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Against All Odds: An Interview with Alvin Tan, Haresh Sharma and Kok Heng Leun on ‘Opposition 对峙’

In any arts scene, you’re bound to find a sizeable number of big personalities, with headstrong artistic directors and scriptwriters who believe themselves the best and insist on a ‘my way or no way’ approach. It is for that same reason that collaborations between companies tend to be complicated affairs, and require not just a common vision, but also an open-minded creative team willing to bounce ideas off of each other, and work together to birth a work that the individual company could never do alone.

“Theatre, actually, has always been collaborative, but in a hierarchical way, rather than lateral,” says Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage (TNS). “Lateral collaboration is unconventional and rare, because people often think about the idea that someone’s opinion is ‘better’ and everyone just goes along with that. It’s not easy to do, and not everyone can do it, and it really depends on the personalities of the collaborators and the dynamics involved, where it can’t just be replicated by following a ‘recipe’.”

Obviously, something about the collaborative process is working well for TNS and Drama Box, who’re embarking on their third collaboration to round off an unofficial trilogy of projects, with Opposition 对峙 this March.

Following Manifesto (2016) and Underclass (2018), the process behind Opposition is now familiar ground for playwright Haresh Sharma (TNS), and co-directors Alvin Tan (TNS) and Kok Heng Leun (Drama Box), having followed a similar division of labour for the past two collaborations.

“Back in the early 2010s, we had already wanted to work with Heng Leun, and while Manifesto took a while to realise, we were very happy wth the collaboration process and outcome,” says Haresh, on the continuity TNS and Drama Box share. “We wanted to do a second collaboration, resulting in Underclass, and we thought we should finish with a third project to form a trilogy. But as to what we would do for that third project, we weren’t sure yet, and didn’t want to rush into it, which led to a longer gestation period for Opposition.”

Manifesto, Underclass and Opposition are not direct continuations of each other, but rather, thematically linked, in that they embody TNS and Drama Box’s focus on exploring contemporary social issues, often with no clear solution in mind. In terms of its story, Opposition also positions itself as a love story, taking the characters of Ramlah Zee and Jackie Oh (Siti Khalijah Zainal and Goh Guat Kian, who both starred in the previous two collaborations) from Manifesto, and watching as both their relationship and fledgling theatre company, Zero Theatre, grow as society changes around them.

“I guess we’re opposing the definition of a trilogy, which is usually a continuation of a theme or a story,” says Alvin. “The common arc that links all three pieces is how it showcases the invisible voices and underbelly of society, from the characters and perspectives we explore. I feel that a lot of mainstream works keep to middle class, ‘relatable’ characters and themes.”

So considering it’s such a loaded title and doesn’t immediately have anything to do with the plot, why ‘opposition’ then? “I think that the idea of opposition wasn’t so much about opposing something, so much as how it’s inevitably something that happens during interactions, and as the story progresses, you’ll see how all this opposition exists around us, and changes a person’s mindset and presents a multitude of other possibilities,” says Heng Leun. “We only think of the word in such negative terms because of the way it’s been used in our society, and perhaps we need to take a closer look at it and re-imagine.”

“In fact, we’re opposing the concept of ‘opposition’, because an opposition is seen as a binary, where you’re either for or against something,” chimes in Alvin. “The alternative to an opinion isn’t always in opposition to it, and can encompass a wider umbrella that includes opposition and other points of view. Singaporeans tend to be so averse to alternatives, and see disagreement as a case of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’. It’s a dangerously anti-creative approach, and doesn’t leave space for thought or discussion, and sometimes, I feel the space is getting smaller and smaller because of all this sensitivity and insecurity.”

“As such, I think what we need today is more self-reflexivity, self-awareness and self-criticism, along with intersectionality, something that we try to bring out across our collaborations with Drama Box,” Alvin adds. “It was already there in Manifesto, but over the course of the three works, we’re examining issues such as power relations and differences, diversity, and complicating the idea of opposition, where it is no longer a simple oppressed/oppressor binary. This is the kind of consciousness that has been brewing and maturing over the course of our three projects working together, and as our criticality and questioning of the norm becomes more complex, ends up making the story and work that much richer.”

“Over the years, many things have shifted and changed, and you realise that there is an increasing amount of fluidity. People are more sensitive to identity politics, and we have to take into account all these forces shaping the world when we produce a work,” says Heng Leun. “Opposition projects a kind of thinking for the future we are trying to imagine, the changes that could happen, and the ‘us’ that we could be in the future.”

Opposition may be an original script, but whether consciously or subconsciously, may bear some autobiographical elements – after all, it is a play about two people who set up a theatre company in Singapore in the ’80s, much like TNS’s own founding with Alvin and Haresh. “I didn’t see it as autobiographical – the main characters are two women, with Jackie, a Chinese theatre actor who leaves to start Zero Theatre, while Ram joins her and deals with the administrative side of thinks,” says Haresh. “In the play itself, there are certain meta-theatrical and speculative elements, and they also face pressures from existing as a lesbian couple in society. Alvin, Heng Leun and myself decided to move away from the previous two productions as being about politics and politicians, and instead, focus on the artists. All we had to do was tease out their narratives, their characters and relationships with the people around them.”

