Forum Theater in Singapore
Resistance, Containment, and Commodification in an Advanced Industrial Society
Published in positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 21, Number 1, Winter.
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Forum theater is an interactive practice whose “third-world” revolutionary origins have been transposed into techniques for dealing with “oppressions” within bourgeois societies. By constructing an analytical framework that articulates a Marcusean “one-dimensional society” approach and a Gramscian “constant struggle for hegemony” approach, this article discusses forum theater's relative autonomy from and susceptibility to the authoritarian and culture-industry logics of advanced industrial society. In 1993, forum theater was successfully introduced to Singapore by local professional theater company The Necessary Stage (TNS) and then quickly proscribed by the state for its Marxist associations and unscripted nature. At the turn of the millennium, however, the state has come to realize more clearly the economic value of the arts, including its “subversive” qualities that may generate excitement and nurture a culture of innovation necessary for the creative economy of renaissance Singapore, a global city for the arts. In the transition to this new climate, TNS and another professional theater company, Drama Box, have attempted to negotiate new forum spaces for critical thinking against the grain of hegemony, without being co-opted by authoritarian capitalism. Both have attempted this in often-contrasting ways: for instance, TNS addresses a mostly English-speaking, theater-attending, middle-class audience, while Drama Box inserts Chinese-language forum theater into the organic everyday-life spaces of working-class communities. While TNS stages most of its forum theater work within the conventional walls of theater space, Drama Box embraces an aesthetic and site specificity that are closer to the form's popular roots. The Marcusean/Gramscian framework presented in this article offers a dynamic approach for critically analyzing the birth, death, and rebirth of forum theater in Singapore, and the contrasting and yet complementary ways in which TNS and Drama Box have negotiated with new opportunities and limitations in their socially conscious artistic practice. That forum theater has “reemerged” — a decade after its proscription by the state — as a “legitimate” part of the global city's state-led and economically driven artistic and cultural “renaissance” calls into question the extent of its radicalism today, but it also offers suggestions for new and more sophisticated modes of resistance and collaboration.
Project Serial Number: AA201301
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