Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023: An Interview with ‘Never The Bride’ creators Rajkumar Thiagaras, Ryan Ang and Fadhil Daud

The extraordinary overturn of the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code feels like a double-edged sword. On one hand, an age-old, colonial-era law which criminalises sex between consenting adult males has been abolished now and forever. On the other hand, a new amendment to the Constitution has been added to protect the definition of marriage as strictly between one man and one woman. For gay men and women across Singapore, the hopes of ever getting married seem to be dashed – doomed to never be officially recognised by our state as a lawfully wedded couple with their partner.

Three queer men and theatremakers in Singapore then, have decided to use the power of theatre to dream up an ideal wedding for themselves, with Never The Bride making its world premiere at the 2023 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Presented by The Necessary Stage (TNS) and directed by Alvin Tan, Never The Bride imagines their biggest, gayest wedding fantasies onstage, and uses it as a means to find marital bliss amidst the chaos.

Speaking to co-creators Ryan Ang, Fadhil Daud and Rajkumar Thiagaras (Raj), who all also perform in the play, we found out more about the process of creating the play, the division of labour, and the message they hope audiences walk away with. “The project actually came about last year during the Devising with Actors and Playwrights programme as part of The Necessary Stage’s Devising Platform, which was essentially about learning the TNS devising style from co-artistic directors Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma,” says Raj, who also serves as the main writer. “At the end of the course we had to create a closed door ‘graduation showcase’, so all the gay boys in the room decided to collaborate with each other to create a gay play, and that resulted in Never The Bride.”

“We wanted to take the opportunity to create a work that may not typically be seen within the industry, especially with regards to queer issues and Section 377A. But rather than focusing on the issue itself, we wanted to look beyond that and examine whether marriage is a right or privilege for gay men in Singapore,” adds Ryan, who also serves as movement director and choreographer. “With this edition, we want to take more time to develop it since the first iteration, and increase the breadth of issues we tackle.”

“We were actually quite surprised that TNS liked the work so much they invited us back to be part of the 2023 Fringe, and that’s when it dawned on us that it had gained some kind of actual importance in discussing certain queer issues,” says Raj, on how the work came to be adopted by TNS for the Fringe. “We’ve been expanding on it to produce a deeper, richer work, going beyond experimentation into a project where we’re making a stamp on what we wanna say as queer artists. It doesn’t quite follow a structured plot, because it’s difficult to portray all the things we want to say in a traditional narrative, so it’s more about showcasing all the experiences and thoughts we have in our daily life as queer men, and to talk about the plausibility of marriage.”

“There have already been quite a few plays that already talked about 377A, and now we’re taking it one step further to think about what’s the next step beyond a long-term relationship,” says Fadhil. “It’s a lot of our own personal issues being put onstage, but the tone is ultimately celebratory, something audiences can watch and feel hope. Yes there are sad moments, but we wanted to keep it light and find joy even in the difficult issues.”

Essentially then, Never The Bride transports audience members to a fantastical dreamscape of a gay fantasia while grounding it in the lived experiences of gay men in Singapore. “It’s a lot of euphoria, but also realistic that things aren’t just going to change overnight, and recognising that there will be challenges ahead. We’re providing hope that change is possible, but also that we need time and patience to work on these things,” says Raj. “Because of the repeal, we did have to change several lines in the play, but overall, it’s a broad-based play that examines the tangential viewpoints from different communities, whether the religious ones or the minorities such as Indians and Malays, and use the repeal as fuel to show that change is possible, but perhaps moves at a different pace from elsewhere in the world.”

Considering that all three devisers form the typical ‘CMI’ (Chinese-Malay-Indian) diversity of Singapore’s major races, each of them came into the work with unique perspectives and experiences that they could contribute to the piece. “Right off the bat, we knew we wanted to showcase each of our backgrounds and baggage growing up gay. We each had our own approaches, and it was interesting to discuss these issues as collaborators, and listen to each other,” says Fadhil. “Like myself going back to my Muslim background and religious family, we won’t even talk about being gay, much less about marriage. And I’m always conflicting that idea of religion and who I want to be now as my own person, especially knowing my parents may never come around to it and whether that’s ok. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, and even if it does, it’s going to be an uphill battle for it to be accepted socially even if legally it changes.”

