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Haresh Sharma in season
Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage (TNS), has written a few monologues in his illustrious 30-year career. There is the 1995 Rosnah and Best Of in 2013, and even a sequel to Best Of - Best Of (His Story) earlier this year.
So writing a monologue for actress Yeo Yann Yann wouldn't be that difficult - except that Sharma, 51, who has over 100 plays to his name, was writing it for a character who's an actress in the Chinese theatre and film world.
For this, he had to get up to speed with Chinese drama and film - reading up on plays and also watching shows. "It started out with a conversation with Yann Yann," he says, "whom we'd worked with before and who'd started out in theatre in Singapore but had gone on to winning awards for her film and TV roles abroad."
It was a good fit when The Esplanade commissioned TNS to produce a play for the Huayi Festival. Actor, 40 is TNS's first monologue for Yeo, and it'll be performed primarily in Mandarin but also other languages and dialects. Sharma - who interviewed Yeo a few times for the play - wrote it in English, and it's translated into Mandarin by Quah Sy Ren.
"I wanted the story to revolve around an actor character who's worked in theatre, film and TV and in the Asian scene, so I got her to share what it was like working in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, besides Singapore," he says.
The other part of the research was his "immersion" in Chinese theatre, as guided by TNS's Melissa Lim who's the dramaturge for this project.
Comparing this monologue to his previous one, Best Of by Siti Khalijah, Sharma describes how Actor, 40 is more layered and complex as it requires Yeo to perform as an actor in different roles, using different lingo and accents, and also as herself.
"As the character is an actor, I had to keep coming up with scenarios. So the audience sees Yeo as an actor on set, but also a person, when she's out of character. I had to familiarise myself with Chinese classics like Thunderstorm and Savage Land to see what elements I could use in the monologue," he adds. "Because I know she's very capable, I set the bar very high so she has lightning quick changes and a variety of accents."
Sharma adds that he has tried to capture the different kinds of "Chinese-ness". "That for me was very rich, and language is important to me, not just as a vehicle for accessing the play, but for the rhythm and hidden nuances, and the flavour," he says, on his collaboration with Quah, Lim and Yeo. "So we're constantly talking about the language and the rhythm."
Meanwhile, Actor, 40 is a run-up to four other Sharma plays, to be staged in The Esplanade's "The Studios 2017". Now in its 14th year, The Studios allows Singapore theatre companies and independent artists to explore and develop works which are stimulating. "This is the first time Esplanade is putting the spotlight on a single playwright," says Joyce Yao, the producer of The Studios.
"We called it Margins because Sharma has the uncanny ability to steer audiences from the absolutes, and evoke empathy through his plays. It's a sensitivity that is important today especially in the climate the world is in now."
Sharma was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1987 when he became a founding member of TNS, started by Alvin Tan, a fellow undergraduate. He became resident playwright upon graduation in 1990.
So much of being human is about living in the grey, as issues are rarely black and white, points out Ms Yao. "And that's what drew us to his works. It's a challenge for us to think about what's being human and that was the heart of things."
The season is not a retrospective of Sharma's works, Ms Yao says, as the works were not selected with the idea of being representative of Sharma's works since he started writing for TNS in 1988. "It's not our curatorial intent nor the approach we took. To do a proper retrospective of over 100 plays would require a really long season!"
The Esplanade invited different directors to collaborate on the plays - marking also the rare moment when TNS plays are directed by someone other than Alvin Tan. Nelson Chia, Loo Zihan, Timothy Nga and Mohd Fared Jainal will each direct a fully-staged work in the season, while Koh Wan Ching will direct a new work-in-progress adapted from a special collage of 10 texts by Sharma, some of which have never been published or staged.
"With the different theatremakers, the texts will take on a new life with a very different perspective and aesthetics as well," Ms Yao says.
Sharma himself was "quite shocked" when he found out about Margins, as it's not every day that a playwright can get an opportunity like this. "I'm so used to working on new plays with Alvin . . . and now there's suddenly other directors who are responding to my work - that's just really very rare," he says, adding that he's kept from getting involved, and just wants to be surprised himself, as part of the audience.
- Actor, 40 runs on Feb 3-6, Fri & Mon, 8pm; Sat & Sun, 3pm & 8pm. The 15th edition of Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts runs from Feb 3-12. More information at https://www.esplanade.com/festivals-and-series/huayi-chinese-festival-of-arts/2017
ESPLANADE - Theatres on the Bay puts the spotlight on the works of Singapore playwright and Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma in The Studios 2017.
March 16-April 14 at Esplanade Theatre Studio
Fundamentally Happy (in Mandarin)
Directed by Nelson Chia
A co-production with Nine Years Theatre
March 16-19, 8pm (Thu-Sat), 3pm (Sat-Sun)
Fundamentally Happy was the winner of Best Production and Best Original Script at the 2007 Life! Theatre Awards. It is a gut-wrenching discourse on the heart-breaking nature of happiness.
Conceptualised by Loo Zihan
A commission by The Studios
March 23-26, 8pm (Thu-Sat), 3pm (Sat-Sun)
With/Out is a re-interpretation of Completely With-Out Character, devised by Paddy Chew, in collaboration with Alvin Tan and Sharma in 1999. Chew was the first person to come out as someone living with HIV in Singapore. With/Out was first commissioned by the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2015. Loo collaborates with performer Janice Koh.
This Chord and Others
Directed by Timothy Nga
A commission by The Studios
March 30 - April 2, 8pm (Thu-Sat), 3pm (Sat-Sun)
This Chord and Others was first staged in 1991 and last performed in 2000. It was one of Sharma's first full-length comedies.
Hope (Harap) (in Malay)
Directed by Mohd Fared Jainal
A co-production with Teater Ekamatra
April 6-9, 8pm (Thu-Sat), 3pm (Sat-Sun)
Hope, staged in 1994 and not produced again since, is one of Sharma's lesser-known works and the only one that the playwright himself has not seen staged.
RAW: precise purpose of being broken
Adapted from texts by Haresh Sharma
Directed by Koh Wan Ching
A work-in-progress by The Studios: RAW
April 13 and 14, 8pm
RAW: precise purpose of being broken is a new work-in-progress adapted from a special collage of 10 texts by Haresh Sharma, some of which have never been published or even staged.
- Tickets for The Studios 2017 are now available from Esplanade's Box Office at Mezzanine level (Tel: +65-6828-8389), the Sistic Hotline (Tel: +65-6348-5555) and all Sistic outlets.