The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
A look at the Singapore arts scene, invigorated in recent years by new theaters and festivals
The Necessary Stage Mobile
Photo: Sim Chi Yin
*The Necessary Stage
This is a theater company formed in 1987 by Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma. It is known for works that touch on social issues in telling ways. It is also a company that actively pursues collaboration with foreign artists and outreach programs to involve local communities. Since 2005 it has also organized the annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
In the case of SDT and H. Art Chaos, how was the relationship developed between the two companies? Was it you who kept in touch with these companies?
We are always trying to encourage our artists to collaborate with artists from overseas and now, a lot of them have started to build their own relationships. At the same time, we introduce them to possible counterparts because we keep in touch with the foreign artists after we get to know them. So, it’s a combination—sometimes we get the artists together to work with each other and sometimes they do the research by themselves and make proposals to us.
I kept telling SDT that they should work more with Asian artists, and in the case of H. Art Chaos it was we who recommended that SDT get in touch with Chaos and work with them. We helped SDT do so because we knew Chaos’s agent and all the people behind them.
In this year’s Festival, SDT will work with Singapore Chinese Orchestra. This is not an international collaboration, but we wanted to put these two companies together to create something new. We also tried to get choreographers from the Asia Pacific region, including Japan, for this production, but it didn't happen, unfortunately.

So, NAC took the initiative to develop the SDT-Chaos collaboration. On the other hand, as you mentioned, Singaporean theatre companies have started to initiate collaborations by themselves. The collaborations in this year’s Festival seem to fall into this category—The Necessary Stage (TNS) and Theatre Works developed the ideas and organized the collaborations by themselves. What do you think about such artists-led collaborations in comparison with NAC-led collaborations? Which is more preferable for you?
I think it should be both ways. I feel one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of working at the festival is this; sometimes you start an innocent conversation about something with someone, and then, people develop it independently. And in the end, things come together in a certain way—sometimes you find unseen forces behind the development. Sometimes results come immediately and sometimes it doesn’t. So, we are quite happy to initiate such talks and start any specific collaborations. Also, artists have got to know our thinking and now a lot of them come to me and say, “Hey Ching Lee, I have a new project and I know you are always interested in commissioning collaborations. Will you be interested in this?” So, as I mentioned, it is quite natural to have both cases—sometimes it starts from them coming to me and sometimes it is us who initiate the project and try to find possible collaborators.
In the case of The Necessary Stage (TNS)’s collaboration, Mobile, Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre was the main mover behind the whole process because they had invited quite a number of artists of this region—16 of them—including TNS’s resident playwright, Haresh Sharma, to Japan to create a piece from 2003 to 2005. I actually went to Tokyo to see the initial stage of their project. At the time, I was not sure if the whole process could work well because everything was still raw. But once I knew that TNS had a project with a smaller group of people extracted from Setagaya’s project with a theme of migrant workers, which is a common issue in the region, I thought this was a project we should consider seriously about working with. So I told them to keep me updated on the development.

We have seen a lot of Japanese artists participate in the collaborations commissioned by your Festival. For example, an award-winning playwright and director, Tatsuo Kaneshita and two actors are participating in Mobile. What are your future plans for the Festival? Do you think we will see more such collaborations?
I think the future is very positive in terms of collaborations between Japanese and Singaporean artists. We also see the possibility of collaborations with countries like Indonesia. I feel this is a desire of both sides—the desire to work together in the region is very strong. I think the most important thing there is to find suitable and organic ways for the artists to collaborate.
Of course, there will be some difficulties. All the artists are from different countries and backgrounds and the methods of collaboration may vary. One way is to give one person the [decision-making] power and let him/her direct the production. Another way is to put the people on an equal standing and let them create in a democratic way. The former, however, might have the risk of becoming something dominated by the director, while the latter sometimes fails to produce finished pieces, which is just understandable, even though the intentions are noble. Perhaps we cannot go with a completely democratic process—there must be some means to manage the participating artists.

Now many theatre companies in Singapore are developing their connections with foreign theatre companies and Singapore is becoming a hub of collaboration projects in the region.
I think we are very bold. The National Arts Council’s core value is to be bold. In the festival, we are trying to be bold and progressive. We take risks. I think the nature of these kinds of projects is quite risky, because we never know the outcome of the projects that we are trying to support and fund, until the end. One of the reasons we can take these risks may be because we don’t have the cultural burden from the past to carry. We can actually work very freely with many different parties and try to distill different influences together.
With NAC funding, we encourage Singaporean artists to travel and be engaged in international projects, and we also try actively to find opportunities. We recommend that they go to other festivals and arts markets. So, a lot of works to support the artists are going on outside of the festival, too. We have the International Collaboration Grant scheme and support artists who hope to work with foreign counterparts. The outcome of this grant should not only be seen in Singapore but also be presented in the counterparts’ country.
Now I see some of the companies are doing collaborations on their own. Before that, there was a general mood of learning and Singaporean companies tended to invite directors from overseas just to direct them. Now, collaboration means working in a more equal relationship. This is an important change, and I believe the Festival has helped to encourage the shift. For example, Singapore Dance Theatre is now trying to do collaborations on their own—in fact, they are planning to invite H. Art Chaos again. Singapore Chinese Orchestra now has a lot of ideas for working with other artists in multi-disciplinary projects. Some of the Singaporean theatre companies are doing that quite regularly. It is important that they are organizing collaborations in a very organic way.

So, you are the pivotal person in connecting these people?
Yes, we are a kind of connectors. We connect people and hope something happens for future festivals. In terms of working with Japanese artists, we have been quite active in inviting them—mainly in the field of dance and multi-media performances because of the language barrier. We have been researching Japanese companies and are currently talking with a few of them. Actually, even language is not a vital problem anymore, because we can use subtitles--what matters eventually is the nature of the contents and costs. We are also planning to commission Japanese artists’ works together with other international festivals.
There are a lot of works to do. We organized the Singapore Season in London with great success last year. Actually it happened quite by accident—it was a part of our effort to try to develop the opportunities for Singaporean artists overseas and several projects happened almost at the same time coincidentally. So, we decided to invite more people and develop all the events as a season. Ultimately, it got really big and involved the government and business sectors. Because of the success, it was decided to have the season once every two years. The next one in 2007 will be in Beijing and Shanghai, and we will have a 2009 season in New York.

Any plans to come to Tokyo?
Yes, we hope so. Actually we wanted to do it this year because it is the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries. But… it was not possible. I hope it will happen some day.
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