‘Off-Centre’: Singapore’s Many Voices as Heard by Haresh Sharma

Haresh Sharma is the resident playwright and director of The Necessary Stage. He is a recipient of the Cultural Medallion and has written over 100 plays which has been staged in many countries. Lisa Chin interviews the playwright for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020.

What are you doing now? I understand that you are a playwright and the director of The Necessary Stage. 

Yes, I am the resident playwright of The Necessary Stage and I’ve been with them since 1987. My full-time job is to write plays which is a very unusual job, but I enjoy it very much. I have a lot of opportunities to write new types of plays for different types of audiences and crowds, and I enjoy writing plays especially about Singapore society and the issues that affect us as a society. 

What is one of the more memorable plays that you have written? 

I guess I would say that Off Centre is a better-known play. I have written about 120 plays as I have been writing for about 30 years, but Off Centre was first staged in 1993 and it has been re-staged several times. It’s also been selected as a literature text for the GCE O- and N-levels by the Ministry of Education—the first Singapore play to do so, which is amazing. It’s still on the syllabus so sometimes I give talks to secondary school students who study the play. 

What is one thing about playwriting that you particularly love and enjoy? 

I guess it’s like any other kind of writing—you are telling a story—but the difference between playwriting and any other kind of writing is that you are telling stories through the voices of the characters. So not only do I think of the story, I must also think about the characters and dialogue, because that’s how the characters express themselves. It’s challenging but also very exciting because I need to capture the different nuances and Singapore has a very rich literary tradition. We speak English, but we also have different languages like our mother tongues and we also speak like three different languages at the same time, so there’s a richness about it that I like to picture. 

What are some issues that are close to your heart? When writing plays, sometimes you want to write a story—a particular kind of story. So what are some issues that you hope to bring up through your stories? 

Well, because I keep writing, I tend to focus on different types of issues just so that I can cover different aspects of people’s lives. A play I wrote recently that was staged was called Underclass, looking at inequality and poverty in Singapore, so that gave me an opportunity to research, find out what the situation is like here, interview people, and so on. 

At the moment, I am working on a new play for next year’s Singapore Arts Festival called The Year of No Return, and it’s about climate change. Some scientists believe that 2020 could be the point of no return, and if we don’t act fast, all our efforts after that would be in vain. So what can we do about it? The Singapore Arts Festival is the most important arts festival in Singapore. My company, The Necessary Stage, thought that we would come up with a play focusing on not just a local issue, but a global issue we are all affected by—something that we can do something about. 

Where do you see the theatre industry in Singapore going? 

It’s going in a very positive direction. When I first started out, there wasn’t even a theatre studies programme in schools, in JC, in University, and so on. You could only do theatre as a hobby. The arts was not something people were generally keen about because they were forced to do science or the more technical subjects. So it was a bit of an uphill task to focus on arts-related subjects like literature and theatre. Now we have the School of the Arts, theatre studies programmes, LaSalle, NAFA—you have so many activities for young people to pursue theatre, to pursue their ambitions to learn about the different aspects of theatre from a young age, and they have different opportunities to meet professionals, learn the ropes, and have opportunities as well. 

What do you think of the new productions in Singapore? In general, what do you think of the current theatre in Singapore? 

I think it’s in a healthy state in the sense that you have the theatre companies from around the 1980s, like The Necessary Stage, but you also have established theatres like WILD RICE, which has its new space. At the same time, you have new theatre companies that may not even be companies—just a collective—and they come together, ceate their work, and stage their work. A space like Centre 42 is very important because they give opportunities to these new companies to have their plays read and produced, and they have platforms called late night texting, where you come and watch performances at night by young, unknown, and almost emerging artistes. It is very wonderful because you really build the next generation of artistes that way. 

Do you have any advice for an aspiring playwright, actor, or anyone interested working in theatre? 

I think that if you are serious about doing theatre, you should do it. You shouldn’t think about not having the budget, a theatre company that will stage your play, or opportunities or about rejection. It doesn’t matter. Get your friends together, get like-minded people together. Especially at a young age, you have nothing to lose. 

Just do it and tell the story that you are not seeing around you. Tell the story you want to tell whether as an actor, writer, or director. And the power of theatre is in its sense of society, that it is a community and social activity, but at the same time you work really hard, you really depend on each other, and the process is as important as the product.

This article is part of a series of interviews of Singapore’s cultural icons who were guests for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020. See the other interviews here.

Header and feature images by Malcolm Fu.

About the interviewer

If Lisa Chin is not cheering at the mats outside FairPrice, you’ll probably find Lisa in her room or a lounge studying/crying in stress because c’est la vie de l’ingénieur (it sounds more romantic in French).