Strawberry generation? Not these young visionaries. We talk to various twentysomethings busy creating their own brand of art.
BY JO TAN
Published on 6 June 2016
BY JO TAN
I’ve worked with people from all age ranges, but I was curious about twentysomethings,” says Tan Kheng Hua, actress/producer and the brains behind The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival. The brand-new festival, which kicks off this month, operates on a leap of faith: Tan gave talented twentysomethings small sums of money, a venue and absolutely no mentorship to present their own plays — beginning with writing, to casting, directing, designing and marketing.
“Twentysomethings are scary, amazing and from a completely different world,” says Tan. “At their age, I was writing love letters with pen and paper and struggling with punch cards. Now, they have technology as an added muscle to live their lives. I don’t have that same muscle which allows me to plink away on a device for long periods to get things done, but I’m wondering if they have the stamina the older generation has — using their voice, their hands, their presence, their bodies, to make things and move people in a face-to-face, tactile way.
“So it’s a cross-learning exercise. I observe and pick up how to use technology from them, they are made to get down and dirty: from setting up and tearing down their productions; to begging for, and borrowing props and costumes; to charming people as they sell physical tickets instead of just relying on online portals — basically figuring things out from beginning to end,” she adds.
“It’s very Singaporean to be guided down to the last detail, but I wanted to see what they would do with greater freedom, ownership and responsibility. What they learn will help them to go out and create opportunities instead of waiting for one to come along.”
Tan is working with similarly young go-getters on the Festival, including playwright/director Irfan Kasban — who presents one of the festival’s two headliner plays, Trees, a Crowd… — and stellar singer/songwriter Inch Chua, who curates the festival’s outdoor concert space, InstaGala.
“I’ll be multitasking: designing, writing, directing, marketing,” says Irfan. “As a youth drama practitioner, this is something I’ve always done, since I was 18. I would try creating work, and while waiting for opportunities to stage it, I would crew, stage-manage, design and just watch plays to keep learning. At some point, the media started referring to me as an ‘emerging artist’ and they haven’t stopped for the past decade. I’ve been ‘emerging’ for 10 years!
“One problem is that as long as you’re in your twenties, you’re considered ‘emerging’ instead of just an artist. People often want to have a hand in the work of ‘emerging’ artists’, or advise them to feel a certain way about something, which is only helpful up to a point. So I love the freedom of the Festival.”
Adds Chua, “Many of the InstaGala acts I chose will be telling their twentysomething stories, through songs or otherwise. It’s a very interesting time in most people’s lives because that’s when they decide who they want to be, and be with… sometimes it’s difficult. I really like how this festival is shaping up, where even if anyone gets lost, we don’t feel penalised for it. I don’t think there’s a crime in feeling lost. It’s a great opportunity to discover things and play.”
But it’s not only the Festival’s talents we ought to watch out for. Here are several twentysomething Singaporeans from various artistic fields who have been fearlessly forging their own paths.
OUTFITS Eugene wears cotton raw tee, denim shorts and scarf from Topman. Shoes from Vans. Ruby wears pleated dress from eightslate. Gold-plated necklace and rings from Topshop. Cuff from Lovisa. Ballerina flats from Repetto.
Eugene Soh is best known for his Renaissance City exhibition, a collection of photographs that parodies iconic works of art using recognisably Singaporean subjects. You may have seen his take on Da Vinci’s The Last Supper — Soh’s version features a hawker centre. While many young artists struggle for seriousness, he embraces his youth and irreverence with the moniker Dude.sg. “I’m this young dude from Singapore, so I’ll own it,” he says with a shrug.
“It may be different for other artists, but I’m both an artist and a programmer,” he explains, referencing a virtual gallery he created where visitors’ avatars could interact and examine artwork together, as well as a virtual gallery of the old Supreme Court.
