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Activate: Remembering is not Nostalgia

By Adeeb Fazah


Adeeb Fazah
, an early-career theatre-maker, meets Robin Loon and Casey Lim - two veterans of Singapore theatre who set up Centre 42, which focuses on the creation, documentation and promotion of text-based works for the Singapore stage. Robin and Casey are preparing for a multi-presentation production at the 2023 iteration of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) titled SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia. This programme has three components: The Vault: Past Perfect, which draws on practitioners' memories of Singapore theatre in the 1990s; and Studio and Headline Acts, which feature new work by new voices. Adeeb hopes to write an article about their work on this project. This is what happened.


PROLOGUE: SEARCHING FOR BOLTS FROM THE BLUE

No particular time or place. ROBIN LOON is reading from a script by Serene Chen[1] off a laptop. ADEEB FAZAH and CASEY LIM watch.

ROBIN
“Robin asked me Why do The Vault: Past Perfect? I guess I’m looking to be surprised. What do I mean by this? I must say my experiences training and working in the 90s have really spoiled me. I was exposed to a barrage of ridiculous experimentations that no one today in their right minds will agree to. And yet I – and some of my colleagues here – will tell you that we not only agreed to them, but we built a lot of ourselves on them.

Having gone through all that mayhem in the 90s, I have to say nothing much surprises me now. There’s a lot of good work out there, but not much of the work surprises me anymore. But I guess old habits do die hard. And I’m still living for the surprises, still living to try to breathe like a hollow tube. Every breath taking its journey from my head to my toe, occasionally passing out because of the intensity, but always fully aware and fully committed. I guess the real surprise I found throughout this process in The Vault: Past Perfect is this: That I have not given up looking for that moment to be surprised. That I have not given up completely.”


SCENE 1: SLOUCHING TOWARDS HISTORIES

A meeting room at Centre 42, sometime in April of 2023. CASEY is rearranging some furniture. A knock on the door is heard. Enter ADEEB, with a backpack.

CASEY
Adeeb?

ADEEB
Yes! Casey! I don’t think we’ve properly met…?

A long pause as they both try to recall.

CASEY
No, I don’t think so.

ADEEB
Maybe we’ve said hi, but I don’t think…

CASEY
Not a proper conversation. Probably at one of the…

ADEEB
Centre 42 events. Don’t know which one. There are so many!

Both pull up chairs across the table from each other, but do not sit.

CASEY
Robin is delayed. Something came up and he had to attend to it.

ADEEB
Ah, okay.

CASEY
So tell me about yourself.

ADEEB
I’m a theatre director and drama educator. With The Second Breakfast Company, I am exploring revivals of lesser-known plays from Singapore theatre, and staging them for a contemporary audience. So, plays like The Singapore Trilogy[2] and The Moon is Less Bright[3]. As well as looking at new works by emerging theatre-makers.

CASEY
So, it seems like you’re the right person to talk to us about this project! Have a seat.

Studio A


SCENE 2: MEMORY RESIDES IN US

Later. CASEY and ROBIN are seated at a table. Across from them, ADEEB has begun recording a voice note on his phone. He places the phone on the table. ROBIN pulls out his laptop and begins to set it up.

ADEEB
Okay, so first question, how are you both feeling at present?

ROBIN
A little bit harassed, because I've had a rather busy morning. But other than that…

ROBIN smiles, then turns to CASEY.

Beat.

CASEY
I don't know how to follow up on that! (Chuckling.) I guess the question is not just about this morning, right? I'm fine. I'm good. For this particular project, I'm very excited. But at the same time, it's been very therapeutic for myself as an art-maker.

ADEEB
That's great. Good. Very nice. (Pause.) Why don’t we start by talking about the impetus behind SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia?

There is a long silence as they look at each other politely.

ROBIN
11 years ago, in 2012, Casey Lim and I did something called Casting Back. With the late Christina Sergeant[4], and the omnipotent Nora Samosir[5]. Casey and I, we are very much interested in the art but we are always interested in the artist. It’s the goose, not the egg, right? We’re more interested in the artist. So we interviewed them. It was not verbatim theatre, but a kind of documentary theatre. And as part of that process, it became a little bit more about them talking about their work, specific times, specific productions.

