There’s a lot of talk now about the compromises involved in taking state money for arts projects. I agree with a lot of it in principle, because I think there is a special, devious quality in how censorship is channeled through funding in Singapore. And recent comments by NAC leaders have made that very clear.
As someone who works in the theatre in Singapore, and who calls himself a theatre-maker, I always feel specially implicated when these conversations come up because I’m aware that it takes a lot of money to make theatre and that, for the most part, a lot of this money is from the state. And when calls, from poet Koh Jee Leong, for example, to reconsider what we in the theatre can do to wean ourselves off state funding to make work with more integrity, I feel even more troubled.
Now that I’ve had a turn producing a few shows of my own, I see things fairly clearly. There are entire shows I’ve done that are fully run on state money. This money goes towards covering technical costs like our sets, props and costumes and fees for stage management, crew, actors, designers, directors and writers. It goes towards covering meals for our cast and crew, towards printing scripts, towards equipment like tape for stage markings, transport for set pieces. Where we’ve not been lucky enough to get our venues sponsored, this money goes towards paying off the venue. Another big cost is paying off landlords for rehearsal space. Sometimes we use each other’s homes, but that’s not always practical.
And this isn’t the big leagues. This is stuff that ends up getting seen by maybe 300-600 people over a weekend run; it’s stuff that’s super pared-down and small in scale. On some of these shows, it’s not uncommon to do shows where nobody is paid, and all the funding is channeled mainly into paying off the venue and sourcing for set-pieces. What’s always important is getting the work out, doing the show and learning as much as we can: that’s why many people do it.
Somewhere down the line, you realize that this model has limitations: it isn’t sustainable, for one, and, after a while, the good actors stop doing work for free because no one should have to work for free. Same for designers, directors, stage managers, crew, anybody who wants to call theatre work and not a hobby. So then comes a major re-evaluation of your priorities in a production, and it’s not always as simple as saying “go smaller”.
What I’m trying to say is that making theatre in Singapore is expensive. And we’re not making it expensive just because we want to. It’s expensive because even on the smallest of shows, a lot of talent is involved. The monolithic “show” is really a collage of multiple efforts.
Does it have to be costly? No. We can move away from expensive down-town theatres, make our work in alleys, in each other’s homes, in parks and restaurants. We can agree to work for less if the work galvanizes us. We can agree to these things. In the stoic refusal of state monies, we can respond to our material conditions, make work that is pared down, make work that costs close to nothing to put up. It would be amazing work. And part of my own interests in the coming years is to find more opportunities to do this.
But I also recognize that it’s a very specific theatre-making experience. What if we crave something else? What if we long to work different muscles? Create different experiences? How much can we grow? Are we content to work at that level for the long haul? No doubt some people can, but not everyone should have to, and we certainly shouldn’t mandate that everyone does.
So we take what we can get. And I agree that we should find more diverse sources of income and many try very hard, but frankly, if we suck hard at the state’s teats, it’s because the kind of capital that’s required to launch even the smallest of shows is hard to come by. And it’s probably hardest for the small groups who are likely to be the ones creating cheaper work in the first place. Big commercial outfits aren’t likely to bite for a small blackbox show where there’s little advertising return on their investment. And we regularly apply to non-state, philanthropic funding boards for every show. They’re inundated with applications; so if they can help, they only give out small amounts that sometimes barely cover one actor’s fair fee (and what’s that? $1000 for three months of work?). What if it’s a cast of 4?
Early this year, I got $1000 from the No Star Arts Grant to fund my play Mosaic at the Fringe Festival, otherwise funded by a mixture of corporate and government funds (box office takings went back to the Festival to cover their own astronomical costs). It helped a lot: $1000 paid for a third of our set. The creative team was about to pay for the balance from our own pockets before news of the grant came in. Looking back, could we have done away with the set? Perhaps, it would’ve cost less, but it would also have taken a lot away from what the show eventually became. And the collective I was working with felt that, artistically, the extra expense gave us a major step up above the work we’d been doing in the past.
Theatre as a form is so multi-faceted that to say, simply, work smaller, work minimally, doesn’t account for the fact that for some theatre artists, to develop the form is to nudge at it where it bursts at its seams. What can you achieve with lights? Sound? Puppetry? Set design? With a sense of scale beyond the ordinary? To create fantasy? Does it have to be expensive? No, but in all likelihood it would be. If I’ve been compromised by anything as a playwright, it is that imagining the costs involved have often come to constrain my creativity; let’s not even talk about where the money comes from.
