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Singapore Dreaming: Singaporean Fringe Theatre as Social Activism and the Portrayal of the Marginalised Figure in Contemporary Singapore.
The primary aim of the research is to assess the relationship between Singaporean fringe theatre in English and its Singaporean audiences.
In particular, the research hopes to discover whether the chosen plays do in fact encourage social critique, and how this is achieved through specific stagecraft and performance methods. Further, this thesis hopes to discover if the plays may be viewed as reflective of contemporary Singaporean cultural consciousness, or generative of an alternative set of cultural precepts.
The radical dimension of these plays is typically directed to an examination of themes that remain consistently taboo and held in disdain in State discourse. This thesis aims to explore three such themes, namely, alternative sexual preferences, violence and traumatic experiences in the domestic sphere, and the anxiety suffered in fulfilling State expectations.
Central to answering these questions is an analysis of the portrayal of the marginalised figure.
The field of study for this thesis is the period of Singaporean theatre in English from the year 2000 to the present, concentrating on the works of playwrights who have played a pivotal role in shaping the fringe theatre scene in Singapore with their interrogation of the State’s boundaries. Representative of contemporary Singaporean fringe theatre in English, the chosen plays engage in pressing cultural issues and portray characters neglected or silenced by the State narrative. Relevant to the aims of this study because they connect to a diverse spectrum of Singaporean society, the plays that will be examined use the Singaporean cultural landscape, Colloquial Singaporean English (‘Singlish’) and overlapping domestic and public spheres. These plays include Fundamentally Happy (2006) by Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage theatre company; and The Asian Boys Trilogy (2000, 2004, 2007) by Alfian Sa’at, resident playwright of W!ld Rice theatre company and protégé of Sharma.
Of particular interest to this thesis is the portrayal of characters dealing with often conflicting identities, and themes that remain taboo in the wider socio-political Singaporean context, specifically the homosexual and transsexual experience, the trauma of victims of domestic violence, and the anxiety felt in achieving State goals.
With the State’s growing interest in promoting Singapore as a “Renaissance City,” the cultural hub of Asia, recent series like Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature (Ed. Kirpal Singh 2000-2007) and Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature. Writing Asia: The Literatures in Englishes (Vols. I and II, Eds. Edwin Thumboo et al., 2009) have sought to analyse the proliferation of post-independence literature in English in Singapore. William Peterson’s Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore (2001) and Jacqueline Lo’s Staging Nation (2004) have similarly added to this field of interest, by analysing the intersection of politics and theatre in Singaporean plays in the 1980s-1990s.
Peterson, Lo and other critics have discussed the extent to which Singaporean theatre in English has interrogated State boundaries, observing that it remains a product of hegemonic control through its continued dependence on State funding and legislation. However, as noted by K.K. Seet in Sharing Borders (II, 2009), there remains little formal literary criticism of plays in the more recent years. He contends that this latest phase of Singaporean theatre in English has better utilised its creative potential in expressing alternative perspectives that destabilise State-approved notions of the Singaporean experience. Seet further suggests that with its recent shifting focus on portraying different, marginalised Singaporean characters, Singaporean theatre in English has raised audience awareness of these issues. Echoing David Birch in his commentary on Sharma’s writing (2007), Seet describes Singaporean theatre in English as actively facilitating a negotiation of the contradictions that exist between imposed, perceived and lived Singaporean realities.
This thesis is important as it seeks to discover firstly, how the theatre facilitates the articulation of varied Singaporean identities; and secondly, whether Singaporean fringe theatre in English has increased the individual agency of Singaporeans in forging Singaporean identity in this latest phase.