Taking Centre Stage

Published on 28 April 2015

One year after opening, Centre 42 is on its way to becoming a safe haven for budding playwrights.

TEXT BY JOEL TAN

The striking blue heritage building at 42 Waterloo Street is the former home of Action Theatre. But many new-generation arts fans aren’t familiar with the professional theatre company, nor those of other players on the Singapore stage from the 1990s and before.

That’s one of the big challenges of the building’s current occupants, Centre 42, which has been busying itself with recuperating chunks of theatre history.

The A List meet executive director Casey Lim and resident dramaturge Robin Loon in The Repository, a room within Centre 42 that holds a small collection of theatre artefacts like programmes and posters, plus a desktop computer storing a digitized online archive of some 800 such items loaned from various theatre companies.

Part of the National Arts Council’s Arts Centre Scheme, Centre 42 opened in April 2014 with the aim of documenting, promoting and creating writing for Singapore theatre. A year into its opening, Loon and Lim discuss the headway the Centre has made so far. The Repository, for instance, was launched this April after a year of tracking down people’s personal collections and navigating a tricky maze of intellectual property.

“It’s to raise public awareness of what we have, to help a new generation who have no idea that there were these plays that came before them,” says Loon of the collection, which is mainly programme booklets for now. Digitised and displayed online according to year, the Repository’s growing collection is an example of how the arts and its diligent documenting are essential in telling and preserving our stories and shared Singapore heritage. An archival storage of memories can even inspire new works.

As part of their documentation efforts, the Centre 42 team has also curated new material that responds to earlier works, part of an ongoing series dubbed The Vault. It kicked off in September 2014 with lecture performance Nineteen Sixty-Four, which highlighted two plays, Goh Poh Seng’s When Smiles Are Done and Lim Chor Pee’s A White Rose at Midnight, presented in the context of 1964 Singapore.

SAFE KEEPING The Repository is Centre 42’s digital archive of visual and audio artefacts related to past theatre productions.

An upcoming Vault programme titled #3 Three will see design collective INDEX, comprising lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, sound artist Darren Ng and spatial designer Lim Wei Ling, create individual responses to Quah Sy Ren’s 1996 play, Invisibility.

Another programme, the more contemporary Living Room, is a series of artist conversations that has so far featured veteran theatre artists like Michael Chiang, Koh Boon Pin and Russell Heng reflecting on their body of work.

But apart from these talks and performances, there hasn’t been a packed season of public programmes. That’s as it should be, say Loon and Lim. “It’s a very different model compared to a theatre company,” Lim elaborates. “We don’t have a calendar of events because we have to be flexible to accommodate things coming from the ground.” The team is constantly devising programmes to meet the needs of artists. “A number of playwrights approached us saying they had half-written plays and needed a platform to develop them, so we came up with the Guest Room and Basement Workshop to support their processes.”

IN CONVERSATION Face-to-face dialogues with theatre practitioners in various disciplines are the draw in the Living Room.

The Basement Workshop provides space at a low cost for independent artists who don’t have access to the resources of a theatre company. Artists who have taken advantage of it include Loo Zihan, whose mixed-media performance With/Out for this year’s M1 Fringe Festival was created and performed within Centre 42.

The Guest Room provides four days of free usage for artists to workshop and present works in progress. Its most recent guest was theatre artist Beverly Yuen, who presented her play After Gandhi — Sleeping Naked. Says Loon of the Centre’s underlying philosophy, “We support the process and the artist by giving space.”

TESTING, TESTING New works and plays-in-progress are hot-housed in the Boiler Room programme.

Space is also key for the Boiler Room, the Centre’s play-incubation programme which kicked off late last year. One of three Boiler Room playwrights is Suzanne Choo, a lecturer at the National Institute of Education’s English department, who is crafting a play about the role of literature education in Singapore. “It’s not easy to find opportunities to test out ideas and explore playwriting, without necessarily wanting to have a playwriting career,” she says. The freedom to research around her topic for six months before writing, without the usual pressures of public performance, was invaluable. “Without this, my ideas would not have developed as far as they have.”

All readings are closed door for now, with the public only coming in much later. The idea, says Loon, is to help playwrights create the best work possible before passing it on to interested theatre companies for production. “[We are] like midwives,” quips Lim.

So yes, it’s been a busy year for the Centre, even though some observers, many of whom mistake Centre 42 for a theatre company, may think it’s been lying low. Trying to explain their role in the theatre ecosystem has been the biggest challenge so far, but things are improving, and in the process, says Lim, the team has re-connected with many old friends and shared memories.

INDIE NAME OF ART The Basement Workshop scheme allows independent artists to rent Centre 42’s space and facilities at heavily-subsidised rates .

“Just watch this space,” says Lim with a laugh. “By the end of three years, we hope to be a traffic point for development — whatever artists want to do. We’re not competitors! We pass it all back to the artists and theatre companies.”

To find out more about Centre 42, visit centre42.sg.

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