This week, the annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is returning to our shores. Organised by The Necessary Stage, this year’s festival marks the second since the pandemic began, and is a spiritual follow-up to the previous Fringe’s theme of Quiet Riot, which featured works that zoomed in on individuals and groups finding new ways of agitating for change from within.
Change remains a subtle focus of this year’s Fringe, but this time around, the team have settled on the theme of The Helpers, with a total of eight productions zooming in on the aid we offer in times of need, and the larger issues that leads to. While it does seem like a relatively straightforward theme for the festival, General Manager of TNS and Executive Producer of the Fringe, Melissa Lim, Festival Manager, Jezamine Tan, and Founder and Artistic Director of TNS, Alvin Tan, offer a deeper interpretation of the idea of help.
“When we were deciding the theme, we were in the thick of COVID-19, and there was this huge sense of fatigue,” says Melissa, on the origins of the theme. “It went beyond scrambling to get a grasp of the situation, and it was just this overwhelming sense of disillusion and tiredness. The industry was in despair, people were throwing in the towel and in dark places. For us, we didn’t want to continue harping indefinitely on the pandemic during the Fringe.”
The inspiration for the theme might come as a surprise – considering that TNS has often looked at more artistic or academically-inclined works, The Helpers’ origin in fact, comes from children’s education show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “The Fringe tends to look at quotes to inspire us, and we stumbled upon this quote from Fred Rogers, who said to ‘look for the helpers’ in times of need,” explains Melissa. “We thought about how getting through a crisis, whether global or personal, often needed us to find assistance to give us hope, and we went into Fringe with the idea of optimism and finding light within the darkness.”
In light of this, one then thinks of how many movements and ‘helpers’ have emerged during the pandemic to come forward to offer help, whether its essential workers going above and beyond what is expected of their day job, to ordinary people stepping up and contributing in some way. But it also reveals certain vulnerabilities in society.
“It’s easy to say ‘wow this is so incredible’ when we see the success of mutual aid movements and all this help going around,” says Jezamine. “But at the same time, we need to think, why isn’t there more support in the first place, because this isn’t a long term solution. Things aren’t changing fast enough and there’s only so much we can do, while people still continue to fall through the gaps – where do we go from here?”
“Over this pandemic, we found so many people coming forward to help. But with such aid, you also realise how our current structures and systems still possess failures and gaps, that you need people with such altruism and empathy to step up and fill them,” says Melissa. “The helper is something worth celebrating, allows us to see the pandemic in a new light, and reminds us to work together as a community to fix our problems with own abilities and capacities, while still pushing for systemic change. “
“In 2021, Quiet Riot had us thinking more about a polarised world,” says Alvin. “Now, The Helpers remains political, but one where we put the polarised positions aside, like Red Cross going into war zones, and just responding to human need without caring which side is which. While it doesn’t solve the root cause that allows injustices in the system to perpetuate, it’s still a way to tide us all over while waiting for policy change.”
The Fringe, and theatre as a whole, has never been a platform for easy solutions, or interpretations, as reflected in the range of work curated for this year. Topics from abusive relationships, adoption, and even urban loneliness is set to be featured. “We try out best not to stick to a single narrative or perspective, so we’re not saying ‘this is help’,” says Melissa. “What we are doing is creating a spectrum of conversation around ‘help’, whether it’s about immediate help people provide in OK Land, or even how we seek to connect and find a community in 0.01, which then makes us examine the importance of a community.
“Even works like Imago, which deals with personal trauma and domestic abuse, it links back because you try to overcome and help yourself out of your pain, while a work like Rindu di Bulan makes us think about how adoption could be seen as helping, to deliberately take on a ‘burden’ another cannot handle,” she adds. “The curation is not necessarily the kind of work that fills houses, but with the small audience numbers, it’s an opportunity to explore more intimate pieces, and challenge artists to think creatively, even when everything seems restricted and disadvantageous.”
