2020 was a year like never before; the toughest year for many all around the world. COVID-19 began ravaging the world, and for the first time in decades, the whole world is going through the same thing—this pandemic—together. 2020 has also changed the theatre landscape in Singapore by shifting the majority of performances online, with as many as 27 known live performances being cancelled and 104 performances being held digitally. However, it’s not only theatre that has reformed itself during this tumultuous period of human history. Along with the epidemic, many other events have also taken the world by storm, most of which seeks to reform society for the better and improve conditions for the oppressed and the disadvantaged: the widespread unrest from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the US elections in the United States, protests in Belarus, Poland, Thailand and many more. These events have made one thing become clear and apparent to us—the world is rioting, restless, and relentless for change.
This is precisely what makes this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021 timely and reflective of the current human sentiment. With the theme of Quiet Riot!, the festival seeks to feature art that explores meaningful transformation and revolutionary change, attained through dogged and peaceful resistance. It strives to reflect and magnify the voice of people around the world who have been rising up to speak truth to power, and whose struggles demonstrate a celebration of diversity and inventiveness.
This year marks the 17th edition of the festival and welcomes Mr. Alvin Tan as artistic director of the Fringe after a six year hiatus. Cultural Medallion recipient Alvin Tan, one of Singapore’s most prolific theatre directors who is also the founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage (TNS)—a local theatre company in Singapore—offers an interesting observation about the ongoing unrest seen in the United States: “In America, everything is very polarised. It’s either you’re pro-gun or anti-gun, pro-life or pro-choice, anti-LGBTQ+ Evangelical or part of the LGBTQ+ community, ecetera. But the middle ground seems to be very silent. How do we discuss situations?”
In answer to his own query, and speaking on the need for performance pieces to embody truths of reality, Alvin commented, “in Singapore, we may sweep things under the carpet because we tend to avoid difficult situations. But with social media and younger people being more ‘woke’, art and performance should reflect this era. There are many movements around the world, but we don’t have the intention to inconvenience other people or get into trouble. Instead, our attempt at social change is through investigating issues through art and performance pieces.” WIth Tan’s return, Fringe is moving towards a more socially engaged and process-driven direction.
In Fringe 2021, there is an exciting programme lineup of nine events responding to the theme of Quiet Riot!, all with a sense of exigency and hope for renewal despite the odds everyone has faced in the last year. Fringe 2021 includes local acts as well as pertinent performances from international shores such as Australia, India, Ecuador, and Cambodia. Quiet Riot! features performances and works that grapple with topics like identity, the current climate crisis, youths negotiating socio-political upheavals, and fighting (literally) against being censored. And, due to the recent successes in containing Covid-19 transmission in Singapore, the Fringe festival is able to hold five in-theatre performances in addition to three video-on-demand performances and an online conversation featuring a panel of young female activists.
However, before you go thinking that art, with relation to activism, is the antidote to existing problems, Mr. Tan explains how art and activism coincide, and how art really functions in a society: “We’re a very atomised society—we pursue what we’re interested in, and if it doesn’t threaten us then we bochap. But with Quiet Riot! we have to disturb what’s accepted as normal. But how can we disturb, without destroying things and not affect other people adversely? How do we affect social change? Art and performance is the answer; this can prompt people to lead social change. It’s like a Venn diagram—art and activism—and they have their own independent positions. Art without activism and activism without art. Art for its own sake. We [the M1 Fringe Festival] exist where art and activism meet.”
However, Mr. Tan stresses that art “creates discourse to make social issues open to more diverse and plural readings, but it does not offer one definite answer. It deals with the problem, opens up more questions, even makes recommendations, but not one specific recommendation or one utopia.” He likened the performance process to a rock climbing wall—there are many footholds, and each climber can lead themselves through on their own path. There is no one ‘correct’ path that everyone has to go on. “So when we read or watch a performance, it’s up to the audience to see what they can identify on their own. Not privilege one over the other, and have a contestation of views. We cannot resolve and favour an ideological position. That [is] where art meets social issues and opens up more discussions.”
But why this emphasis on art that is not conclusive? Mr. Tan strengthens his stance with a quote from British playwright Caryl Churchill: “today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems.” Mr. Tan explains, “in order to not be trapped in a specific identity, categories and labels should be temporary, transient and transitory. Art is endless questioning, and it’s never comfortable. But there’s always the hope for renewal.”
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021: Quiet Riot! is ongoing from 20 – 31 Jan 2021. For performances in-theatre, tickets are available at sistic.com.sg, priced at $27 and $19 (concession for students, senior citizens, NSF and PWD cardholders). Video on demand is available at $15. Visit singaporefringe.com for more information.