So if our interests—getting money to get the work out there, to make it happen, to develop and grow as artists—align with the State’s—to give money to get work out there for whatever reason—can we afford to say no? It’s hard. Taking or not taking money from the state is sometimes the difference between getting paid or not, making the show or not. I understand the call here is to wean ourselves off that dependence altogether, but for many of us, the capital is stretched thin, the competition is stiff and the rich don’t give to the arts. All in all, I think the picture is less sucking blithely at teats than it is hanging precariously off tenterhooks in a howling storm of disinterest, high costs and over-saturation. (All this simplifies a desperately complex issue that has to do with the way the scene works and its models of production; it certainly may not apply to big theatre companies that have more diverse approaches to funding, though the struggle is probably real at any level.)
I realize all this makes me sound really spoiled in the best tradition of my strawberry generation. After all, before state money, before the explosion of arts funding, how did people make theatre? $1000 for a third of your set? What luxury! But we take our cues from those who came before us. Our scene has professionalized and developed enormously since the expansion of state funding. In the interim years, theatre professionals, many of whom started out in the pre-NAC dog days, have created models and standards of excellence, creativity and polish that I think it would be disingenuous to say weren’t in some way made possible by state support. But for some reason, new entrants inspired by this work and aspiring to that quality are expected to revert to some 1980s work-for-free ethic in order to make work that has any integrity? (And let’s be real, many of us are actually still doing the work for free or very little thing, no one’s in it for the money).
I’m new to the scene, but I’ve heard stories over dinner tables of the good old days in the 80s and 90s, when there was a genuine sense of a fringe in the theatre. When the theatre itself was a fringe space, a charged space. People today seem to long for that. Perhaps part of that longing is a consciousness that the explosion of the scene has come with a sense of compromise, a defanging of the theatre. Or perhaps what they’re longing for is really just youth, for the late nights, the camaraderie, the sense of having run away to the circus. Because I don’t think anyone would say they haven’t developed positively, as artists, in tandem with the professionalization of the scene. And we’re told the future is bright: would we have the same tranche of top-notch people coming into the scene without state support?
We sometimes forget that some of that older work was responding to a different time, when the state was outwardly hostile to the arts. For sure, today the state is perhaps more malevolent, a two-faced monster. But its more benign aspect, the devious one with the vested interests, at least gives us the opportunity to create work in more ways than we could before, to create new audiences, to get the work out there, to say what we can. To have more people coming up and saying they have hope for Singapore theatre, that they watched Singapore theatre for the first time and really loved it, that they think it’s a vital, essential part of their lives.
And here I want to respond as a playwright to other writers weighing in on this. As a dramatist, perhaps differently than other writers, my writing is stillborn. For us, to get our work seen, read and heard is to submit it to production. There is no play without a staging. And there are countless playwrights in Singapore who can’t even get their work picked up by a company to produce, let alone worry about the kinds of funds that go into getting it staged. So independent producing is the way forward, and one of the only ways to get funding for new work is through the state. It’s become an odd situation where the risk of staging new work has become borne by state funding.
But if the money is tainted, and the money is not forthcoming elsewhere, how do we negotiate between having the work produced and not? Do we run away, find another context, find another theatre community? What if the work is so deeply rooted in this place, so dependent on this community, that it would be inert elsewhere? If you make work first and foremost for Singapore, what do you do? Perhaps the onus is ours to create our own platforms, better, less problematic platforms free from censorship and vested interests. But frankly, my imagination is limited, and perhaps I am not courageous or innovative enough; I don’t know what that would look like.
Working under deeply compromised conditions, I’ve nonetheless found the conviction to stay here in Singapore and make the work that comes from and feeds back to this place, that I believe contributes to my theatre community in Singapore which includes my collaborators and all who come share the work.
Like it or not, state support has given my generation of theatre makers the chance and confidence to say: this is what I will do with my life; Singapore is fucked up but that’s why it’s all the more worthwhile to stay and work at it; Singapore may break your heart, but we can stay to help make it better. Faith Ng says: theatre doesn’t need me, I need theatre, and I’ve arrived at that conclusion myself over the years, taking state money all the while; staying here and working in this fucked up context, constantly haunted by ambivalence but chugging along all the same.