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Introduction[edit]

It was only in the second half of the 1980s that gay writers started to explore the hitherto taboo area of homosexuality in their works. The licencing authority, however, was not quite ready so that in 1988, 3 plays with gay themes were banned from being performed. These were Eleanor Wong's "Jackson on a Jaunt", Chay Yew's "As if He Hears" and Russell Heng's "Lest The Demons Get To Me". The first two plays were subsequently staged in 1989/1990 after negotiations with the authority. The third was staged in 1992 after Singapore's culture policy was liberalised by her new Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong.

Theatre Companies[edit]

The following theatre companies have been active in staging plays which examine LGBT issues:

Historical[edit]

Contemporary[edit]

The Necessary Stage Ltd[edit]

Action Theatre Ltd[edit]

Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble[edit]

The Fun Stage[edit]

  • Tanglin Post Office PO Box 412 Singapore 921414. Artistic Co-director: Mr. Benny Lim. Tel/ Fax: 6225 0501 Email: funstage@thefunstage.org

W!ld Rice Ltd[edit]

  • 3A Kerbau Road, Singapore 219142. Company Manager: Ms. Doris Lee. Artistic Director: Mr. Ivan Heng. Tel: 6292 2695 Fax: 6292 2249 Email: ivanheng@pacific.net.sg.

W!ld Rice had its funding cut in 2011, presumably for producing too many LGBT plays. It later secured funding from Man investments.

Productions[edit]

The following are some of the local theatre productions which have featured cross-dressing or LGBT themes:

Before 2001[edit]

In 1988, Theatreworks tried to stage Chay Yew's Ten Little Indians and Eleanor Wong's Jackson on a Jaunt. Both were plays on HIV/AIDS, featuring sympathetic gay male characters. In response, the Ministry of Community Development withdrew its funding, outraged that homosexuality might be put forward as "a natural and acceptable form of sexuality"[1].

In 1991, Dramabox presented Another Tribe by Otto Fong Yong Chin, Singapore's first Mandarin-language play to be given an R21 rating as it contained stories about gays youths and their love stories, including a relationship between an older and a younger man[2].

In 1992, Theatreworks produced Tan Tarn How's work, The Lady of Soul and her Ultimate S-Machine, whose madcap political and sexual contents included a passionate gay love affair between a Minister of State and a senior civil servant. That year, the transgender community became a focus of attention in Russell Heng's Lest The Demons Get to Me and Michael Chiang's extremely popular comedy Private Parts.

And in 1993, lesbian theatre came into its own - Ovidia Yu's iconic Three Fat Virgins Unassembled featured a repressed dyke in its array of dissatisfied Singapore women, and Eleanor Wong's Mergers and Accusations presented the lesbian lawyer Ellen - the future star of a trilogy of lesbian plays, Invitation to Treat.

Local theatre presented an opportunity for Singaporeans to encode pro-gay messages into their productions, while being able to publicly disclaim a confessional side to their works - after all, many of these queer plays were indeed written by straight playwrights. Singapore's government had decided to invest in Singapore's cultural scene, yet by its nature, the theatre was always a space for outsiders of society, where genders could change in the dressing room in a puff of powder. No wonder the late Senior Minister of Education Tay Eng Soon desperately pleaded in a 1992 speech, "By all means, let our 'cultural desert' bloom. But please let the blossoms be beautiful and wholesome!"

Jackson on a jaunt[edit]

As if he hears[edit]

Lest the demons get to me[edit]

Emily of Emerald Hill[edit]

M Butterfly[edit]

The internationally acclaimed theatre piece by Chinese-American playwright David Hwang about a transvestite male opera star’s deceptive seduction of an unsuspecting French male diplomat in China was a watershed in more ways than one. It was staged during the 1990 Singapore International Arts Festival in the wake of the proscription of 3 gay plays just 2 years earlier, probably to symbolise newly-appointed Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's vision of a "kinder and gentler Singapore". It also marked the first instance of total nudity in Singapore theatre. The impact was heightened by the local media which, habitually sensitised to the political climate, highlighted members of the political elite seated in the front row taking in the spectacle with cultured nonchalance.

The Swimming Instructor[edit]

Written by award-winning director Desmond Sim, it was first staged in 1999 in Singapore. The play has been described as a modern love triangle where a poor little rich girl and a workaholic professional young man fall in love with the same 'sexually-ambiguous' hunk – a swimming instructor[3].

