Southeast Asian Plays


This volume is but a taste of the rich variety of performance work that in many cases is only beginning to be written down. Though now in English, there is little in common in these eight plays from seven very different nations in a region connected mainly by geography. Until the founding of ASEAN, in 1967, Southeast Asia (SEA) was known to the world as the East Indies. Covering 11 nations and 626 million inhabitants, over more than 4.4 million square kilometres, the southeast of the continent plunges into the sea, diversifying into many thousands of islands and languages as it reaches into the Pacific. One of the largest and fastest-growing economies of the world, with a combined annual turnover of 2.8 trillion US dollars, it contains arguably the richest variety of arts, customs, cuisines and landscapes – and distinctively defined peoples. However, this part of the world is under-represented, especially in theatre and dramatic writing, and its vivid diversity deserves to be known beyond its splendid beaches and tourist spots. In collecting a first volume of Southeast Asian playscripts we prioritised material that other countries (including SEA) might be interested in performing, with an aim to introduce not only the writers but also the cultures that produced them.

Theatre across Asia remains close to its oral traditions and to its prime expression in dance and music. Every country has its impressive, skilful, colourful performance traditions, with the wealth of styles and forms having even more numerous regional variations. It is well known that Brecht was influenced by the arts of Chinese Xiqu (erroneously known as 'opera') but few know the influence of Balinese performance upon Artaud and Grotowsky.

Asia's love of performance remains tangible and can be seen at village level as well as in its large arts centres; so it is not surprising that with its economic developments Asia is drawing performance influences from anywhere that excites. In some cases this has left regional variants of traditional performance styles endangered, but in others, fascinating experiments are drawing from their heritage and mixing concepts with the best from Europe and the Americas.

Southeast Asia is also a region at considerable peace with – and interested in – its neighbours: companies commonly mix performers of several countries on their stages, and collaborations, often longterm, result in unique theatre that shows considerable leadership – not only in theatrical innovation but also in cultural, racial and religious tolerance and respect. English-language theatre is common in Singapore, but so are plays in Chinese and modern Japanese plays are often seen in many of these countries. However, in Southeast Asia it is still easier to buy a British playscript than one by a Thai or Vietnamese. More and more, English is the language used when Asian companies and artists communicate, and though interest in these works will be global, their first foreign productions are most likely to be seen in this region.

Fascinating as traditional Asian theatre remains, its roots in vastly different worlds mean that traditional performance can seem very foreign, often alienating. I have experienced the touring of both traditional and contemporary works and emphatically believe that it is the contemporary that brings us together: within spoken drama we more easily relate to characters and their problems, however different their living conditions might be. The contemporary plays in this volume radically depart from SEA traditional theatre and several reveal their authors' cosmopolitan influences and their globalised and highly networked lives. All plays are internationally accessible, their language and form familiar, and the acting style generally naturalistic. This collection does not include any musicals or music theatre, though both are extremely popular, and it does not cover the most experimental work of writers and theatre-makers consciously exploring intercultural and interdisciplinary combinations. A prime example is the region's best-known international director, Ong Keng Sen, who pioneered extraordinary combinations of styles, forms and genres and through Theatrework's 'Flying Circus Project' develops cross-nation performances with a range of companies such as Myanmar's Theatre of the Disturbed. We have, however, selected plays with direct appeal to Western audiences and are confident they will find directors and actors to inhabit their characters.

Storytellers and leading performers always had the respect of their community, but most countries in this region still retain acollaborative approach to theatre-making and new work can often be yet another re-telling of a section of a larger work, as Southeast Asia is home to many huge oral epics that continue to inspire – The Ramayana being common to many. Along with Western-style theatre buildings, Western forms of drama arrived with the colonisers; but wider assimilation is post-colonial, and quick to explore local and contemporary themes. Modern drama was in many cases crucial in the struggle for independence, and is still playing a role in nation-building. Content, especially topicality, rarely the focus in traditional arts, is a prime feature of SEA's contemporary dramatic literature, as revealed in this collection.