And then I weaved in a parallel narrative about two people taking a trip from the shores of this... unidentified island, only to realise that after the whole trip, they actually never left. But they continued to take the trip anyway, even though they knew there was a chance that they would never leave.

CASEY
Five scenes of that.

ROBIN
Five scenes. Thank you.

So that was called Casting Back. In the same year, we also collaborated on a SIFA production, which is the Chinese version of A Language of Their Own[6]. And then after that, in that same year, the two of us together with Bryan Tan, did another small production based on our memories of Kuo Pao Kun[7] – 2012 was also the 10th anniversary of Pao Kun’s death – called BluePrince.

CASEY
It was a very intense year.

ROBIN
And 2012 was also the year that I was extremely angry, because it was the 40th year of Lim Chor Pee’s Mimi Fan[8]. And nobody did anything about it. If I didn’t teach Singapore English-language theatre, nobody would remember Lim Chor Pee. Nobody will know what the hell Mimi Fan was. So I got upset. All three projects were about remembering. The Chinese version of A Language of Their Own was about remembering the 2006 production that Casey did. And all of them were linked by memory. And the memory was housed in us. And of course, we’re perishables, yeah? The memory will die with us. So I felt extremely angry that nobody wanted to do anything and it was not worth the press picking it up.

ADEEB
That it was not worth anything…

ROBIN
So I started to rally people around me into maybe doing a small little festival remembering Singapore English-language theatre, that for some strange reason, by a twist of fate, became Centre 42.

CASEY chortles under his breath. ROBIN smiles at him.

ROBIN
So my point here is that Centre 42 is about remembering. At least if not remembering, it is about not forgetting.Everybody remembers many different things. But a lot of people forget. So we don’t want people to forget. Or at least we don’t want to give them the reason or excuse to forget, because the documentation is there.

CASEY
It’s not just a case of remembering and forgetting. There is also the intention to erase.

ROBIN
Correct.

CASEY
So what we do is just to stay in the area of “try to remember”.

ROBIN
Yes.

CASEY
And we also honour everybody’s memories.

ROBIN
Correct. And no memory is more valuable than another.

CASEY
Yes.

ROBIN
We’re not anthropologists, but I think at this point with so much forgetting, I’m just sick and tired of people making very false claims that what they are doing is revolutionary, is new.

Silence.

ADEEB
Is there anything you would like to say to future theatre-makers in Singapore?

ROBIN
Do your research.

Silence.

ADEEB
Yes.

ROBIN
I had a student come up to me once, saying “I saw this new play recently, you should go and catch it! It’s called The Singapore Trilogy!”

Beat.

ADEEB
Oh dear…

The Vault: Past Perfect


SCENE 3: UNDERSTANDING A GOLDEN AGE

Later in the interview. ADEEB positions his phone nearer to ROBIN and CASEY to ask about their upcoming production at SIFA 2023.

ADEEB
So how does SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia help us in the act of remembering?

ROBIN
It’s the importance of the oral delivery, to have the person standing in front of you as an eyewitness account, just telling you. Not played by anybody else but themselves.

CASEY
It’s not verbatim theatre, it’s not somebody playing somebody else.

ROBIN
It is just themselves. Call it postdramatic or whatever you want. There’s a certain level of going back to the people who lived it, and the lived experience, and fictionalising and framing it within a theatre context. So there’s not going to be bells and whistles.

What we have now here is a continuation of the methodology that we did in 2012. And a lot of that methodology is quite foundational to a lot of the programmes and platforms in Centre 42. It’s always artists first. We don’t care about how many eggs you lay, we want to make sure that the chicken is the one that gets supported. And that is where we come in. We don’t care about output, we care about outcomes. And outcomes are really something that can actually reside in the person.

ADEEB
Why focus on the 90s?

ROBIN
I’ve always claimed that the golden age of Singapore English-language theatre is from 1985 to 2000. And it’s the golden age for a lot of very good reasons. Academically, I can give you the reasons. But I think qualitatively we wanted to hear from the artists because that’s what we value all the time. We wanted to work with associates who share our beliefs. So we checked with a few people.

