Understanding Haresh Sharma: 5 things to know about S’pore’s premier playwright 


Posted: 10:21 am, March 13, 2017 by editor
SINGAPORE, Mar 13: With Singapore theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, a very familiar name in the theatre scene has been regularly cropping up: Haresh Sharma.

After all, the company’s resident playwright is one-half of the dynamic duo behind the much-respected theatre group. For three decades, Sharma and TNS founder and artistic director Alvin Tan have pushed their brand of socially-conscious and stylistically innovative theatre.

This year, audiences are certainly having their fill of not just TNS but of Sharma, too, whose plays – old and new – are getting quite a bit of airing.

In February, there was the newly written monologue Actor, Forty, featuring actress Yeo Yann Yann. This month, there’s his school comedy Those Who Can’t, Teach, and a double-bill of Don’t Forget to Remember Me, and Don’t Know, Don’t Care.

Even the Esplanade is in on the act, with this year’s Studios series completely dedicated to Sharma’s plays. Beginning next week, the plays Fundamentally Happy, Hope, Completely With/Out Character, and This Chord And Others are reimagined, translated and restaged. Another experimental show, Precise Purpose Of Being Broken, is based on fragments of Sharma’s texts.

Fast forward to June, and the love fest continues: A TNS and Cake Theatrical Productions collaboration titled Being Haresh Sharma, which will also use texts from his plays through the years.

(Mind you, while all of this takes place, the 2015 Cultural Medallion recipient’s fingerprints are all over another production on the side – he has flexed his creative muscles and plunged into the world of musicals by writing the book for the new 1960s themed Tropicana, which opens in April.)

So how do you get into the Haresh Sharma frame of mind? We sat down with theatremakers involved in some of the productions this year to find out more about one of Singapore’s most important and prolific playwrights. Here are five things we found out.

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* The Esplanade’s 2017 Studios season includes Sharma’s Fundamentally Happy (Photo: Tuckys Photography)
1. HARESH SHARMA ISN’T JUST ABOUT HARESH SHARMA

The longtime resident playwright of The Necessary Stage may have a gazillion plays with his name on them, but Sharma subverts the image of the writer working in solitude.

Instead, collaboration is deeply embedded in his DNA – you can’t talk about Haresh Sharma’s legacy as an artist without mentioning his longtime creative partner-in-crime, TNS’ artistic director Alvin Tan, or even the theatre group itself.

“Can you separate Haresh Sharma from The Necessary Stage or Alvin Tan? I don’t think so. They go hand in hand,” said Loo Zihan, who’s staging With/Out at the Esplanade, an interpretation of the 1999 docudrama Completely With/Out Character, which is based on the life of the late Paddy Chew, the first Singaporean with AIDS to come out in public.

Loo, whose relationship with the company began as a technical intern before landing his first theatre gig as a multimedia designer in 2008, pointed out how Sharma and Tan “balance each other out” in rehearsals. “Haresh is particular about details and Alvin sketches the broader strokes,” he said.

The company’s trademark devising methods also meant everyone had a say in fleshing out a work, before Haresh went off and wrote based on whatever came out of their workshops.

Natalie Hennedige, who is directing the show Being Haresh Sharma in June, was another TNS alumni during the early 2000s before starting her own company, Cake Theatrical Productions. She recalled: “A lot of what happened creatively happened in rehearsals. That space was always the space of the actors, Alvin and Haresh, the stage manager, production people… We would devise a scene for an hour and it would feel like 15 minutes – and we’d have a tight, rich eight-minute scene on paper.”

Beyond being a playwright, Loo said, “Haresh was a dramaturg before the term was even popularised in this part of the region. He’s actually putting pieces of the puzzle together to maximize the impact of storytelling.”

And he’s known to be meticulous not just with words, too. “For a young theatre artist, he can be a little bit intimidating when you first start working with him,” recalled an amused Loo. “Anyone operating the sound for any show can really be on the edge when he’s in the room – he can discern the difference between one decibel louder or softer. That speaks to how he’s a kind of perfectionist, with the production’s best interest in mind.”

* Teater Ekamatra’s Harap is a Malay translation of Sharma’s 1994 piece Hope. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)
2. HE’LL DO WHATEVER HE WANTS – AND WANTS YOU TO DO THE SAME

But if Sharma had a reputation for being sharp and meticulous (and, for TNS newbies, intimidating), he was also an encouraging soul who egged artists to look ahead and be adventurous.

“He was fearless in his belief that you should do what you want and not be swayed or tripped by other things. In that way, he taught me the lesson of fierce, artistic independence,” recalled Hennedige.

“They didn’t coddle me at The Necessary Stage but they also taught me never to mourn or celebrate your work too much. He always told me never to be affected by what people think, and that as artists go through stages, we sometimes want to take our work somewhere else. That was huge for me.” Hennedige took these words to heart, setting up Cake in 2005.

Even those who have only occasionally worked with TNS have noticed the forward-thinking and inclusive mindset by Sharma and his colleagues.

Koh Wan Ching, who’s crafting Precise Purpose Of Being Broken, pointed out how the company created various platforms for experimentation. She herself had taken part in one of these, The Orange Playground laboratory in 2015.

“They’ve also created many other ‘playgrounds’ through the years,” added Nelson Chia. The co-founder of Nine Years Theatre, which is co-staging a Mandarin version of Sharma’s Fundamentally Happy, cited TNS’ different platforms for community, the youth and senior citizens.

