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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: An Interview with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma (Kebaya Homies)

Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit and Siti Khalijah are two of Singapore’s most renowned Malay actresses. With both of them having worked extensively with The Necessary Stage, and even on a couple of productions together, The Necessary Stage’s first original show for the fringe in years, Kebaya Homies, is set to be one heck of an event.

Directed by Alvin Tan, Kebaya Homies brings audience members to a club, featuring perempuan-perempuan joget (dancing girls) Zubaidah and Rukiah (played by Alin and Siti). Dressed in kebayas, both ladies will not only dance, but also share about their friendship over the years, taking one into the past and future, and performing excerpts from Haresh Sharma’s body of work.

Kebaya Homies’ origin actually started way back, approximately 6 years ago as part of The Necessary Stage’s Orange Playground. A project conceptualised by Alvin, Siti and Alin, the idea was quite simply to have fun, jamming with each other without the pressure of creating a production immediately, focusing on the process rather than the product. More specifically, the idea was born out of how there were so many ways Alin and Siti and The Necessary Stage were connected, and a want to celebrate that. The original Rosnah for example, was played by Alin, while Siti acted in a restaging in 2016 as directed by Alin. Both actresses acted in Gemuk Girls, both had runs in Off Centre, and above all, both have remained firm friends over the years.

“Both these actresses are friends in real life, and during the lab they started revisiting some of my old texts and singing that they’re homies,” says Haresh Sharma. “My role then was to bring it all together as we revisited it, and figure out how to tie all these texts together. The kebaya ended up a metaphor for so many things, such as why we don’t wear it anymore, what does it mean, and the idea of friendship.”

“It was a little difficult putting all these disparate elements of my plays together, and the club setting helped to create a structure from which to hang the different scenes,” Haresh continues. “They’re both playing characters, but as they dance and sing and perform, they recount how their friendship began and developed over the years using the text from my scripts, and the different fictions come together to form something new altogether. It doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve watched or even know of the plays they’re referencing, because Kebaya Homies can exist on its own and be appreciated without needing that contextual knowledge. Our regular audiences like the experimentation and risks we take, and I do think it’s important for people to try shows that aren’t your usual ‘mainstream’, ‘mass’ type of production. Some of my friends, I know go to the theatre to be ‘seen’, but we’re not that kind of company.”

Adds Alvin: “Both Alin and Siti have been in so many of our plays, and it feels good to finally have a chance to revisit all that they’ve done, and kind of have this something old, something new thing going on. For our style, we’ve always enjoyed a certain level of ambiguity when it comes to interpretation of our works. Our audiences aren’t just here to consume, but also, we don’t want them to have to think so much. Think of our plays as dialogic, where people have the opportunity to ponder over it and add their own thoughts and interpretations. There’s a need to unshackle our imaginations and not necessarily present things in a conventional way, and encourage people to experience something new and think out of the box.”

This certainly isn’t the first time Haresh has had his works repurposed and recontextualised to produce new plays, with Cake Theatre’s Being Haresh Sharma in 2017 and Koh Wan Ching’s precise purpose of being broken at the 2019 M1 Fringe. “When Wan Ching asked for permission to play with my texts, I gave her the go-ahead and was interested in how she managed to make the entire piece feel completely new again,” says Haresh. “For Kebaya Homies, it was more of a restructuring and ability to combine these snippets of the text into a single cohesive story, so it’s a little different. Whenever I write, I do think about my actors and write for them, but having worked so closely with Siti and Alin over the years, it’s even more natural that we knew the moments to write, when the conflict or singing would come out. It’s almost second nature now, this working relationship we have, and it’s nice to see some form of restaging happening in our society today.”

Each of the artists involved in this piece, and in fact, with The Necessary Stage in general, are all creators in their own right, and the process where Kebaya Homies was developed stems from a philosophy of collaboration and devising, as opposed to dictation. “We’ve been working with Alin since like 1992, and there’s also so much discussion and devising that happens in the rehearsal room, from props to costumes. We like to have a lot of freedom to play, and in general, don’t have any bad attitude when it comes to such work,” says Haresh.

Diverging a little from the topic of Kebaya Homies, we segue into the topic of our favourite ‘Bicentennial play’ of 2019 – Civilised. “Civilised was a project where we were initially collaborating on with Canada’s Alley Theatre,” says Alvin. “But it fell through because of the subject we were dealing with. We dealt with topics of First Nations people, and there was a lot of controversy over needing to have the embodiment of a performer to perform First Nations text. For us in Singapore, it’s a case of re-presenting rather than representing, so it’s not an issue, but it’s a lot touchier in Canada. Surprisingly, we had 15 First Nations people watch an early version of the show, and they didn’t have any problems with it.”

The Year of No Return

But the end result of course, was a happy separation, as both companies went their separate ways and did their own separate projects instead. For The Necessary Stage, the project was Civilised, which took what they had developed during the collaboration and turned it into something else completely new, coinciding nicely with the Bicentennial. “Singaporeans have a lot of amnesia and don’t follow theatre journeys,” says Alvin. “The final product isn’t just a case of one success after another; there’s a fair number of mistakes and failures involved as well. Even though Canada seemed like it was a ‘failure’, and people might say oh since you already went all the way why not complete it, I think it was the best decision to do what we did and salvage it in our own way rather than forcing our way through, or the end product would not have been up to par.”

