It feels like just yesterday that we were still in January 2022, but with 2 months left before the new year, it’s about time to preview 2023’s arts season as we always do with the first major performing arts festival of the year – the annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival (M1SFF).
Organised by The Necessary Stage, 2023’s edition of M1SFF marks the first time in the past 17 editions that it is finally doing away with a fixed curatorial theme, instead putting out an open call for proposals from artists in a bid to see their main concerns in the world today. Receiving a myriad of robust proposals, the team then finalised the programme with a final line-up of eight events from Singapore and around the world. Even without a fixed theme in mind, the works are linked by their common concerns — oppression of minorities, climate change and biodiversity loss, and the politics of care for diverse sectors of our community. Through their presentation, these works then seek to act as a healing process, or a way forward to a different, better future.
Across the eight works, 4 of them are Fringe Commissions, 3 mark their World Premieres, and 4 mark their Asian Premieres. With enough distance between the pandemic and the present, the works are finally able to move away from direct responses to COVID-19, and mark a clear shift in artists’ concerns towards other critical issues that demand our immediate attention, ranging from the social to economic, political to health, and to the environmental. Regardless of country, ethnicity, or class, all are affected.
Organisers The Necessary Stage themselves return to the Fringe with Never the Bride, a new theatrical dream about what a big, fat, fabulously gay wedding might look like in Singapore, where the right to marry is denied to same-sex couples. Directed by Alvin Tan, Ryan Ang, Fadhil Daud and Rajkumar Thiagaras devise and perform this cheeky, heartfelt work that focuses on the lived experiences of queer people.
Another work that amplifies the voice of young minority voices is Less Than Half by Adib Kosnan, Yarra Ileto and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore). This interdisciplinary piece is written by playwright Aswani Aswath, based on verbatim texts from the student performers about privilege and inequality, and set in an imagined, dystopian world of the future.
Birds Migrant Theatre (Singapore) presents Foreign Bodies, a work devised and performed by its company of migrant workers. Foreign Bodies looks at the desperate situations some find themselves in—especially when they forge personal relationships that run counter to their obligations to their families; although they are told to focus on working and making money for their families back home, often they desire a better quality of life in Singapore. However, not everything always goes as planned.
Kafka’s Ape by Phala O. Phala & Tony Bonani Miyambo (South Africa) is a hard-hitting performance by award-winning actor Miyambo about an ape’s questioning of otherness, and the complexities of identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Based on Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, Kafka’s Ape is a solo performance about a primate’s struggle to overcome the confines of captivity, as the captured ape learns to imitate humanity and contests identity based on outward appearance.
The climate crisis and biodiversity loss are also key issues that Fringe artists are responding to. Tree Confessions by This is Not a Theatre Company (USA) is the world’s first play told from the point of view of a tree, and takes the unique form of a self-scheduled, site-specific audio play, where audience members are invited to select a tree, sit under it, and be drawn into the magical world of trees.
Also dealing with the theme of climate change, the hometown of Noémie Huttner-Koros (Australia) was swathed in smoke for weeks during the horrific Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20. Her creation Mother of Compost is a campy, interactive performance that invites us to care for one another even as we live in an ecologically precarious time. Over the course of the performance, the audience transforms from strangers to the beginnings of a family, as we enter into a queer and unruly family gathering and a communal grieving for what is being lost and everything left to fight for.
Another work that encourages us to look out and care for each other is Django in Pain by Por Piedad Teatro and The Play Company (Mexico & USA). Available as video-on-demand throughout the festival, a playwright is unable to write a happy play because his main character wants to end his life. Made during the pandemic lockdown using only scrap materials found around the house, the adventures of Django and the stray dog that keeps getting in his way is a multi-layered tale of depression, loyalty and hope, in this astonishing, exquisitely detailed and healing piece about depression, creativity, and love.
Finally, in her debut satirical play Why Be Good When You Can Be the Best?, Deonn Yang presents the struggle between caring for those in the community and striving to be the best employee ever. Featuring an ensemble cast of Chng Xin Xuan, Mitchell Fang, Sindhura Kalidas, Suhaili Safari and Eve Voigtlander, the play follows an average worker as she s forced to decide between what she knows and brings her contentment and happiness, and wanting to be the best.
Continuing their mission to strive for greater accessibility, The Necessary Stage is once again collaborating with Official Accessibility Partner Equal Dreams to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of the festival for all, including those with disabilities. With features such as Plain English versions of text on the Fringe website, visual stories for travelling to theatres, captions for in-theatre performances, and audio-described and self-scheduling site-specific digital works, the team hopes to make the Fringe a positive, accessible experience for as many people as possible.
In these extraordinary times where war, strife, environmental collapse and social inequality often crash together to make it seem as if the future can only be one of doom and despair. Yet it is precisely now when art can still play a key role in encouraging care, speaking up for the oppressed, and resilience, and in doing so, hopefully find better, different ways forward, ideas that are explored in full across the diverse works featured at M1SFF 2023.
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here