“When I came into this process, as a Chinese gay man who is agnostic, I became a lot more aware of how closely both Fadhil and Raj had their gay identities linked to culture and religion, and that led to some well-rounded discussions,” says Ryan, representing the more contemporary, global queer perspective. “For myself, I grew up consuming Disney films and developed this grand, romanticised idea of what marriage can and should be, while being hyper aware that I wouldn’t be able to achieve that dream in conservative Singapore. One of the characters in the show echoes these thoughts – if he can’t get married here then the only thing is to leave right? I haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but I do think Never The Bride raises so many questions about what it takes to find our way, or even the idea of heteronormative ideals and what that entails, with the enshrinement of the one man one woman marriage.”

“Fadhil and Ryan come to the table with this sense of curiosity, a childlike wonder about things that helps counter my own jadedness as a writer, and it helps that all three of us are looking at the work with fresh eyes, which forces me to expand my viewpoints, beyond a singular cultural stand, and to find the common correlation between our experiences,” adds Raj. “Growing up, I was brought up to think that marriage would be a given at some point, which is why in my later years coming out as gay, it became more of a struggle for me when I realised marriage was not about the individual, but about families coming together. Working on this, there are some alternatives that we looked at that we consider amidst the harsh political realities, and give hope that we can push forth and find other ways of living life without being tied down, and deal with our inner demons.”

What then is the solution for gay men if marriage is never an option? “We delved quite deep into the institution and concept of marriage itself – should it just be an option to the queer community, or is it even something we should be aspiring towards, considering it is such a heteronormative practice,” says Raj. “In that sense, we also need to consider how our queering of heteronormativity gets tied up with political and legal realities. As a collaborative effort, all these viewpoints from the others came in, and I found myself at times becoming a transcriber more than a writer, such as how Fadhil took charge of a Malay wedding scene. All this mirrors the queer effort of coming together in our efforts to make the world a better place.”

“A big part of the challenge is figuring out what material I actually take in, or leave out, and sometimes I would spend so much time just going back to do research on articles and news and pulling out found texts and putting it all together to make sense of things,” adds Raj. “Because the process was so enjoyable, there’s so much you want to do and explore, like this one scene where we were using a Bridgerton-like scene to explore the Regency era marriage market situation. Even though the others hated it, it kept growing from there, where we combined that idea with Grindr to compare and contrast the marriage culture of the old days to modern dating, and how the aspiration for courtship still permeates our dating lives.”

As movement director, Ryan’s choreography evolved alongside the devising process, finding a more concrete form after several rounds of experimentation and drafting. “It was important to me to craft a movement vocabulary that would be peppered throughout the work, and consider how the scenes might change according to how multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary they were as well,” he says. “Especially in the initial stages, where we really took charge of everything, there was this huge sense of ownership of the work as co-creator, and we kept bouncing ideas off of each other. Now with Alvin directing us, he’s been taking that pre-existing dynamic of what we bring to the table, and tightening that idea and making meaning out of the whole thing. It’s poetic and abstract, but I hope it resonates on a human level, that audience members recognise that relatable, universal desire for an unattainable dream.”

“In the earlier version of Never The Bride, I was dealing with multimedia design, and it was so interesting to consider the intertextuality of it all, and how I would then give it visuals and help emphasise the message of the scene through photos and videos,” says Fadhil. “You have to toe this line between making it accessible without it being too obvious, particularly with how these are such complex issues, and considering the audience perspective, and how they’re involved in meaning making and interpretation, but also simply, enjoyment from watching the show. It really challenged my perspective on how to make theatre and how to make meaning out of theatre, and like Raj says, we bounced off each other a lot and developed my own skills as a theatremaker.”

“For queer audience coming in, we represent queer culture in the most genuine, honest ways to celebrate it and embroider that into aspirations of marriage. And for the straight crowd, we don’t want to antagonise them, but at certain points we have to remind them that yes you can take marriage for granted, plan all you want and have options, and that’s the exact same thing we are aspiring towards, and not competing for space with you,” concludes Raj. “We are trying to co-exist, and we are looking for solidarity, and so, welcome you into the fold by sharing these experiences with you to make you think and expand your thoughts on the issues. Hopefully, this work is the starting point of that journey towards creating greater awareness on queer rights and moving us towards a more inclusive future, one that doesn’t see marriage as ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, and accepts the coming together of two people.”

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Never The Bride runs from 4th to 8th January 2023 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here

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