Speaking on even being able to stage a festival in these uncertain times, Alvin thinks of the privilege Singapore has within the arts scene. “We don’t know how long this pandemic will continue to last, or how long funding will last for, but we are quite privileged to carry on as a festival, when other countries may not even have the arts funding to put up any new shows,” he says.
There’s evidently a hunger to return to live theatre, with most of the Fringe’s tickets to the live productions snapped up before the dawn of 2022. “Not only do we want to feed the audiences with new work, but also to feed the artists by commissioning the work, and show that the industry can still spring back,” comments Melissa, on the purpose of the Fringe in this day and age. “There are so many uncertainties, but there are always ways to keep the industry alive, and the Fringe is intended to provide that sense of optimism and sense of resolution.”
“As the first event of the year in the arts community, even with the limitations on travel and audience numbers, we still make our tickets affordable, we still have the international artists’ works available as video, and create this sense of resolution that we can prevail.”– General Manager of TNS and Executive Producer of the Fringe, Melissa Lim.
This year also marks the second Fringe that TNS are helming since taking back artistic rein after previous festival director Sean Tobin. While it’s a lot of work, TNS intends to continue organising it for now, and ground it more strongly in their values and beliefs. “We’re not putting a rotating festival directorship out of the question, but for now, it’s important that TNS has put the stamp back on the Fringe to make it more socially engaged and closer to the TNS spirit and ethos,” says Melissa.
“The Fringe will evolve along with the scene, and perhaps one day, if we reach a point where artists no longer need the festival support to create such works, then we may no longer even need to exist. But for now, we continue to provide funds, marketing and administration so artists can create works without worrying about these things, and hope that the general infrastructure supporting the arts will develop as well.”
“Personally, I’m interested in the impact of theatre, and how to change the relationship of work with audience, and how that might lead to more innovative work in future Fringe festivals. That can only happen when we have a core group of people, and for the past 16 years, these people have seen and known the history of the scene and the position of the Fringe,” says Alvin, on how important it is that TNS be the ones to ground the Fringe. “We have an intimacy with the Festival, and know what to renovate, what to depart from and what to keep. Maybe in future, it doesn’t have to happen all at once at the start of the year, maybe it could be multiple works throughout the year all under the Fringe banner, but either way, for now, the Fringe as it is has a place, a space where people can still experiment.”
Alvin isn’t just thinking long-term change however – the Fringe will already be seeing a major departure from its past editions in 2023, with the dissolution of a set theme for artists. That means that artists can apply with almost any kind of work, so long as it deals with an issue that is urgent in society. “Melissa was the one who suggested we free the Fringe of the theme, and allow it to become more democratic and artist-centred rather than top-down, where we ‘force’ the work into the theme,” says Alvin. “It’s a more honest way of seeing what the artists are interested in, and to service the artist rather than the festival.”
“Haresh used to say the old themes of ‘Art and _____’ was very straightforward, and the wider we went, people couldn’t really see the connections,” says Melissa, referring to the Fringe’s origins with themes such as Art and Education or Art and The Law. “We’ve gone through the gamut of restrictive themes, to being more wide and accommodating, to now completely freeing everything. The only criteria is that the work should pertain to something urgent in society today, and hope we get a good line-up next year.”
One of TNS’ aims for future versions of the festival is also to encourage greater sustainability and accessibility from artists, where works which have a core focus on such aspects are much appreciated. For TNS themselves, accessibility too is an ongoing journey for them, with accessibility partners Equal Dreams on board for their 2022 as consultants for how best to let the disabled access their shows.
“Equal Dreams was this massive learning curve for us, and it led us to think about how the disabled have never even experienced theatre, and we can’t just throw in an audio description and hope they will come,” says Jezamine. “There’s a need to organise pre-show briefings, on what to expect, what kind of information will be coming in, and we’re still trying to fine tune it. It’s not a quick fix, but we’re getting there.”