The Gunong Sayang Association's Peranakan plays[edit]

The matriarch in most Peranakan plays is played by a man, akin to theatre in Shakespearean times. Nyonya women were not encouraged to perform in front of an audience.

The most popular male cross-dressing matriarch to have performed in these plays was GT Lye, whose baju panjangs were made by Aljunied Brothers at Arab Street.

Kenny Chan is a comedic performer from Melaka who has also played the matriarch role and is known for what some consider rather crude stand-up comedy acts. Chan was most recently seen as Romeo in the TV12 series, "The Ways of the Matriarch".

Examples of Peranakan plays which featured a male cross-dressing matriarch include:

2001[edit]

An occasional orchid[edit]

From 17 April to 13 May 2001, the transgender play by Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow entitled "An occasional orchid" was staged at The Room Upstairs, 42 Waterloo Street[4],[5].

Shakespeare's R&J[edit]

In May 2001, the Singapore Repertory Theatre produced "Shakespeare's R&J", directed by Tony Petito. It was a revisionist version of Romeo and Juliet in which all the roles were played by men[6].

Abuse suxx!!![edit]

In October 2001, The Necessary Stage staged a play called "Abuse Suxx!!!" which featured a scene in which the 2 male leads kissed each other[7]. It also starred Singapore's iconic cross-dressing comedian, Kumar.

2002[edit]

Beautiful thing[edit]

From 25 January to 24 February 2002 with occasional breaks, theatre company Toy Factory staged a Singaporean adaptation of the British play by Jonathan Harvey entitled "Beautiful thing" at the Toy Factory Theatrette, 17A Smith Street[8]. Directed by Beatrice Chia[9], it told the story of 2 teenage boys finding love and the prejudice that not only exists in laws, but in people's hearts.

From 21 to 31 March 2002, Livid Room Productions, a feminist theatre company, staged a lesbian play entitled "Stop Kiss" at the Toy Factory Theatrette, 17A Smith Street[10]. It tells the story of Callie (Adelina Ong) and Sara (Esther Yap) who find themselves falling in love after a string of heterosexual relationships. When their courtship culminates in a public kiss, they become victims of a hate crime. While Sara lies in a coma in hospital, Callie's finds herself questioning her identity and her faith in their relationship.

2003[edit]

Shopping and fucking[edit]

Directed by Beatrice Chia, who won a DBS Life! Theatre Awards in 2001 for Best Director.

Invitation to treat[edit]

A month-long trilogy of plays performed at the Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel in April 2003. They were penned by acclaimed playwright and academic lawyer Eleanor Wong[11] and produced by W!LD RICE, a professional theatre company founded by well-regarded Artistic Director Ivan Heng[12]. Despite the stellar credentials of the artists involved in the production of the plays, it failed to secure any sponsorship, probably due to its lesbian theme[13]. Despite this, it enjoyed an overwhelming response with 3 additional performance being added[14].

The three plays of Invitation To treat spanned 20 years in the life of their protagonist, Ellen Toh, following her journey towards self-discovery and self-actualisation. She was a smart, ambitious and hardworking lesbian lawyer who married her best friend in a 'marriage of convenience' that presented her with the best of both worlds– a socially respectable position, and a husband who accepted her sexual orientation.

The plays swept the audience along a unique and enjoyable journey, an Odyssey of insights which recounted the story of one member of an invisible minority who struggled with her sexuality and, over time, grew increasingly confident and self-aware, with more than a little help from her friends. Heng hoped that the LGBT community would relate to the plays which included 'insider' jokes and references that could only be fully appreciated by the gay community, with scripts that were not dumbed down to accommodate a straight audience. Owing to its lesbian theme, the producers experienced great difficulty in securing a corporate sponsor.

Mergers & accusations and Wills & secession ran as a double bill from 2 to 6 April 2003.

examined personal choices and living in transition while dreaming of, hoping for, and wanting, the 'perfect' future.

explored the corridors of the past, and unravelled the bonds of family and faith in the face of disease and death.

(world-premiered from 9 to 26 April 2003) laid bare the struggle for commitment, exploded the meaning of family, love and friendship, and the right of a minority to live and love honestly and fearlessly.

3 Men & A Boot[edit]

On 23 and 24 May 2003, 3 of Singapore's most talented theatre performers who also happened to by gay - Darius Tan, Gani Abdul Karim and Juwanda Hassim starred in the original musical production, "3 Men & A Boot" at the Victoria Theatre[15]. It was about 3 guys trying to make it in a very tough and fast paced Singapore. With love, faith and hope as their guide they waddle through funny, touching and nonsensical moments...with a smelly boot offering some help.

Bent[edit]

From 25 July to 17 August 2003, Toy Factory presented "Bent" at The Attic, level 4, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road[16]. It was an award-winning and groundbreaking play by Martin Sherman about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, coming out and the struggle for gay pride.

Mardi Gras[edit]

From 13 to 17 August 2003, The Necessary Stage presented Harish Sharma's gay play, "Mardi Gras"[17][18],[19] at the Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel. The comedy was about a group of people wanting to organise Singapore's first Pride Parade. It starred well known local TV personalities including Hossan Leong, Jimmy T, VJ Rick Tan, with special guest appearances by Kumar and Irene Ang.

Beautiful Thing (in Chinese)[edit]

From 1 to 26 October, Toy Factory staged, at The Attic, the Mandarin production of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing starring local actors Scott Lei, Charmaine Ang, Ben Xiao, Darius Tan and Alicia Kim in Singapore for the second time[20].

2004[edit]

Landmarks - Asian Boys Vol. 2[edit]

From 4 to 15 February 2004, W!ld Rice presented "Landmarks - Asian Boys Vol. 2" at the Esplanade Theatre Studio[21]. Written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by Ivan Heng, the collection of eight short plays told the stories of the lives of gay men in Singapore set against a familiar backdrop of saunas, cruising spots, parties, coming out issues, sex, and the city.

Not Guilty[edit]

From 12 to 22 May 2004, Singapore's iconic drag comedian, Kumar, acted in the play "Not Guilty" at Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel[22]. The play, produced by Arts Central, directed by Alvin Tan and written by veteran playwright Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage was about Kumar's life, childhood, family, being Indian, career and living in Singapore.

Top or bottom[edit]

From 28 July to 1 August 2004, director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage restaged 2003's glamourama "Mardi Gras" at the Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel with a new cast, script and sequel entitled "Top Or Bottom"[23]. The latter ran from 4 to 14 August, with breaks. The new cast included Paerin Choa, Jay Espano, and sitcom queens of Singapore, Irene Ang and Koh Chieng Mun. While Mardi Gras examind the issues faced by the Singapore gay community as a whole, Top Or Bottom looked at problems faced by the gay individual. Hossan Leong took the lead role of makeup artist Faith who had to deal with the untimely death of a friend. It lead Faith to question the way he has lived his life, including the choice he made long ago to come of the closet and set it on fire. "Mardi Gras" and "Top or Bottom" were part of the first ever Nation.04 Arts programme which included several other plays like the first Mandarin production of "Mergers and Wills"[24] and art exhibitions.

Private parts[edit]

It took Singapore by storm when it premiered at the 1992 Singapore Arts Festival, generating a buzz that lasted well past its 2 sell-out seasons, both during the festival and its immediate rerun, when it played to an estimated audience of 20,000.

The cast of "Private Parts".

Many felt that Private Parts was popular playwright Michael Chiang’s best play to date; definitely, it was his most politicised. The man who defined Singapore comedy with runaway hits like Army Daze, Beauty World and Mixed Signals, surprised many with this pointed yet poignant piece of writing.

Pushing the envelope the way no other local production had ever done, Private Parts was a play many agree was ahead of its time. One gets involved with a talk-show host who soon finds out the true meaning of reality TV. One gets a glimpse of the brutality of media competition: how far would one go for higher ratings? Plus, for a nation of gawkers weaned on the night-time beauties of Bugis Street back in the 60s, here was an up-close peek into that mysterious world of drag queens. What more could one want from theatre in the rigid, pre-RA days of Singapore?

Hype aside, Private Parts made news because it was able to engross even the most conservative of audiences with its bittersweet (and unexpectedly moving) story about 3 transsexuals trying to find their place in life. Way before Hollywood was feted for daring to do the same by putting Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving in heels and makeup for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Not to mention Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguziamo donning even bigger bouffants and bosoms in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything (1995).

The story: Briefly, a Star Search winner fronts a current-affairs talk show to improve ratings. His life turns upside down when he ends up in a sex-change clinic with 3 transsexuals. After befriending them, he tries to get them on his show.

Private Parts proved to be such an audience favourite that it was revived in 1995 for another run, this time including a Mandarin version (which starred Edmund Chen and the late comedian Hua Liang) as well!

