NEVER in the history of Singapore theatre has one month looked so starry. The April theatre calendar boasts a who's-who of Singapore theatre, with nearly every important living practitioner staging a work.
TheatreWorks, Checkpoint Theatre, Dream Academy and The Theatre Practice are premiering new works; Wild Rice and Singapore Repertory Theatre are focusing on the classics. Other heavyweight companies such as The Necessary Stage are represented in the Esplanade's month-long festival of important local plays, while young theatre troupes such as Skinned Knee Productions and Hatch Theatrics are staging original works.
Tay Tong, the managing director of TheatreWorks, said: "It'll be a wonderfully rich month - kind of like the Edinburgh Festival."
The month kicks off, appropriately, with Emily Of Emerald Hill, Stella Kon's classic monologue about one woman's rise to power in a wealthy Peranakan family, directed by Alin Mosbit and starring Karen Tan.
First staged here in 1985, Emily was the breakthrough English-language play that made Singapore audiences sit up and pay attention to their own fledgling theatre scene. The words uttered then by its director Max Le Blond - "We've made history" - was no empty boast. Emily helped ignite an unprecedented growth of English-language theatre, which has evolved into a vibrant one today.
The month carries through with dramatised readings of works by Haresh Sharma, Kuo Pao Kun, Ovidia Yu, Eleanor Wong, Tan Tarn How, Michael Chiang, Robert Yeo, Natalie Hennedige and other well-known playwrights under the banner of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty series, celebrating 50 iconic plays. Many of the 50, which include Sharma's Off-Centre and Tan's Fear Of Writing, are landmarks in the evolution of Singapore playwriting.
On April 9, three productions involving some of Singapore's biggest names are opening on the same night - Wild Rice's version of Ibsen's classic play Public Enemy with Ivan Heng in the lead and Glen Goei as director; Huzir Sulaiman's award-winning monologue The Weight of Silk On Skin starring Adrian Pang and directed by Tracie Pang; and Checkpoint Theatre's premiere of original work Normal by hot young playwright Faith Ng and directed by Claire Wong.
The month ends on a high with Singapore Repertory Theatre's premiere on April 29 of its annual tentpole Shakespeare In The Park production of The Tempest. The day after, Kuo Pao Kun's classic Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral will be restaged by Jeff Chen. More readings of works in Esplanade's The Studio: Fifty series will take place in early May.
Looking back at 50 years
A major reason for April's breathlessly-packed slate of productions is the Fifty series, which features five full productions and 16 dramatised readings. The ambitious project looks back at the entire history of Singapore theatre to cherry-pick 50 important plays by 32 playwrights to stage or read. They includes works by late playwrights Kuo, Lim Chor Pee and Goh Poh Seng.
Running from April 2 to May 10, these are plays that "have shaped the scene and shifted theatre practices in Singapore", said Esplanade producer Rydwan Anwar. The Esplanade Studios team, together with playwright-director Chong Tze Chien as co-curator and playwright-academic Robin Loon as consultant, spent 15 months researching and whittling down the list of possible plays to 50.
Chong said: "Detractors of Singapore theatre tend to judge our scene using a small sample. But we hope to challenge these preconceived notions of English-language plays with this broad spectrum of works."
Mr Rydwan said: "We have a short but rich theatre history, but our memories are shorter. There's much good writing the younger generation of audiences are perhaps unaware of."
Twenty-one directors have been selected to helm the productions and readings, and, in some cases, the decisions are inspired. Actor-director Jeremiah Choy, for instance, will direct a reading of plays grouped under Gender & Sexuality, which features Russell Heng's Lest The Demons Get To Me, Chay Yew's A Language Of Their Own and Desmond Sim's Autumn Tomyam.
Choy had starred in Heng's moving one-man play Lest The Demons when it debuted in 1992 and was restaged in 2001. He said: "We recently had a read-through rehearsal with the actors and I was tearing. All these plays bring back so many memories."
Meanwhile, actress-director Claire Wong will be helming a reading of Kuo Pao Kun's plays, of which she watched a number when they debuted in the 80s and 90s.
She said: "I remember thinking that these plays would herald something new for Singapore theatre. Kuo had a simpler, gentler style of provocation that may feel less cutting-edge now, but helped lay the foundations for theatre to engage with the Singapore society."
Thirty years ago, almost no one worked in theatre full-time. But today, many do. TheatreWorks' Tay, who has been with the theatre company since 1988, said: "Now we can make a living by working in the arts. We may not be millionaires, but we sure can earn our keep."
