduction of the Necessary Stage and Drama Box, examines the relationship between art and politics. Photo: Caleb Ming/SURROUND

“It’s a chocolate truffle cake with a razor blade in it,” Ivan Heng, artistic director of the Singaporean theatre company Wild Rice, said with a grin.

He was describing his company’s latest production, a restaging of the popular Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles. Just across the street from the cafe where we sat hung banners of Heng all dolled up to play the lead role of drag queen Albin. The show is a crowd-pleaser that revolves around a same-sex family, but it’s also a pointed choice in a country where sex between men is still criminalized.

But Heng’s coy description of his upcoming show can also be applied to theatre in general — people often think of seeing a show as an act of relaxation and entertainment, forgetting the immense potential of the art form for making us question and confront important issues of the day.

Such is the power of live theatre. It takes us out of the noisy environment of everyday life and into the silence of the hall or the black box and feeds our struggles and joys back to us. When theatre tells its stories well, it connects not only performers with audiences but also audience members with each other, giving theatre the potential to be a strong transformative force. This becomes particularly significant when critique and conversation become difficult elsewhere.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the most powerful position in the world, HowlRound interviewed theatre practitioners and scholars about how the political situation has affected the way they think about their work.

“Martin Esslin, a scholar and my professor, used to say that in Eastern Europe under communism, everything was read as political. … There was so much vibrancy to the theatre. After the Berlin Wall fell, theatre was much less interesting,” said Claudia Orenstein, professor and chair of Hunter College’s theatre department. “Now people will see completely different plays than they saw before.”

This observation rings true, particularly when I think about my home country of Singapore. Freedom House, a nonprofit group that champions the advancement of political rights and civil liberties, describes the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state as “partly free,” while Reporters Without Borders pegs us at 154 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. A U.S. immigration court recently granted asylum to an 18-year-old blogger after the judge determined the blogger had been politically persecuted.

It doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes of authoritarianism — the city is for the most part bustling, clean and vibrant — but most Singaporeans are aware of the “OB markers,” referring to the boundaries beyond which particular issues are deemed “out of bounds.” There are things — particularly having to do with race, religion, or politics — that you cannot say. The authorities also must vet all theatre scripts before the show’s opening.

Yet none of this has prevented Singapore’s theatre community from pushing the boundaries more than any other art form in the country thus far. Plays produced by local companies in recent years have dealt with detentions without trial, patriarchal authoritarianism, fascism, racism, LGBT rights, and censorship. All these issues are sensitive in a country that has been dominated by a single political party for all of its independent history, and it’s precisely this political climate that makes the work so captivating and impactful.

The instinct to test the limits is arguably part of Singapore theatre’s DNA; the Chinese theatre productions during the early years of the country’s independence were often related to sociopolitical affairs of the times. This tendency has survived and evolved over the years, through not only the shift towards the use of English in everyday life but also harsh state responses toward theatre practitioners, including the use of detention without trial.

“It’s the nature of theatre being a social art,” said Alvin Tan, artistic director of the Necessary Stage. “Every time the government sees artists ‘making trouble,’ they always think it’s theatre.”

“Theatre in Singapore has always had that very activist, communal dimension to it,” said Corrie Tan, former theatre correspondent for the Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet. “In a sense, it’s always been that kind of Fourth Estate, more so than the media.”

The challenges are varied and plentiful. While the authorities used to literally censor scripts, they have since learnt to use their power in more sophisticated ways.

“They started off with censorship: ‘You can’t say these words. You can’t say these lines.’ And then, of course, the artist became smart and said, ‘Okay, if you remove these lines, we will remove the lines, and then we will publish it and distribute it! We’ll tell everybody this is what you censored!’ We made the censorship transparent,” said Heng.

The state has since moved away from using such blunt tools, preferring instead to exercise control via licensing and funding. Instead of banning plays outright, the authorities can simply issue advisories that restrict the production’s reach. Last year, the Necessary Stage and Drama Box’s Manifesto, which examined the relationship between art and politics, was rated R18 and given a performance license the day before it was due to open because it dealt with sociopolitical issues that were deemed to be more suitable “for a mature audience.” Tickets sold to those under age 18 had to be refunded.

But such hurdles don’t stop people from doing the work; practitioners have simply found new ways to keep working with and around the constraints. When the government cut Wild Rice’s funding between 2010 and 2012 — apparently because the company was sneaking political messages into its family-friendly shows — the company was able to move forward by seeking support from donors and fans.

