A world away from the glitzy, big-budget Broadway productions you see at Marina Bay Sands, the city’s fringe theatre scene is hidden away in unassuming black boxes and intimate spaces in galleries – just the way its loyal audience likes it. After all, there is something alluring about walking into a mysterious space, not knowing exactly what to expect.
Last November, we stepped into the set of The Hawker, an immersive theatrical production by The Second Breakfast Company. Staged at the Aliwal Arts Centre’s studio which transformed into a hawker centre setting, complete with colourful mismatched tiled floors, red and white plastic chairs around round tables, and a roti prata cart. “We tested this format out and had a first staging last year at the Asian Youth Theatre Festival. We didn’t expect such good turnout and warm reception. People were really intrigued by it,” says the not-for-profit theatre company’s artistic director Adeeb Fazah.
A name synonymous with the local fringe theatre scene, Adeeb got his start at Yellow Chair Productions. That’s where he met Mohamad Shaifulbahri, who he eventually co-founded Adeeb and Shai with. Established last year, the collective aim to bring international fringe productions to Singapore, debuting with a remake of Sam Steiner’s Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons.
Shai has a similarly impressive repertoire. His latest work with Bhumi Collective (called Mak-Mak Menari) will be staged at the 16th edition of the M1 Fringe Festival, which shines a spotlight on the underrated talents in Singapore’s local fringe theatre scene.
But what exactly defines fringe theatre in Singapore? “It is something that has a ‘no-frills’ spirit and nature,” says Shai. “The set-up is basic, sparse even, a table and perhaps, two chairs – often borrowed or loaned. It strips away the bells and whistles and focuses on the story. Personally, I also think fringe theatre is able to maneuvre a lot more quickly to tell stories that are contemporary and urgent.”
However, it’s not a bed of roses. According to Shai, there’s the question of bureaucracy, red tape and finding suitable spaces. “If you look at fringe festivals around the world, cities and towns come together to support the realisation of the festival. You’ll see rooms in pubs, indoor basketball courts, or community centres being converted into performance spaces. Heck, I’ve even watched a musical in a Quaker House.”
Bud Theatre’s Claire Devin shares similar sentiments: “In Singapore, fringe has been pushed into expensive black boxes. Small companies are forced to raise their prices and compete in markets that can often suppress their originality or expression. And then there’s the issue of censorship, which marginalises the idea of experimentation.”
The scene may be small, but there’s a new breed of younger production companies with voices that need to be heard. The simplest way you can support them is by going to the plays. “As a society, we need to be less afraid of the unknown or the unexpected. We need to not be terrified of the unconventional. These works that expose the oppressed, marginalised, and downtrodden act as a catalyst for societal change,” Claire says.
Need some recommendations? The Necessary Stage presents their new play The Utama Spaceship ($27) from January 14 to 15 and Bhumi Collective’s Mak-Mak Menari ($27) runs from January 17 to 19 at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
“Institutions can also open up their extra resources to artists who work individually. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the first step,” Adeeb tells us.