Bless this Mess: a vision for an archive on Singapore theatre

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It was over three decades ago when late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun described Singapore theatre and its history as “severely interrupted”.

“The advantage of having an artistic tradition is that the younger artists could see an organic link between the real life of one’s country and its art work which is a sublimation of that life,” he said. “I see it as a worry because the lack of this tradition really means that theatre in Singapore never had an experience of delving deeply into the country’s life (past and present), to observe, research, reflect and then, often painfully, distilling it into theatre.”

Something to prove

The front page of the Centre 42 Repository, with a five-by-five grid featuring images of various collaterals.

The Repository, a digital archive of theatre ephemera, launched in 2015.

The record-keeping role of the archive is one important way to build and sustain a local theatre tradition. When Centre 42 launched its digital theatre archive the Repository back in 2015, it was meant to do just that.

We privately called The Repository a ‘proof of concept’ – the programme had a short development runway of six months and a modest investment, but ultimately we wanted to find out whether it was possible to build a collection of artefacts that could serve as a record of Singapore theatre history.

This collection of artefacts, as a whole, would give users an impression of the trends and developments in Singapore theatre history, and, hopefully, whet their appetites to find out more from other archival resources. For this scope and purpose, the Repository focused on theatre ephemera, specifically the programme booklets, posters, brochures and other publicity collateral which form the residue of past theatre productions.

Six years on, this proof of concept was, for the large part, successful. The Repository held a tidy collection of over 2,400 artefacts from 16 companies, covering the years 1966 to 2019.

However, the Repository collection was severely limited in the picture it portrayed of Singapore theatre.  There were many gaps, most notably an absence of the work of our independent peers, as well as documentation of the processes that led to the development of these theatre productions.

A bigger, bolder archive

In 2020, armed with feedback from members of the theatre community and an audit of Centre 42’s documentation work, we set out to envision a new archive that was much larger and complex in scope and bolder in its ambition, one that would fill out the portrait of Singapore theatre better than before.

We’re calling this endeavour the C42 Archive of Singapore Theatre, and it builds upon the Repository and our other documentation work, as well as introduces new ways of archiving our local theatre landscape. Briefly, the Archive will focus on the following areas:

1) Comprehensiveness


The Archive needed to have a broader range of materials to build a better picture of Singapore theatre. In addition to production collaterals from the Repository, the Archive will also contain reviews, publications, essays & writings, audiovisual recordings and photographs.

A new type of artefact that we’re introducing into the Archive is unpublished scripts. These are the play-texts that were performed but never received publications and risk fading into oblivion. They could also be early drafts of plays that represent important milestones of the creative journey. If you’re interested in submitting an unpublished script, or just interested to find out more this effort, please click here.

A Unpublished Script page on the C42 Archive for Singapore Theatre, featuring Alfian Sa'at's 'Cook A Pot of Curry'.

Playwright Alfian Sa’at’s “Cook A Pot of Curry” in the Unpublished Scripts section of the Archive.

2) Connections


Another major aim of the Archive, and a mammoth undertaking, is to create linkages between the various archival materials.

To that end, we will have Productions & Staging pages, which function much like encyclopedia entries, pulling together the various artefacts pertaining to that particular theatre production.

Another way of joining the dots would be through the individuals and groups involved in the productions. For them, we have People and Organisation profile pages, which, when populated, will be able to aggregate the work that these entities have done, from theatre works to writings. 

A Person Profile page on the C42 Archive of Singapore Theatre, featuring information about Grace Kalaiselvi.

Theatre practitioner Grace Kalaiselvi’s profile page in the People section of the Archive.

3) Capabilities


And finally, we also want to build archival and documentation capabilities. For that, we’re introducing an Archival Residency, in which independent artists and groups can work with Centre 42 to build collections of artefacts, and organise them to tell a story of themselves.

There’s no limit to what the Archival Residents are allowed to archive, which makes for an abundance of documentation and storytelling opportunities. And it opens a world of possibilities for what could be contributed to the Archive!

We’re already working with our first Archival Resident, Yellow Chair Productions, to archive their works and organisational history. Stay tuned to see what emerges from this residency.

Embracing complexity

As ambitious and, at times, frustrating it has been to plan, develop and build the Archive, it’s in the knowledge that this is important work.

In a 1996 interview with The Necessary Stage, Kuo Pao Kun put out a clarion call for Singapore theatre to cherish and study our history: “We cannot actually do the art and call it our own without delving into our own tradition, our own history, our own experience. It is all really one. Different dimensions, different ways of seeing. How can you assert yourself without knowing who you are?”

Life is multidimensional and complex, and perhaps, so should an archive. At the time of publishing, we’re still building, testing and working out the kinks. But feel free to check out what we’ve been working on here, and we look forward to hearing feedback from you through any of our social media channels.

Welcome to the C42 Archive of Singapore Theatre History. Pardon the mess.

Published: 25 May 2021