The warm evening air is swept away by a blast of cold and anticipation as the crowd files into the theatre. The bell for the final call rings in the distance, and the audience hurries to their seats. Lights dim and the crowd goes silent; a woman walks on stage wearing a sequinned dress, the pink light reflecting off it. The theme of this play: The exploration of one’s sexuality. It’s rare to hear such an issue aired in public. Is theatre where you will find the truest freedom of expression in Singapore?
Not always. As recently as 2011, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (uncensored) was allowed back to Singapore after it original ban in 1975 due to its sexual content. A week after its doors opened, the musical was cancelled for the second time.
Why? Nobody knows. Owen Belliveau, founder of not-for-profit theatre company Evolve Arts, says he believes authorities had forgotten how controversial the musical was for conservative Singapore. Despite these challenges for major productions, Belliveau says theatre companies apply to return to Singapore because there is a strong market.
“You can charge $200 a ticket knowing people will pay because not much theatre comes out here,” he says.
Belliveau and his friends were one of the few who got to see Rocky Horror before its cancellation. After the show, the group went to a bar to celebrate, clad in fishnet stockings, corsets, and push-up bras. Out of nowhere, Belliveau recalls with a grin, a beaming voice called out to him, “nice tights!” It was Singapore’s famously conservative ex-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He’d been at the show. Despite the friendliness of the exchange, they were left to question whether the interaction was part of the reason the show didn’t last another week.
A few years after, Belliveau and the rest of the Evolve Arts team decided to challenge the status quo and perform the Rocky Horror Picture Show for their students’ parents.
First, they had to apply to Infocomm Media Development Authority, a government body that examines the content of every public performance.
“We had to change the title and some of the content to fit into Singapore standards because it had some LGBTQ topics which weren’t allowed.”Evolve Art’s head of musical theatre Jessica Galetti-Leong
Once the IMDA provides a classification and feedback, the company has a chance to make any changes that can alter the classification if required. This needs to happen before they print any promotional material.
Navigating cultural sensitivities
Evolve Art tries to accommodate these sensitivities. Staff members often change words or lines in plays that may be considered offensive. Words such as idiot have been changed to fool, or clown, and the word rubbish, which can be considered derogatory, is also changed.
The company believes it’s integral to educate all audiences about cultural differences through theatre. And it continues to go into schools to educate students on topics that are often taboo in Singaporean culture.
An example of this occurred when directing the musical Hairspray. Galetti-Leong says she had to teach her students about segregation in America. She found many knew about it, but most of the local students weren’t as informed.
Trying to think on her feet, she split the class into three and did a learning exercise about segregation: the first line in front could take part in all the theatre games; the second line had to stay in the middle and could only participate in two of the games; the last line had to stay at the back and wasn’t allowed to play any games. Afterward, they discussed the exercise. She says these theatre games actively taught the students about the issue, in a way that a PowerPoint presentation never could.
Educating future generations
The company sees theatre as a safe way to broach controversial topics, and recognises the importance of fostering creativity. Belliveau says around eight years ago there was a push for creativity. The government realised Singaporean students who went to universities in other countries were learning creative skills elsewhere, when they should have been equipped with them while they were at primary school.
Belliveau says: “Theatre is so important to have in Singapore, especially from a country with an education system based around the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic which is very structured around rote learning.
“The arts bring imagination and creativity and the ability to think outside the box.”Owen Belliveau
Following in Evolve Arts’ footsteps, Buds Theatre is a not-for-profit charity hoping the arts can create change. To support the company financially, staff members provide education programs. Buds’ co-artistic director Masturah Oli says the staff members teach students about topics such as racism and sexual orientation, which are usually not covered in schools.
“As a drama instructor I have a leeway. When I do teach theatre at schools I talk about these topics and I make it a point that the teachers in the room also know what I’m talking about,” she says.
Buds Theatre founder and co-artistic director Claire Devine says the arts are important to society to educate the audience and give a voice to the people. She believes,by creating a safe space the theatre has allowed young people in the country to learn about different issues without censure.
Devine says all mainstream schools run their own censorship board. This allows them to tackle more pressing issues than professional theatre companies. “I think it’s because we have access to audiences and they only share with their families who have a much broader perspective,” she says. “There is this idea that Singapore’s government can be very difficult, but our experience isn’t so. If we have a clear understanding of each other, we are then supported to a degree.” She says she finds you need to assure IMDA the production you are wanting to do won’t start a riot, then they are open.
Interestingly, the company’s co-artistic director Masturah Oli says, one thing they don’t allow is the word use of “Government” in any performance, instead, it can be substituted by GAHMEN.
One of Bud’s “most progressive” devised plays was on the topic of drugs. This got approved because the storyline itself took place outside of the country.
“If you keep it generic and not specific it normally gets approved. It’s just when it is directed, then it upsets the equilibrium I suppose.”Masturah Oli
GHY Culture & Media is a film, television, and live entertainment business specific to the Asia-Pacific region. Director of educational services & business development Don Chen says a reason for the government’s strict policies is to prevent a repeat of the racial riots that occurred in the 1960s. According to Chen, this violence was a push for the government to shift its focus to foster social harmony.
Chen explained just a month ago a feature film called #LookAtMe,” by Ken Kwek was turned down by IMDA. The reasoning for its ban: it could potentially injure the feelings of priests and Christians and cause disharmony. The film is about a homosexual priest who was sexually involved with minors.
“The government is very mindful of harmony which is very revealing. There is still an undercurrent of racial incidences and people making insensitive remarks,” says Chen.
The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.