'Artists are not criminals': Haresh Sharma reflects on 30 years as a playwright

'Artists are not criminals': Haresh Sharma reflects on 30 years as a playwright

Veteran playwright Haresh Sharma looks back at 30 years of The Necessary Stage.

Haresh Sharma

SINGAPORE: Veteran playwright and Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma’s name will take centrestage in the arts scene this year as The Necessary Stage (TNS) celebrates its 30th Anniversary.

As TNS’s resident playwright, he and founder and artistic director Alvin Tan have made their mark with socially-conscious theatre. This year, many of his past plays will be re-staged and even re-interpreted.

Sharma went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about the need for critical thinking in Singapore society, state funding and censorship.

She first asked him what being Haresh Sharma is really like.

Haresh Sharma: The act of “being” is very much in the present. If you ask me what it was like to be me when TNS started in 1987, it was a very different being than the being I am today. Of course now, I am more mellow and I am more confident. I see the fruits of my labour: the work that Alvin and I, and a bunch of other people have put into TNS over all these years; and now we have people who are very supportive. We have received awards.

This year especially is such a precious year for us being our 30th anniversary. The Esplanade curated a whole series of plays called Margins, and this is a series of plays of mine, and TNS's from the past, and they are being re-examined with new eyes, from other artists and theatre companies.

Bharati: You said that who you were when you started out, was of course quite different from who you are today. How much less mellow were you and less confident were you before?

Sharma: Because when I was younger, we used to work long hours so it's easy to get impatient with people. You can get very judgmental that they are not pulling their weight or they are not working as hard as you. When I first started with TNS, I was still at NUS so I was doing theatre and I was still doing school.

When I graduated, I was the first full-time staff. Here I was, working alone, day in and day out. I was writing the plays, I was writing the press releases. I was faxing out the press releases. That was in the early 1990s.

I was going to the design place and looking at paper, colours and all kinds of things. I would photocopy the scripts and go to Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. We would rehearse there and then go for supper and go home and continue to rewrite because there are things that need to be changed, and in the morning I would start the administrative process again, looking at the printing of tickets.

I was younger so I didn't have to sleep as many hours and I had coffee all the time. Because of that sometimes, you can get into a situation when you feel you are not quite positive, and then you excuse it by saying: because I am an artist, because I am doing theatre. Sometimes, looking back, I think I should have had more moments when I could just step back and let things settle before getting angry or having conflicts.


Bharati: How would you describe the lack of confidence at that point?

Sharma: It was that sense of always needing to be affirmed when you are doing something and you are not quite sure whether it's good. Writing a play at that time was a way of trying to be liked. So for example, if somebody likes your play, you translate it as they like you.

If they don't like your play, you translate it as they don't like you. It’s subconscious in a way, and I guess it just stems from normal everyday kind of insecurities.

Bharati: So if you got a bad review, it would be quite catastrophic?

Sharma: Yes, yes, or even when somebody in the audience came and talk to you, or wrote on the feedback form. It wasn't just about the play. It became like: What's wrong, what did I do wrong? And it could easily escalate into: why does everyone hate me?

Bharati: What made you change the way you thought about such things and the way you processed it?

Sharma: Really it’s time and experience because when you were writing your first play and your second play, you keep thinking maybe that's it. You might not write anymore. Maybe my parents would say to me, “go and get a proper job”.

Maybe I’ll suck at it after the third or fourth play. So you think, this is it. I may not get any other opportunity and I’ve got to make sure this works. I’m more confident now, but I still have some fear, before I begin writing, because that's a good thing, I don't want to be complacent.

Bharati: What are you afraid of?

Sharma: That I can't write anymore, that I am done and that this is it. But you get over it and the fear is healthy in the sense that it motivates me.

Bharati: Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?

Sharma: I don't believe in writers’ block, because you must be able to write even if you are writing something ridiculous, or if you are writing something that is not going to be used eventually.

Writing is a process and if you are going to only write if you think what you are writing is of value, then you would get writers’ block, because you refuse to type anything that you think is not of value. Just write, even if it's a ridiculous conversation between two monkeys. Let that conversation take place and then in the middle of that, you may get inspired by something that leads you somewhere else.


