Get Into The Festival Spirit With Alfian Sa’at

alfian stf

Alfian Sa’at’s voice can be heard throughout the 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival. He chats with us about programming this year’s exciting line-up of new works and how he’s helped to bring these new works from the page to the stage.

This year, you’re serving as the Festival’s Co-Artistic Director. What does that mean in terms of your involvement in creating and curating the Festival?

I’m more involved this year in programming the Festival and commissioning works from promising playwrights. In previous years, I was probably more involved in creating what might be called the ‘tentpole’ work for the Festival, such as Homesick, Cooling Off Day, Cook A Pot of Curry or HOTEL.

But, in recent years, I’ve been looking at the Festival more as a platform for emerging writers rather than established ones. Because we really have so many developmental programmes for new plays, but actually so few instances when they lead to a full production. I don’t want the ecosystem to be dominated by dramatised readings and works-in-progress and publications. Playwrights learn best when their plays are staged for an audience.

Tell us about the Festival as a season of new and original writing. What themes are explored in these plays, and what common thread runs through them all?

One strong theme that’s emerged is that of the memoir or life story, where playwrights use biographical material in their plays. I think one of the things we want to challenge is this idea that, unless you’re some important agent of history, your story isn’t worth telling.

At the same time, we also want to debunk the idea that utilising biography means creating indulgent ‘confessional’ theatre. A lot of it is about the frames that you use for the material. So, in Pam Oei’s Faghag, for example, there’s cabaret and humour. In Neo Hai Bin’s When The Cold Wind Blows, there’s memory and dreamscape. In Ruth Tang’s Building A Character, it’s about poetry and testing the limits of language. And, in One Metre Square, the Sungei Road vendors’ biographies are filtered through a journalistic approach.

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With the amazing team behind Tan Tarn How’s Press Gang!

How did you go about curating the plays in this Festival?

We always start two years in advance. I watch as many plays as I can – I think quite a bit of my income goes towards play-watching (then again, I don’t really spend on clothes and shoes). If a particular playwright catches my attention, I’ll ask to read more works from this person.

Another approach we take is in terms of identifying gaps in the local theatre scene. In our 2016 Festival, for example, we featured four Malay playwrights – Nessa Anwar and myself, who wrote in Malay; Johnny Jon Jon who wrote in in a mix of both; and Helmi Yusof, who wrote in English. This year, we wanted to pay attention to Mandarin-language playwriting.

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With the casts and creative teams of the Mandarin double-bill,
When The Cold Wind Blows and G.F.E.

Why Mandarin plays in particular?

We discovered along the way that it isn’t very easy for some young playwrights to get their new works staged. That’s partly because of the repertoire of some Mandarin-language theatre companies – Nine Years Theatre focuses on translated classics and Drama Box on community theatre. There was a generation of Mandarin-language playwrights like Quah Sy Ren, Lee Shyh Jih and Li Xie; but to whom are they passing the torch?

What we also learnt was that there is still an ongoing debate in Mandarin-language theatre about the ‘type’ of Mandarin to be used on stage. Should it be a ‘standard’ literary form, which is prescriptive, or should there be a recognition of a vernacular form? Just as there is Singlish, is there such a thing as ‘Sing-darin’? And how can we employ it in our works without being accused of ‘degrading’ the language?

What happens once a new play has been booked for the Festival? How does that play go from page to stage?

After a play has been commissioned for the Festival, I offer some dramaturgical support as the play undergoes several drafts and rewrites. I leave this up to the playwright – whether they want some broad comments or something more granular, where I go through the play line by line. I meet the playwrights, often over coffee or a meal, and we’ll talk about the play, and then I’ll throw out some references that might be useful… like, I’ll say, ‘That device sounds like something from a Roland Schimmelpfennig play’, or ‘You should read Caryl Churchill’s experimental Blue Kettle’, or ‘Let’s go down to Paya Lebar on a Sunday and talk to the Indonesian domestic workers there’. But I always maintain that, as dramaturg, I’m not there to be a script doctor, to ‘fix’ their play. I’m there as a midwife – to create the optimum conditions for them to deliver their baby.

In a nutshell, what excites you about each play in this year’s Festival?

Press Gang – an exposé on media dysfunction, the scoop we’ve been waiting for.

Supervision – Rights, Camera, Reaction!

One Metre Square – Hearing stories from those who’ve never had a chance to tell their stories to the public… until now.

When The Cold Wind Blows – Written before the recent tragedies in NS and SCDF, it now feels prescient.

G.F.E. – A play set in a red-light district that comes across as surprisingly tender and poignant.

Faghag – Pam Oei calls herself ‘Faghag’ but, after watching it, you’ll call her ‘icon’ or diva’ (okay, Faghag Icon).

Building A Character – There’s a new Indian sensation about to hit the stage, whose name isn’t Kumar… it’s actually Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai!

An Actress Prepares – Siti Khalijah Zainal Tells All!

Find out more about the Festival at!

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