And 12 years on, Michael Chiang’s much-acclaimed play returned to the Singapore stage for a limited season, to wow new audiences, and hopefully bring back some of its old supporters. The new, updated production had its run at the Esplanade Theatre from 28 July to 1 August 04.

Autumn Tomyam[edit]

White sails over blue sea[edit]

East Side story[edit]

2005[edit]

Porcelain[edit]

From 7 to 17 April 2005, with breaks, Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble in collaboration with the Esplanade presented the eagerly awaited local debut of Singapore-born, Los Angeles-based playwright Chay Yew's "Porcelain" at the Esplanade Theatre Studio[25]. The controversial R(A) play, which was bestowed the prestigious London Fringe Award for Best Play in 1992, followed a young Asian man's struggle to find himself in the face of homophobia and racism after shooting his lover in Bethnal Greens Tube station's cruisy toilet. It was directed by award-winning directors Goh Boon Teck and Beatrice Chia, and starred LIFE! Theatre Awards Best Actor nominees, Nelson Chia and Mark Richmond.

Boxing cabaret[edit]

  • A unique one-woman show on 17 and 18 June 2005 by Parinya Charoenphol, also familiarly known in Thai as Nong Thoom. The famous former Muay Thai (kickboxing) champion who stunned the world with her gender change invited the audience into her colourful world where strength meets beauty, fight meets dance and heart meets mind.

Spirits 'Yao Jing'[edit]

  • It world-premiered on 3 June 2005 at the Victoria Theatre. Written as a special dedication to Toy Factory's 15th anniversary and directed by award-winning director Goh Boon Teck, it recounted once upon 5,000 years ago when 5 ill-fated beauties were impeached for their tramped existence. Spirits unveiled 5 untold stories of Sai Jing Hua from the Qing dynasty, an infamous protitute, Bao Si from the Zhou dynasty, the concubine who never smiled, Lu Hou from the Han dynasty, the revengeful empress, Ya Zuan Ji from the Tang dynasty, a poetic priestess and Ke Shi Ming from the Ming dynasty, the Great Madam, all of whom were despised and condemned by Chinese historians.
  • It was crafted as a musical, infusing 5 different forms of Chinese opera, namely Yue, Jing, Li Yuan, Huang Mei and Yu, with contemporary funk. No traditional opera musical instruments or props were employed in this unconventional fusion. Instead, there were 4 actors, 5 martial artistes, 7 musicians, 1 saxophonist and 5 genres of opera in this creative mix.
  • Spirits advanced Chinese opera a step forward, creating a new theatre platform for the younger generation. Multimedia effects and high-tech neon swords replaced traditional props. An outrageous wardrobe dazzled and a fascinating mobile stage transported the audience to another world.
  • The constantly challenged notion of masculinity in Asia has unfortunately led to the near extinction of opera female impersonators. Toy Factory proudly featured 5 of these professional 'Nan Hua Dan' from Singapore and China, which made the musical drama all the more gripping.

Quills[edit]

From 16 to 25 September 2005, theatre company Luna-id presented "Quills", a play about the Marquis de Sade in which its dashing lead actor, Reehan Engineer, displayed one hour of full-frontal male nudity, a first in Singapore[26]. It was staged at the DBS Arts Centre, home of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, 20 Merbau Road, Robertson Walk.

Boys[edit]

A project by Richard Chua, after Lover's Words, about heterosexuals in a homosexual society. It was an extension of Chua's belief that life should be led honestly and truthfully. In his quest to further meditate on love between people (in this case, among 3 boys in their 20s), Chua embarked on this project to push his collaborators to work in a space where they had nowhere to go, but to clean.

Cleaning was an essential task that would bring these boys to the next phase of eternity. The story was about love - love that seemed to be defined differently by different people, with different perspectives, resulting in different outcomes. Each boy had a love story to tell.

2006[edit]

A Language of Their Own[edit]

From 30 March to 9 April 2006, Checkpoint Theatre presented US-based Singaporean playwright Chay Yew's "A Language of Their Own" (RA18) at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The play, which won the George and Elisabeth Marton Playwriting Award and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award for Best Play starred actors Phin Wong and Koey Foo.

Let Me Entertain You![edit]

From 12 to 15 April 2006, director Loretta Chen presented "Let Me Entertain You!", a production starring Darius Tan which featured songs from a myriad Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals, and riveting, risque and raunchy theatre at the Arts House's Play Den[27]. Joining Darius onstage were veterans like Gerald Chew, Gani Karim, and Hatta Said, amongst others.