Bharati: Why did you want to do this long-term?

Sharma: I really really, reaaaaally liked it.

Bharati: What did you like about it?

Sharma: It's a whole mix. I liked writing. I just liked writing in primary school and secondary school - short stories, poetry, compositions.

I knew I was going to work in a job where writing is going to be involved. I thought maybe magazines, broadcast, PR, or something that involved that. But when I wrote my first play in 1989, it felt like it was the right kind of writing. I started getting more involved in the backstage of theater, the writing in university.

We were all untrained. At that time there was no theatre studies in university or anywhere else. The only kind of theatre we did was with ourselves and nobody had any training. Nobody was an expert. So we just collectively worked, creating improvisations.

If we needed to do some research, we would research it together. That was a part of theatre-making that I enjoyed very much. I discovered that I enjoyed the group activity and the socialising part of theatre as much as I enjoy the solitude of writing the plays on my own, at home, late at night. Other forms of creative writing don't have that duality.

Bharati: To what extent do you think societal and familial pressures have prevented people in this country from entering the arts?

Sharma: I think there are many more people than we think, and I also I feel that those people are from a generation before mine. My generation started doing theatre in the 80s. It was a moment of change. The National Arts Council started in 1991. Many schemes started like the arts housing schemes. You know how it is.

Once government starts to put things into place, people can take another step forward, into being full- time artists and freelance and all that. But the generation before mine, those that did theatre in the 70s and the early 80s would have been more stifled because there was no arts ecology or arts environment.

Bharati: Now that there is one, how much would you say Singaporeans have improved in terms of our openness to making the arts a career?

Sharma: I would say quite a bit. It’s good because there is more. There is more theatre. There is more audience. There is more arts. Quality of course matters but the quantity would begin the conversation to branch out in more diverse ways as well.


Bharati: In 2015, in the speech you made when you received your Cultural Medallion, you mentioned your play Off Centre. The play was originally commissioned by the Ministry of Health. You said when you submitted your script to the ministry, they had problems with it. You said you wanted a quiet parting of ways and relinquish the S$30,000 in sponsorship. This was indeed what you ended up doing.

A ministry spokesperson said the play “presented a prejudiced view of mental disorder, its treatability and the therapists, besides ridiculing God, religion and national service”.

Did you at any point think that they might actually have a point?

Sharma: No. Never.

Bharati: How is it that they saw it this way? How is it that your interpretations were so different?

Sharma: Maybe I had written plays in the past where I purposely intended to ridicule certain things, satirise certain things, but Off Centre was a play all of us took seriously.

Bharati: You may not have had the intention, but could it have come across that way?

Sharma: No. And I will talk about that in a little bit. But why Off Centre was very, very important was because we were asked to create a work that highlighted the difficulties of mentally ill people especially in terms of trying to reintegrate into society. Because it was commissioned, we were given access to, at that point, Woodbridge hospital, patients in halfway houses.

We talked to psychiatrists, social workers, and so on. We talked to different people, then we would go into the rehearsal room and we would improvise characters, create scenarios. There was such a richness to the process and I felt that it was a very heavy responsibility of mine to write something that was very truthful, that was very real to the research, to the reality of what was going on.

Therefore I created these two characters: Vinod and Saloma and both were very different, in a lot of ways, in terms of gender, class, education etc, but they both were connected, because they both had breakdowns and mental illness. In the beginning of the play, Vinod is a very confident person. He is constantly supporting Saloma.

At the end of the play, Saloma is the one that is recovering well, and is getting confident, and Vinod has committed suicide. The people who saw this play as anti-educational and all those other things that were mentioned in the quote, never saw the intention. They just saw what was on the written page. It wasn't the first time that somebody had misinterpreted because of something they just see on the page.

Bharati: But members of the audience could have interpreted it in any way possible too, including in the way that the ministry did.

Sharma: Yes but very unlikely, because when you are watching it, you are watching the actors perform the play, whereas when you are reading it, you are reading and certain things would stand out. For me that's the problem when you don't have enough critical thinking in Singapore, or when you don't promote literature and analysis of characters and themes. Then people think: “Got suicide, this is bad.”

