Increasingly, theatre and the arts are becoming upper-middle class affairs, where ticket prices are skyrocketing, and the very act of attending a show can be seen as ‘atas’ So when a company creates a show about essential workers, who exactly is the intended audience, and what do they hope to achieve?
For The Second Breakfast Company (2BCo), these were some of the questions and issues on their mind, as they conceptualised and created The Essential Playlist – a brand new theatre piece premiering at the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Directed by Adeeb Fazah and co-written by both Adeeb and Zulfiqar Izzudin (Zul), the play imagines a future post-COVID world, where a group of millennial comedy content creators attempts to pitch content ideas for a new series called The Essential Playlist, in an effort to be more woke and tackle social issues.
Naturally, over the pitching process, these characters will grapple with some of the more controversial elements arising, from creative conflict over political correctness, to the feasibility of insensitive portrayals as a means of satire. Most of all – how does any essential worker actually benefit from this at all?
Considering how many years 2BCo has been around, it’s surprising that this year actually marks their Fringe debut. “Previous years haven’t really aligned for us, like we’d already committed ourselves to end of year productions, like The Old Woman and the Ox, and how last year, The Singapore Trilogy came out so early in the year, and we didn’t want to commit so many projects at the same time,” says Adeeb. “Actually, we did pitch an idea for the 2021 Fringe, and that same idea eventually evolved into The Essential Playlist, and fit the theme of The Helpers even more than it did Quiet Riot (the 2021 M1 Fringe theme).”
As Adeeb explains, the original idea focused almost solely on delivery riders and the fallout after the ban on PMD was implemented. When the theme of The Helpers was revealed for 2022, it made sense that 2BCo would tackle the topic, but this time, expand the scope to discuss essential workers as a whole. “2BCo initiated contact with me to co-write this project,” says Zul, a first-time collaborator with 2BCo, on how he got involved. “Prior to this, I hadn’t really written for the stage, only for screen or myself. When he approached me, I thought sure I’ll give it a try – anyway, I was already part of the advising process for the previous pitch. It hasn’t been an easy process, but under guidance of Adeeb, I’ve been able to adapt to the style and voice that they were looking for.”
2BCo isn’t new to the meta-theatre genre – previously, they produced Performing Malay Sketches (2019), which saw a group of amateur theatremakers attempting to adapt Alfian Sa’at’s short story collection Malay Sketches, and dealing with the racial issues that emerged in casting and performance. The Essential Playlist on the other hand, goes full on millennial, by centering on content creators. “It’s a group of people coming together to tell a story, and on a meta level, as theatremakers ourselves, it’s meant to make us question whether we can speak on behalf of other people whose shoes have never been walked in,” says Adeeb. “My hope is that if I’m someone watching this show, I’m going to relate to these characters creating content, and see myself in there, struggling to deal with the issue of essential workers in Singapore. We’re not professing to be experts in the field, but we’re giving audiences a way in.”
To counter the prevent themselves speaking from a place of ignorance, 2BCo embarked on a thorough journey of research and preparation in the lead-up to The Essential Playlist. “For our process, we focused on hearing from frontline workers, including some cast members and friends,” says Zul. “I myself used to work in the fitness industry, and when gyms got closed and I became a delivery rider, so I also wanted to share my experiences during the writing process.”
“The first phase of our process was to tap on personal experiences,” explains Adeeb. “So besides Zul having been in the fitness industry and a PMD rider, I was also actually was an Uber driver for a while after graduating. And of course, we also then drew on our peers’ experiences and stories as well. The next step was secondary research, where we looked at news articles and videos. Our team split into groups, read the articles and came up a response. We kept this up for a few weeks, and in the middle of 2021, we finally got to the devising phase, and invited guests who were essential workers, beamed in over Zoom and got all the cast members to ask questions and clarify information, and we would end off with a long discussion. Finally, we would continue to approach different people, through discussions and phone calls, and eventually, get to the final script.”
As such, what The Essential Playlist really is, is a means to get the audience to examine their own relationships with the people around them and what we can do about it. “I thought that was quite fitting with this year’s theme, to really get people to think about whether say clapping at the window for frontline workers is really doing anything helpful, or how it pushes forward the agendas that the frontline workers have in terms of creating a better, fairer workspace and opportunities to do work,” says Adeeb.
