Cultural Medallion recipient Alvin Tan on finding a Singaporean voice onstage

A theatre director, sculptor and poet each have been awarded Singapore’s highest cultural honour. Life! profiles this year’s Cultural Medallion recipients

Alvin Tan (above), founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage, on creating original classics that could one day be read and studied. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Alvin Tan (above), founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage, on creating original classics that could one day be read and studied. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In an interview about his own achievements, Alvin Tan speaks overwhelmingly little about himself.

The 51-year-old founder and artistic director of one of Singapore's most critically acclaimed theatre companies is characteristically modest, constantly nudging the spotlight onto his collaborators instead.

He tells Life!: "I won't take all the compliments. I think there were a lot of very calculated steps taken to start The Necessary Stage. It was being in the right place, at the right time."

Born out of a group of university friends in 1987, The Necessary Stage has since presented more than 100 original plays. It is known for its grittily realistic portrayals of Singapore and for wrestling with social issues head on - from political detention (Gemuk Girls, 2009) to paedophilia (Fundamentally Happy, 2006). Both clinched Production of the Year at the Life! Theatre Awards.

Even as Singapore theatre began to professionalise in the 1980s, directors often lacked confidence in taking on home-grown work and shaping it for the stage. Which is exactly what Tan decided to do. He says: "For me, it was because I was very envious, reading Shakespeare, to see all that and finding we didn't have a Singapore equivalent."

In 1992, he quit teaching literature at Raffles Institution to become a full-time theatre practitioner.

The Necessary Stage has become well known for its highly collaborative process of theatre-making, where original plays are created based on deep research, intensive improvisations and input from the creative team.

This is where Tan receives the warmest of accolades - from playwright Haresh Sharma, 49, his closest collaborator and twin driving force of The Necesary Stage. Sharma says: "Alvin has a way of erasing his presence; he directs such that the actors shine, the play reads well and the design is clean. His works don't scream out loud: Look at me, I am the director, look how good I am!

"If anything, he is the opposite - he likes being behind the scenes, whether as a director or as an activist, always allowing others to shine in the spotlight."

Tan has become a key figure also because of his strong stances in advocacy, arts education and mentorship. Award-winning directors Chong Tze Chien and Natalie Hennedige all count him as an essential mentor.

Under his charge, The Necessary Stage has been tireless in its efforts to nurture audiences and practitioners, whether through its Theatre For Youth and Community initiative, or its Triangle Project where donors buy tickets for beneficiaries to the company's productions. This year, Tan spearheaded The Orange Playground, an experimental programme for practitioners.

Internationally, The Necessary Stage has staged its works in at least 20 cities, from Seoul to Sziget (in Hungary) and worked with many foreign counterparts.

It became the first theatre group to have a play selected as an O and N-level literature text. That was in 2006 for Off Centre (1990), a gut-wrenching play about how mental health issues affect two characters and their families. When the play was first staged, government funding had been withdrawn after Sharma refused to soften his portrayal of mental illness.

Tan counts the recognition for Off Centre as one of the high points of his career: "I thought it was going to happen after my lifetime."

He adds: "That was why I started The Necessary Stage - because I was reading Shakespeare footnotes in order to understand it. I was hoping in my heart of hearts that one day, others would have to read our footnotes.

"The cultural confidence grew. But it's not just one work - it's years of work."

Not all was rosy. In 1994, the group narrowly avoided closing down after this newspaper reported that Tan and Sharma had attended workshops on forum theatre and drama therapy in New York conducted by theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, a Brazilian Marxist. The implication was that the group was using theatre as a political tool. Eventually, according to Tan, the authorities told The Necessary Stage's board of directors: "Your guys are clean. They're not Marxists, they're idealists."

The group has weathered this, as well as a period of no funding for forum theatre, an interactive form of theatre for social change, which they pioneered here.

Tan says: "I ask myself all the time - if you don't see change in your lifetime, would you still do the work?

"In the past, I used to feel guilty that a work wouldn't effect social change or impact policy. But then I thought, no, it doesn't have to be one work. Because it's not one work that changed me. It's an accumulation of works and people you meet."


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