Haresh Sharma

Bharati: It's black and white for them.

Sharma: It's very black and white. It's like saying Romeo and Juliet should not be studied because got suicide. The other problem they had with it was that Vinod had a breakdown in the army. Again, what do the authorities do? They straightaway start standing up and screaming and saying, “you are saying army is bad”.

But my question is: You mean (you) can't have a breakdown in the army? Why don't you stand up and say: He had a breakdown. Period. Let's help him. Why must you say he had a breakdown in the army, and therefore, we should not support this play because this breakdown happened in the army and it makes the army look bad? Do you see what I mean? The logic and the way of thinking is so myopic.


Bharati: To what extent do you see this a failure of certain government agencies to see that audiences can think multi-dimensionally, and can process grey areas? Or do you think that even an audience of Singaporeans could have largely failed to process the play beyond the black and white?

Sharma: I think I’ll be kind and say that maybe they don't know how to read a script. An audience who had watched it would see it differently and they did when we staged it. So you just see something on paper. Then you can't visualise it. But the second part of it then is: why don't you trust us? We know what we are doing. Why don't you trust that we want the same outcomes as you?

Today, as my new mellow, confident self, I can say I have done this kind of play many times and had very good responses from all these different kinds of organisations that have commissioned us in the past. Back then, as a 20-something year old, you are full of passion and anger. You are confused because you spent months on this and then suddenly you get slapped because they say this is anti-everything, and there is nothing that you can show as a track record.

Bharati: There you go. You had no track record then, so you can't blame them for not trusting you. Why should they have trusted you?

Sharma: Because they commissioned us and we had a track record in performing assembly plays that were about specific issues and health issues and so on.

Bharati: I would like to talk about what you said earlier - the inability to appreciate that there are grey areas. You attributed it to a lack of emphasis on literature in schools. How bad you think this problem is in Singapore?

Sharma: I mentioned it generally because it's not like a thing that people are afflicted with. For me, at this stage, it’s anecdotal. I see people at the theatre foyer after they’ve watched a play and the kinds of questions that they ask. That's how I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to empower ourselves and society in general with a keener sense of critical thinking, ability to evaluate, analyse works of fiction, and not take things too black and white, or too literally.

So if you watch something, it is text, subtext. That's life. When you are watching stuff on TV, when you are dealing with people, sometimes people say things but they mean something else. Don't you want to have that ability to have empathy, or have understanding on how people are feeling, rather than just take everything at face value and not be able to go deeper? This is not just a theatre or arts thing. It's really a life thing.

Bharati: Going back to Off Centre, while the MOH pulled funding, you managed to stage it anyway and without censorship, I understand.

Sharma: Eventually, NAC didn't censor. If I am not mistaken, we had a rating because there was a nude scene, back, not frontal.

Bharati: In addition to that, in 2006, the play was selected by the Ministry of Education as the first Singapore play to be included in the Literature 'O' level syllabus. It appears the only entity that had a problem with it was MOH. Or would you say it's a case of the general climate in Singapore changing over the years?

Sharma: I am not sure. The more I deal with these institutions, the more I realise I don't want to say the MOH had a problem with it. I would say that maybe 1-2 people within that ministry had a problem with it and they had the power to make the decision. It just seems that way to me.

HAresh Sharma and Alvin Tan

Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan. (Photo: TNS)


Bharati: In the speech I alluded to earlier, you said that forum theatre was once banned but it was then reinstated. Performance arts were once banned but this too was reinstated, and you said: “Let's not be judged by decisions made in the past.” Do you think things are genuinely changing in Singapore, that the authorities and people are more liberal and able to interpret and understand better, even though you feel some problems still exist?

Sharma: I think that things have changed but there are several different things that need change and can change more. One of my peeves is that I see things getting censored on national TV – things related to sexuality for example. This goes back to the critical thinking issue. There are many different types of people living in our midst, not just in terms of sexuality, but in terms of disability, in terms of mental illness.

If we don't want to talk about it, if we don't want to portray images of these people in positive ways, then how would the conversation even begin? For me that's at least just one step. Can we allow these things to be aired and to be heard, without thinking that society is going to collapse if they are aired?

