Talks & Interviews

Who’s Afraid of Theatre?

What Goes Around, Comes Around: History is Karma

Updated on: 19 May 2022



In this discussion, TNS will reflect on the contentious events in its history and its struggle to remain independent whilst working within the system. It will discuss what strategies it employs in its works as well as its relationships with agencies that regulate the arts through funding.

In reflecting on the obstacles to art making and The Necessary Stage’s journey with regulation and controversy at the eve of its 25th Anniversary (2012), two significant events in its history (1993) come to mind. The play, Off Centre, and Forum Theatre will be the springboard for this sharing. These two incidences culminated in a newspaper article in the The Straits Times (Jan 1994) framing Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma as Marxists.

Forum Theatre and Performance Art were immediately proscribed. This came 7 years after Third Stage leaders were incarcerated in the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy, and 18 years after the massive leftist purge which saw Kuo Pao Kun, the doyen of Singapore theatre, and his choreographer-wife Goh Lay Kuan, detained under the Internal Security Act.

By 1994, the “Marxist” label, employed with similar intent as the “Communism” label in the 70s to demonise dissidents, was beginning to wear thin amongst Singaporeans. Perhaps the unuttered mistake of the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy resulted in only the art forms being proscribed rather than artists being detained.

Nevertheless, the predicament of artists being persecuted in the name of national security only makes sense when one takes the historical perspective.

What is so threatening about theatre? How does a theatre company negotiate the ebb and flow of top-down regulation to sustain the integrity of its art making especially when what is considered sensitive in one era may not be in another? Are the factors determining the decision to contain art and artists objective, real and transparent, or arbitrary? Or is it just a means to protect the status quo? Does bullying theatre make it more powerful or weaken it? Does it help the government to be more or less accountable? Does it make for a more mature citizenry?

The Necessary Stage’s engagement with controversy is a story that questions the importance of survival: is it better to be a martyr or to live another day so that the work continues? More importantly, history as controversy then has a pulse and can provide continuity, which is a necessary ingredient to enable transformation in the long run. 


Terence Chong
Alvin Tan
Haresh Sharma
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Projects Mentioned




Project Serial Number: TK201107