I think the fact that we told them, “don’t need to memorise lines, just read”, was a bonus. And I think the ultimate thing that we’re both very gratified by is the amount of social capital that we both have, and the trust that they gave us. And again, that’s why we invest in human beings. It’s the trust. You can’t buy the buy-in.

And our collaborators are very sweet: “So what do you want?” I said, “No, we don’t want anything, we just want you to talk. What is it that you want to do?”

So we had several meetings, and we put everything on the whiteboard.

CASEY
That’s because you are a teacher.

ROBIN
(Beat.) Sort of. And then we see the connections graphically and diagrammatically. After that we changed everything into text.

Headline Acts


SCENE 4: THE PRESENCE OF THE PRESENT

ADEEB presses on to ask about the other parts of SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia.

ADEEB
The other two segments that Joel Tan conceived…

CASEY
With Centre 42 we try to keep it holistic. It's not just about remembering. We understand that there is a future and we have to create new things. That's where Joel Tan’s programmes come in. Creating new text while we…

ROBIN
Take stock.

CASEY
Yes.

ROBIN
But Past Perfect sounds better than Taking Stock.

CASEY
Casting Back and then Taking Stock. No…so ugly.

ROBIN
By the way, Past Perfect comes from a line that Eleanor Wong wrote in The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ[9]. In that, one of the characters says “Don't you know that the past makes the present tense?”

ADEEB
Ooh!

ROBIN
The past always makes the present tense. So we just make the past perfect lah!

CASEY
In Singapore the past always makes the present tense.

Studio B


EPILOGUE: NOSTALGIA & THE NOW
The same meeting room. The interview is coming to a close. ROBIN is reading from a script by Nelson Chia[10] off his laptop. ADEEB and CASEY watch.

ROBIN
“And so back to the question: how can nostalgia be valuable to the future? Here's my offer. As you reminisce and indulge in a sentimental way yearning for a bygone era, you may become keenly aware of how you are shaped by what you have learned. This is because there was an emotional connection between you and the people who've shared today. In the same way, we are also emotionally connected to people of the future. So, what nostalgia could really do is teach us about now.”

ADEEB
Wow… 

ROBIN
It's important for us to remember. And it's important for us not just to be nostalgic, but to really remember.

M.H. Abrams[11] has a wonderful analogy about what literature should be. Literature can either be a mirror or a lamp. If it's a mirror, it reflects reality. If it’s a lamp, it shines light on things that you hitherto did not see. So I think a lot of theatre right now is a mirror, and there's very little lamp. That means nobody dares to shine a light on things that people don't want to see, or have hitherto been invisible.

Being in the theatre, we’ve always been very much aware that there is a sanctioned narrative. And theatre has been – in my opinion – this country's conscience. It will always remind this country: no, there is something else. Or at least, back then. I don't know about right now. Right now it seems more like a mirror than anything else, right?

END.

 

[1] Serene Chen is a Singaporean theatre performer, lecturer, host and voice artist with decades of experience under her belt. She will perform in SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia.

[2] Three plays by Robert Yeo written across the 1980s and 90s, about three friends and the Singapore identity. The plays are published together as The Singapore Trilogy.

[3] A 1963 play about a Singapore family during World War II, by pioneering playwright Goh Poh Seng.

[4] A prolific American theatre director, actress and educator who began working in Singapore theatre in the 1980s.

[5] An award-winning theatre, television and film performer who started working in Singapore theatre in 1979.

[6] A play written by Chay Yew, about sexuality and desire between four men.

[7] A playwright, director and arts activist whose legacy includes the founding of The Theatre Practice and The Substation.

[8] A 1962 play about a Singaporean woman who meets a man in a nightclub. It is written by Lim Chor Pee, who is regarded as Singapore’s pioneering English-language playwright.

[9] A play written by Eleanor Wong in 2006, that pokes fun at freedom of expression and the civil service.

[10] Nelson Chia is an award-winning theatre performer and director from Singapore. He will perform in SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia.

[11] An American literary critic and author of The Mirror and the Lamp..


This response is authored by a writer from Critics Circle Blog.

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