Profile: T Sasitharan

Published on 30 August 2016

T Sasitharan details the storms he’s had to weather on his way to building an arts career.

BY JO TAN 

ART IS A PASSION FOR MANY, BUT FEW KNOW THAT PASSIONS CAN EXACT A PRICE. Just ask Thirunalan Sasitharan.

 

Cultural Medallion recipient Sasitharan (or Sasi as he is better known) has been involved with theatre since the ’70s, but he always had an alternative mainstay — first as a student, next as lecturer of Philosophy, followed by arts editor for The Straits Times Life! Then in 1995, his friend and mentor, the late Kuo Pao Kun, a fellow Cultural Medallion recipient, asked him to take over as The Substation’s artistic director.

 

“He said, ‘I think you are ready.’ So I accepted the full-time theatre career. But in actual fact, I loved writing and teaching Philosophy — all things I had to give up. While I also loved theatre, there were times I would literally break down and cry because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. And without writing or teaching, I felt I was walking a tightrope without a safety net.”

 

It was partly Sasi’s own feelings of unpreparedness that made him accept Kuo’s next challenge just five years later: to co-start Singapore’s first school for theatre actors, the Theatre Training & Research Programme, now renamed Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

 

“I asked myself, if I had the opportunity to go back in time and do a programme, what would it look like, ideally, to prepare me for theatre-making in Singapore? We co-conceptualised something, then went around the world to ask experts: this is what we are thinking of doing… is this actually doable? The deal I had with Pao Kun was that he would teach me directing and I’d give the school 10 years of my life, but only if no one shot our concept down. Yet everybody said, ‘This is difficult, you’re trying to accomplish so much… but if you do proceed, we want to teach there.’ We thought that this must be something worth doing.”

 

The school opened in 2000, but Kuo passed away two years later, again plunging Sasi into uncertainty, not least because intentionally small class sizes and low fees for promising talents meant he barely kept things afloat, often working without salary.

 

Despite years of uncertainty, certain accomplishments have kept Sasi believing he was on the right path. “The Substation was the first independent site for Singapore art-makers. The fact that it’s still alive today and internationally known… to me, that’s a mark of success. ITI was also the first of its kind, and it has kept going for 16 years now, producing students with such craft, dedication and commitment, they’re known across the world. I also work with Arts Engage, where Singapore-based artists get together to discuss policies that govern and impact our respective practices. We’ve made, in my opinion, standout contributions to Singapore’s professional arts scene.”

 

Now, Sasi seeks a successor for ITI. “It’s important to get new people with new visions… and it’s long past my promised 10 years. I hope to go back to more creative work that I ironically gave up to pursue theatre full-time. Writing, acting, even directing… I picked that up at ITI after all. As with many things in life, I managed to teach myself.”

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