Alfian Sa'at's Naridah is highly topical as it addresses the theme of mixed marriages; in asking if mother and daughter can worship different gods, Sa'at welcomes the new developments in Singapore's multi-racial and multi-faithed society. In Plunge, ex-economist Jean Tay shines satirical light on the Asian Economic Crisis, and with considerable boldness and innovation reveals Singapore's sophistication on the global market (she has since followed with a related play called Boom). Malaysian writer, Ann Lee, brings a female journalist face to face with a gruesome murderer, only to question if he has been falsely imprisoned since he was a boy. Tarap Man articulates the region's growing interest in truth and justice.

Refreshing evidence of liberal thinking comes from Vietnam's Đăng Chương, with Dark Race, a satirical look at personal integrity in business and political leaders; and Floy Quintos considers the misrule that has held many Asian countries back in An Evening At The Opera. This is a behind-the-scenes portrayal of elite and sinister power, echoing a Philippines that is hopefully gone. In Tew Bunnag's Night of the Minotaur, from Thailand, power is confined to a cave and treated like a beast. The powerless are given voice in the plays from Indonesia and Cambodia, respectively in Joned Suryatmoko's Piknik and Chhon Sina's Frangipani, reminding us that poverty can easily lead to abuse and exploitation.

Publication is not a necessary goal in the performing arts, and theatre scripts are merely blueprints for productions, especially in this region. As elsewhere, second productions and revivals are rare, so publication becomes important to preserving some of this ephemeralart form and to allowing play texts to find a wider international readership. Though some of these works were written and performed in English, a play's origins are of course defined by language, e.g. a Vietnamese play is written in Vietnamese etc. Consequently the huge majority of new dramatic literature in this flourishing region remains unknown outside of language borders; even within countries plays are not readily circulated, as they are not commonly published in their original (often local) language, and are further neglected in translation. The development of skilled literary translators in the region is happening slowly, but the focus is primarily on poetry and fiction.

Japan is the only country I know where its government spends considerably on translations of plays into English; but, sadly, despite efforts of collections such as this, an English-speaking repertoire still doesn't include either classic or contemporary Asian plays. The authors in this collection are bi- or multi-lingual, and most works are newly translated, with some playwrights having their first play published. We have not included bi-lingual plays, but in Malaysia and Singapore three languages in the one play are quite common.

Unlike India, China and Japan with their vast recorded heritage of dramatic literature, the smaller countries have only recently been able to focus on the importance of contemporary literature. Poetry often came first, though usually by the internationally educated, and it often flourished, as it could always evade censorship. Novels followed, at first unusual but soon enjoyed and acclaimed, even internationally, such as Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists and Suchen Christine Lim's The River's Song, and many are now on schools' study lists. Reading them will give excellent context for the plays.

With some exceptions, playwriting with an individual voice is relatively new, despite some deceased giants in the past, such as Indonesia's W.S. Rendra and Singapore's Kuo Pao Kun, whose work is published and internationally performed. New writing has long been supported by visionary directors in every country, such as Krishen Jit, Rolando Tinio, Alvin Tan; and dedicated centres, like Jo Kukathas' pioneering Instant Cafe in Kuala Lumpur, are now being established – for example, Manila's Sipat Lawin and Singapore'sCentre 42. Script collaboration is common, and often the actors make considerable contributions, especially in Indonesia. The dramaturge role is still new, though more common in dance works and company-produced works rather than as personal support for an individual playwright, and feedback to writers must be sensitively handled, as not only is 'face' involved, but writers are not used to having an advisor or editor, and though often they work with a trusted director, such is usually towards the end of the writing process, not during.

