I remember as a teenager in the eighties, although certain films I watched really spoke to me, it was theatre that called to the performer in me. Probably the first production I ever watched was at the Drama Center at Fort Canning. This was a production by Theatreworks called Long Green Socks, I think, and there was an actress in the play who later directed me in a Theatreworks production Loke Meng Choo. The play itself did not make a big impression on me but there was something about watching people performing live on stage that called out to me. Singapore theatre in the eighties did not have the so-called polish that we see today or even in the nineties, but there were something special at that time about the scene which was coming into itself. Consciously or subconsciously the people who participated in theatre productions, except for the expatriate groups, had a feeling that something special was happening.
The production that blew me away and sold me completely on the art of theatre was something I watched on television. This was the televised production of Peter Brooks "Mahabharata". I remember watching it on the Channel Twelve, the "Arts" channel and being completely awed that such impact could be created with simply words, actions and acting, against the backdrop of an extremely simple staging. I knew then that I had found magic.
When I was to start writing and directing later, I was influenced by different writers, including my friend Kelvin as well as various directors and theatre companies like the Living Theatre etc, but at that time the impact of Brooks was very deep. It helped that I was able to work with William Teo, who was basically trying to reinvent Brooks and Theatre du Soleil in Asia, as well as having the chance to attend a workshop conducted by Ariane Mnouchkine's best actor George Bigot, conducted at the Theatreworks premises.
I searched Brooks' source and found the writings of Antonin Artaud about the Theatre of Cruelty, about how he thought that theatre should be a force of nature like the black death of the middle ages. It should ravage and scour an audience without mercy. Artaud had basically updated the cathartic theory of the Greeks and modernized it for us, and for that he was electrocuted. I should have known better to have followed what he said, knowing his fate, but I could not resist it.
And as I went on to explore theatre in the years to come, I would always try to look for that magic...and that cruelty that I had experienced in either watching these great theatre productions or reading a great play.
The very first theatre production that I ever acted in was Romeo and Juliet, by STARS, which was basically one of the old style expatriate theatre companies that dominated Singapore's theatre landscape in the seventies and early eighties before Singapore English theatre came into its own. There was no way to study theatre at that time, unless one was phenomenally rich and could go overseas to do it, so my early theatre education were in the theatre companies that sprouted up in the eighties and nineties. The experience of forming my own theatre company in NUS (National University of Singapore), KRActs, was invaluable as well.
The interesting thing about acting in different companies and working with different directors at that time was that they all had very different ideas about what theatre was and wanted to show that in their work. So I benefited from for example the Brooksian influence of William Teo, the fanatical discipline and forceful approach of Ong Ken Seng's Theatreworks, the traditional Asian dance and theatre influence of Chua Soo Pong's Arts and Acts and so on and so forth. The reason that this happened was that during that period the companies dared to be different, unlike the scene today, where productions generally conform to the creed of "professionalism" and various corporate benchmarks set by the funding bodies. The diversity that I had known and loved in Singapore's theatre scene has died a long time ago, but that was what fed and nurtured me.
The wonderful thing about having one's own company in the University was that one was able to put up and experiment with different types of plays and writing, without worrying too much about the audience, or ticket sales and so on. And that was what I did with KRActs, a theatre group I had formed in at the Kent Ridge Hall in NUS. Besides experimenting with form and text, an incredibly important lesson I learnt was how to form a bond with a cast. Again, I have to remind anyone reading this in this era that this was in the nineties, when people would throw themselves heart and soul into a production, which is unimaginable today. And this was the commitment to creation that I tried to pass on to students when I started teaching theatre in secondary schools. Inevitably at the end of a production the students would feel a certain kind of euphoria, and the more committed they were and more they were pushed, they more they felt it. They didn't necessarily knew where it came from, but I did.
When I started Aporia Society, I had already formulated at least the kind of work that I did not want to do, and what I ended up with, was something that was more anti-theatre than anything else. This was not well received by the scene who were enthralled by spectacle on the one hand and social issues on the other. The interesting was that those who watched it were deeply moved. In retrospect one can say that in some ways, it was preparing the way for my film work.