Culture Vulture: Nostalgic memories of theatre studies

Victoria Junior College alumni bring their experience as theatre students into their work

We tend to throw the term "nostalgia" around quite loosely in Singapore.

Over the past few years, we have stuck it on anything vaguely analogue or old- school, whether it's turning mosaic playgrounds or "five stones" into chic, stylish jewellery, or giving crusty conservation spaces a hip makeover.

The word nostalgia has its roots in Greek, taken from the words "nostos", which means homecoming, and "algos", which means pain.

In the late 18th century, the word was assembled in modern Latin to mean an acute homesickness, one so strong that it could even be considered a disease.

Nostalgia didn't start out as the gentle yearning for the past we now associate it with. It was a severe jolt to the heart.

Two weekends ago, I took part in a cosy panel discussion inspired by the wonderful Theatre Memories project, co-curated by Jennifer Lim and Annie Jael Kwan.

The project aims to collect the personal memories of theatre practitioners and put them together in the form of an exhibition in conjunction with SG50 - arguably the most extreme embodiment of today's interpretation of "nostalgia", with its deluge of rose- tinted retrospective shows and exhibitions.

But the word struck me quite differently at this filmed discussion when it was used by Mr Rey Buono, the pioneering American educator who helped set up Victoria Junior College's theatre studies and drama A-level programme in 1989 - the first of its kind to enter mainstream educational institutions here.

He left the school in 1996, but not before influencing hundreds of theatre studies students, many of whom form the backbone of our cultural industry today.

They include actress and former Nominated MP Janice Koh, Cake Theatrical Productions founder Natalie Hennedige, prominent entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow, former artistic director of The Substation Noor Effendy Ibrahim, actress Michelle Chong, film-maker Kelvin Tong, Life! arts editor Clarissa Oon - the list goes on.

Mr Buono had an uphill task when it came to establishing that pilot theatre studies course, but many more schools carry the theatre studies programme today and the School of the Arts has also made arts education more palatable to the mainstream.

A few of us alumni had gathered to discuss the theatre studies programme and how it had added to the sweep of Singapore theatre history, as well as shaped our lives in the arts. I confess: It is the singular reason why I do what I do as a theatre journalist and reviewer.

I had no prior contact with theatre as a teenager, but absolutely loved literature. I obsessed over my battered copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which we studied at O-level, and had early existential crises over lines such as: "Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

When I discovered that Victoria Junior College offered a theatre course, I devoured every inch of its formerly poorly maintained website. I hardly slept that night. I had to do this course, I thought. I needed to, even though I had no idea why.

Today, I still feel a tingle of excitement when the lights go down before a show and we are thrust into darkness, because it reminds me of how the lights went down in our shabby little rehearsal studio, blacked out to perfection, a darkness so inky you could not see your fingers in front of your face.

At the Theatre Memories session, we exchanged stories about entering the world of the theatre for the very first time, of realising we had a safe space in which to explore what we were passionate about, but also to confront the things we feared the most.

It was the only subject that required us to actively collaborate with others to create something from scratch, to learn to work with people we sometimes didn't get along with (i.e. felt like strangling).

We laughed about climbing the school gate to get back into school on weekends just so we could work on our plays and disbelieving parents who were unconvinced that we were voluntarily going back to school and staying up late to do work for theatre class.

The work we created was both angsty and gutsy, and almost always socially conscious: the Tiananmen Square incident, utopias and dystopias, explorations of sexuality and, in the case of the A-level production my classmates and I created, a small study of mortality and the abandonment of the elderly in Singapore.

Under the firm but gentle guidance of our teachers - the incredibly inspiring and long-suffering British educator John Lofthouse, as well as Mr Buono's former student Joanne Poon - my classmates and I visited the neighbourhoods around our school to observe and speak with elderly residents who were either living by themselves in tiny flats or simply passing the long afternoons, alone and forgotten, at nearby coffee shops.

We all returned to the rehearsal studio in tears. Bit by bit, we crafted a piece about six elderly friends who gather to meet year after year, gradually revealing their own personal histories and small sadnesses. I hope we did them justice.

My father, who had been largely disapproving of his teenage daughter's impulsive decision to study theatre, came for our public performance of the work after our A levels. I could hear him roaring with laughter in the crowd; later, audience members came up to say that they had cried at the end of our piece, set outdoors under a mango tree on the school's premises.

But best of all, my father told me that he finally understood what I had been doing for the past two years.

It seems fitting that the very first thing we learnt about theatre was about the ancient Greeks and of Aristotle's Poetics, that theatre wielded the power of catharsis, from the Greek words of "kathairein", to cleanse, and "katharos", to purify or to purge.

Drama, in its earliest forms, was meant to be so visceral that one could go through great emotional release as a tiny spectator among thousands.

We went right through that baptism of fire and I think many of us still feel that great pull of deep, almost physical homesickness when we remember our days as theatre students, when we were learning how to make fire.

I think many of us have been trying, in our own ways, to bring our experience as theatre students into the work that we do.

One of my classmates now teaches theatre studies at another junior college. Another, a psychologist, uses elements of drama therapy to help her young charges open up.

While not all of us eventually joined the arts industry, we all agreed: There are very few things in life that made our heart ache with the pleasurable, bittersweet "algos" of the theatre, our "nostos" - our home.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

For more information about the Theatre Memories project, go to theatrememories.wordpress.com