“Sharma and the TNS team have been very generous in creating a lot of spaces for other people to come in and work with them,” he said, recalling how his fledgling Mandarin theatre company was invited to do a play to open the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2014.

* This Chord And Others, a play about three young men, was first staged in 1991. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)
3. HE’S A MASTER WORDSMITH WHO WRITES LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS

Of course, at the heart of Sharma’s reputation is his talent as a writer. From his knack of using Singlish to great effect to the layered economy of his words, theatremakers are unanimous in their praise.

“Working on With/Out, you really appreciate the economy of his use of language and text. He can have very complex and emotionally impactful things with very little text. And his use of Singlish, it’s always shorthand for something else,” said Loo.

Meanwhile, Chia remembers his first encounter with a Sharma play when he was still a student at the National University of Singapore. “It was Still Building and that was the first time I saw so many layers in a play. As a young theatre student, I never knew a play could have so many layers!”

For two artists directing a Sharma play for the first time, it’s been an opportunity to really see just how potent a wordsmith he was.

Said Teater Ekamatra artistic director Fared Jainal, who’s directing Harap, a Malay translation of the play Hope: “On the surface, if you look at the piece, it’s simply people talking. But that’s the beauty of Haresh’s works. He doesn’t say a lot but within the conversations, there’s a lot brewing under the surface.”

For Tim Nga, who’s taking on the bro comedy This Chord And Others: “I’ve always found Haresh’s texts difficult because they are deceptively simple, they’re written in a local style but there’s a lot going on and he weaves them together thick and fast.”

* Actress Janice Koh comes on board With/Out, Loo Zihan’s interpretation of Sharma’s Completely With/Out Character. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)
4. HE KNOWS YOU (AND YOU AND YOU) LIKE THE BACK OF HIS HAND

Plays are about people, and through the years, Sharma has written some of the most vivid and memorable characters to appear onstage. And they come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s the tragic fictitious Vinod and Saloma of Off Centre or the real life Paddy Chew in Completely With/Out Character.

“One beauty about his plays is that his understanding of a particular race or culture is very strong,” says Fared.

Citing Sharma’s Best Of pieces, two separate monologues about a Malay woman and man, he said: “If you didn’t know they were by Haresh, you’d have thought they were written by a Malay person. He’s able to comprehend a lot of the experiences and sensitivities in his works, whether he’s writing about Malays, Chinese or whatever race he decides to project.”

For Koh, one of Sharma’s main contributions has been the creation of a veritable multicultural army of characters that cut across class, race, religion, culture and gender. “He has written so many different types – and there are a lot of females, which I really appreciate,” she said, pointing out that her decision to have an all-female cast for her experimental piece Precise Purpose Of Being Broken is a subtle nod to that.

And it’s not just about creating characters out of air but giving the lives of often marginalised real-life folk an airing, such as what TNS did with Completely With/Out Character. The original 1999 monologue by Paddy Chew had left a huge impact on the public, said Loo.

“It was the pinnacle of Haresh and Alvin doing documentary theatre. They were interested in real people’s real stories and that really pushed the agenda to its limits. One of the criticisms that was leveled against it (when it was first staged) was whether it was ethically or morally sound to be making this play and have Paddy perform his life onstage given his health condition. But at the same time, we would not have it (if it wasn’t staged) and it remains one of the most significant plays in TNS’ repertoire,” said Loo.

TNS general manager Melissa Lim pointed out that one of the reasons why Sharma’s works – including the characters he’s created – connect well with audiences is the fact that he does a lot of research to cover all angles.

“If the sheer volume of work he has created is impressive, wait till you see the sheer volume of research behind them,” quipped Lim, who’s privy and often involved, too, in collating material that the TNS folks work on prior to the creating their plays.

Whether it’s hanging out at schools while preparing for Those Who Can’t, Teach; visiting halfway houses and talking to medical professionals for Off Centre; or even watching a lot of movies for the recent Yeo Yann Yann monologue Actor, Forty, Sharma and gang certainly don’t take the easy way out.

* Koh Wan Ching’s Precise Purpose Of Being Broken takes on fragments of Sharma’s texts and features an all-female cast. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)
5. IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND SINGAPORE, JUST WATCH HIS PLAYS

That statement may sound a bit presumptuous, but there’s a grain of truth to it. After all, Sharma has written more than a hundred plays since the late 1980s, many of which have become classics, published in books, taught in schools, and staged and restaged countless times (here and overseas).

Name the topic or style and Sharma has done it: He’s done funny, experimental, realist, gut-wrenching drama; he’s touched on the educational system, mental health, political detainees, paedophilia, race relations, LGBT issues, and many more – all filtered through the Singaporean sensibility.

“He writes very much from a Singapore point of view and gets into what’s happening on the day to day,” said Nga. “He writes things and characters come from a particular time in Singapore, which are relevant to that period and, in a way, it’s almost like the history of his plays is a running commentary on the issues in Singapore as they unfold.”

“He’s truly a growing playwright,” observed Chia. “If you follow his work, you can see him grow and you sense the changes he makes in his next play, sometimes in terms of the topic or the characters or in terms of experimenting. Every time he’s putting out something new, you can expect that Haresh doesn’t just churn out a play for the sake of churning out.”

While it’s true that Sharma’s legacy is intrinsically intertwined with TNS, Loo pointed out that his plays also have a life of their own. “I think the plays being done, such as in this particular 30th anniversary of TNS, show that his work go beyond just Haresh, or TNS or Alvin. There’s a longevity in his work.”

– CNA/mm

(The Malaysian Times)

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