Traditional theatre always had a place for satirical inserts and social comment, but entirely new playscripts, especially when written to argue new ideas, were first seen as a Western concept. The proscenium arch was innovative, and European touring productions not uncommon, Shakespeare impacted widely, though mostly in India, whilst foreign residents enjoyed dressing up to dabble in amateur theatre. However, following independence, the reaction against expatriates' theatre saw an explosion of new forms, embracing new ideas from almost anywhere, including influences such as Brecht, the Absurdists and The Living Theatre and using them to tell local stories of relevance. Dance and physical storytelling have remained strong, and in Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, governments have deliberately prioritized dance and crafts as the most endangered parts of their culture and have had remarkable success in rescuing and revitalising many regional variants. But 'The Word' is still considered more potent than the abstractions of music and dance, and censorship can still be found. However, in most governments in the region, there is an enlightened interest in what an artist can bring to a nation.

Some beautiful old theatre buildings have survived from colonial days – see the two splendid opera houses in Vietnam; but, until independence, these never belonged to the people, whose participation in performance was far less formal. But arts centres are now a sign of prestige and modernity; and though glass and concrete structures can be daunting for ordinary people, even in the West, they house a number of spaces that support exhibitions, performances and, importantly, meeting places for both community and creatives. Further signs of healthy arts scenes are found in the convertedshopfronts and warehouses used as homes for small theatre groups and arts groups.

People in Southeast Asia fully embraced new technology several decades ago, and portable entertainment, both local and global, is greatly loved; as in the West, digital technology and social media is drawing audiences away, but new technology grows more evident in local performance. Unusual and site-specific locations – as well as audience involvement – often complement this, as practitioners work to meet every challenge. The film industries of most nations represented in this collection are more influential than their theatre, and in some cases writers manage to work in both, but the low status of playwriting is maintained by poor copyright laws, ensuring that even if a second production is achieved the author will often not receive any percentage of box office receipts from it. Though Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are ahead in their respect for playwriting and play publishing, elsewhere plays are produced through little more than a shared passion in a small group of people.

Though companies are numerous, large theatre companies are rare and any commissioning of plays needs government support or other patronage. Fortunately, universities have always had literary programs and in most countries have set up creative writing courses, drama departments, and drama schools, where international plays are studied and where new plays are supported and often produced – for example, in Thailand, Chulalongkorn University's most appropriate telling of the real Anna Leonowens story (Anna of The King and I fabrication – Chulalongkorn being then the Crown Prince whom she taught).

Drama festivals are plentiful, along with Writers' Festivals, such as in Ubud where it includes playreadings, and many were started by individuals such as Joned Suryatmoko, Director of the Indonesian Dramatic Reading Festival in Yogyakarta, and playwright/director Le Quy Duong's many Vietnam festivals, including Hue Drama Festival. In the Philippines, new writing has been enhanced by the annual Virgin Labfest held at the Cultural Center in Manila, and the annual Palanca Literary Awards that began in the 1950s. In 2015, Singapore ambitiously produced 50 Plays to celebrate its 50 years of independence, and Malaysia celebrated 30 years of its Five ArtsCentre with an impressive volume of its plays. Festivals abound in the region, often themed and with conferences included, creating meeting places and sharing and often featuring collaborative work. Thailand recently gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to its most prolific playwright, a woman, Daraka Wongsiri, and Singapore's Haresh Sharma, honoured with a cultural medallion, is one of the most published playwrights in all of Asia. Writing Prizes – such as the SEA Writers Award – are common and often prestigious, remunerative and encouraging. But, as any playwright will tell you no prize is better than being accorded a fully mounted production.

Most plays in this collection have never been published, and some are chosen from a very small pool of available recent plays (Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are taking early steps) but all plays are relatively new and one, Frangipani, is the writer's first play. These are not necessarily representative plays (rarely possible with a single work) but are by significant playwrights whose work can be further explored. Floy Quintos of the Philippines and Alfian Sa'at of Singapore are both prolific and nationally acclaimed and enjoy the benefits of a culture that is rich in publications, something shared with Malaysia, where Ann Lee is one of many important writers. But there are crucial differences, and each country deserves its own collection in English.

