The Necessary Stage and Drama Box’s Underclass: An Interview with the Cast and Co-director Alvin Tan
Following their overwhelmingly successful collaboration with Drama Box with Manifesto back in 2016, the two theatre companies are teaming up once again for their new show Underclass. Tackling, as the title suggests, concepts of class and social conditions in Singapore, this multilingual work will feature a cast of some of Singapore’s best actors, with a script by Haresh Sharma and co-directed by Kok Heng Leun and Alvin Tan. We spoke to co-director Alvin Tan and cast members Siti Khalijah and Brendon Fernandez to find out a little more about the production before it premieres this Wednesday.
Bakchormeeboy: How did Underclass begin, and what themes/events sparked off the decision to create it?
Alvin: After Manifesto, the creative team from Drama Box and TNS discussed and became excited about the idea of ‘resilience’. We felt that resilience is something the nation has appropriated from our culture / tradition and privileged it as a virtue for citizens to emulate as we struggle with the rising costs of living. As we continued discussing we found ourselves in the terrain of inequality, meritocracy, increasing income gap and wondered how we are to respond to these social problems as a society. In the meantime, these same themes started appearing more furiously in international media and soon enough we discovered that it’s affecting every one and how inter-related we are today in our global village.
Bakchormeeboy: Why did TNS decide to collaborate with Drama Box again after Manifesto, and how different is Underclass going to be?
Alvin: Our collaboration began long before Manifesto when Kok Heng Leun was working with The Necessary Stage in the 90s. We collaborated on a few projects such as Talk and Three Years in the Life and Death of Land. Years later, when we returned to working on Manifesto, we found lots of synergy because we have similar beliefs yet different cultural sensibilities, and because we are both interested in intercultural approaches, the collaboration became meaningful and intense, discussions were about deeper exploration on cultural differences.
Along with those discussions, there was more opportunities for self-awareness and/or self-criticality where we started questioning our own ideological preferences/leanings and the widening gaps between left and right and how, increasingly we are becoming more polarised with little or no middle ground. Those invaluable discussions informed our journey into Underclass where there’s increase critique of our very own divisiveness when it comes to approaches to address poverty or inequality. Is it systemic and can charity be the only or best solution? Underclass will have similarities with Manifesto yet, the ideological journeys will hopefully place the audience firmly in a position of self-evaluation.
Bakchormeeboy: What was the biggest challenge in the process of creating Underclass?
Alvin: The biggest challenge has been compressing the material without losing the nuances and layers. We didn’t want an interval because the break would do a disservice of how the work has to be received at one sitting. Yet, the inter-related issues are complex as we are deepening our exploration into inter-sectional perspectives which means a complex relationship between social factors such as ethnicity and class or gender and class etc… So those complexities have to also be addressed.
We had to observe what the devising processes threw up and later, how Haresh captured them in his writing process and then how two directors interpret these factors directorially with the cast members and designers. I must say it is such a pleasure and relief to undergo this task through collaboration. The solutions have to be creative and imaginative and it could only be achieved in collaboration considering our limited time frame and our collaborative history.
Bakchormeeboy: Why should the average Singaporean (who does not belong to the ‘Underclass’) care about the issues Underclass raises?
Alvin: Because you should grow a heart if you don’t have one growing up in Singapore.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a bit more about your character and how you’ve been preparing for your role(s)?
Brendon: I play a number of characters in Underclass, the most substantial of which would be a Minister who is a career politician that provides a very particular lens with which to look at issues like poverty, inequality, and meritocracy in contemporary Singapore.
Underclass was created through a process of devised theatre – meaning that we had workshops in mid-2017 and early-2018 where we improvised and then incubated a number of characters, some of whom Haresh eventually fleshed out for the finished script – so a lot of the work of creating the character happened earlier on.
In terms of rehearsing this character, one thing I’m not doing is studying any particular politician. I feel it’s important to say this because whenever I tell people I’m playing a Minister, the question I get asked most often is “Which one?” People seem to expect parody, or at least mimicry. I’m trying to steer away from that. I’d like to portray this character as authentically as possible. Which is very challenging for me, since I simply don’t have access to that segment of society. It’s quite difficult for me to fathom what an average day might be like. What do you have for breakfast when you earn over a million dollars a year?
Bakchormeeboy: It’s been a while since we’ve last seen you perform onstage, how does it feel to be back in the theatre, and are there any more stage projects lined up for you?
In 2015, I was in 5 plays, including my solo piece My Grandpa’s Kitchen which I created under Huzir Sulaiman’s expert mentorship, as well as Wild Rice’s epic play Hotel. 5 plays in a year is a lot for me; I think it was because this was SG50, and there was just more going on across the board.
