The Act of Archival: Theatre Archives in Singapore

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Archive as if the future depends on it. – Lisbet Tellefsen 

What is an archive? Different organisations would each define the word differently, with varying levels of specificity. Merriam-Webster defines an ‘archive’ quite simply as ‘a repository or collection, especially of information’. Archives come in many different shapes and forms, but all ultimately come down to collecting and storing material so it will not be lost. 

What kind of material can an archive contain? What makes any specific archive valuable, interesting and unique? For someone interested in local theatre (as we are!), what archives are out there for exploration and perusal? Let’s take a quick peek into some of the best-known and easily accessible local theatre/theatre-adjacent archives here in Singapore. And where better to start than right here at Centre 42?

Archival at Centre 42

Archival and documentation has been a big part of Centre 42’s work since its opening in 2014. One of its mainstays was The Repository, an online (you guessed it!) repository for local theatre ephemera. Users could browse collaterals from various productions in local theatre history, and if they were keen to see those collaterals in full, they could come down to the Centre 42 office to peruse at their leisure. 

The Repository was eventually shuttered in 2021, and replaced with the site you see today - the C42 Archive of Singapore Theatre (“C42 Archive”). The C42 Archive focuses on historical documentation, and capturing the local theatre scene as a whole. Users can browse a wide variety of materials, from production information, to collaterals, to audiovisual recordings, and more. The C42 Archive gives users insight into productions that have been staged throughout our history, helps to draw links between different types of material, and tracks the growth of the theatre scene over these past few decades.

The C42 Archive sits among a wider effort in local theatre archival. Theatre archival may not be a new concept, but it is certainly growing in popularity in Singapore.

Capturing the scene

The C42 Archive is not the only archive that goes for a broad capture of the local theatre scene; Esplanade Offstage and the National Online Repository of the Arts (NORA) have similar aims. 

Offstage was launched in October 2019. Featuring a variety of material - videos, stories, podcasts and other resources - it targets as wide an audience as possible. The Esplanade was always intended as a centre for the performing arts as a whole, and Offstage reflects its intentions, providing material from several different artistic genres as well. 

Offstage has something for everyone - the academic researcher taking a deep delve into the history of local opera; the curious newcomer keen to stream a performance that caught their eye; or even just that one person who wants to know what was happening at the Esplanade on this date five years ago.

Offstage’s online presence similarly reflects its intention to reach a broad audience through the Internet, a far more accessible space than a physical archive. Clarissa Oon, Esplanade’s head of communications and content, noted that Esplanade uses technology and the digital space in this way to ‘​​make the experience of going for performances richer and more inclusive’.

If we backtrack almost two decades into the past, we find NORA, which launched in January 2005 after a two-year collaboration between three writers and the National Library Board (NLB). Initially entirely focused on local literature, this scope broadened to include other artistic genres after 2006, when NLB began collaborating with the National Arts Council (NAC). 

NORA was relaunched in its current incarnation in February 2009. To date it features over nine thousand artefacts across four genres, many of which one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. It provides small, illuminating glimpses into Singapore’s artistic history from as far back as the 1960s, fully accessible from anywhere, by anyone, with a simple click of a cursor.

Providing academic resources

When it comes to target audiences, the C42 Archive, Offstage, and NORA go broad. Other archives choose to narrow it down. One common niche is academic-focused archives, which curate material that is of greatest interest to academics and researchers. These materials tend to provide more in-depth analyses of various arts-related topics. 

The two most prominent examples of such archives are (unsurprisingly!) headed by Singapore’s best-known tertiary arts institutions, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts. The strong educational slant of these archives suit the academic environment of these universities.

The Singapore Theatre Bibliography, run by LASALLE’s Ngee Ann Kongsi Library, bears similarities to the C42 Archive in its focus on archiving materials related to local theatre, as well as a clear divergence in the absence of theatrical ephemera. Where the C42 Archive aims to document the history of the scene, the Singapore Theatre Bibliography is more focused on leading researchers to the resources they need for academic study.

NAFA’s Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts has a broader scope, including material from Southeast Asian regions beyond Singapore. TFCSEA is named for its benefactor, the Tanoto Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports educational programmes, especially those that empower young people, reflecting NAFA’s larger purpose as an educational institution and its goals to provide students with knowledge and learning.

This archive works hand in hand with the NAFA Library, with the bulk of its artefacts physically stored on-campus. The Tanoto Foundation Centre is primarily geared towards NAFA’s students and staff; public access is by library appointment only.