Theatre taste was not obviously influenced by colonisers, though I believe the British and the Spanish did much to share a love of written literature; and though the Philippines still performs zarzuelas and has a love of western musicals, every Asian country has its own ancient equivalent of musical theatre. Every country has a long history of telling its own stories and Southeast Asia is home to several huge ancient oral epics. In the Philippines, where the longest oral epic of all is still being collected, there is a focus on biographical plays – for examples I commend the many dramatisations of the life of their national hero, José Rizal. But some stories are still best told as fiction or as metaphor, and political leadership is explored this way in Quintos's An Evening at the Opera and in The Night of the Minotaur from Thailand's Tew Bunnag. The latter reveals something which is not uncommon: a familiarity with the myths and literature of the West.

Remarkably, Indonesia preserves dozens of regional forms of Wayang , or traditional performance, alongside a range of innovations; unique in Asia, its contemporary work manages to be very modern without showing any distinct Western influences. Protest literature is familiar not only in the Philippines, where it seems to grow stronger, but in all the countries included here; plays approaching once-taboo subjects, such as gay issues and feminism, have done much to help change perceptions and modernise societies. National identity is a common subject of newly independent countries, and plays about various legal and political decisions have all contributed to building the often difficult road to democracy.

At the geographic centre of SEA, Brunei has ancient roots but its modern theatre, growing from an active university, is finding relevance and innovation. Immense internal conflicts have made it difficult for Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to build new literary or dramatic forms or even preserve old ones, but support groups such as the one around Chhon Sina in Cambodia are finding ways to develop writers' voices and build audiences. Vietnam and Indonesia have had remarkable success in retaining traditions whilst developing new ways, and though full-time writers are few, the wealth and diversity is impressive. The old French and Dutch colonisers left little love of literature, so credit must go to the people and their intent on modernizing and ensuring that vernacular, dialects and eloquent language is equally valued, along with ideas. Dang Chuong's Dark Race is refreshingly welcome, as it shows a progressive Vietnam that feels quite familiar, as does Joned Suryatmoko's Piknik : in portraying Javanese in Bali, it reflects the problems of foreign workers anywhere. These are all plays of ideas, selected for a work's ability to traverse national barriers and communicate out of context.

Thailand is actively building spoken drama, though its lack of translations still keeps its best qualities hidden. Unique in Asia as never having been colonized, Thailand has always valued performance, and its dance and dance dramas, Lakhon and Khon come readily to Westerners' minds; but the modern nation and its people are much more evident on its stages than traditional performance, which is sought mainly by the tourists. Interestingalso is the growth of English-speaking theatre in Thailand; and that modern drama training can be found even in the provinces.

Though Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines share race and language origins, and cultural links are found everywhere in SEA, essential differences between the nations are numerous; but when it comes to the problems facing playwrights and new writing, there are many shared situations and dilemmas. Government funding of new work excels only in Singapore, and generally there are messy copyright laws and few incentives to encourage playwrights; and almost everywhere spoken drama is more interdisciplinary than pure: it is in transition to new expressions and is determined to strengthen. Political will is not always evident, and often in flux: a good example being Singapore, where priority was deliberately given to economy building, and only more recently are the arts valued as crucial to a robust society. But across the region, where security, employment and education are growing, so are the arts.

Many people have helped us find these works, and we know that this publication is only a glimpse into what is available. It is exciting to discover the other forms of play-making that exist in this region but we regret our inability to include, for example, the wonderful Indonesian work that is commonly improvised afresh with every performance. Similarly, we have not included works which rely upon the use of several languages, such as Koes Juliadi's Clay Women of Kasongan, or which are too locally-specific, or have specific performance styles or large musical or dance elements. But it is no accident that this collection includes many plays by women, and this is a sign of the equity that has emerged as a feature of these ancient-yet-young nations. Nations that are growing in pride, in industry, investment and in tourism, in innovation and in cultural originality.

Aubrey Mellor OAM
Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, 2016.

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