Can experimental theatre survive in a mainstream world?
Over the weekend, something unusual took place. A seemingly naked man was immersed in a bathtub full of milk. Another bloke was gorging on boiled cow lung. These and many more bizarre moments played out to about 150 people at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. It was the one-night-only, by-invitation performance of Si Ti Kay, the latest work by The Substation's artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim under Cake Theatrical Productions. The performance had been embroiled in a bit of controversy, after it was removed from the line-up of The Studios' RAW platform and given an R-18 rating, for some apparently contentious moments that included a brief moment of tongue-flicking by two men. But even as the crowd's enthusiasm at this unconventional work was palpable inside the black box, one suspects that Si Ti Kay counts as a blip in the radar of public consciousness these days.
Like the handful of experimental theatre pieces that preceded it, the Cake production is that rare oddity in a calendar currently packed with no less than four musicals and two other theatre spectacles. One wonders if this unusual situation is just a one-off, or the start of something else. Perhaps of mainstream theatre marching ahead, leaving its black box-dwelling sparring partner eating its dust.
Where did the party go?
It didn't use to be this way. In fact, just a couple of decades ago, theatre practitioners could even recall how the experimental theatre scene moved with a confident swagger.
"We just found our space and we just did it. We created our own opportunities in the '90s and up to the early 2000s," recalled Effendy.
"We could see people trying many, many things, taking risks and going for the adventure - and the audiences were with us," added TheatreWorks managing director Tay Tong.
It was in this inquisitive atmosphere where groups as varied as Spell#7 and Kill Your Television emerged, older ones like TheatreWorks and The Necessary Stage went post-modern. And The Substation was where it was at.
Cake caught the tail-end of it, emerging in 2005 when experimentation was still "sexy". "There was a time when people were just lapping up everything. There was this thirst for what was considered alternative," said artistic director Natalie Hennedige. Cake now has an ongoing Decimal Points series for theatre practitioners to create new work.
That experimental boom has slowly but surely tapered off, it would seem.
Some point out the fact that it has lost much of its edge. Ben Slater, former associate director of Spell#7, got into experimental theatre as a reaction to conventional theatre's "empty spectacle and tired conventions". Eventually, he got disillusioned with the former for the same reasons.
"When I see experimental theatre now, I see the techniques and conventions as very staid and tired. I see a handful of ideas, but often not well communicated," he said.
Others would also note that with the scene professionalising, some groups have simply appropriated elements of the experimental into their commercially viable works.
Perhaps one thing that continues to bug proponents has been the seemingly constant dismissive attitude of media towards the form and the scene. Which in turn feeds, shapes or reinforces the public's opinions and notions about it. When people were asked what their idea of "experimental theatre" was, responses ranged from the tongue-in-cheek ("they all wear black", "theatre performed at half-normal speed") to downright nasty ones ("euphemism for amateurism", "self-indulgent s**t", "an all encompassing need to insult the audience"). Many of these echo much of what sees in theatre reviews today: Too long, too slow, pretentious, et cetera.
But beyond all these, practitioners also noted that the seeming downward slide is caused by something much more over-arching: A kind of conservatism sweeping through the entire theatre scene.
Could it be that the spirit of experimentation has now become less of a concern than that of survival?
Elizabeth De Roza of Theatre Strays, who is also programme leader for LASALLE College Of The Arts' BA (Hons) Theatre+Performance degree, said that while experimental theatre is being taught in schools, the real issue is what happens when students step out into the real world.
"How many of them will continue to experiment, because as young artists they would want exposure to raise their profile. Many of them will experiment for a while and then after that, they give up," she said.
For companies and already practicing artists, the stakes become higher. Tay pointed out: "These days, artistic risk can translate to financial risk. Some might think it's better to go for the tried and tested. A work that is more mainstream."
It's an argument that eventually finds itself faced with the inevitable question: How important are bums on seats in making one's art?
Effendy warned of the dangers of pinning everything on the need to attract audiences. Besides, he asked, "How many companies in Singapore can safely say they survive mainly on ticket sales?"
Indeed, while healthy attendance numbers do help fill up the coffers, more often than not, it's really a nice report card to impress investors.
And when you think about it this way, that means every group, whether it's doing mainstream or experimental work, is actually on level footing-provided you get someone to believe in what you do.
Paying to experiment
But therein lies the rub. It doesn't actually always work that way. Private sponsors have their own rationales for supporting a group or a show, from exposure to prestige through philanthropy. When it comes to public funding, observers readily point to the undeniable thrust towards encouraging work catering to the "community". Both are angling for the same thing: It should reach out to as many people as possible.
This, however, may prove to be a huge obstacle for practitioners of art forms that aren't intrinsically mass-oriented.
"The tune that is sung is essentially that art should be catered for the people, the masses, the community, or the grassroots. What it effectively achieves is the destruction of truly creative impulses in society by collapsing art into mass entertainment," warned multi-disciplinary artist Ho Tzu Nyen.
It does seem like a paradox that experimental theatre must become the thing it's rebelling against in order to survive. But Hennedige pointed out that Cake's commercial commissions, such as for the recent Gardens By The Bay opening, as well as the opening performance for the Singapore Pavilion at Korea's Yeosu World Expo, happened precisely because their main season shows have maintained their integrity.
And one need only look at TheatreWorks, which still continues to be labelled as "experimental" in Singapore, even as the company remains perhaps the country's most internationally-famous group. All because of its adventurousness.
At the end of the day, while most experimental theatre practitioners warn of the repercussions of a scene tilted heavily towards the commercial, some are optimistic. Simply put, the only way to prevent the scene from flattening out into all-mainstream fare is for experimental theatre artists to continue trying things out, said The Necessary Stage's Alvin Tan.
In recent years, the company has been staging relatively more realist works, but their latest, Crossings, harkens back to their more unconventional works.
"There's a growth of mainstream theatre in Singapore but at the same time, you find yourself wanting to go back to taking the risk," he said.
It remains to be seen if what we're in the middle of will be what eventually dominates the landscape, and in the process, wipe out the scene's diversity-or if balance will be restored. And that, in the end, boils down to just how much an artist is willing to stick his or her neck out.
The Studios series continues, with four more productions, until Sept 15 at The Esplanade. Visit www.thestudios.com.sg for details. The next Decimal Points production is scheduled for Nov 9 and 10 at The Substation.
By Mayo Martin
16 July 2012
Sound artist Philip Tan's directorial debut Decimal Points 7.7 was encouraged by Cake's Decimal Points series at The Substation. PHOTO COURTESY CAKE THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS