Tucked Away in a Mall, This Theater Pushes Boundaries in Singapore

Wild Rice’s new show, 'The Death of Singapore Theater,' tackles art censorship in Singapore.

wild rice theater singapore
'The Death of Singapore Theater' is Wild Rice's latest, provocative production. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice
'The Death of Singapore Theater' is Wild Rice's latest, provocative production. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice

When it comes to art in Singapore, there’s a constant negotiation between content and intention. In order for a play to be publicly performed in the dazzling city-state, for instance, the script must first be approved by the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA). It's a real dance with the authorities, one that provides the foundation for Alfian Sa’at’s new mouthful of a play, The Death of Singapore Theater, As Scripted By The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore.

The new production, which premiered in March at Singapore’s cutting edge Wild Rice theater, turns an otherwise opaque bureaucratic process into an open dialogue between a playwright (played by Farah Ong) and a fictionalized, anonymous IMDA officer. The one-woman-show traces the various ways in which censorship has taken shape in Singapore, from colonial era noise controls of public performances to modern day culture wars.

What’s ironic—and perhaps a little meta—is that, like every other play in the country, The Death of Singapore Theater had to be screened by the IMDA. While Sa’at’s show was approved, it was not eligible for any grants or funding. “In spite of this, we have persisted with the courage of our convictions, letting the play speak for itself,” Ivan Heng, founding artistic director of Wild Rice, says. “This has won the hearts of audiences and patrons who buy tickets or make angel donations. Alfian’s play is close to selling out its run.”

wild rice singapore
Actress Farah Ong taking center stage. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice

There are few countries in the world in which audiences, after experiencing a provocative work of art for the first time, are conditioned to wonder how it got past the censors. “[The play] is about the policemen that have been put in our heads. We have gotten so used to this censorship that we have begun to police our own thoughts” says Heng. “But ultimately, it's an appeal for us to be more open and alive to the ideas and possibilities of theater,” he says.

Heng, who in 2013 received Singapore’s highest artistic honor, the Cultural Medallion, is no stranger to championing art that challenges the status quo. The artistic director founded Wild Rice theater company in 2000 (“Wild” denoting something from the ground, and “Rice” as a sort of staple). It’s one of the more prolific theater companies in Singapore (The Death of Singapore Theater is one of 11 productions this year), boasting entirely in-house works, 90% of which are written or adapted by Singaporean playwrights. Before finding a home at Funan shopping center in 2019, the company performed across a number of historic venues, like the Victoria Theater, the Drama Centre, and the Esplanade.

One might not expect such an expansive, 358-seat theater to exist inside a mall, but in Singapore—where you can ride a ferris wheel inside the Marquee nightclub, which is also inside a mall, which also happens to be inside the Marina Bay Sands Hotel—it’s nothing new. The performing arts complex—formally called the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre—is not only located inside a mall, but also within Singapore’s Civic District, affording Heng’s company greater visibility and prominence.

“We're directly opposite the Supreme Court, next to the Houses of Parliament,” Heng says. “Theater is a public forum where people can gather to reflect on the problems and possibilities of our times, and we’re really quite at the beating heart of Singapore, where conversations that matter are happening.”

wild rice theater
The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre makes use of reclaimed wayang timber. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice

The theater-inside-a-mall features Singapore’s only thrust stage, modeled after the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Elements of Singapore’s theater history are woven into the design of the building. The back wall and ceiling, for example, are made from repurposed wood once used to stage wayang performances, a kind of public puppet theater that existed in the country over 80 years ago. “It's very moving to know that this wood has been trod on by performers since even before the Japanese occupation,” Heng says.

Theater-goers will also notice diamond-patterned walls inspired by Singapore’s old National Theatre on River Valley Road, which was built in 1963. The National Theatre’s five-pointed facade represented the five stars of the Singapore flag, which embody the values of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. “At that time of Singapore’s newly found independence, leaders thought it a great idea to have a theater to bring people together, so that they could celebrate our diversity,” Heng says. But after being declared structurally unsafe in 1986, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an expressway.

The National Theater was an early attempt to keep the arts alive in Singapore. It’s an effort that continues on today, as creative works can sometimes struggle to coexist in such a pragmatic, outwardly glossy society. In case you didn’t know, the selling of chewing gum is forbidden. But the rules can get much more serious. For one, the government decriminalized sex between men in 2022, but at the same time, amended the constitution to prevent court challenges that in other countries have led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority has the power to regulate film, newspaper, broadcasting services, and publications. Examples of media that had previously been banned in Singapore include A Clockwork Orange (1971), HBO’s Sex and the City (1998), and Katy Perry’s hit single I Kissed a Girl (2008).

In the case of theater productions, the IMDA will comb through all multimedia materials associated with the work and respond with audience advisories or ratings. “All plays dealing with LGBTQ+ characters or issues are given an “‘R18 – Homosexual Content’,’' Heng explains. “The minute you say a play should not be seen by anyone below the age of 18, you turn people off.”
The Asian Boys Trilogy (2013), a previous work from Alfian Sa’at exploring the gay community in Singapore, fell victim to such ratings.

wild rice theater singapore
Ivan Heng and the cast of 'Tartuffe,' Wild Rice's last production, take a curtain call. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice

“In spite of the many ‘out of bound markers,’ like race, religion, sex, and politics, Wild Rice has managed to stage our productions without any cuts for over two decades. We have done so by having open and sincere conversations with the censors,” Heng says. What’s more common, he explains, is for censorship to take the form of funding cuts on plays that, in the authorities' view, do not conform to social norms of mainstream values. Case in point: The Death of Singapore Theatre.

Nonetheless, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre is a real triumph for Heng, who spent the last twenty years advocating for home-grown theater and powering through funding cuts. “We have a burgeoning, diverse scene from experimental works to blockbuster musicals,” he says. The artistic director is also proud of the way modern Singaporean playwrights are embracing decolonization, staging productions in Malay, or Chinese.

Because the venue opened right before COVID, last year was the first full year of programming at the new theater. “We produced and presented 10 productions, which brought together close to 50,000 people,” Heng says. “And we also created more than 500 jobs for our industry.” For tourists who are looking to understand the pulse of a country, Heng believes there’s no better avenue than a local theater production.

He says, “Many people visit Singapore for two days, two nights, maybe a three-day stopover before they go to another place. And, of course, they go to Marina Bay Sands, they do Little India, they do Gardens by the Bay. But I think if you really want to understand the aspirations, the disappointments, the fear, and the hopes and dreams of a people—come to the theater.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.