“The central question we were grappling with was who are we to do anything, are we doing enough, and needed to put that onstage through the point of view of someone we can relate to,” he adds. “And I think especially with social media, which our generation is very attuned to, there is always that trap of doing things as a form of virtue signalling, as compared to finding a meaningful solution, so how can we go beyond symbolic or gestural help.”
Certainly, while 2BCo isn’t necessarily providing direct aid through theatre, they’re finding ways to give back to the world in some way – take for example how the cast of The Essential Playlist is primarily comprised of newcomers to the theatre scene, many of whom are working with 2BCo for the first time. “One of 2BCo’s aims is to discover new talent and to work with people we haven’t worked with before,” says Adeeb. “That’s been a kind of adventure in itself, and I don’t know what to expect. Yes, we’ve already have seen some of them from a distance in their graduation shows, like Zul from Young & Wild, and I think it’s kind of like seeing where they brought themselves with their artistic development, where they are during and after the project. There’s always this new energy when you bring in new people fresh out of school, looking for a foot in the door. They’re always willing to try new things, and that’s the kind of adventure we’re going for in our 2BCo ethos.”
For Zul himself, the experience of being an artist during COVID has been an eye-opening one, where he has primarily been focused on growth and taking on projects that he can. “For me, it’s always important to evolve and adapt with the times,” says Zul. “When COVID happened, I worked with Patch and Punnet, working for screen to produce skits, and to me, I thought well, I need to continue improving myself as a performer and a theatremaker, and learnt a lot. Looking ahead, Adeeb is honestly someone I want to be like, because he’s someone who has all these tools in his belt to do theatre and create. For me, right now I’m figuring out my next step, maybe perform a bit more, or develop more of the writing I’ve been working on.”
All things considered, 2021 and beyond looks to be good for 2BCo, where the theatre blackout of 2020 has resulted in a backlog of projects finally seeing the light and keeping them busy.”In a way, this is the revenge year for us, where in 2020, we had so many projects lined up that got all pushed to 2021 and beyond,” says Adeeb. “It’s been crazy, but I’m also relishing in the fact that there is work, and the work will go on. I’m creating and that’s a great feeling.”
As a relatively young company hit by the pandemic, for now, 2BCo really is focused on survival, and is thankful for the commissions they receive. “2BCo has always been working towards sustainability, but it’s been very tricky, especially with COVID-19,” says Adeeb. “In a way, after The Singapore Trilogy, we basically stopped planning for our own independent productions, and everything that has happened since has been commissioned work, from the Geylang Serai Trails to assembly programmes. Everything else this year was about recuperating the losses, and we received a healthy number of projects from people commissioning us.”
“We really are just looking for ways to put up work not to strain our pockets. And if we can still expand our brand, I believe that being part of the Fringe can help with that, with more eyeballs on our work and the value we bring – it would be helpful to us to find new avenues to create and collaborate,” he adds. “And that’s where we’re going, and hoping that there will come a day COVID won’t be a thing that hinders us. I don’t know if it’ll ever be completely gone, but until we get there, we’ll be finding new alternate ways to create work that won’t be too stressful on us.”
Coming back to this year’s theme of The Helpers, both Zul and Adeeb reflect on what it means to them before we end off our interview. “We’re all people, and like it or not, we do need help, some days more than others,” muses Zul. “We do question whether we want that help, and it expands to other people as well – we know some people need help, but whether he wants it, well sometimes we can be afraid to offer help. It complicates the idea of help, so being a helper can actually be a very complex and difficult position to be in.”
“For me, I feel like more and more we all have to be a helper in some way, and personally, 2021 has been a year of reflecting on the way I work with people, and thinking about how we can care more, and care for the ppl we’re working with,” says Adeeb. “2020 was a year that shook the foundations of all our systems, and it was also a good time to reflect on our processes the way they were.”
“How do I be a better person for my co-workers and for my peers? We can offer the option to speak to us, or to feel free to take a day off if it’s really needed, especially relating to emotional and mental health, or family issues, all of which are perfectly good reasons to take a break,” he concludes. “It’s about keeping the channels open, and especially with all the handwashing and social distancing and masks, it really isn’t just about me anymore but how I am for other people, how I behave for other people, and learning to be accountable and responsible for others in small ways.”
Photo Credit: The Second Breakfast Company
The Essential Playlist runs from 12th to 15th January 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here