Actor-director Choy recalled: "Thirty years ago, you might be paid S$200 for a play you're working on for two months. We used to hold day jobs just so that we could practise theatre at night. But things are better now and there are government and private grants you can apply for. I always believe, though, that if you want to make art full-time, you will find ways to raise the money and make it happen."
The Necessary Stage's artistic director Alvin Tan agreed, saying: "There are better opportunities and infrastructure now. There are more arts schools to nurture the young in the arts. If you look at the young theatre practitioners now, they have been active in forming collectives and working together. There's a kind of fluidity going on at that level."
Practitioners, however, are cautious about calling the Singapore theatre scene a strong and healthy one. Many point to the fact that censorship continues to dog artists.
Playwright-director Chong said: "I don't think that it is a time to celebrate. Artists here are still grappling with the issues that troubled them 30 years ago - namely censorship, and the space and respect given to the performing arts."
TheatreWorks' Tay agreed. He recalled that in 1986, his peers, including Claire Wong and Ong Keng Sen, had to sit in the office of the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) and take out lines from Peter Nichol's Passion Play before they were allowed to stage it. The play was about a married man who has an affair with a young woman.
"Even now, we still have to submit our scripts to the Media Development Authority (MDA)," said Mr Tay, who is also an aide to Ong Keng Sen, festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA).
Last month, SIFA, the Singapore Art Museum and the National Gallery Singapore were told that they would have to apply for arts-entertainment licences from the Media Development Authority (MDA) for their exhibitions and performances.
Other theatre-makers are more sanguine. The Necessary Stage's Tan said: "The censorship issue has certainly improved. There are plays and films you can show now which you couldn't 10 years ago. There's also more room for negotiation now with the MDA than before with PELU."
Actress-director Wong said: "Artists face obstacles everywhere. But we persevere because theatre is what we want to do."
See the box below for the complete list of productions in April
Curtains go up on 68 plays
March 27-April 12: Legends of the Southern Arch by The Theatre Practice.
April 2-5: Emily Of Emerald Hill directed by Alin Mosbit as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 3: Reading of Selected Works of Haresh Sharma directed by Ian Loy as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 4: Reading of Selected Works from the 1960s & 1970s directed by Tan Shou Chen as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 5: Reading of Selected Works of Michael Chiang directed by Danny Yeo as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 9-12: The Weight Of Silk On Skin directed by Tracie Pang as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 9-19: Normal by Checkpoint Theatre.
April 9-25: Public Enemy by Wild Rice.
April 10: Reading of plays on Family Relations in Singapore directed by Thong Pei Qin as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 11: Reading of New Voices - Selected Works From A New Generation directed by Tan Liting as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 12: Reading of Selected Works of Ovidia Yu directed by Lok Meng Chue as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 15-18: Ragnarok by Skinned Knee Productions.
April 22-26: Kumar Stands Up For Singapore by Dream Academy.
April 23-26: Off-Centre directed by Oliver Chong as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 23-May 10: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps by Asylum Theatre.
April 24: Reading of Traditions Contemporised - Selected Works directed by Zelda Tatiana Ng as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 24-25: Hawa by Johnny Jon-Jon for Hatch Theatrics.
April 24-26: Dramatised reading of 10 new plays by 10 new playwrights by Theatreworks.
April 25: Reading of Re-imagining History directed by Gerald Chew as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 25: Reading of Gender & Sexuality - Selected Works directed by Jeremiah Choy as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 29: Reading of Selected Works of Eleanor Wong directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 29-May 10: Shakespeare In The Park: The Tempest by Singapore Repertory Theatre.
April 30: Reading of Selected Works of Kuo Pao Kun directed by Claire Wong as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
April 30-May 3: Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral directed by Jeff Chen as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 1: Reading of Selected works of Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan directed by Irfan Kasban as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 2: Reading of Contemporary and New Wave directed by Edith Podesta as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 7: Reading of Selected works of Chong Tze Chien directed by Huzir Sulaiman as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 7-10: The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine directed by Zizi Azah as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 8: Reading of selected works of Tan Tarn How directed by Goh Boon Teck as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
May 9: Reading of Politics & Society - Selected works from Three Generations directed by Timothy Nga as part of Esplanade's The Studios: Fifty.
For ticketing information, please visit Sistic for productions by the Esplanade, Wild Rice, Singapore Repertory Theatre, Dream Academy, Asylum Theatre, Checkpoint Theatre and The Theatre Practice.
For TheatreWorks, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Hatch Theatrics, email email@example.com.
For Skinned Knee Productions, visit its website skinnedkneeproductions.com