Bharati: It sounds like you think the government agencies are getting it wrong when they say "Singaporeans are not ready for this", or when they say a particular work would impact society adversely?

Sharma: If you say Singaporeans are not ready. Fine. Then how do you get Singaporeans to be ready, or do you not want Singaporeans to be ready? I think what they are implying that they don't want Singaporeans to be ready.

Bharati: Or that they’d rather wait for Singaporeans to be ready before they themselves ease up.

Sharma: But Singaporeans cannot be ready if you continue to withhold things like that on national TV or on other types of broadcast. The only place we can talk about issues in a deep way is the theatre. That's why we do that. Theatre censorship is very different from TV censorship. A lot of times people come to watch a play and they say, “whoa, you can do that, ah? You get permission to do that?”

We have ratings though. Sometimes, it's not even a rating. It's just an advisory. It's like "strong language advisory" or "sexual content advisory" or "race" or whatever.

Bharati: Of course, this is probably because theatre isn’t mass media. To what extent are you really reaching out through theatre though? Are you just preaching to the converted?

Sharma: No. I think we are reaching larger audiences, because there are more companies now doing more performances who are reaching out to different types of people. But yes, the mass media is where there is potential for the most change to happen at all levels.

Bharati: While it's more liberal in theatre, to what extent do you feel there are still restrictions you have to work within that you are uncomfortable with? On other fronts as well, we have seen NAC funding being pulled from certain projects and films being banned.

Sharma: There are restrictions because there is always that "not suitable for all rating".

You know … can we just call it a ban? Something like Tan Pin Pin's “To Singapore with Love” which is a documentary, why can't that be shown in Singapore? Why must that be banned? Once in a while you go, “sigh, what is this place?” You can't you even show a documentary. It goes back to you don't want your country’s people to be ready.


Bharati: Or the authorities just don't want to deal with possible fallout.

Sharma: Yes.

Bharati: Or public complaints.

Sharma: That's another thing, right?

Bharati: You have said before: “Let us not dismiss artists, art work, or films because of fear of uncertainty, because of a lack of imagination or anxiety that people might complain. If someone does complain and write in, then side the artist.” Why should the authorities side the artist?

Sharma: If you go to a restaurant and you don't like the fish and you complain about it, then that's fine. It's between you and the restaurant. The thing is with the arts, when you watch a play, you don't like it and you complain about it, somehow the government gets involved. These government bodies start to get involved.

Bharati: Because people complain to the government.

Sharma: Yes, so it always feel as if the artists are the ones who are the troublemakers, because the complaints invariably lead to some kind of examination of what we did wrong. We have to justify certain things. So if the complaints say: too much strong language, then we have to write a long thing to say why we put all these strong language.

If the complaint says there’s some nudity, we have to explain why we put nudity. Sometimes it gets very frustrating because it makes me feel as if I am some kind of criminal. I have to keep justifying what I am doing.

Artists are not criminals. Again, if you can watch something and see the context of why certain decisions were made, then you won't be in the position of making this complaint. This again goes back to: think a bit, have some kind of critical view.

If a character uses strong language, it doesn't mean that I like strong language and it doesn't mean that I use strong language. It just means that the character uses strong language. And let's see why the character strong language, what kind of background he or she has.

There’s also this sense that if there is a character who swears a lot, or a character who commits suicide, it means the playwright is kind of "promoting" it in some ways.

Bharati: And your point is that just because we talk about it or discuss it, it does not mean we are promoting it.

Sharma: Exactly. When you create a work and somebody has a problem with it, somebody complains, the government agencies always try to placate them, and always come to us and say "you better explain why you did this". For every one person who may have a problem with something that is presented, there are 99 that may not. But the response is always not matching that statistic.

If somebody says that an exhibition has some pornographic material, the authorities would definitely stop that exhibition. Shut it down. Why? Why can't you tell that one person: "Don't go to this exhibition if you don't want to see that Playboy magazine? Just go. Walk away. Go to the café. Sit down and read a book".

