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20something playwrights highlighted at new theatre fest

Artists in their 20s are given free rein to come up with works for the upcoming The Twenty- Something Theatre Festival

Theatre practitioner Tan Kheng Hua, organiser of The Twenty- Something Theatre Festival, has a fascination with people of that age group.

"Their energy is different. The minute I say something, they just get it. Like when I said, 'Please activate your social media to help sell tickets', voom, they just knew what it's like. Just like my daughter," says the 53-year-old, who is married to actor Lim Yu-Beng. Their daughter, Shi-An, is 18.

For months last year, she hit the road with playwright Joel Tan, 29, touring world capitals such as Beijing, New York and London for Singapore: Inside Out, a travelling showcase of the Republic's creative talents.

The year before, she curated the Sin-Pen Colony, a mini-Singapore festival within Penang's George Town Festival, which included appearances by young Singaporean music acts such as Inch Chua and The Sam Willows.

Tan says: "Through my work with them, I got a whiff of what 20- something artists are like. So I was curious to know: What would happen if they got the chance to do what they want? If they had no mentorship and if they did not have to follow the style or artistic direction of a theatre company."

That inspired her to write to the National Arts Council with a funding proposal. Its approval has led to the inaugural Twenty-Something Theatre Festival. To be held at the Goodman Arts Centre, it will run on two weekends, between Thursdays and Sundays, in mid-June.

The festival will be headlined by two full-length plays from Joel Tan and playwright-director Irfan Kasban, 28. Both were invited by Tan Kheng Hua, who says she chose them for "this energy they have".

Their careers have been rising steadily.

Joel Tan, an associate artist with Checkpoint Theatre, has penned several plays, ranging from the Wild Rice pantomime The Emperor's New Clothes (2015) to dramas such as Checkpoint Theatre's The Way We Go (2014).

Last year, Irfan was named one of Life's Rising Stars Under 30 and his 2013 play, Tahan, was part of the Esplanade's Singapore theatre retrospective, The Studios: fifty.

Tan Kheng Hua did not specify a theme for the festival, instead encouraging them to write about "whatever they want", and she stresses that she does not interfere in the creative direction of the plays.

For playwright Tan, that hands- off approach meant that he could afford to experiment.

His play, Cafe, has a Beckett-like concept: It follows a conversation between two patrons in a cafe as an unknown, impending catastrophe draws near.

"I don't quite know how to describe it myself. I'm trying to capture my feelings about life in Singapore - how we cling to the trappings of normality, even as everything is falling apart in the world outside. With this play, I'm trying things with naturalism and playing with form," he says.

Tan Kheng Hua also held an open call for entries for Fresh!, a segment of the festival that features plays from budding playwrights.

This drew 69 submissions, which was whittled down to six by a panel consisting of established playwrights such as The Finger Players' artistic director Chong Tze Chien and The Necessary Stage's resident playwright Haresh Sharma.

Sharma said the overall writing quality was "high" and that the selected plays "captured the distinct voices of the playwrights and their points of view".

The six plays were: Long Weekend by Kenneth Chia, National Memory Project by Johnny Jon Jon, The Cave by Annabel Tan, Curry Puff by Kimberly Arriola, Balek Kampung by David Khoo and Tuition by Euginia Tan.

Arriola's play focuses on the story of Robiah Lia Caniago, an Indonesian woman who was fined $3,000 for selling curry puffs without a licence last year. She could not pay the fine and was jailed for five days.

The playwright says: "Putting aside rules and regulations allowed me to focus on the art and what I wanted to share with the audience, but without a mentor, you are pretty much feeling around in the dark, not knowing if what you've written has any value. I guess that is the mark of a true playwright as playwriting has always been a lonesome vocation."

The festival is not just for theatre lovers. There is also The Festival InstaGala, sponsored by Cafe Melba, which includes talks, food stalls and music performances.

True to the festival's spirit, all of these events will be led by 20somethings. Speakers include yoga teacher Jasmine Chong, 27, and online market place Carousell co-founder Quek Siu Rui, 28.

Tan Kheng Hua says: "I wanted to give other people a sort of affordable lifestyle entry point, so that they can come and hang out at the festival. That's something we rarely do in Singapore nowadays."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Peek into the minds of the 20s'. Print Edition | Subscribe