Documenting organisations

We see then that archives tend to reflect the purpose and priorities of the organisations that create and maintain them. This leads us to another common archival niche - organisation-specific archives, which are created specifically to serve these organisations’ missions in some way or other! 

Two local theatre companies which have created such archives are The Necessary Stage, which launched in 2017, and T:>Works, which launched the T:>Archive in February 2021. Both of these archives are hosted online and publicly accessible. They focus on archiving each company’s own material, and giving users an overview of their histories and growth since their inception.

2017 marked The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) thirtieth anniversary. Its archive was launched the same year as part of the company’s anniversary celebrations. Shawn Chua, who worked on the archive, notes that making TNS’ materials accessible was a key goal from the start and defined its functions and online nature. allowed TNS to showcase its entire production history and past activities to the public, all on one convenient, easily accessible site. Users could view information on TNS’ past works and any linked material, and trace TNS’ journey as a theatre company from 1987 to present day. 

Several of the productions listed on also link to Video-on-Demand (VOD) streams on Vimeo. Users can stream video recordings of a specific production staging for a low fee, to view at their leisure. In this respect, the archive aids in generating additional revenue for the company and giving users different ways to experience a production, especially one that is no longer being staged as a live performance.

Much like, the T:>Archive is focused on documenting T:>Works’ past productions and activities, as well as works helmed by its artistic director, Ong Keng Sen. At launch, artistic director Ong Keng Sen noted that the importance of the T:>Archive lies in the way it affirms that every documented production ‘happened - the life force is still going on, despite us never crossing with it’.

The T:>Archive encourages browsing; two ticker tape-style crawlers continuously run along the top of the page, showcasing all the productions documented on the archive and encouraging curious users to click on one to view more information about said production. 

The T:>Archive also places strong focus on the historical overview aspect of the archive. The scrollable timeline on the left of the page easily contextualises each production, not only in its specific time, but also amongst other T:>Works productions of the period.

Curating a theme

One last archival niche of interest is what could be termed theme-specific archives. The previously-mentioned NORA arguably started out as one, being focused specifically on archiving notable local literary works. NORA currently hosts a selection of material curated under the Singapore Online Arts Repository (SOAR), a new collaboration between NLB and NAC.

As of 2021 and 2022, SOAR focuses on recipients of the prestigious Cultural Medallion and the works they have created. SOAR is dedicated to a very specific section of arts history in Singapore, archiving work that is explicitly considered by the Singaporean government to be significant and worthy of preservation.

SOAR also represents another step forward in NLB’s ‘concerted efforts to digitise [their] collections’ in order to make its resources and materials easily accessible to the public, enriching our understanding of Singapore’s history and heritage.

The act of archival

Theatre and other arts archives can vastly differ in their structures and purposes, but one constant that remains the same is that they reflect the priorities of the organisations that create them. The very act of archival implicitly makes a statement about what each organisation values enough to preserve for posterity. Digitisation and the internet have made archives increasingly accessible to a larger pool of people, and certainly given rise to more arts archives in space-short Singapore. As technology, and our local theatre and arts scene, continue to evolve, we can only guess what we might see on the archival front in the years to come. 

There is a rich future ahead for existing archives and archives to come, and as we’ve seen, as rich a present and past. Many of the archives mentioned in this article are relatively young, but the concept of archival and documentation, and recognition of the importance of doing so, has been present in the local theatre scene for a very long time. Internal archives, for example, have existed for many theatre companies since their inception and are indeed what the publicly accessible archive is eventually built upon. Arts policy too has increasingly brought archival and documentation into focus. The National Arts Council’s 2014 Plan for the Performing Arts considers documentation ‘essential to the development of all arts sectors so as to build knowledge and common understanding that will inform and provide depth to future development’. Four years on, the 2018 Our SG Arts Plan maintains that focus, stating that ‘archival work and deep research are critical to inform and deepen the creative process, enabling artistic innovation in the sector’. Archives are important to our industry, because it is by looking back at what has been done before, that aids us in moving forward, and creating something new. 

Writer and activist Sara Sheridan puts it best:

Our archives are treasure troves - a testament to many lives lived and the complexity of the way we move forward. They… bring the past alive.

Here at Centre 42, we hope that the efforts put into creating and maintaining these archives will be appreciated far and wide; that future policies will continue to champion the growth of these guardians of our artistic and cultural heritage; and that we all keep archiving the past, and bringing it alive.

Published: 18 January 2023


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"Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts." TFCSEA@NAFA, 2011,
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