“It’s a little sad that after 33 years, we still don’t have any outfit to talk about our process and methodology, and we really want a way to document all of it,” says Haresh. “Like for our upcoming The Year of No Returnwe’re working very closely with the designers as well. It’s a very interdisciplinary process, unlike just actors, directors and playwright, where the designers are developing everything in conjunction as we develop the script.”

“Think of it like reaching a kind of conceptual organicity,” says Alvin. “We gathered all the designers in one room and talked about how their design would interact with the script and the performance. We’re testing out options, how to integrate each discipline into the show properly, and they’re all creatives in their own rights. I can’t believe this is the first time we’re doing such a method in 32 years, but each of them have designed enough that they’re finally at the level they can offer their advice and creative input. Wong Chee Wai has worked with us so much that he knows our selective realism, where the sets need to turn this way and that, while Chris, our multimedia designer, knows how to manipulate flat or fractured images based on the set. The balls bounce from one designer’s court to another, and I felt so happy seeing such a collaborative, collective leadership. That’s a great barometer of growth, and where they no longer just look at the director and say ‘what’s your vision’?’

“It’s a lot like how in Kebaya Homies, Alin and Siti also offer their input, and help to improve the points that might be a blind spot for me,” Alvin continues. “Like how I was never taught how to do Malay dance, but both Alin and Siti did back in school, and are more aware of the steps of meaning behind them, and the sensibilities. There’s this collective ownership we share, and I’m not the kind of director who just dictates or wants control over everything. You can’t marry yourself completely to an idea, and when there are options available, you have to pick the superior idea, rather than who came up with it, and ensure stronger clarity of what you want to bring across in the production.”

“With something like Kebaya Homies, there’s a need to scaffold that experience, and repeat an idea enough times that people get it, but not overdo it,” Alvin continues. “We want it to be welcoming enough to have new audiences, and you might have people coming in for the sake of watching Siti and Alin and not being used to our performances at all. It’s a lot like what Kuo Pao Kun purports – you can play, and get audience members lost in your play, but there must be those moments of clarity as well to help position them and allow them to see the light.”

In the year to come, following Kebaya Homies, The Necessary Stage will be taking time to focus on development, with The Year of No Return for the 2020 Singapore International Festival of the Arts being the one new work for the rest of the year, a revisiting of works like Off Centre for Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination Programme in July, and a planned restaging of Model Citizens in 2021. “There’s been so many things we’ve been doing over the last year, alone, with 6 plays I worked on from 2019 to now,” says Haresh. “It’s nice to be able to do restagings and retrospectives from time to time because the theatre audience has a short memory. When we restaged Off Centre last year, it was so interesting to hear people quoting from the text, with so many students having studied it for ‘O’ Levels. And watching it onstage is so different from reading the text, unable to imagine how funny certain parts were, or how affecting it was at the end when Saloma is left onstage and people would come up to give her a hug.”

Acting Mad. Photo Credit: Gabriel Chia

Does The Necesary Stage believe that there is a space for young, new theatremakers to present their work then, with the large body already available and so much ‘space’ filled by pre-existing companies? “I enjoyed speaking to the artists involved in the Fringe this year and hearing their feedback and thoughts,” says Haresh. “I liked what I did with Acting Mad as well, and working with the young playwrights who helped put the script together. I think that while we do have the Orange Production every two years, the next best thing really is the Fringe, which gives theatremakers a good opportunity to stage their own show without relying on the brand name of big companies out there, and test the work and prove themselves.”

With current Festival Director Sean Tobin leaving after this Fringe, the 2021 Fringe will be taken back by The Necessary Stage once again, this time taking on the theme of ‘Quiet Riot’. “I think Sean offered his own take on the Fringe over the last three years with his change in the theme, and his leaving marks the end of a kind of trilogy,” says Alvin. “For Quiet Riot, we’re thinking of works that promote change in non-violent ways, through means that work within the limits of the system rather than going against it.”

“We’re the Singapore Fringe, which makes us different from the Edinburgh Fringe,” Alvin adds. “Our goals has always been to be experimental in form while remaining socially engaged, presenting voices that have been marginalised or voices that we didn’t care about previously, such as say, Ayer Hitam and black history. We’re here to welcome all these voices, whether they’re young artists just starting out, or even veteran artists who want to explore and try something new, but without a platform to commission the work or a suitable point in the season to insert it in. Our infrastructure is there and we could still improve it, whether it’s in starting the process earlier or increasing the rigour for Fresh Fringe’s works-in-progress. And with that in mind, we absolutely do think the Fringe still has a very strong resonance and purpose year after year as this platform.”

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography, unless otherwise stated

Kebaya Homies plays from 15th to 19th January 2020 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets are SOLD OUT. 

The 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 8th to 19th January 2020. Tickets and more information available from their website here To apply to be a part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: Quiet Riot, visit their website here

The Year of No Return plays from 21st to 23rd May at the Victoria Theatre as part of the 2020 Singapore International Festival of the Arts. Tickets available from SISTIC

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