A slightly uncomfortable relationship between the state and the artist can also yield great results. “I get the sense this friction will always be there, and this friction can even be productive,” Corrie Tan observed. “It’s produced very pointed and precise work from theatre groups commenting on the political scene in Singapore from various angles.”

In 2015, Wild Rice’s end-of-year pantomime, The Emperor’s New Clothes, retold the classic story of a tyrannical monarch surrounded by spineless yes-men and imbued it with jabs at the system: Actors handed out mini “SO50” flags to the audience that echoed the “SG50” motifs stamped on products and public places for Singapore’s Jubilee celebrations, drawing a sly connection between the unquestioning worship of a vain king with Singapore’s yearlong state-sponsored displays of patriotism.

Wild Rice’s 2015 pantomime lampooned aspects of Singapore’s “SG50” Jubilee celebrations in their retelling of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Photo: Wild Rice

“When you look at it in the end, what did The Emperor’s New Clothes say? It’s how you read it. And again, it’s a universal fairy tale, so that’s how we kind of … yes, you’d look crazy to censor The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Heng said.

The power and potential of theatre and drama aren’t limited to professional performances. Oniatta Effendi has been an arts educator for a long time and currently teaches drama at Singapore Polytechnic. Her students aren’t aiming to become professional thespians; they’re taking drama classes so they can integrate its tools and methods with their study of psychology. In class, Effendi encourages her students to explore and address social injustice, the discussion of which might be new to young Singaporeans unused to thinking critically about the society in which they live.

“It can be hard for them [at first] because they don’t know how to enter the space and what they can say; they are afraid they will say something and get themselves into trouble,” Effendi said of her students. “Some feel that when we even talk about Singapore’s pledge, [discussing things like] ‘regardless of race, language, and religion,’ they feel like, ‘Oh, is this bashing?’ When actually it’s not—it’s really encouraging healthy dialogue that enforces a certain sense of citizenship.”

‘Manifesto’ drew on periods of Singaporean history to examine the tensions between artists and the state. Photo: Caleb Ming/SURROUND

The theme of art’s relationship with politics is one the team behind Manifesto sought to examine. Presented in a multilingual series of scenes, the play questioned the relationship between artists, politics, and the establishment. Is it possible to work together, or must they always be at loggerheads? Can one challenge a system from inside, or will they be forever powerless against the larger state machinery?

The production provides no answers for the audience, only food for thought. “You’re not going to be spoon fed. You have to work. You have to meet us halfway,” playwright Haresh Sharma told me when they were still in rehearsals.

Not everyone is happy with such ambiguity. Donald Trump himself, for example, was outraged when the cast of Hamilton took the opportunity after a performance to read a statement to Vice President Mike Pence. “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” Trump tweeted, describing the cast as “rude” and demanding an apology.

The episode reminded me of another event earlier in the year, when Singaporean actress Neo Swee Lin gave a speech at a local theatre awards ceremony decked out in the colours of an opposition party contesting an ongoing by-election. In front of the guest of honour — a member of the incumbent party — she called for a greater opposition presence in parliament and urged people to give the opposition candidate a chance.

“I shed tears when I spoke to [Guest of Honour Baey Yam Keng, the parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth] at the after-party, because I felt a little bit chastised. He was kind, but felt that this was not the right platform for what I did,” she wrote of her experience later.

But artists often reject the idea of separating themselves from politics. “People are denying themselves the space to see that politics cannot be divorced from the things that we do. Everything is political. And plays allow you to engage on that level,” said Oniatta.

This tension between art and politics, artist and politician is set to continue. Strong salvos will sometimes be fired, like when Trump indicated his intention to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a long, exhausting trudge, one that could lull society into accepting a “new normal,” rather than continue to struggle.

“In the immediate aftermath of the election, I felt a kind of invigorating clarity and sense of purpose, like: ‘Well, I know what all my work is going to be about for the next four years.’ But it’s been hard to maintain that exact feeling,” American playwright Itamar Moses told HowlRound in March. “The real task, I think, is going to be simply remembering what happened, and what is going on, and letting it guide our choices and responses. Keeping this up for years will take vigilance.”

It’s a message that echoes a comment the late Kuo Pao Kun, one of Singapore’s most respected theatre practitioners, made in the mid-1990s: “I think we have a way of life that somehow massages you in a way so comfortable that you tend to forget that before they started to massage you, you had some ideas, some observations, and after some massaging you somehow forget things. I don’t think we can forget; I don’t think we can afford to forget.”

Kirsten Han

Written by

I'm a Singaporean freelance journalist and writer. I'm happiest writing about social justice and human rights issues, wherever they may be in the world.

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