Culture Vulture

Theatre's generation gap

Playwright Joel Tan's initial detractors found his voice and style bafflingly plot-less.
Playwright Joel Tan's initial detractors found his voice and style bafflingly plot-less. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Millennial theatre-makers are unabashedly confessional, which an older generation of practitioners may find alienating

Entitled. Self-absorbed. Bratty. Selfish. Privileged. Blinkered. Navel-gazing. An easily bruised Strawberry Generation. These are just some of a very deep barrel of labels that have been pasted on millennial theatre-makers over the past several years.

When young director Tan Liting decided to devise a play about the experiences of young actors trying to find parts in Singapore, coming clean about the challenges they faced and bemoaning a lack of opportunities, these labels quickly turned into flaming arrows. She had expected some opposition, but nothing quite so damning.

The short, one-night-only performance staged a few weeks ago at Centre 42 quickly became a talking point in the theatre community.

Are millennial theatre-makers blatantly self-indulgent - or powerfully vulnerable?

"Their work is just like their personal blog," older practitioners have complained to me, "it doesn't contain any urgency or tackle any of the weighty issues of before."

What's more, some asked, how could these young practitioners even claim to have struggled?

The older generation of theatre-makers were the trailblazers, the torchbearers... the subsequent generation of practitioners were practical infrastructure- builders.''

Yet another cited Kuo Pao Kun, who had said: "I would always discourage people from coming into the theatre."

Surviving in the theatre takes perseverance and resilience, they all said, traits they felt many millennials seemed to lack.

As Singapore's arts industry has evolved and professionalised over the past few decades, increasing numbers of the younger generation have turned to the arts as a viable career option. The days where artists would have to hold down a "proper" full-time job in the day and scramble to make it to rehearsals at night are shrinking rapidly.

Arts schools here are churning out large, eager crops of students; in 2013, 5,409 students were enrolled in full-time tertiary arts courses, compared with 1,860 in 2004.

In 10 years, the number of artist hopefuls has tripled. Compared to the small circle of theatre artists creating work in the earlier years, there is now a ready supply of fresh graduates vying for a pool of jobs and opportunities that have remained relatively small.

Older theatre practitioners who first made headway in the 1980s have found themselves working with younger artists with no cultural memory of the late Kuo or William Teo, or of a time with a more imminent threat of censorship and zero funding, when Singapore theatre thrived on a sort of celebratory ferociousness and bite.

The problems that younger practitioners have, as a result of this dramatic growth of the industry, are very different from the problems of before.

These digital natives have come of age with the Internet and social media, growing up alongside an invention that has become another limb. It is a platform of expression that is virtually limitless, with an extraordinary reach that can also feel incredibly intimate. I think many young artists have, consciously or subconsciously, brought this sense of closeness into the work they create.

Many of the plays I have seen by younger practitioners have a penchant for the verbatim and drawing directly from real life.

Earlier this year, 27-year-old Agnes Christina used Indonesian folklore to tell her coming-of-age story in a tender, revealing production at The Substation, part of a directors' mentorship programme. Four years ago, Shiv Tandan wrote The Good, The Bad And The Sholay while he was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, a hilarious story of immigration and growing up told in tandem with the enormously popular guns-and-action Bollywood movie Sholay. Checkpoint Theatre took him under its wing and co-produced the show.

It takes an odd but compelling mix of great confidence and great insecurity to say: I am not perfect. I have failed many times. But my experience of life is worth telling - not just to my immediate circle of friends and family, but also to the world.

Of course, I am not advocating that millennials should actually be rude, demanding or self-centred. That's just unacceptable behaviour. But I think that many of them possess a generosity and honesty that is unprecedented.

I recently attended a forum at the Intercultural Theatre Institute that featured three chronological panels of theatre practitioners: the "emergents", the "sandwich class", and the "old guard" which, put together, told the story of contemporary Singapore theatre.

It struck me then that the older generation of theatre-makers carried with them a sort of bright-eyed idealism that art could change the world, a sort of fierce activist flame, fanned within a tightknit community, that kept them going forward. They were the trailblazers, the torchbearers, unshackled by any sort of expectation - because they were the first ones there.

The subsequent generation of practitioners were practical infrastructure-builders. They saw gaps in the theatre scene and plugged them, focusing on issues such as succession, training and mentorship. They were sceptical of art's impact on society, but healthily so, enough to check a growing sense of comfort in the scene as arts funding from the Government spiked and there were more platforms to showcase work.

The newest generation of practitioners were weighed down by two things: their own sense of identity and the burden of expectation. They were a generation entering the fray after dozens of theatre icons had made their mark, creating plays that have become, for younger artists, the stuff of legend. How could they separate themselves from the past?

Playwright Joel Tan, 28, for instance, has developed an unmistakable voice and style that detractors initially found bafflingly plot-less. But his sensitivity to dialogue and language was profound. And as he developed in his craft as a writer, so did his plays, growing from what felt like shapelessness to solid, rooted discussions of how to make one's way in the world.

This generation pushes the boundaries in ways that might feel alien to those who have come before. They are rewriting the conventions of genre and have learnt the art of finding the universal in the very specific.

After all, so much of art-making is deeply personal, disguised by metaphor or image but utterly confessional at its core.

Cyril Wong's sensuous, elegant poetry about love often cuts right to the reader's core; the experiences may be his, but somehow, they are ours too.

I hope that this new breed of theatre-makers will hone the growing sophistication of their own stories, and through them, tell the stories of the world around them. The necessary stories, the ones that make us gasp and say: "Look - that's us, on stage."

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline 'Theatre's generation gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe