Arts Interview Preview Theatre

Old Gaze: An Interview with writer/director Haresh Sharma, and cast members Kumar and Hossan Leong

In a rainbow landscape that’s constantly changing with the times, the speed at which we move forward and ideals evolve, it’s all too easy to forget the queer pioneers that were there from the very beginning, survivors and champions before some of us were even born. As we look towards a post-377A future and wonder what’s next, perhaps it’s time to turn our attention towards the previous generation of LGBTQ+ people and seek to bring them back into the conversation as well.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

For local theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS), they’re putting the spotlight precisely on these ‘old gays’ with the aptly titled new play Old Gaze. Intended as a sequel to their previous plays Mardi Gras (2003) and Top or Bottom? (2004), Old Gaze reunites cast members Kumar, Hossan Leong, and Rody Vera, alongside Siti Khalijah Zainal, veteran actor Liow Shi Suen and newcomers Azura Farid and Medli Dorothea Loo. Speaking to Kumar, Hossan, and Old Gaze playwright/director Haresh Sharma, we find out more about their thoughts on the queer community then and now, what lies on the horizon, and why we should still listen to the ‘old gays’.

“I already knew it’s been a long time since we last staged those other shows, and wrote this play knowing that most audience members wouldn’t have watched them, or at most only have vague memories of being in the theatre,” says Haresh. “It’s less of a sequel, and more of a story about these characters that we created 20 years on. And it’s a show we already knew we wanted to stage three years back, even without a title. We booked Victoria Theatre, and got Roddy, Kumar and Hossan’s dates locked down in 2021, because they’re integral to the show.”

Mardi Gras (2003)

Hossan play Faith, while Kumar plays Hope. Their lives are overturned when an old friend suddenly shows up, and a rabbit hole of personal histories opens up, while they navigate becoming seniors themselves and the new queer landscape. “It’s really about life and what happens next,” says Kumar. “A lot of the time, I do feel like us ‘old gays’ don’t really relate to the young gays, because there’s a lot of assumptions about a lot of things they think we should know. But what they don’t realise is that our generation grew up in very different times from them, and so have very different experiences. Even the fact that they have such easy access to information and are naturals with the internet and social media, that’s very different from us. It’s all we can do to try to understand all their new terminology, whether it’s the non-binary or slang, and reaching out from a place of learning rather than judging.”

“You know, I’ve got friends who’re younger than me, maybe about 15 years younger, and I’d have met them when they were 20,” says Hossan. “But these are friendships that actually have lasted till today, and they’re constantly teaching me new lingo and new technology. People like to call me a boomer and I get upset, because I’m not afraid to embrace new things, and I do want to keep learning, even if it takes me some time. It’s all about being willing to share and learn from each other to find common ground.”

Top or Bottom? (2004)

Change is the only constant, and if anything, the world and the scene has changed almost entirely since the earlier two shows, including how Haresh is now also helming the show’s direction, compared to previously, where TNS co-Artistic Director Alvin Tan took the reins for Mardi Gras and Top or Bottom. “To be honest, I’ve never been a silent playwright to begin with, and I’ll give my input regardless of who is directing,” says Haresh. “The directors I’ve worked with have to be secure with that, and now that I’m handling this alone, I feel like it’s still very much the same thing. I also have an assistant director, which helps give me an extra set of eyes.”

“What I think has really changed is the fact that TNS is no longer able to rehearse in our usual Black Box space at Marine Parade. It’s nice that we now have windows to see what’s happening in the outside world, but it really does make a world of difference having our own space,” says Haresh. “But the truth is, very few companies have that kind of privilege in Singapore, and we thought, if we were going to pay rent, we might as well get a proper space. So in the same vein as Cake and Pangdemonium, we decided to go with an industrial space where we are now. We’ve been here for a year now, and one thing we can no longer do is create set pieces for the performance space so early, so we’ve had to change our working process, and can only check on the set maybe 3 days before the show. It’s up to us to find collaborators we can trust, and put that trust in the process, and make adjustments closer to premiere if anything needs changing.”

Top or Bottom? (2004)

Even with all the change, coming back and revisiting these characters has been easy for Haresh. “I’ve known these characters for a long time, and for the process of creating this script, rather than devising it with the actors, I came into the process with a script already written,” says Haresh. “My goal was to showcase the complexity and nuance to both older people and gay people, and so, beyond Roddy, Kumar and Hossan, I also sought out the new, younger actors. As a playwright, I know that there’s a generational divide, but also have to be empathetic of both sides. I can’t just dismiss the new generation as ‘snowflakes’ – I want to understand why pronouns or mental health are so important, and try to bring that out during rehearsals, where we resolve tensions by looking to learn from each other.”

