Alfian Sa'at Reflects On STF2016
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Reflections on Singapore Theatre Festival 2016

Dear Friends,

When I was conducting a playwriting workshop as part of this year’s Singapore Theatre Festival, I was asked by a participant how one could avoid relying on familiar models or formulas in one’s writing. I said something to the effect of being alert to the styles and motifs that keep recurring in one’s body of work.

If your plays often progress linearly through time, maybe you might want to try a structure that incorporates flashbacks. If you like to set your plays in living room settings, try other locations. If your characters tend to be of a particular cultural background, then do some research, devise with actors and try creating characters from another cultural background. And don’t feel paralysed from the beginning about whether you might ‘misrepresent’ the character. Your curiosity is more important at this point than your authority.

Getting renovations for HOTEL underway: dreaming and scheming with multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan and directors Glen Goei and Ivan Heng

Looking back, I probably could summarise all this with one phrase: ‘go take risks’. And that, I think, was the spirit that guided us as we curated the Singapore Theatre Festival this year.

Previous iterations of the Festival often featured works by well-established theatre companies. This year, with the exception of Teater Ekamatra and the tentpole play HOTEL, all the plays were presented by either young companies (such as Hatch Theatrics and Red Pill Productions) or by playwrights at the start of their theatrical careers (such as Nessa Anwar, Thomas Lim and Helmi Yusof).

Some of our Festival playwrights with the actors who bring their characters to life!
(L-R): Nessa, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Alfian, Raimi Safari & Helmi

Showcasing a new play is always risky. The cost of staging a full production –which includes venue rental, hiring of cast and crew, costs for sets, props and costumes – can be prohibitive for a young theatre-maker or company. And thus, many plays end up either being published (in the hope that they might be picked up one day) or given a dramatised reading.

But there is nothing more valuable for a playwright than to have an audience attend a fully-realised production of his or her work. This value is not simply a matter of fulfilling the creative ego, but that of teaching the playwright whether his or her play works the way it has been intended – which can be a very humbling experience.

A standing ovation for the cast of HOTEL!

It has to be said that the risk is borne not only by theatre producers, but by an audience that buys tickets and decides to put aside a couple of hours to engage with a play. If we see this activity as transactional, then perhaps an audience member would have just cause to demand a refund if certain expectations are not met – a comedy failed to provide adequate laughs, a political play merely parroted what one was already familiar with. But I believe that an audience matures when theatregoing is seen as an activity that goes beyond ‘getting my money’s worth’. Is that ‘worth’ measured only by how entertained one is? Or how much catharsis or escapism a play provides? Can a ‘worthy’ experience also involve being discomfited, provoked, or even bored?

Alfian with the cast of HOTEL, director Glen Goei and Guardian Angel Kay Kuok

And so, I would like to thank the audiences who have attended the Singapore Theatre Festival, and who have ensured sold-out houses for all the plays that featured our young theatre-makers. Through your generous laughter, your pin-drop silences, your straying restlessness, your edge-of-seats absorption, you have become the kinds of teachers that our playwrights need to be able to grow and improve.

And, through your patronage of shows that discuss anything from Malay bikers and Muslim converts to swearing gangsters, LGBT interviewees, Teochew-speaking grandmothers as well as mothers who put the ‘sex’ in ‘sexagenarians’ – all those characters otherwise absent from ‘mainstream’ Singapore – you have also demonstrated that Singaporeans do have an appetite for risk, and are ready for more.

Sincerely yours,
Alfian Sa'at

Festival Dramaturg
Resident Playwright, W!LD RICE
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W!LD RICE is a recipient of the National Arts Council's Major Grant
for the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2019.

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