Coming Back From The Year of No Return — In Conversation with Haresh Sharma
I have to admit I didn’t know who Haresh Sharma was when I first met him. It was two years before interviewing Haresh Sharma for The Year of No Return. I signed up for a playwriting and acting course at the Birds Migrant Theatre, a local theatre group comprising migrant workers in Singapore. And as I went through the playwriting part of the course, I had to write a short play to be reviewed. Haresh was the one who took a look at my play.
Ignorance is bliss. If I were any other writer, I would have been gobsmacked. Here was the playwright who wrote Off Centre, the landmark play by The Necessary Stage. He was friendly, humble.
I had the privilege of working with him for two plays by the Bird’s Migrant Theatre. As he devises new works, he invites you to explore, to play. He trusts your voice and your point of view. He tries to mould it into the play, becoming a kaleidoscope of ideas and perspectives.
It’s the same for The Year of No Return. In ideating the piece, he was happy to let the choreographer conduct a workshop at the beach for the production’s artists and actors. ‘
I spoke with him last Saturday about The Year of No Return, for which he’s one of the playwrights. He joined me over Zoom, donning black-rimmed glasses and a black t-shirt.
*The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The production started innocently enough back in 2018. They were looking to create a production that could include international artists. Climate change seemed to be able to unify the voices of these artists. Then they found out that 2020 was what some scientists called ‘the point of no return’.
‘Because, in the past, a lot of countries were just ‘playing around’ with climate change. Like ‘okay, let’s recycle’, or ‘let’s use more solar energy’. But it wasn’t being taken as seriously as it needed to be,’ Haresh told me. ‘We thought that’s an interesting topic, and so that’s why we wanted to do something around the issue of climate change with our title—‘The Year of No Return’.
The production was originally slated for SIFA 2020. But, as you know, the pandemic hit. New realities hit: social distancing, lockdowns, masks—you know the drill.
But with new realities come new perspectives. ’The pandemic is a by-product of climate change. It’s also about human behaviour, it’s also about mental health. It’s about how we treat animals and plants.’ Haresh props up on his chair. ‘The more we researched, the more we realised we’re all so interconnected, that the virus comes from human folly, so to speak.’
‘It was a lot of work. We were constantly writing and rewriting. But it was also fulfilling. Because we were able to make the work more current. We could talk about inequality now as vaccination came into play.’
Then there were lockdowns and travel restrictions. The international artists that they were collaborating with for The Year of No Return weren’t allowed to visit Singapore.
‘We had four actors from overseas. Two from Manila, one in Kuala Lumpur, and another one in Tokyo. So we had to arrange to be filmed in their own cities, and then we compose the work (for the stage), with both the live elements and the film elements.’
The production soon morphed into a logistical nightmare. They needed to find recording studios in each of those cities, not to mention all the equipment required for the recording.
Max Tan, the costume designer, had to nail down the costumes and props at a moment’s notice. Because they had to ship all of it across 3 different cities. Some got stuck at a warehouse. So their team had to track down the logistics company so that their parcel could arrive on time.
Perhaps this is where we can see Haresh’s reflection of our interconnectedness, how people need to come together. When they needed to rework the script, Haresh bounced ideas off Rody Vera, another playwright in the Philippines who works on the production. The set designers and costume designers shared ideas on how to change the set.
‘You know, it takes a village to put up an entire play. Yet everyone was so willing to come together despite all the changes. Whether it was the stage manager or the administrator, everyone was doing what they had to do, and they did it!’
A feat, considering they were rehearsing The Year of No Return during the thick of the pandemic. Imagine this, the actress in KL is being filmed in the studio by the crew there, and then Haresh is all the way in Singapore, watching it and giving directions and notes on Zoom.
But there’s another actor in Manila. He also has to get on Zoom to have that conversation, even if they were filming only the actress.
Despite that chaos, they managed to create a comprehensive piece that looked at how the decisions affecting our planet are in the hands of the big players: the corporations, the politicians. It also delves into how the drastic changes could be affecting our collective mental health too.
And The Year of No Return looks to be a feat of interdisciplinary art, combining not only the live performance of the actors on stage, the digital video feed of the actors overseas, and the choreography of multimedia on stage.
While incorporating new elements, or digital elements for that matter, might feel new. Theatre is no stranger to constant evolution. But the way we experience stories and the arts has been shifting towards the digital since before the pandemic. So I posed him this age-old question: how will the theatre stay relevant?
‘I think storytelling in any form will always be relevant. People always want to hear stories, and it’s our responsibility to tell more stories than ever. Because, for a long time, a lot of stories have been suppressed.’
‘That one thing about Theatre is that we can adapt to the environment to the changes. Yes, we love going to the theatre because it’s a whole experience—you watch the actors live, and you talk about it with your friends. I think that will continue, even though at the moment it is with a drastic reduction in audience size. But at the same time, I think artists are responding to the environment by creating new forms to capture today’s ethos.’
As for capturing new audiences, Haresh thinks that having diversity and variety matters, beyond the few of us who like theatre, and the few of us that can afford it. He points to Drama Box that stages outdoor theatre, and the annual Red Dot Festival, which features migrant stories.
‘For me, it’s really about finding the different opportunities and platforms to create theatre. And not just create theatre with professional actors, but with all kinds of participants.’
Maybe that’s what we need to do: to come together and share our stories. Maybe then, we can share our hopes and learn to stop and listen—especially when we’re facing so much uncertainty, what with the state of the world now.
Since theirs is a production that ‘seeks to question whether we live in an age of despair—or one of hope in the dark,’ I asked Haresh, how does he navigate this ‘age of despair’ and find hope?
‘I think there’s something about being theatre people where we live through this despair and we live through joy. We live through, you know, our rollercoaster emotions with the support from one another. And I think that is something that I would say has kept me going for the past 30 years.’
‘Because in dark times and in difficult times you depend on each other. And then in happy moments, you celebrate together. Maybe it’s a kind of bubble that we live in for the theatre community. It’s different from the real world.’
‘But I don’t care! Because it is my reality, and the people around me are very supportive. We think about each other all the time, and we reach out to each other in whatever way we can.’
‘So just be there for each other, whenever you can.’
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