Top or Bottom? (2004)

That learning process applies as well to his actors. “There are no full stops to a relationship – it’s important to keep going and make an effort,” says Kumar. “We know yes, we’re ‘old gays’ and have accepted that fact. In my own shows, I also try to make sure there’s some degree of education – I don’t understand pronouns, but I’m trying, in order to cut back on the conflict. My own nephews and nieces are educating me about tech, and when it comes to comedy, yes, some of the younger drag queens do have an attitude, but that’s why when you find the ones you can work with, you keep them close and keep working with them.”

“Coming back to theatre, it’s very different from stand-up. While it’s nice to be back onstage as an actor, I do feel like it’s a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices. It’s very time-consuming for one thing – I do rehearsals in the day and then perform my comedy sets at night,” says Kumar. “There’s a lot of mental preparation to do, and I do know. have to pace myself – and even take care of my two dogs in between. It takes a lot of discipline. And it’s a very different challenge from stand–up, which requires you to let go, make fun of yourself, and leave your ego behind.”

Mardi Gras (2003)

Meanwhile, Hossan is no stranger to theatre, working extensively with Sing’theatre on various musicals, and slips back into his role easily. “This actually marks my 30th year in theatre, and I started off in 1993 with TNS’ Off Centre, so it’s a full circle moment. I know my character of Faith very well, and it’s more a matter of working through the nuances. It’s been a joy during rehearsals to work with my cast, and extending what I know of him, increasing his depth and just enjoying the process,” says Hossan. “After leaving stand-up with Hossan-AH!, I’ve been exploring more directing and TV work. And I think at this point, I realise that I just enjoy growing and learning new things, and being here is so different from working on a musica, and such a warm and familiar feeling coming back into acting.”

“Hossan is a very good dramatic actor,” adds Haresh. “Even when I increase the degree of difficulty, he’s always raring to take it on, and often succeeds. Kumar on the other hand, excels with his improvisational work and physicality. Sometimes, all it takes it for him to give a look rather than even having to say the line, and he creates the potential for plenty of visual gags. It’s a lot of adjustments we make, but working together with them has been a very good learning process for all of us.”

Top or Bottom? (2004)

On the topic of living in a post 377A world, the actors respond to what might change, and whether it’s possible to live as an out and proud queer person now. “I think that there’s still a lot of parents who would be unable to accept a queer child, but for the new generation of parents, I think they could possibly learn to accept things,” says Kumar. “As for myself, I don’t think I carry a rainbow flag, and don’t consider myself an activist. But there came a point in Malaysia where they stopped me from going onstage because of my sexuality, even though my script had passed. It made me angry that they were mixing both my lifestyle and my work.”

“After all, your sexuality has nothing to do with what you produce,” adds Hossan. “It shouldn’t matter who I sleep with. Yet even on radio for example, any form of representation is still very restricted – there’s a form you have to sign, that you’re not allowed to mention homosexuality, lesbianism, transsexuality, and in the same sentence, rape, incest, pedophilia and necrophilia as positive lifestyles. Which is crazy, because the latter few are straight up crimes!”

“Singapore isn’t the friendliest place when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, especially with so many structural problems. We lack the education in schools, and don’t have any legislation to protect queer youth,” says Haresh. “Like what Hossan said, we don’t even have representation on mainstream media – I remember when the Ellen show was on, they censored out any mention of her wife, or even on a home makeover show, they couldn’t show or had to censor a gay couple who was featured.”

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

And that is why the representation that is so lacking has to come up through other means, in this case, theatre. “I wrote this play to bring in some form of representation of what it means to be gay in a Singaporean context,” says Haresh. “But I also don’t want it to have the burden of representation, and for it to allow us to show gay people as sometimes fun, sometimes shallow, sometimes self-absorbed, as well as open, compassionate and caring. It’s really a play where old friends have gotten together again to put on, and for the audience to enjoy themselves and get some laughs.”

“There are going to be so many moments in the show which are so relatable, regardless of whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not. This isn’t for the ‘pink dollar’, we’re doing it because we’re friends with Haresh, and that we want to help him out. To the younger gays watching, I hope that they’ll learn to be patient, and understand how different their lives are compared to ours, and finds something in the show that resonates with them.”

“I’m in no position to give any advice, but I do think and hope that people come away from this knowing that everyone deserves to be treated equal, and to be treated with kindness,” says Hossan. “As theatremakers, we are the vehicles, the messengers to bring audiences on this journey, to laugh with us, cry with us, and when they go home, hopefully to reflect on it, and learn from it.”

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Old Gaze runs from 8th to 12th March 2023 at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets available here

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