Arts Preview Singapore The Necessary Stage Theatre

Can We Change?: An Interview with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma on restaging ‘________ Can Change’

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Change is never easy, especially when forced. Sure, change is possible, but whether people should change for the sake of conforming is a whole other matter altogether. Luckily, local theatre company The Necessary Stage is here to tackle that issue head on, with a restaging of their play ______ Can Change at the Esplanade Recital Studio this November.

Comprising of three playlets – the cheekily titled Homosexuals Can Change, Marxists Can Change, and Indians Can Change, the production as a whole will examine our propensity for change, and is intended to make audiences question their own underlying assumptions and inherent resistance to considering an alternative point of view.

“Both the left wing and right wing are guilty of extremism, and when that happens, you can see the whole world polarising, whether it’s pro-gun or anti-gun, pro-life or pro-choice, and there’s no middle ground,” says director Alvin Tan. “That middle ground does exist, but they’re afraid to come out because they will then be badgered and challenged to take sides, making them a voiceless middle ground, and there’s no safe space.”

While the extreme right tends to be the lunatic fringe people find guilty of making mountains out of molehills, we can see the inverse can be true, with older generations criticising the left-leaning youth of being oversensitive ‘snowflakes’ quick to take offence at everything. “Remember how there was a group of people who took offence over Wild Rice’s Faghag? The problem doesn’t lie in their point of view – they’re not necessarily wrong, but they don’t have or understand the history behind the title, and that brings out generational conflict,” says Alvin.

“Social media encourages a lot of posturing, but not dialogue, so pride always gets in the way, and people no longer have the empathy or compassion to appreciate the differences in view when we compare.”

– Director Alvin Tan

Change has certainly taken place since the original production back in 2010, and the play has shifted to reflect those changes. The most obvious change lies in playwright Haresh Sharma removing an entire segment titled Singles Can Change, which dealt with government’s concerns over Singaporeans marrying later in life, or not at all. Instead, this has been replaced by brand new playlet Indians Can Change, in light of the recent spate of racially-charged incidents.

“We took out Singles Can Change as we felt it wasn’t as relevant today,” says Haresh. “Back then, the government agenda was pivoted towards marrying off singles and producing babies, with baby bonus schemes and other grants. But today, race issues are more prevalent, which is why we came up with Indians Can Change.

The new cast is also completely different from the original, now starring Joshua Lim, Karen Tan, Masturah Oli, and Lian Sutton. “The new cast should bring the same dynamism and excellence the original cast did,” says Haresh. “But the challenge really lies in how this is a fairly unconventional play, and not only must they be able to deliver the script, but also improvise and engage with the audience in character as well, to achieve our objective of providing an avenue for people to think about these issues.”

Both Alvin and Haresh are nervous and excited by the final segment of the performance, where following the three playlets, both of them will be introduced by the actors, as they facilitate a dialogue, incorporated as part of the experience and getting them the audience to share what they feel. “We want to draw out these differing points of view, and question whether they can coexist,” says Alvin. “Is there always a need to feel threatened by difference, and to eradicate people whose views we disagree with?”

“The last time we did this, people did walk out, because they felt triggered and upset, even among the reviewers. The space for conversation is so small these days, where people feel they need to be PC, and there’s no room for people to process the shift in mindset. Perhaps that’s why it’s time to bring this back.”

– Director Alvin Tan

“The challenge is not in putting it up, but in handling the negative responses from people, who all come in with their own perspectives, beliefs and values,” says Haresh. “The responses that our audiences will have are a result of their lived experiences, and it’s really all about learning about these other perspectives, and maybe, we can change to allow these other perspectives to exist as well.”

“It’s interesting how even before the premiere, we received a lot of strongly worded emails from people who haven’t even seen the show, based on the collaterals or titles alone, like how there were people who went through conversion therapy who got upset and triggered by the title Homosexuals Can Change,” Alvin adds. “But what we’re doing differently is that we’re opening up the topic to conversation, interaction and feedback. We’re trying to show people the benefits of discussion and discourse, open up the space, and hope it’s not too late to inspire more discussion.”

Both Alvin and Haresh reflect on some of the views and responses they received the last time around, and how it surprised even them that people could hold such views, or be capable of being moved by the production. “I remember how we had someone saying that he was meant to change a gay friend to be straight, but after watching our play, decided that he shouldn’t do it,” says Alvin. “It’s interesting how he managed to see how forced change was such an oppressive act. We need more safe spaces to discuss such issues, where people dare to come out and speak, articulate their confusion, and be open to all these different perspectives. How can we envision a future that can accommodate the entire spectrum of people out there without persecution?”