There is always accusation. Why can't the authorities instead tell the complainants to take a chill pill? Once I would like to hear that being said, or just say: “If you don't like it, tough. Deal with it. Go back home. There are other people who want to see this work and engage with it.” Sometimes, the authorities also need to take a step back and say, like in the restaurant example: “If you don't like the fish, complain to the cook. Settle it yourselves.”

Bharati: Where would you yourself draw the line - what type of content do you think the authorities would be justified in censoring? What scale and types of complaints would they be justified in responding to with censorship

Sharma: I don't think censorship solves anything. If at all, it silences everything. When an artwork is highly provocative or uncomfortable, censoring it will only shut down any opportunity for dialogue. Let the artwork be presented, but make sure the public is aware of the ratings and advisories so that they can make an informed choice.

Invite the artist and those who have objections to the artwork to a panel discussion. Let it be open to the public. Share and discuss the different and opposing points of views.

Why is this course of action never an option? Artworks, however contentious they may be, are springboards for discourse on important issues of the day. My statement refers only to censorship of theatre and other artworks. Of course I do not support hate speech of any kind.


Bharati: You’ve also urged people before to “support our artists unconditionally”. When it comes to state funding though, isn't it reasonable to expect conditions?

Sharma: But the conditions are between me and the state that gives me the funding. If I had fulfilled the criteria, I had signed the dotted line, that's fine. Why then do we have this other group of people, the complainants, coming in and interfering with this process?

The NAC has the right to give funding to whomever they want. They have the right to not give funding, or give however much or however little they want to give. That's fine. We have to deal with it. If you do works that are very safe, maybe you get more funds, or if you do works of high quality, you might have more funds. So that's the negotiation and that kind of constant battle between artists and NAC.

Bharati: Do you resent the fact that safe works attract more state funding?

Sharma: I do not resent the fact, because it is public money and they can interpret it any way they want. Again, sometimes time has a way of looking back and saying: “Ha, you made a mistake with that one.”

For example, with Off Centre, the Ministry withheld the money but eventually it became a literature text. But I feel if the NAC doesn’t want to give TNS money or cut our funding, which they have done, we just have to deal with it.

Bharati: You said it’s public money and they can decide who they want to give it to. But precisely because it’s public money and because the public is diverse, shouldn’t they give it to groups who are presenting diverse works about diverse issues and not just safe ones?

Sharma: I really don't care what they do, who they support, who they don't support. I have a right as a member of the arts community to voice my disagreements if they pull funding on anyone. But again at the end of the day it's their money. They can do what they want to do with it, and they have to be accountable to whoever.

Some of my plays may not be the most easy, or safe, and we ask difficult questions, and we can be quite provocative at times. We still get funding. We feel that NAC is already quite enlightened to a certain extent. But as you know, these government agencies don't function totally on their own.

They are interconnected. So when they react adversely, it might be because of other reasons that we do not know about, because like I said, sometimes it might be just a couple of people within that organisation who object. Probably they get different pressures from different quarters to act and pull funding.

I think it's something we have to live with. And yes, you do work, you get a license, you get funding and it's a good day. Everything is great, then suddenly you wake up and a children's book gets banned, or some film gets banned, or Sonny Liew’s book funding gets pulled and then goes on to win prestigious prizes and all that.

So, it is all a daily thing - high moments, low moments. You can get angry and then after that, because you are older and more mellow, you can just chill.

At the end of the day, if they want the vibrancy of the arts to slide, die a slow death, they can continue to do that. It's really up to them. I can only be the playwright. I can only write what I want. If nobody is going to give my company any money, we will find ways to do it ourselves.

We have done it with no money, with very little money, as with Off Centre. For me the most important thing is getting a license. Don't stop us from doing the plays we want to do.

Bharati: Have you ever exercised self-censorship in order to get a license?

Sharma: No, not consciously. If it’s subconscious, I wouldn’t know. But I’ve had to explain or tone down certain things a few times in the past. Nowadays it's different because if you want to have certain things, then the advisory and ratings would change accordingly. Last year, TNS collaborated with Drama Box, and we did a play called Manifesto looking at artists and politics in Singapore in the past 60, 70 years.

