On a rainy Wednesday evening in April, more than 40 theatre practitioners, producers, playwrights and critics left their umbrellas at the door and took their seats in W!LD RICE’s rehearsal studio on Kerbau Road.
They had gathered in response to W!LD RICE Resident Playwright Alfian Sa’at’s call for a dialogue session to reflect on the inherent lack of ethnic diversity in local theatre productions.
“I have issues with multicultural theatre as manifested in the form of discrete language-stream theatres,” said Alfian in his invitation to the arts community at large. “There’s a sense that, just because we have English theatre, Chinese theatre, Malay theatre, Tamil theatre etc., then we’re ticking our multicultural boxes.”
But this disguises the fact that true cross-cultural productions are few and far between, with vernacular theatres falling short in terms of resources, professionalisation and audience base.
The session kicked off with a discussion about casting calls, especially for screen projects, that frequently stated preferences for Chinese or pan-Asian actors.
“What’s really frustrating is how the casting calls would list the kind of roles that they need and you’ll feel very excited about them,” said freelance actress and acting student Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai. “But, when you scroll to the end, it goes ‘All roles preferred for Chinese’.”
The fact of the matter remains – the majority of roles available to performers in Singapore are earmarked for and ultimately given to Chinese actors. To some extent, the lack of opportunity is due to demographics: statistically, there are more Chinese playwrights in Singapore who will create characters and tell stories they know and recognise.
Lee Shyh Jih, who sits on Drama Box’s Board of Directors and primarily writes Chinese plays, admitted that he tended to stick to topics with which he was familiar – but these may or may not have to do with race. “As writers, we write what we know,” he explained. “However, race is only one attribute of the human condition.”
“A lot of local writers are Chinese,” said Faizal Abdullah, Artistic Director of Hatch Theatrics. “So I completely understand. I mean, I’m Malay, and if I had to write a play that’s about a Chinese family, I would find it very strange, because I have no experience of that. So I would write about what I’m familiar with. I would write about my Malay family.”
Participants also discussed the role played by the mainstream media in limiting the reach of minority-language theatre companies. T. Nakulan, Managing Director of Ravindran Drama Group, which specialises in Tamil theatre, mentioned that a local newspaper never responded to their requests to promote their productions.
The sole exception? When one of their productions was directed by a Chinese actor. And even then, Nakulan remarked, “They wrote nothing about the play, nothing about the actors.”
Participants also debated whether colour-blind casting was more or less prevalent in schools and drama programmes for children.
“Anyone can be anything,” said primary school drama teacher Janna Hussain. This might have to do with the fact that many children’s plays are set in fantastical worlds filled with characters ranging from fairies and genies to talking animals.
“But, in school shows, there is always the need to have the ‘CMIO’,” Faizal countered. “And, quite often, the Malay man is depicted wearing a sarong.”
This often places the minority actor in a bind: on one hand, nabbing a role means gainful employment; on the other hand, accepting such token roles would mean that an actor risks perpetuating stereotypes.
“I have played the token Indian guy for many years,” said theatre practitioner Ebi Shankara. “There has to come a point in time where I have to stop and say, ‘I think I am better than just being the token Indian guy.’ There are many other minority actors who are as good as or even better [than their Chinese counterparts], but we are always stuck in this tokenism that we have to come out of.”
There was unanimous agreement that, ultimately, playwrights should increase the number of substantial roles for minority actors, while directors should consider casting minority actors for roles that were not ethnicity-specific.
“The roundtable has inspired us to keep discussing and working to resolve some of the challenges faced by minority theatre practitioners in Singapore,” observed Alfian after the dialogue session.
“The primacy of English as a lingua franca in Singapore society is a given,” he continued. “But do we have to reproduce these kinds of power structures in the arts scene? I think we should think deeper about how we can challenge these social norms and the logic of ‘market forces’. The idealist in me, who is also the artist, believes that being less in number should not mean one is entitled to less.”
An abridged transcript of the two-and-a-half-hour discussion will be made available on the W!LD RICE website in June, ahead of the 2016 Singapore Theatre Festival.