“For that, people do appreciate a young, open-minded kind of person with new perspectives, someone who adapts to change very quickly to solve problems. And that’s me! I’m not sticking to any style, I’m open to trying anything new. I’ll say yes to giving talks or other interesting things. Now, I’m creating an app for the closing party of [Singapore International Festival of Arts pre-festival] The O.P.E.N., called Club Malam. The app will be like Snapchat — you put it over your face and you’ll become one of the characters by Speak Cryptic, who is the visual artist involved in the event. You can also put your phone over random other things to transform them into art.”
Unlike most Bharatanatyam dancers who train from early childhood, Ruby Jayaseelan began at 17, and has since performed everywhere from Asia to Europe. “It was only after my ‘O’ Levels that I saved enough money to afford Bharatanatyam classes. I threw myself into it, even joining a dance group and rehearsing four nights a week. But it was only after I graduated from polytechnic, started doing 12-hour shifts at the Singapore Airlines call centre and had no time to dance, that I realised how important it is to me and comparatively, money wasn’t a motivation. I thought, heck, let’s try this seriously.
“I started doing odd jobs like waitressing and teaching so I could go to India to study Bharatanatyam. I knew I didn’t have enough money to complete the four-year course, but I lived frugally and managed to stay for two years of vigorous daily training. When I came back, friends from the theatre industry started inviting me to collaborate with them. I realised
I like using how Bharatanatyam has informed my body to collaborate with people from other disciplines. Friends invited me to Germany to collaborate in an interdisciplinary performance, and I loved that so much that to supplement my income there, I busked in Berlin doing Bharatanatyam on the streets. I even joined a website, putting up my details to invite more collaborators worldwide to get in touch. Now, I’m performing in The Necessary Stage’s interdisciplinary play Ghost Writer as Priya, a classical dancer venturing into other forms.
“Dancers have a shelf life. The fact that I started so late makes it even shorter. You tend to damage your body faster because you want to pick up something quickly. But I love what I do and will do it till something absolutely breaks.”
OUTFITS Deborah wears netted bralet, cotton viscose jacket and denim jeans from Topshop. Choker, earrings, ring and sneakers from H&M. Shawn wears cotton shirt and pants from Topman. Sneakers from Adidas by Stan Smith.
Deborah Emmanuel couldn’t be further from the standard Singaporean twentysomething. She has published a collection of poems and performed her poetry at festivals all over the world. And while she never wants to go through it again, she does not hide the fact that she has been to prison under a Drug Rehabilitation sentence. In fact, her newly-launched book Rebel Rites is about the little-documented Singapore prison experience, incorporating her own as a privileged youngster meeting the Singapore underclass.
Unlike most wordsmiths in Singapore, she does not have a non-arts-related full-time job to supplement her income. “I have a band called Wobology that makes reggae music. I act sometimes, I give writing workshops and talks. And, of course, I write, I perform. But I’ve only taken jobs I believe in. In Singapore, we have this idea that we need all this money because you need to buy certain things, but for me, with no dependents, it seems that if I just focus my energies on doing something I feel is good, I get goodness back. When necessary, I just live cheaper.
“When my mother died over two years ago, I lost my safety blanket and most of the history I had known. I suddenly realised I needed to rebuild myself into someone I wanted to be. So I create my own projects about things that matter to me. My goal this year is to write my first solo show about home and what it means, intersecting all the different forms I’ve been working with over the past few years — song, movement, theatre, poetry. I’ll write it during a residency in Nepal in June and July. I applied for the residency and grants; I also arranged some gigs in Kathmandu. It’s been a revelation that many of us in Singapore can literally do anything we want if we put our minds to it.”
It’s hard to classify Shawn Chua. After all, he has done everything. Having written and directed plays since secondary school, he grew more interested in puppetry in junior college and sought out Tan Beng Tian of The Finger Players to work and train with. (The relationship continues till today, with Chua representing Singapore in the ASEAN Puppetry Conference 2015 and performing in The Finger Players’ recent piece, The Collectors.)