We had an R18 rating, even though there is nothing to do with sexuality, and race religion and stuff like that, but it's because of political issues that they put an R rating. If I wanted to like reach out to those who are below 18, I could have said: “What is it that you need me to change? I will change.” Then that would be self-censorship.

This year we did the M1 Fringe Festival and two art works were told to be changed. If not they would not give us a license. As a producing organisation, we decided instead of asking the artists to change their artworks, we would rather not show the works at all. The Singapore Film Festival takes that stance as well. That if you tell us to cut anything, we will just not show it.

Haresh Sharma


Bharati: Kathy Lai, who is the former chief executive of NAC said: “We would have difficulty funding arts with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression without any consideration of the impact on the public, and whether they truly enrich their lives.” How do you feel about this statement?

Sharma: I think art serves many purposes. One of it is to celebrate life in a very positive flag-waving kind of a way. I have written plays that bring attention to dementia, post-natal depression, where I really sat down to interview people and write a play to highlight these issues.

That's another purpose of art. I have written plays like that and I get a lot of fulfillment in writing because I feel that I am using it as a source of education for audiences so that if they go through something like that, they know what to expect, the kind of help that they can receive.

But there is also art that brings up uncomfortable questions that you might not be willing to hear and talk about, or you might see conflicts that you are not totally at ease with. That is also very important in terms of getting a deeper understanding of humanity, of human complexities, of the contradictions that we are in ourselves, individually in society. Sometimes I feel that those people who are trying to do the latter type of art tend to get a slap-down because that is the difficult art.

They are always told to do something positive. “Why can't you highlight happy things that make us happy?” It’s very naïve to think about art just in that way, because art is in its complexity, able to embrace all these different elements. It's not as if art needs to be about one thing. It doesn't always have to be about an issue. It doesn't always have to be about something that is for the betterment of society.

Bharati: Also, perceptions of what contributes to the betterment of society would vary from person-to-person.

Sharma: Yeah.


Bharati: Earlier you said if the authorities pull funding, you would just do it on your own and you have done it before. But a lot of artists tell me that getting private patrons and a paying audience to step up with funding, with financing, has been challenging. What is your perspective on that?

Sharma: Yes, it is difficult because it takes a lot to give to the arts because you are competing with other types of charities, like children's charities, medical charities, so I really take my hat off to the institutions and corporates that do support the arts financially.

Bharati: What do you think the problem is? Why aren't more people doing it more enthusiastically?

Sharma: I am not really sure. It’s not that we have the deepest appreciation for the arts as a society to begin with. There are people I’ve met from other countries who say “my city has six theaters and they have full-houses every night. We started watching operas and plays and going to concerts from as young as six years old.”

Bharati: To be fair, we do have a much more vibrant arts scene here and it’s more accessible as well.

Sharma: Yes, but not in that way that reaches out to like as many people as possible. I feel that people who are watching that kind of theatre are still kind of limited. Heartland arts is not challenging. It doesn't fall into critical thinking. We don't have any kind of strong promotion of Singaporean artists in primary school.

If you ask primary school students if they know a Singapore painter, they might have no idea, Singapore novelist? And so, it has to be a deep kind of appreciation for the arts that comes from very, very young as opposed to as an adult who likes to watch one musical a year. That's not the same as having that kind of ingrained appreciation that you get as young as six, when you are nurtured and told about arts.

Bharati: Make a case for a greater focus on the arts in school and in society in general.

Sharma: Sometimes you wish that other people can also be allies of artists, who would implement these things. We will need to put things into place like immersion programmes in schools and I wish sometimes, non-artists would also come forward. Certain people in power already have a certain skewed perspective on artists. They think: these artists, troublemakers. Then they would stop listening, and they would see us as noisy people.

Bharati: How do you think you can get more allies?

Sharma: Doing more theatre and putting good theatre on mainstream media so that more people would get to engage in complex issues of diversity, rather than just looking at life in a very sugarcoated way.

With every new play, you want to reach out to people, you want them to start thinking about human life, you want them to start thinking about people around them, about having a different way of thinking, a different way of approaching life's difficult questions.

To not just be accepting about everything that is happening, to not just be whining about things that are happening around us, but to be active, to see our lives together as meaningful as different as we are from one another.

Source: CNA/rw