In 2016, we re-staged Hotel, and I was also in Jean Tay’s Shape of a Bird, plus Romeo & Juliet for SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park – so 3 plays. In 2017, I was in Tropicana the Musical (incidentally, also written by Haresh), and the tour of Hotel to the Oz Asia Festival in Adelaide – 2 plays.
Now in 2018, I’m in just 1 play, Underclass. But you say it feels like I’m coming back to the theatre? I don’t perform on stage as much as some of my colleagues (such as the wonderful, generous, incomparable Siti K.). But at the same time I don’t feel I ever left. I suppose it looks different from the outside! In 2019, I’m in another show with TNS – a re-staging of Off Centre. Which I think was the first professionally-staged play I ever saw!
Bakchormeeboy: Is money the only thing that stands between people of different classes? Or is there something far deeper than economic status that splits us according to ‘class’?
Brendon: In short, no. It’s not just money. But people have written books on this question, I think, including Karl Marx. Perhaps most relevant for our time, and for our context, is This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet, but the author has kindly made the first essay freely available, in which she encourages us to “disrupt our narratives”. So to use her words (since they are infinitely better suited than mine): “When we shift the narrative, what would we do differently?
We would not ghettoize the problem of poverty—we would not think of it as a problem of the ‘other,’ that there are those who render ‘help’ and those who receive ‘help.’ We would talk about wealth every time we speak of poverty. We would insist that elitism and marginality are two sides of the same coin. We would stop being coy in speaking about exploitation, about the exercise of power in everyday lives. We would start to deal with the uncomfortable truth that when those of us with more do things that are the best for ‘our’ children, that we are also further solidifying the narrow definitions of merit and creating less space for children who have other qualities that are not legible in our system. We would not shy away from calling this a moral problem, an ethical issue. Importantly, we would look at our systems more broadly. Education and so-called meritocracy, welfare and so-called dependence—we would examine all of these, and we would think about how these need to shift in profound ways rather than repeatedly tweaked at their edges.”
TL;DR – Money is just the visible symptom of a much more complex machinery that creates, replicates, and reinforces ‘class’ division in society.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a bit more about your character and how you’ve been preparing for your role(s)?
Siti: During the devising process, we each actually came up with at least 10 potential characters we could play! Haresh eventually chose the characters he liked best and thought had most potential for development, so now I play two characters – one is a nurse, while the other is a successful Malay entrepreneur. Although I’ve played nurse characters before, I don’t personally know any entrepreneurs. I thought a lot about making my characters more realistic and believable during the discussion and preparation process, and drew inspiration from speaking to people like 77th Street founder Elim Chew.
Bakchormeeboy: You’re considered one of Singapore’s best actresses, and you’ve been landing gigs with bigger theatre companies like Wild Rice and Dream Academy. What is it about TNS’ work and stories that keeps you coming back to them year after year?
Siti: I started out my theatre career with lot of TNS shows. But I continue to work with them not because of that, but because of the kinds of shows they keep putting out. I do enjoy doing productions with the script already there from the start, but I also enjoy how TNS likes to involve actors with the creation process. I think it’s very important, especially for young actors, to be a part of that and understand the conceptualisation, and that your own input is key as well. An actor is not just a tool to remember lines and perform onstage, and it’s both very meaningful and enjoyable being there from start to end.
Bakchormeeboy: Do you feel personally invested in the themes discussed in Underclass? How can we as everyday Singaporeans work towards solving them?
Siti: Underclass is a very important play. I personally grew up in a 3-room HDB flat, born and raised in the ‘ghettos’ of Singapore. Even when I moved to a 4-room HDB flat, it felt like a major upgrade and a luxury for me. I didn’t have friends from wealthier backgrounds, and the people I grew up with, many of them are still struggling on a daily basis. A lot of people don’t realise these places still exist, and think there’s no such thing as poverty in Singapore because its been so nicely covered up, and we need to realise that there are still people like that all and it’s been so nicely covered up and whitewashed, and we need to realise that there are people like that all around us.
I think giving money is easy – for those of us who are financially more stable and have the means to contribute, we should. And not just in terms of money. I’m guilty of saying that I’m too busy sometimes, but last year, I realised that a lot of it boils down to just taking the time and effort to go out of your way to do something, like how I set up a jumble sale to sell things and donate the profits. Even then, I still feel like it’s not enough, but it’s important to start from somewhere, and make progress from there.
Underclass plays at the Necessary Stage Black Box from 16th May – 3rd June. Tickets are SOLD OUT.