30 years of making theatre

The Necessary Stage team comprises (clockwise from left) Azy, Karmen Wong, Haresh Sharma, Mish'aal, Melissa Lim, Irma Suzanna Ruslan, Edlyn Ng, Alvin Tan and Jezamine Tan.
The Necessary Stage team comprises (clockwise from left) Azy, Karmen Wong, Haresh Sharma, Mish'aal, Melissa Lim, Irma Suzanna Ruslan, Edlyn Ng, Alvin Tan and Jezamine Tan.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Sakinah Dollah and Abdul Latiff Abdullah in the original staging of Off Centre in 1993.
Sakinah Dollah and Abdul Latiff Abdullah in the original staging of Off Centre in 1993.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE
Paddy Chew.
Aidli “Alin” Mosbit and Chua Enlai in Fundamentally Happy.
Aidli “Alin” Mosbit and Chua Enlai in Fundamentally Happy.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE
Siti Khalijah in Gemuk Girls.
Siti Khalijah in Gemuk Girls.PHOTO: SIRIUSART
Sharda Harrison (left) and Koh Wan Ching in Manifesto.
Sharda Harrison (left) and Koh Wan Ching in Manifesto.PHOTO: SURROUND

The Necessary Stage's productions have pushed the definition of theatre-making and challenged audiences on social issues. Here are five of its key works devised by Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan.

Off Centre (1993)

This drama about two people coping with mental illness was originally commissioned by the Ministry of Health, which withdrew financial support after Sharma refused to soften his portrayal of mental maladies.

It struck such a chord, however, that it was made into an experimental feature film, adapted into a television movie and, in 2007, was the first Singapore play to be offered as part of the O-level literature syllabus.

It has been restaged multiple times, most recently in 2015 for Esplanade's The Studios:fifty celebration of iconic Singaporean theatre.

  • Upcoming productions

  • Unless otherwise specified, the plays are written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan.

    Actor, Forty

    What: New commission for Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts. A one-woman show about a fictional actress trying to hide her age, played by Yeo Yann Yann. Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Feb 3 to 6 Admission: $38 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

  • Those Who Can't, Teach

    What: First staged in 1990, this play looks at the private lives of teachers. Where: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street When: March 9 to 19 Admission: $28 to $45 from Sistic

  • Family Secrets

    What: A double-bill restaging of two plays about family issues involving seniors.

    Don't Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer's Disease Association, while Don't Know, Don't Care, about dealing with terminal illness, was commissioned by HCA Hospice Care. Directed by Peter Sau, presented by TNS' Theatre For Seniors outreach programme.

    Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio When: March 10 to 12 Admission: $28 from Sistic

  • Esplanade Presents The Studios: Margins

    What: The Esplanade's annual season of The Studios supports eclectic and experimental work.

    For the first time, it focuses on the work of a single playwright. Mandarin troupe Nine Years Theatre translates and stages Fundamentally Happy, a play about paedophilia that was first staged in 2006.

    Malay troupe Teater Ekamatra translates and stages the 1994 play Hope, about the desperation and hopes of Singaporeans.

    Timothy Nga directs This Chord And Others (1991), a comedy about friendship, race and religion.

    Artist Loo Zihan reworks the 2015 piece, With/Out, which reimagined TNS' Completely With/Out Character.

    Also featured is a work-in-progress based on 10 of Sharma's texts, directed by Koh Wan Ching.

    Where: Esplanade When: March 16 to April 14 Admission: $35 from Sistic

  • Being Haresh Sharma

    What: A new work devised and directed by Natalie Hennedige, inspired by Sharma's scripts.

    Where: Drama Centre Theatre When: June 29 to July 2 Admission: To be confirmed

  • The Orange Production

    What: A showcase of original plays from young artists invited to "jam" with TNS under its initiative, The Orange Playground. Where: The Necessary Stage Black Box, 278 Marine Parade Road When: Aug 11 to 13 Admission: To be confirmed

Completely With/Out Character (1999)

This docu-theatre monologue was a first-person account of living with HIV in Singapore, devised by performer Paddy Chew, in collaboration with Sharma and Tan.

Chew died a few months after the production. He was the first individual in Singapore to publicly come out as HIV-positive.

Fundamentally Happy (2006)

This play about the consequences of child abuse won Best Production and Best Script at the 2007 Life Theatre Awards.

It was adapted into a film directed by Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin, which was shown at sold-out screenings during the 2015 Southeast Asian Film Festival at the Singapore Art Museum.

Gemuk Girls (2008)

The title is a pun on the then-popular Gilmore Girls sitcom - Gemuk means fat in Malay.

The play is an honest and hard-hitting look at the effects of political detention on the detainee's family. It won awards for Best Production, Best Script and Best Actor (Najib Soiman as the detainee) at the 2009 Life Theatre Awards.

Manifesto (2016)

Staged 22 years after Tan and Sharma endured condemnation for attending a workshop conducted by a well-known Brazilian Marxist, Manifesto was an epic production about the artist's place in civil society. TNS collaborated with Mandarin troupe Drama Box on a show that used multimedia, art installations and theatre to put viewers in the shoes of fictional Singaporean artists from 1956 to 2024.

The then Media Development Authority gave Manifesto an R18 rating "as it deals with socio-political issues that are more appropriate for a mature audience".


1980s: National University of Singapore undergraduate Alvin Tan founds a drama group called ! - pronounced silently - to stage a Woody Allen play.

1987: The Necessary Stage (TNS) is registered as a society.

1990: Playwright Haresh Sharma becomes the company's first full-time employee.

1992: TNS becomes a company, aided by the National Arts Council's theatre-in-residence scheme. It sets up Theatre For Youth and takes drama to schools.

1994: TNS starts a Community Service Branch to take plays and workshops to heartland areas at low prices.

2000: TNS moves into the new Marine Parade Community Building, its current home. It is given about $1 million in funding over two years by the National Arts Council.

2001: TNS starts Playwright's Cove to nurture local playwrights.

2007: Sharma's play, Off Centre, about mental illness, is the first Singaporean play to be offered as an O-level text.

2008: TNS starts a training programme, Theatre For Seniors, for those aged 50 and older. It trains participants in various aspects of theatre-making and arts administration.

2014: Tan receives the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest cultural honour which recognises individuals who have contributed greatly to Singapore's arts scene.

2015: Sharma receives the Cultural Medallion.

2017: Esplanade's The Studios season focuses on Sharma's work. It is the first time this annual season of theatre is highlighting a single playwright.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline '30 years of making theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe