Stories > A Play of Cultures
A Play of Cultures
Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute trains actors in traditional and contemporary theatre forms from around the world, with a focus on cultural diversity.
BY SHWETA PARIDA
PHOTOS ITI & THE STRAITS TIMES/SPH
raditional theatre forms have thrived in Singapore for over 200 years. Building on the legacy of two centuries of theatre, nowhere is this heritage as evidently on display as at the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI). As the country’s first dedicated school that trains professional actors in contemporary theatre, it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and brings forth a distinctly Singaporean attribute: multiculturalism.
Co-founded by late theatre thespian Kuo Pao Kun and T. Sasitharan (popularly known as Sasi), one of Singapore’s foremost authorities on performing arts – both are recipients of the prestigious Cultural Medallion – the ITI was formed to nurture global contemporary theatre talent in the Lion City’s multicultural milieu.
A bold idea for its time, Sasi and Kuo were convinced that if the ITI concept could work anywhere, it was in Singapore.
“There are few cities in the world that are as cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic as Singapore, which was known as the Boston of the East even before the British arrived here,” says Sasi, pointing out that foreign scholars came here to live and study.
“We’ve lived an intercultural reality for the past 700 years. We’ve grown up with multilingualism and a consciousness of the ‘cultural other’. Even with my Indian ethnicity, I grew up with Chinese and Malay music, literature and theatre.”
Sasi – who previously held the roles of artistic director at The Substation, art critic as well as academic at the National University of Singapore – notes that the nation’s theatre culture is a lot more complex than it appears. He provides pertinent context to the local theatre scene’s evolution.
“Written records of the theatre scene have existed since the 1820s, just after the British arrived,” he points out.
“We’ve Lived An Intercultural Reality For The Past 700 Years. We Have Grown Up With Multilingualism And A Consciousness Of The ‘Cultural Other’. Even With My Indian Ethnicity, I Grew Up With Chinese And Malay Music And Literature.”
T. Sasitharan, Co-founder, Intercultural Theatre Institute
Charting its transformation, he shares that, initially, it started off as folk theatre – held at places of worship and during religious festivals – that was brought over by immigrants from China and India, in addition to existing indigenous forms. These included the Malay bangsawan, Chinese opera and Indian theatre.
“These vernacular forms lacked refined aesthetics,” he says. “Shortly after the arrival of the British, the English theatre practice started to dominate and, until today, forms a part of the colonial layering in Singapore’s theatre history.”
Contrary to popular belief that modern theatre in Singapore started only in the 1990s, Sasi explains that particularly at English schools, theatre and literature were an informal part of the curriculum through extra-curricular activities.
“The first arts festival was held in 1958. In fact, the National Arts Council and other government initiatives in the arts and culture sector only came about in the 90s after the comprehensive Ong Teng Cheong report.”
It recommended the establishment of an esplanade, museums and theatres to provide growth impetus for the local arts industry.
A BOLD IDEA GOES GLOBAL
In its initial days, the biggest challenge for Sasi and Kuo was to get people to believe in the idea of an intercultural institution that offers a curriculum and pedagogy based on all the major theatres of the world.
Sasi says he and Kuo decided to take this idea to global theatre experts. They promised themselves that if it was criticised, it would mean that it’s not feasible.
But when the “outlandish and utopian” idea began to attract the attention of international theatre experts, the duo were convinced that it was something worth pursuing. In 2000, the ITI was established underpinning diversity and multiculturalism as not just its unique selling proposition but also its raison d’etre.
Any early scepticism has vanished over the years as many ITI alumni have gone on to become artistes to be reckoned with. One of the most recent examples is from its 2017 cohort – Indian actor Uma Katju, who bagged a role in the BBC TV series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s book A Suitable Boy that was directed by Mira Nair.
“We only have a maximum of 12 students every year because the training is difficult, demanding, and not for everyone,” he says. The school also differs in its assessment approach in that it doesn’t have a grading system but a narrative-driven assessment. To receive the diploma, students have to pass every module, which includes producing two to three plays with at least one original work, and presenting them to the public.
By Sasi’s own admission, the institute’s small scale is both a challenge and a virtue. He explains: “At the ITI, students learn from traditional theatre master practitioners from countries like Japan, India, Indonesia and China for up to three months. This kind of focused training can only be provided for in a small class.”
The veteran theatre practitioner himself has conducted workshops and lectures, and attended conferences in Paris, Madrid, London and New Delhi. These experiences, he says, reveal the East-West distinction in theatre practices. “I have observed that theatre is taught in so many different ways around the world,” he shares. “In Europe, theatre studies have a sort of formalisation and an academic sheen. But at the ITI, we instil the knowledge in the students.”
EMBRACING CULTURAL COMPLEXITIES
In keeping with what he describes as “cultural consciousness”, Sasi says that everyone at the ITI learns to accept cultural and ideological differences. The exchange of cultural narratives is one of the important learning aspects here.
One such exchange, he shares, came from a former student from India who belonged to one of the lower-caste marginalised communities. He never had a communal meal in his life up until he came to Singapore. Back in his native place, where he worked for a landowner, he would receive his meal from the latter’s wife after everyone had eaten.
“It took a long time for him to learn how to eat with others. It was a moving experience and a shock because, for us, sharing a meal is an everyday ritual that we take for granted,” says Sasi. “If he had attempted this in his country, he would have been ostracised and disciplined. He returned to India a few years ago with a lot more confidence in his own dignity as a human being.”
Sasi further shares that the talented student’s remarkable transformation during the three years spent at the ITI has helped him break into Malayalam films in India.
Students at the ITI undergo rigorous training in a diverse range of contemporary theatre forms over three years. They must pass every module to earn a diploma.
“I Have Observed That Theatre Is Taught In So Many Different Ways Around The World. In Europe, Theatre Studies Have A Sort Of Formalisation And An Academic Sheen. But At The Iti, We Take That Knowledge And Instil It In The Students.”
Another star alumnus from the ITI’s 2003 cohort is Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, who shares that she started speaking English only when she joined the institute.
The winner of the 2019 Golden Horse Award in Taipei for Best Leading Actress in Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s Wet Season, and a nominee in the Best Performance by an Actress category at the 2020 International Emmy Awards for her role in HBO Asia’s Invisible Stories, Yeo remembers her ITI experience for espousing a shared camaraderie among students who didn’t speak a common language.
“When the lectures started, all of us went into automatic translation mode and translated languages that we were proficient in for the other students,” she reminisces.
Apart from all the serious learning, she recalls a couple of humorous incidents that reflect the diversity of life at the ITI. “One of my classmates from Hong Kong told us about going to Little India by himself to watch an Indian film. But his description of this experience in Cantonese sounded like he was referring to a part of the female anatomy, which would have been crude if we didn’t know what he actually meant. We all had a good laugh about it,” she breaks into a chuckle.
“When The Lectures Started, All Of Us Went Into Automatic Translation Mode And Translated Languages That We Were Proficient In For The Other Students.”
Yeo Yann Yann, Malaysian Actress And ITI Alumnus
In such a diverse setting, language jokes not only lightened up the mood during rigorous training sessions but also offered unexpected cultural insights. Yeo narrates another incident where one of her classmates from Macau was perplexed when it came to stating his race on official forms.
“He had a quick glance at the form and misread the word ‘race’ as ‘rice’. He thought: ‘Wow, this country is so considerate that it even wants to know what kind of rice you eat.’ Of course, when he later realised it was ‘race’, he couldn’t understand this, having come from a mono-culture country.
Certain things are a routine matter for us, but for others, they might be a cultural shock,” she shares.
This, Sasi emphasises, is what an ITI education strives for – helping students gain confidence and perspective by knowing their culture and place in the world. He also believes that learning is not restricted to the classroom alone.
While inside the studio, students learn the theatre craft and techniques, on the outside, they live in HDB flats and mingle with Singaporeans as they take public transportation and eat at hawker centres.
“I Have Realised That Connections Can Go Far Beyond Languages And That There Is No Universal Answer To Interculturality. Singapore Is A Huge Reminder To Me As A Creative Practitioner To Keep My Mind Open.”
“It’s important for them to know, for instance, why one of their Muslim classmates needs to pray five times a day even during lessons, and the differences in beliefs.”
With students coming from as far as Mexico, Poland, Australia, Norway and Taiwan, Sasi appreciates the value that these differences add to theatre studies. “I learn as much from these students as they learn from the institution,” he posits.
Alberto Ruiz Lopez, a 2008 alumnus who is now a faculty member, recounts how he abandoned his plans to study in Italy to move here. “When someone told me about the ITI, I jumped at the chance because I was interested in cross-boundary work,” says the Mexican theatre academic.
“When I first arrived in Singapore in 2005, I didn’t know much about the country except that it was a young and cosmopolitan island-state,” he says. “But as I began to explore, I realised that despite its small size, it was culturally rich, even if it is not always possible to comprehend all of the cultural complexities of other races.”
Ruiz says that the opportunity to learn Kutiyattam, Beijing Opera, Wayang Wong and Noh theatre forms drew him to Singapore. “The ITI offers a cross-pollination process that is multi-dimensional,” he says. Even more poignant is the lesson that Ruiz feels he has learnt at the ITI: that the experience is imbued with such diversity that students do not view even their own cultures with the same eyes anymore.
“The natural instinct for people is to think that their culture or country is the best. But the ITI experience gives you an insight into the richness of other cultures,” says Ruiz, who loves local food such as laksa and curry dishes.
An important perspective, he adds, is that he doesn’t feel that he has to be a local to feel a connection with Singaporeans. “Over the years, I have realised that connections can go far beyond languages and that there is no universal answer to interculturality,” he says. “It is a learning process. Singapore is a huge reminder to me as a creative practitioner to keep my mind open.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGAPORE’S CONTEMPORARY THEATRE
T. Sasitharan, co-founder of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, cites the Experimental Theatre Club – an English language theatre company that produced plays adapted from England – and a wave of local writers who began to pen original plays in the 1970s and 80s as the leading forces of a bona fide local theatre movement.
Literary figures such as Robert Yeo; Stella Kon, who wrote the seminal play Emily of Emerald Hill; and Lim Chor Pee, whose Mimi Fan is largely considered to be Singapore’s first English-language play, brought to the fore local talent and signalled the start of a new era in the country’s theatre history.
Describing Emily of Emerald Hill – staged in 1985 – as one of the turning points in Singapore’s theatre history, Sasi recalls how evident it was that a Singaporean Chinese-Peranakan character, speaking in English and connecting the present with the past, her consciousness, and the trials and tribulations of her life, became something significant that all Singaporeans could identify with.
It also marked the first time that a local play was staged well with a good director, actor and production values. Subsequently, it was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1986, garnering international acclaim.
Alongside the organisational and infrastructural development that was sweeping the arts sector, theatre companies such as The Necessary Stage, followed by The Substation, were soon established.