He subsequently went to Tokyo’s Waseda University to study cultural anthropology, taking time to train in and perform Noh (a form of traditional Japanese theatre) under master Honda Mitsuhiro. Finally, he took up a scholarship to study performance research at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and engaged in performance art in the Big Apple. Since returning to Singapore, he has joined The Necessary Stage as a performance archivist, experimenting with methods to archive the company’s works that go beyond recordings and scripts, developing something more alive that generates creative propositions for
“Listing the things I’ve done, it all sounds pretty schizophrenic, but they all come from the same well-spring: asking questions about art and audiences. The exploration of these questions might manifest better as an academic paper, or performance installation, or a theatrical piece… but performance research and archival is the source of all these works because they determine what goes into the creation of them. There’s probably a kind of bizarre hybrid thing that I want to do, but the space for it doesn’t exist yet. Everything I’ve done could be said to be research to create that somehow.”
Catching the eye of an increasing number of collaborators, Chua will be involved in the Singapore International Festival of Arts show I Am LGB, though typically, his role is yet undefined. “Originally, we had sort of assigned roles — I was to be the dramaturg — but it was decided we’d also be ‘performing’ in the experience, and finally, that we wouldn’t use titles to restrict our participation in the project.”
OUTFITS Mean wears cotton long tee from Asos.com. Polyester bomber jacket, denim jeans and necklace from Topman. Sneakers from Converse. Faith wears cotton viscose jumpsuit and acrylic flower embellished necklace from Topshop. Sneakers from H&M.
hile many R&B artists seem to enjoy being portrayed as cool hipsters luxuriating in bling, Ahmad Nur Muhaimin (better known as Mean) is more realistic about music-making. “It’s not easy in Singapore. I work as a visual merchandiser so I can contribute to my family finances, and then I hunt for time and energy to record music at a friend’s house. And that’s what I talk a lot about in my rap songs — going through everyday life and struggling to make music. I don’t write fiction, every word and phrase comes from something I’ve gone through.”
While this seems remarkably down-to-earth material for the usually flashy rap genre, Mean, who has launched two rave-reviewed albums and performed at various high-profile events, thinks it’s precisely this that has won him a following. “I’m finally able to put out how I really am as a person, and I think that’s why people connect with me. I’m not manufacturing this artificial image of a hip-hop God.”
Of course, Mean does have a distinct image — he’s also called The Dapper Rapper. His design background rubs off on his fashion sense, which sees him eschew snapbacks and bling for the quirky structures of Belgian designer Raf Simons and other haute couture stars, both on and offstage. “People think I have this stage persona, but all this fashion stuff is just me,” he says with a laugh. He is currently working on a collaborative album to be produced by various artists, targeted for a year-end release.
Faith Ng may look like a willowy waif, but her achievements are anything but slight. All three of her produced plays to date have been nominated for multiple awards and will be published in October. Her most recent play Normal — inspired by Ng’s own experience as a Normal stream student — will receive a restaging next year, and she has even started mentoring other writers. Yet people still question her ability to explore the issues she’s interested in.
“People will ask me questions like, ‘Based on your youth, why would you be interested in things like sustaining marriage past middle age or critiquing the Singapore education system?’ ”
“Well, it’s writing, it’s about imagination. There shouldn’t be a limitation to what you write about as long as you feel a strong connection to it and pursue it. For Normal, I interviewed many people and it was difficult, emotionally as well as physically. Whereas for Wo(Men), a lot of it was based on my experiences living with my grandma — I don’t think many adults realise how much children actually retain. Conversely, when you write based on your personal experiences, people will say it’s easy to do that, it’s not good work. I think women, especially, get this,” says Ng.
“Frankly, playwriting is never easy for me. Putting one word in front of another can be practically painful, and no, it’s not going to get anybody money or fame. But I do it when there’s something I absolutely have to say and there’s no other way to silence that voice. It’s all worth it when I hear people chatting after the show, and I realise I’ve started a conversation about the subject I care about.”
The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival is on till 19 June at the Goodman Arts Centre. Ghost Writer is on till 12 June at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The O.P.E.N. starts from 22 June, various venues.