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Theatre veteran Alvin Tan speaks out about angry artists and activists

By Elaine EeEvents - 27 October 2014 1:41 PM | Updated 3:04 PM

Theatre veteran Alvin Tan speaks out about angry artists and activists

Founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage, Alvin Tan, deserves a Cultural Medallion. For 27 years, the 51-year-old and resident playwright Haresh Sharma, 49, have led one Singapore’s most established theatre companies, and created more than 100 original theatrical works. 

President Tony Tan awarded the Cultural Medallion, the highest accolade for arts practitioners in Singapore, to Alvin Tan on 16 October at the Istana.

Throughout the evening Tan was flooded with congratulatory words from guests at the ceremony, as he made his way around the reception halls, sometimes accompanied by his parents – a touching sight.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that I was receiving a Cultural Medallion, and filled a deep sense of gratitude,” Tan told inSing. 

“With this endorsement, I now feel like I have some authority. But it’s not like you’re bought over by this. Society in Singapore has become bigger, and previous winners, like Ivan Heng, Thirunalan Sasitharan, Ong Keng Sen and Amanda Heng, continue to speak out.”

For Tan, speaking out means exploring different points of views, not just maintaining an oppositional stance.

“A lot of artists and activists like to be oppositional because this is where powerful theatre can happen, this is where you can speak truth to power,” he explained.

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Tan (front row, second from right) with other Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award winners as well as President Tony Tan Keng Yam (front row, fourth from left). Photo: National Arts Council

“But while I include the oppositional, I don’t harp on it. I also look at other tangents, which are also powerful. For example, in ‘Good People’, which is a play about the consumption of marijuana and the death penalty, we use philosophy and religion to tackle the issue of Singapore’s mandatory death penalty for drugs.”

In this play, a Hindu woman dying from bone cancer takes marijuana for palliative purposes. A urine sample exposes the fact that she is doing this, and she could face the death penalty.

She says to her nurse, who is a Muslim, and a Catholic medical director of the hospital looking after her, that while their gods might not agree with what she is doing, and while the gods of the politicians might not agree either, she is taking marijuana so she can rest for the remaining days of her life. She also maintains that the consumption of marijuana is part of worshipping lord Shiva, and so it is her cultural and divine right to do so.

A scene from 'Good People' (2007)

Tan said: “Instead of hammering the policy makers, we explore this issue in others ways that are still true. It’s not that we don’t want to get into a difficult position with the authorities; if you do a play that is binary and oppositional, the play is not a good play. You need nuance. We want to make people aware of their own biased position and be able to critique themselves.” 

With access to up to S$80,000 in project money in the Cultural Medallion Fund, Tan now hopes to spread the word about The Necessary Stage’s methodology.

Developed over the years of the company’s practice, this methodology informs the creative process and is used primarily for theatre though it can also be applied to music and dance.

“I want to use part of the award to publish a book about our methodology, and get accounts from our different collaborators. This method is made in Singapore, and evolved from us dealing with different cultures and languages.

"For example, we use cards numbered from one to 10. We then have 10 character traits, like being vulgar or being spiritual or patriotic.

"Actors then pick a card for each character trait, and the value of the card reflects the degree to which your character has that trait – 10 being the most intense. The actor has to put these traits in a cauldron and create a character; you have to improvise before the character emerges in a cohesive way. 

"We have created many plays this way. In ‘Model Citizens’, we used this method and ended up with 20 characters, which we then distilled to the three you see in the play.

“This will be part of my legacy for younger actors,” he said proudly.

A scene from 'Model Citizens' (2010)

And Tan certainly hopes actors taking up the torch will be more experimental in theatre and strengthen the fringe that he so champions – having been a co-artistic director of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival with Sharma for 10 years. 

“Singapore theatre is safe; it wants the audiences, so innovative works are not coming out as much and we take foreign works that have been tested, do well and get good reviews. We are subservient to market forces,” he said. 

“It wasn’t always like this though,” he continued. “When local theatre first started, it was more raw and diverse. There was only the fringe; there was no mainstream.

"Now Singapore mainstream has come about, with acts like the Dim Sum Dollies – and it’s a good sign – but we must keep space for the fringe and strengthen it.”

To this end, The Necessary Stage has started The Orange Playground, an incubator where artists may freely experiment and take risks within the creative process. 

And now that Tan is armed with a Cultural Medallion, he is in an even better place to make what he wants happen.