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Esplanade’s The Studios 2022: An Interview with ‘Acting Mad’ playwright/director Haresh Sharma

Originally staged at The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) Black Box space in 2019 as part of their Orange Production programme, Haresh Sharma’s verbatim play Acting Mad makes a return this August, in a new staging at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of this year’s The Studios programme.

Written and directed by Haresh Sharma, Acting Mad was crafted from interviews with 20 actors who have experienced or are going through mental health issues, and takes a closer look at mental health within the theatre industry, especially with the past 2 years of the pandemic and the changes and standards in place in the industry. this version will incorporate new interview texts and testimonies, as well actors’ responses to the pandemic and its impact on them. Can sharing our stories and creating theatre be a form of solace and support?

“This is my first directorial work at the Esplanade, so I was a bit nervous at first, but also very happy,” says playwright/director Haresh, on restaging Acting Mad. “I know I’ve had my work as a playwright staged at the Esplanade before, but this is so different. Beyond being the playwright, I now have to do things like reach out to the different designers, work with administrative staff, production, artists and more. It’s kind of fun, kind of stressful, and I’ve got people like Deonn (Yang) as my assistant director and Sindhura (Kalidas) as my dramaturg, and really, collaborating with people I can depend on.”

“When I worked on this for the Orange Production, it was an opportunity to work on new play with emerging artists for the original, and at the time I wanted to create a work about mental health issues, and do a verbatim theatre piece,” Haresh adds. “Originally, the Orange Production was a way to work with younger emerging artists, and in our original run of Acting Mad, we involved several fresh graduates, including Harris Albar and Maryam Noorhilmi who worked with me on research, interviews and putting together the play. They’ve since gone overseas to study, but now we’re working with another young researcher, Ariel, and are continuing that element of mentorship with this staging.”

This isn’t a simple restaging of Acting Mad however, and features several changes, including incorporating seven new interviews into the script, new cast members Ghafir Akbar and Lian Sutton joining Masturah Oli and Karen Tan, who reprise their roles from the previous staging, and a new team behind the production. “For the first staging, we interviewed 20 actors, using an interview – transcription – editing – rehearsal process. When the Esplanade asked us to restage it, it requires a rework since it’s been 3 life-changing years since the first staging,” says Haresh. “The pandemic has affected everyone, and in particular affected 2 groups badly – freelancers and people with mental health issues, so it felt very relevant for me to revisit the play, and see what new elements I can bring in.”

“We did have to write to all 20 interviewees to get permission to show their stories again in this new staging, and many actually said yes. I decided to interview 7 of them again to catch up and see how they’re doing, and also to get new material to update the work, and show that there’s been a variety of ways people have been coping and affected by these few years, and incorporate it into the text,” he adds. “It is difficult not to have the shadow of the first production at this one’s back, but we try to see it as an evolution of the first play. It helps that even working with a combination of new cast members and actors from the previous run, we’ve tweaked some of the characters, and all of them appreciate the work, feel for the topic, and work well together.”

Haresh is no stranger to verbatim theatre, having previously crafted work like Completely With/Out Character, which took transcripts from interviews conducted with Paddy Chew, the first Singaporean with HIV/AIDS to come out to the general public, or Boxing Day, where researchers interviewed people from Aceh, Penang, and Sri Lanka who were affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

“I do enjoy the verbatim genre, because it’s a kind of documentary. It may seem restrictive, but the way I’ve handled it is rather than having one character allocated to one actor, I like to take the text and weave the transcript into a narrative text so the audience gets a complete story rather than just 10 monologues,” says Haresh. “As far as possible, I try not to interfere with the text too much, and just add on maybe 5% of connectors and linking lines to bring the play together. It makes you edit more judiciously, especially with how there are so many overlaps in experiences, so you’re forced to look at which text you want to use for each character.”

And when it comes to mental illness, Haresh is of course, best known for his landmark 1993 play, Off Centre, which was one of the first plays in Singapore to dare tackle mental health and illness in a sensitive and nuanced light, breaking new ground for the industry and society. “Compared to the 90s, there’s been a change for sure. These days, there’s a lot more fluidity in terms of information being passed around and people being aware of what they can do or how they can reach out, compared to how difficult it was to even bring up the issues, and how it was so misunderstood back then,” says Haresh. “One thing I’ll say hasn’t changed so much is probably the stigma that we still have in our Asian community where even though there’s more information about it, people are still not being transparent or open about it or seeking help, because there’s this fear of sharing because of being misunderstood by their workplace or close ones.”

Haresh isn’t letting the continued stigma bring him down though, and is doing his best to change the narrative within his community – the theatre industry. “Anyone can have mental illness, from any race, gender, class or sexuality. I chose to focus on the acting community as a kind of microcosm of society, and think there are still some elements that were universally difficult that audiences not from the industry can resonate with. Sometimes people dismiss actors, and think they’re very over the top or emotional for sake of it, and may not be taken seriously if you say you have a problem,” he says.

In terms of the industry though, Haresh believes that even within the arts, there is still some way to go, especially when it comes to just being open about one’s needs, even during rehearsals. “The actors know this best, since they go from one production to the next, and really see all these different practices, how companies are taking care of people, and from the interviews we’ve had, it does seem somewhat 50/50, where there are younger actors who are afraid to tell the companies or directors that they are struggling with mental health, fearing rejection or seeming ‘difficult’,” says Haresh. “At the same time, there are also companies where people tend to be quite kind and to tell actors to take a break if they need to. There is still a need for us to realise we cannot just focus on our own quest for perfection and deadlines, but also think about the needs and well-being of the people around you.”

“One thing that hasn’t quite caught on here yet is the idea of boundaries within the rehearsal room, like asking actors about their boundaries, like if they’re comfortable being touched or with loud sounds during rehearsals and devising, or scenes that have to do with trauma and abuse,” Haresh continues. “In the past, it would just be actors doing whatever the director asked, but now we can and should have a discussion about it, and use it as an opportunity to assess how much trust there is in the room, and how much time we might need to work out a reasonable solution in the name of care.”

This is something that Haresh has also applied to his own practice whenever he embarks on a production, or even a project like Playwrights’ Cove. “I think everyone should feel safe and like they belong, like they’re able to speak up and not feel judged,” he says. “A lot of theatre involves criticism, and it’s important to be able to give each other honest feedback, while also bearing in mind the feelings of people around you, to be respectful and sensitive, and to be more aware of the room, who’s speaking, not speaking, or who do you feel you might wanna talk to and see if they’re ok. We have to remind ourselves that amidst the deadlines and time pressure, we cannot use that as an excuse to be mean or insensitive, because everyone is going through something, and we have to create that safe and respectful and sensitive space to co-exist in.”

“I like to think we are more understanding of each other, of different companies. I don’t think anyone actively wishes anyone else ill, and we’re all quite friendly and supportive,” says Haresh, on how the industry can work better, together as a community. “But I do wish that more can be done in terms of the systems in place, like the concept of minimum wage, where every company pays whatever they’re paying. Compared to say if you book someone from a production house, you’ll see how the cameramen or the person holding the boom mic has a standard rate. But in the theatre scene, there’s always that need to negotiate rather than having a safer, more fixed system in place.”

“We need to care more for our freelancers, and this might be the way to do so, and helps with things like NAC grants, where we have to prepare budget sheets and prove to them why we need certain grants and funds to meet such costs,” Haresh concludes. “Caring for others goes beyond going for supper together and having fund, but we have to make sure we’re supporting each other in practical ways, making sure that they can feed themselves while working on a project, and make it sustainable.”

Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage

Acting Mad runs from 25th to 28th August 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here

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