In 2004, News Busters!, a piece based on the form of Newspaper Theatre, was created. At that time, I just had a simple thought – I wanted to know how I could bring theatre into the heartlands via not only a direct but also intelligent manner. In this respect, I also wanted to be closer to those audiences who have never once watched a theatre performance before.
News reports can serve as an ingenious way of entry, and connection to others. The nature of news is such that it is constantly evolving, and it relates closely to the everyday life of the people. It may seem at times like an innocuous report, but in actual fact, there are so many things one can read from this report. The arrangement of the articles, the headlines which have been chosen to be enlarged, the selection of photographs, and the choice of words – they have all been done so with a calculated purpose. I began to wonder, “What would happen if I choose to organize all these published articles in a montage, but in another fashion?” Will this reorganization allow the audience to have a different interpretation of the intentions behind these articles? As such, News Busters! started using projections extensively to present these headlines. This device of presenting news through projections subsequently became an integral part of the play’s structure.
In addition, we created a fictional household, the Dong family. The simplest manifestation of any social relations is that of a family. In the family structure, there is a distribution of power, alongside allocations of status and roles based on your ranking and abilities. Within the Dong family, there is the maternal grandmother, the mother, her son and the domestic helper. We can see glimpses of Singapore from each and every member of the Dong household. They have their own desires, their hopes for the country, and conversely, their frustrations with it.
Next, we had to consider our casting choices. The challenge of News Busters! lies in the fact that it is heavily dependent on the actors’ ability to dissect and think critically about the news events. This is because we have no script to fall on, only points of emphasis and scenes illustrated from the news events. The actors, as such, have to think independently, and create necessary dialogues on their own. As such, we have spent considerable time, amounting to a few weeks, discussing the content of theses news articles, prior to going into rehearsals proper. However, the angle in which we approach the news is not from that of an actor, but that of a Singaporean citizen. These few weeks’ of legwork prior to rehearsals is the most important part of the creation process. It is also the most challenging and difficult, but nevertheless the most cathartic as well. If the foundation of the work is not forged with much stability, it would definitely affect our future improvisations and direction.
News Busters! has had the same creative team working on it since 2004. This can also be considered a miracle. It is definitely not easy to have started a fixed creative team and then have it going for almost a decade. This team has stayed on because it is a fervent believer of the philosophy underpinning News Busters! and it cares very much about Singapore and her people. Over these ten years, we have seen one another get married and have children, but we are still one tight unit. Having worked with one another for such a long time, we have developed our own chemistry and a familiar performance language with one another. As such, rehearsals have been very condensed and efficient.
In 2004, we made our debut at the rehearsal space in Drama Box itself. A few days before the show, there was the news of the tsunami. We then added this piece of news at the last minute, and began raising funds for the victims of the tsunami. At that time, our working personnel were distributing flyers at Chinatown, and inviting members of the public to watch the show for free. As a result, many foreign workers also had the opportunity to watch theatre for the first time. We then had the honour to witness at such close distances their joys and laughter when they were watching us perform. We also broke out of our characters, and laughed at the characters that they had come up with in response to our performance.
I have constantly been thinking, “Why am I doing theatre? Who am I doing it for?” These few years, no matter how difficult it has been, being able to see theatre enter the heartlands and have these audiences witness the production have made it one of the happiest and touching moments of my life. The unique quality of News Busters! is in its adventurous yet critical tone. It is not afraid of anything. Hehe. Just like a jester in front of the Emperor, it chooses to make a critique with much wit and humour. Through this critique, the production expresses the concerns, sadness, happiness and anxiety one has with Singapore. This is probably what I have learnt and been influenced by, from my experience with Italian comedy.
Italian comedy in the early days used to take the form of mobile street theatre. Due to its coarse language and its absurd yet critical style, it was deemed unsuitable for performances in the palace. Their performances often reflected both the concerns of the countrymen as well as their lifestyles. There was no script – only simple plots, improvised lines and the actors would put on many masks, but each, a classic archetype. Flowing from this style, characters from News Busters! also embodied various outlandish and strange characteristics and spoke dialects as well. This casual, absurd but appealing form of practice has inspired me profoundly. We even joked that News Busters! has a style which we term as “uncouth aesthetics”.
After 2004, we started touring the production at outdoor venues. We toured from Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Chinatown to various other places, all the way till 2008. At that time, News Busters! was only 40 minutes long, and was a part of Drama Box’s community theatre performances. Slowly, the audience became more supportive, and was hooked on to the journey of these characters.
In 2009, we decided to go into a theatre space and put up our final performance for the series. At the Old Parliament House, we looked and reviewed Singapore. However, there was always a sense of awkwardness and dejection that pervaded from being in that building. In the heartlands, anyone could watch the performances. It belonged to everyone. However, in the theatre, only those who have bought the tickets could watch it. That process filtered out a sizeable portion of the intended audience. Ergo, we realized that the show should return to the heartlands, a place where it most belonged. We were missing the elderly on crutches, the uncles and aunties who would laugh uninhibitedly, the curious passer-bys, and all those familiar friends who would sit on floor and enjoy the evening with us. News Busters! came from the people, and naturally, it should be with the people as well.
In 2013, News Busters! returned.
The story behind our creation process holds many complicated emotions.
However, when it encountered its audience this year, it still retained its simplicity and was easily comprehended. Just like the text above. Hehe.
Continue reading on Issue 3 / July 2013:Tradition and Modernity