Ladies First

Published on 26 December 2017

This year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival may showcase many female and feminist artists, but their work is most definitely for the boys too. 

By Jo Tan

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival artistic director, Sean Tobin, admits that the gender of the headlining artists for this and upcoming festival instalments was an important consideration. “My preference was definitely for them being female,” he says. “I’m a white male directing the festival for The Necessary Stage, which is led by two men… it’s worth considering that many arts companies in Singapore are male-led. This year’s festival is the first in our new thematic series of programming inspired by the iconic works of Singapore artists, and when choosing these artists, it’s easy to focus so much on Kuo Pao Kun or Lee Wen or Zai Kuning, that we forget about the excellent female artists.”

This year’s festival is themed ‘Let’s Walk’ — the title of one of many works by internationally celebrated multidisciplinary artist Amanda Heng, whose decades of work spans various genres. While her oeuvres explore various themes, Let’s Walk — an international touring work which saw Heng walking backwards with fellow participants, each holding a mirror in his/her hand and a high-heeled shoe in his/her mouth — questioned the beauty industry and how society perceived women.


STANDING TALL Artist Julia Croft puts up a riotously fun display in If There’s Not Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming, a performance challenging the treatment of women’s bodies. (Photo: Josh Griggs)

Let’s Walk has drawn many other female and feminist artists to share their thoughts and talent: the festival line-up includes an all-woman dance theatre piece directed by Edith Podesta investigating the perception of traditional women’s roles; a ritual-text-movement performance by mother-daughter duo Ajuntha Anwari and Sharda Harrison about someone trying to escape society’s demands on females; an exhibition by documentary photographer Charmaine Poh focusing on different working women, and so on. While the creators are female, Tobin stresses that these works were selected because people of all genders would be able to connect with them — this includes the contemporary performance by award-winning New Zealand-based artist Julia Croft, which unabashedly self-identifies as “overtly feminist”.

Says Tobin, “If There’s Not Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming [by Croft] is riotously fun, accessible and self-reflective. There’s lip-synching, parading round the stage, dancing… I love it, it’s far more than a debate. And that attitude marks many of the works in this festival. For example, the original play Forked discusses Singaporean female identity, but the protagonist is not a victim; all the characters have their own prejudices and blind spots and are constantly trying to diminish or pigeonhole each other… and it’s a comedy.”

“I think to be a woman in this world is to be angry, and I am angry,” says Croft, whose Fringe offering was a response to a former New Zealand Prime Minister, who came under fire for pulling the ponytails of young ladies. “But my work is also, I hope, very funny. I find comedy super useful for opening up a space with an audience to have a conversation, and conversation is important because I am still trying to work it all out as much as anyone; I am trying to reconcile my taste in pop music with my love of feminist theory. I try to create spaces for multiple voices, I want to not be the expert, but rather the facilitator.”


ART WITH BITE The festival line-up includes a revisiting of multidisciplinary artist Amanda Heng’s Let’s Walk, which saw her walk with participants with mirrors in hand and high-heeled shoes in their mouths. (Photo: Peter Lind)

Other easy-to-digest ways in which the festival examines female identity is through immersive theatre and game principles. For instance, in Attempts: Singapore, audiences will have to sift through various accounts of a missing mystery female — Anne — to try and discover who she really is, and how she factors into a potential international crisis.

Says Zee Wong, the production’s dramaturg, “We all have entrenched perceptions of gender — that’s normal. But we think it’s important to confront the fact that these perceptions are there, and where they come from, so that you don’t just say, ‘This is the way it should be,’ without understanding the thought process that led you to that conclusion. In Attempts: Singapore, you get to perform actions, interact, explore, deduce and otherwise question what people are telling you about this woman, Anne, and realise that she is a very complex and contradictory figure. It’s not a didactic process: we are not out here to say you must share our feminist worldview. But we’d like to encourage people to examine their own perspectives and perhaps, broaden them.”


WOMEN AT WORK Charmaine Poh’s exhibition All in Her Day’s Work examines how certain Singapore industries still adhere to traditional demands of how women should look, speak and act. (Photo: Charmaine Poh)

“It’s absolutely important to include men in the conversation,” adds Petrina Kow, who directs another Fringe offering, Walking in Beauty, featuring an all-female group of six storytellers confiding very personal tales as to what beauty means to them.

“The show we are putting up is definitely for all genders. In this day and age, men can be very confused as to what to do because parameters are changing, and they are wondering if everything they do is wrong. It’s useful to start the conversation so that all sides can coexist.

Walking in Beauty does feature all women, yes. It’s hard to dispute that beauty is a concept that looms more heavily over women, from when they start off as ‘pretty’ babies to when they are told they must wear a dress to church, or in the workforce, and are expected to wear makeup and go to yoga to be a certain size. But this show is going to be more than people going on about their looks. It follows people learning to be beautiful in different ways — perhaps overcoming seemingly everyday struggles which have been slowly grinding them down. That’s something all genders can connect to.”

HER STORY Walking in Beauty is a performance with various women sharing personal stories (Photo: Kelly Fan)
Photo: Kelly Fan

In general, the various artists are glad for another opportunity to have female and feminist voices heard. Says Croft, “I think there are less platforms for female work. Male stories are still seen as ‘everyman’ stories, while women’s stories are more niche.”

Wong agrees. “In film and theatre, there are still many complex leading-man roles, while the women are often still servicing a male narrative. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but we do need to see more female narratives. Yet I wonder if female artists — and audiences — themselves see female narratives as less worthy.”

Thankfully, female artists, and artists with work told from female perspectives, will be present in droves to show off their stuff at the festival. Says Tobin, “It is a great opportunity to see how strong and present the females are in the arts community. I certainly didn’t have to run around looking for any, and the quality of the work is amazing. Amanda’s work is very important and worth talking about and noticing, and I believe much of the other work in the festival is too.”

He also feels that the examinations of gender perception that are encouraged in the festival, whether by male or female artists, ultimately benefit people of all genders. “As a theatre educator in the School of the Arts, I would agree that there are a lot more male roles in general, despite the many female students we have looking to pursue a career in theatre. On the flipside, there are fewer male students because men may often feel a certain traditional responsibility in their minds to ensure that their career choices are more pragmatic and stable, to allow them to be the breadwinner. I sometimes see these mindsets in my students and their parents.”

BOND (BETWEEN) GIRLS Mother and daughter team, Ajuntha Anwari and Sharda Harrison, display an inimitable connection in ritual-text-movement performance Hayat. (Photo: Ryan Peters Photography)
Forked is inspired by the playwright’s experiences in a Parisian clown school. (Photo: Daniel Choong)

Kow agrees. “At the moment, both genders are expected to conform to a certain image — females to maintain a certain level of attractiveness, whereas it’s still frowned upon if men want to wear makeup, or even pierce their ears.”

Ultimately, Kow doesn’t feel that the festival pieces reject traditional roles for different people. Instead, it’s all about the freedom to choose. “I’m not telling a story in Walking in Beauty because… well, I’m scared,” she laughs. “I’m scared to be so vulnerable. But if I were to, I would tell of this moment when I felt really beautiful. I sat down to a meal with my husband and two children and we were laughing about something ridiculous, when one of my children offered a point of view about something that struck me as intelligent and surprising. In that second, it really hit me that, oh my God, I made this child. It was a sense of pride, a sense of how I did something right. My storytellers are happy and proud of various things, and I’m proud of being a mother… and that’s all good.”

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is on from 17-28 January. See their website for details.

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