“From a director’s point of view, watching Haresh as he wrote and developed the text made me very appreciative of the evolution of the work, because as an artist, over the last two years years, I’ve been wanting to have characters who go beyond being mouthpieces for ideologies or politics,” says Alvin. “You’ve got movies like Nomadland which celebrates the idea of meandering, and not every scene has to be ‘purposeful’ to the message of the work, and sometimes, simply works to enhance the humanity of the characters. Perhaps that is the politics of aesthetics, where characters are allowed to breathe without being an instrument, and for audiences to identify, appreciate, and have more impact by not being overly purposeful in their presence. Politics is even more deeply humanised by the human condition, and I was so happy that we decided to frame it as a love story.”

The production is also set to be an important one in terms of symbolic significance; originally slated to be performed at the Drama Centre Black Box, circumstances changed, and the performance venue had to be changed. Poetically, Opposition, a play about the creation of a theatre company will now be the final production staged at the TNS Black Box at Marine Parade Community Centre, which TNS has called home since 2000, and where both previous collaborations were staged. “It feels fitting that we started at the TNS Black Box, and end at the TNS Black Box,” says Heng Leun. “To me, the end is just the start of another beginning, and I look forward to seeing how TNS will evolve in the years to come.”

“I feel that this is just a transition phase, and after selling off so many things in this space, I feel lighter, getting rid of all this accumulated material history,” says Alvin. “It is not the physical that matters, but the spiritual, journey we’ve taken over the years. It was a wonderful opportunity to have all the infrastructure we had over the last 20 years to create work, but what we take away with us isn’t the space, but things like the collaborative method. In Singapore, I don’t think any 2 groups have collaborated for so long in the same way we have, and this exchange, the negotiation and working with our differences in artistic interpretation, this generosity in partnership allows us to learn from the intercultural and interdisciplinary elements, and can be transferred to any new space.”

“TNS and Drama Box have this mutual understanding, and besides just knowing each other, it takes time to establish that working relationship with each other,” says Heng Leun. “There’s been a lot of learning from each other along the way, like the multimedia and film elements. And that’s been one of the biggest takeaways from collaboration, where it’s the process that we really gain from as artists, and not just the end product.”

Speaking of multimedia, one more collaborator TNS and Drama Box happened to have on board for Opposition was Chicago-based, Singaporean multimedia designer Yong Shu Ling, best known for her 2019 documentary Unteachable, about the Singapore education system. “I was introduced to Shu Ling at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) by Tan Pin Pin, and when we were working on this, I thought we might need someone different from our usual multimedia designer to spice things up,” says Haresh, who is a Board member for SGIFF. “One thing I wanted to do was to incorporate documentary film into the show, and when Alvin, Heng Leun and I met up with her, she said ok. Some interesting parallels is that her partner actually happens to be a stage manager, like Ramlah in the script, and when she was reading it, she went ‘this seems so familiar’. While the end product isn’t necessarily going to be documentary, we do end up using multimedia and film a fair bit, and the interaction between that and our live performers.”

“During the lockdown period, when we attended performances held over Zoom, we were always thinking about how we can enhance the live elements, whether it’s via polls and some kind of audience interaction,” says Alvin. “But eventually, we realised that nothing can ever replace live theatre. So there was a lot of thought that went into the interaction between live and multimedia, and deciding which part needed the live parts, and which needed the multimedia, and how to make the transitions between one medium to another meaningful.”

With so much talk of the digital, and in fact, the post-pandemic world and how digital may feature in theatre in future, the team are hopeful and excited for how they’ll continue to innovate and experiment with theatre. “Thinking back to the process, I think that it’s important for audiences to sometimes experience the ‘incomplete’ artwork, and to always keep in mind the political or social relevance of a work, so we embrace both content and process and presentation, like how Drama Box has been moving more into site-specific and public spaces for our work,” says Heng Leun. “Even with the digital age, I still think that the physical presentation is important, and the real test for now comes when we go back to new normal. Will there still be companies that make full online productions when people can go out to watch a show in the theatre? I wonder if it was a turning point, or just a momentary thing to tide us over during COVID.”

“Drama Box has actually been increasingly repositioning the position of the audience, and lately, have been placing them centrestage, and certainly, disrupted the conventions of theatremaking in SIngapore,” adds Alvin. “And both companies have also been active in pedagogy, like Drama Box’s Artivate and TNS’s Playwrights’ Cove. We’re looking for opportunities and ways to work outside of the company, to sustain ourselves but also to grow, rather than be paralysed by the pandemic. Our focus needs to move away from production as a staple.”

And perhaps, all that change will happen sooner rather than later, starting with even the collaborative process behind Opposition.Opposition was created very differently from our other works, like how Haresh wrote the script before Phase 1 (which we use to generate the script),” says Alvin. “Instead, we invested time in having the designers come together to co-design scenes, then got the actors in to try out scenes, before we asked the designers what kind of environment they wanted to be designing. It really is an interdisciplinary process, and we wanted to move away from the design elements being considered ‘lower’ on the hierarchy of creation. We’re bored with the way we did things in the past, and we want to grow and mature, by embarking on new creation processes through our collaborations.”

Opposition plays from 17th March to 3rd April 2022 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. Tickets available from BookMyShow

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