The Seven-Month Itch[edit]

From 8 to 12 November 2006, The Necessary Stage and Action for Aids presented an interactive play entitled "The Seven-Month Itch", written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, with audience interaction facilitated by company artistic director Alvin Tan[28]. Daniel Yeo and Timothy Nga played Daniel and Jason, 2 gay men who had been boyfriends for 7 months before the latter met a man in a club had unprotected sex with him. Audiences could interrogate actors (hotseating), suggest certain courses of action (playback theatre), or march in and replace the main character themselves to change a course of action (forum theatre).

2007[edit]

Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol.3[edit]

From 11 to 29 July 2007, W!ld Rice presented "Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol.3" (rated M18) at the Drama Centre Theatre, National Library[29]. It was written by playwright/poet/social activist Alfian Sa'at, who in 2003 e-mailed Johann S. Lee, author of Singapore's first gay novel, "Peculiar Chris", soliciting his permission to adapt the novel into a theatre production which deals with what happens to the characters as they grow older, even creating an imaginary author as a character in the play. It starred an ensemble of both new and familiar faces including Lim Kay Siu, Karen Tan, Timothy Nga, Ben Seow, Pierre Goh and Hansel Tan.

2008[edit]

Death and Dancing[edit]

From 20 to 23 November 2008, Buds Theatre Company presented "Death and Dancing" at Play disco, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road[30]. The funny, uplifting play, performed stand-up comedy style, was about 2 friends named Max and Max, a gay man and a lesbian woman (acted by Benjamin Wong and Rebecca Lee respectively) both struggling to define themselves against society's expectations.

2009[edit]

Kumar: Stripped Bare and Standing Up[edit]

From 19 to 21 March 2009, Dream Academy presented 'Kumar: Stripped Bare and Standing Up' at the Esplanade Theatre. In a Fridae article shortly before the performance run and during the shows themselves, drag icon Kumar came out as a gay man for the very first time after denying the fact several times before[31].

From 8 to 25 July 2009, Wild Rice staged "Own Time Own Target" a double-bill of comedies at the Drama Centre. The dealt with the Singapore army and included a musical about a gay soldier[32].

From 6 to 8 August 2009, Leona Lo, possibly Singapore’s best known transsexual, performed her one-woman play, "Ah Kua Show" at The Substation. It was directed by Emeric Lau and was based on her 2007 memoir "From Leonard to Leona: A Singapore Transsexual's Journey to Womanhood", written over a course of 11 years. The book traces the major milestones in the 34-year-old PR consultant’s life from suffering a nervous breakdown while performing compulsory military service, surviving a suicide attempt at 19 to using his tuition money for her sexual reassignment surgery in Bangkok in 1997 whilst she was a first year student at the University of York in the UK. The play was Lo’s latest attempt to bring transgender issues to the forefront[33].

2010[edit]

2011[edit]

2012[edit]

2013[edit]

2014[edit]

Let's Get Back Together[edit]

Let’s Get Back Together was an original testimonial theatre piece exploring what it meant to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT) in Singapore in this day and age. Based on interviews conducted with over 50 brave and inspiring individuals, Let's Get Back Together explored the realities that LGBT individuals face on a daily basis. From coming out to facing discrimination to grappling with faith, the road to acceptance is a constant and very real struggle for many in the community.

With these voices, the group hoped to render more visible their struggles, and of course, triumphs - a timely reminder in light of heated public discourse. And in doing so, break the barriers to understanding the complex and contentious nature of this hot-button issue in Singapore. They believed that the first step to mutual respect was understanding.

It was held at the Drama Centre Black Box (NLB building Level 5)from 2 to 5 September 2014.

References[edit]

  • 1 August 2006, Fridae article, "A look back on gay theatre in Singapore" by Ng Yi-Sheng[34].
  • A list of LGBT characters portrayed in Singapore theatre, posted by The Savage Circle on SiGNeL in June 2000:[35].

External links[edit]

  • The Flying Inkpot theatre and dance reviews: [36]

The Flying Inkpot was launched in 1996 to create an online platform for writing about the arts in Singapore. Despite being staffed by volunteers, the theatre wing has established itself as the longest-running theatre and dance review journal in Singapore, with over 800 reviews in its archive. It also provides comprehensive listings of productions, auditions and workshops.

Acknowledgements[edit]

This article was written by Roy Tan based on information published on Fridae, with some information contributed by Wikipedia users who are Singaporean theatre aficionados.