“Some things we’re doing include providing open captions for the live shows and close captions for video-on-demand, as well as providing wayfinding to the theatres, and welcoming patrons with guide dogs,” says Melissa. “But COVID has made things difficult, with no more touch tours, and limited by some tech capability, where audio descriptions were hampered by the lack of appropriate equipment for it.”
“Most individual artists still don’t put accessibility at the forefront, and it remains an afterthought. For the festival to seed that thought then, is to perhaps create the beginnings for new pockets of audiences to access the work in the best conditions possible,” she continues. “The Singapore arts environment is still very nascent in that respect, but someone has to start getting people to think about it, and festivals such as ourselves and SIFA want artists to start considering it for the future.”
Going back to thinking about how much help has been required over the last two years, one wonders how then, theatre itself is of any ‘help’, and how essential the arts can be towards pushing for change. “Even before COVID, the arts have become increasingly class-oriented, where it is an upper-middle class pursuit,” says Melissa. “As creators and curators, we need to question whether the kind of socially-conscious work we put out is feeding a niche crowd and just be assuaging their sense of guilt, making them feel good about themselves, just because they watched a show about social issues and became ‘woke’.”
“For Fringe, our works are still affordable and can reach most members of society, because of our title sponsor M1, otherwise we can’t do it at all,” she continues. “But this issue of arts playing to a more privileged audience, it’s happening all around the world, while theatremakers who need to sustain a living have not seen a rise in their pay. Somehow, we need to move with the times and ensure everyone is safe and healthy and well.”
“Sometimes, privileged artists are even creating work that tap on stories of people who cannot afford to go to the theatre. It’s well worth thinking about the ethics we need to hold near and dear to our hearts as we tell these stories, we need to do deep research and incorporate all these other voices into it, to involve these people with stories not just as co-opted, but as involved. It is this sense of responsibility and ethics that cannot be understated in the world of theatre.”
“We encountered a lot of these questions and guilt back in 2006, when we created Mobile,” says Alvin. “We were interviewing migrants, and briefed them on what the interviews would be used for, and the fact is, they do want to tell their stories, but we cannot tell each and every one of them in the show. We did try to give back through a multitude of activities, and to enable a different relationship in art. We actually got a CD sponsorship, and had Thai bands, Indonesian people who recited poetry, and recorded it on CDs that we sold and gave the profits to the organisations, and even got a sponsorship for disposable cameras where migrant workers could take photos of their lives, and displayed it at objectifs.”
“This is a field I hope artists will continue to innovate in, and one company that does this very well is Drama Box, where they work with the groups whose issues they present, and involve audiences such that they grow more aware about certain situations,” he continues. “It really is about scaffolding the development of awareness, and creating the foundations to have follow-up action. While I am not arrogant enough to think a single play can create change, I do think that the middle class and policymakers are the ones we need to bring these stories to, to ‘enlighten’ them so the can make the change happen, or at least seek more information about the issue for the change to eventually happen.”
Ultimately though, what theatre perhaps should be, is simply an experience, for audience members to walk away from with their own interpretations, and material for discussion. “Kirsten Han wrote an article sometime back tells us what we should be coming back to theatre, where it remains one of the few spaces difficult conversations are held, and works don’t give an easy solution, and have audiences think deeper about their responses and how they make change,” says Melissa.
With the dwindling number of independent performance venues, greater restrictions on performances, and general uncertainty hanging in the air, The Fringe then, seems to be one of the few remaining platforms for artists to speak. Perhaps it is also a space for audiences to find alternative work that gives them, for that hour or so in the theatre, to just dwell on their thoughts, and make sense, or find kindred spirits to discuss the madness we’ve been through during this pandemic.
“The theatre space isn’t like social media, where people are shouting but not talking about what’s happening, but a civil space to elicit conversation and question the audience perspective,” concludes Melissa. “I hope theatre gets people to think about their own agencies and responsibilities and other people around them, and to continue to provide that safe space for dialogue and disagreement, and facilitate clearer understanding of where other people are coming from, between audience members, and audience members and artists.”
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here
Applications for the 2023 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival are now open till 4th March 2022. More information available here