“We all assume that everyone shares or should share the same basic values, but that is where we’re wrong,” chimes in Haresh. “In the original staging, for Singles Can Change, one woman was actually very happy when she spoke up about how it was good to tell people that women should get married and have children, and that their priorities were misguided in putting it into careers, rather than family first. And that’s ok that she feels that way, because not everyone shares the same values.”

“The theatre is a place where issues that don’t get enough airplay in the public sphere can be discussed. Yes, there will be confrontation and fear of voicing our opinions in front of strangers, but at least we must have that conversation.”

– Playwright Haresh Sharma

“Singapore is a multicultural society, but I think that that’s akin to being in a swimming pool with separate lanes, coexisting but not interacting,” says Alvin. “I prefer the idea of being intercultural, where we can continue to interact and work out our differences, rather than forcing our personal values on others.”

“Let’s talk about TrueLove.Is, which I believe has the right to exist, and provide an avenue for gay men who cannot reconcile their sexuality with their faith, but want to come out as homosexual,” he continues. “But where they go wrong is in trying to impose that viewpoint by advertising somewhere like Lasalle, which leads to a whole host of other issues. But still, we should not try to obliterate them – otherwise we’d be no different from the people who want to discipline differences.”

Looking outside of the play itself, The Necessary Stage is also going through a whole host of changes themselves – after years of calling it home, due to circumstances, they’ve been removed from their space at the Marine Parade Community Centre, and are in the midst of searching and funding a new space to work in.

“Without a space of our own, we do lose a certain amount of autonomy, and have to listen to, let’s say, government agencies funding us, and if a topic becomes too sensitive, then we might be restricted,” says Alvin. “Independent work is hard to find these days because there’s less and less of these spaces, from the loss of Centre 42 to The Substation. Ultimately, the community has to find a way to open up more alternative spaces, and learn how to collaborate better if we want to find a sustainable way to keep surviving.”

Still, Alvin remains positive about this, with plans for new works in 2022, and making do with the unusual situation they’ve found themselves in. “We’re collaborating with Drama Box on a 2022 work, some commissions are coming along, and yes we’re planning for 2022 and 2023’s seasons,” he says. “The Fringe will still be happening, and even without a home space, we won’t be disappearing from the radar altogether. Anyway, it’s not just us, but everyone in the theatre industry who’s suffering together, so we can’t demand more visibility.”

Ultimately, the message behind ______ Can Change is simple but hard to achieve – to learn to open up our hearts and minds to diametrically opposed points of view, even if it means putting our egos aside. “If we learn to be open to the spectrum of difference, then it becomes an antidote to a hierarchical, patriarchal way of thinking,” says Alvin. “A lot of nation building centres on homogenising the thoughts and values of society as much as possible. If we rethink that and ask for the demands of how different groups have their own individual needs, then it becomes an organised dismantling of the hierarchy. Change happens only when we ourselves accept our differences and diversity, something that’s happening in the youth today.”

“People don’t realise that it’s a skill to open up, listen to, and validate another person, especially when they’re so different from you. How do you show empathy and compassion when they may be a threat to your existence? You have to be more curious, create a space, and put your self aside for a while. All of this is hard because we’re not used to it, and not used to the idea of dialogue, or listening to others.”

– Director Alvin Tan

There is a silver lining to most things in life, even the debilitating pandemic of the last year or so. “There are a lot of opportunities to change, and sometimes, it takes a pandemic to show us that. You can see how it brought about an awareness that certain policies needed to change, say for migrant workers for example, and these are issues that activists have known about for years, finally coming to mainstream attention,” says Alvin. “I admit it needs to end because the poor and disadvantaged are suffering a lot, but I do mourn how much we’re all rushing to return to ‘normal’.”

“We as a country are resistant to change, but perhaps, some of us are at least questioning, rather than taking things for granted. I do hope that people can think about that during the play, and open up this dialogue about change,” he concludes. “I’m a firm believer in how change is not an overnight process – sometimes it takes one person to plant the seed, someone else to water it, before yet another person finally harvests the fruits. It takes lifetimes, but at the very least, in being forced to change and confront their convictions and habits, we can only hope for the process to begin.”

________ Can Change plays from 10th to 14th November 2021 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Tickets available from BookMyShow

Donate to The Necessary Stage to help them move into a new home here

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