Established in 1990 by Kok Heng Leun, the founding artistic director, Drama Box is a theatre company that is best known for staging socially-engaging works in both English and Mandarin. Over the last 26 years, it has collected many “firsts” in its quest to push boundaries and experiment with new forms. We take a look at some of the most notable ones here.
#1: (1992) The first Mandarin gay play to be staged in Singapore
Written by Otto Fong and directed by Kok Heng Leun, Another Tribe tells the stories of homosexual youths and became the first play that explores gay issues to be staged in Singapore. After some negotiations with the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) of the Singapore Police Force – who was then in charge of giving out permits for performances – the show was allowed to go ahead. However, it’s the first Chinese-language production here to be given an R21 rating.
#2: (1998) The first local martial arts theatre production
The first production Drama Box staged after becoming a full time company, Leng-Geh-Mng – which means Dragon Tooth Gate in English – pokes fun at the conventions that are found in gongfu movies. Written by Lee Shyh Jih and Lim Poh Poh, the comedy uniquely comprises only baddies, with nary a pure, noble hero in sight. To get in shape for sky-high kicks and to land those ultra-powerful punches, the cast of 11 went through actual pugilistic training for five months before the production.
#3: (2001) The first outdoor forum theatre performance in Singapore
Before founding Drama Box, artistic director Kok Heng Leun used to work for The Necessary Stage, which had a history of staging forum theatre performances. Also known as theatre of the oppressed, this genre of performance invites audience members to watch a short play that contains some kind of conflict, and they’re free to intervene at any point to change the action of the characters if they disagree with them. It is an art form that Kok is passionate about, and he continued to work with it through Drama Box despite the fact that he received no state funding due to a ban that lasted from 1994 to 2003.
In 2000, Kok pushed the boundaries by presenting short audio plays on UFM 100.3 with DJ Danny Yeo in a forum theatre format, where listeners could call in and participate. One year later, he applied for a permit to stage a forum theatre show outdoors – which he knew was the only way to really reach the wider public. Have You Eaten?, a play about retrenchment, was given the go-ahead, and became the forum theatre piece to be staged outside the conventional indoors performance space.
#4: (2005) The first series of satirical plays based on headline news
While this claim to fame may sound a little specific, Dua Dai Ji (News Buster!) was indeed the first piece of mockumentary theatre to be performed here. Staged two years before popular satirical TV show The Noose aired, the play was conceptualised by Li Xie and co-devised by Tay Long Hui, Koh Hui Ling and Epin Chia, and caricaturises current affairs that Singaporeans can easily relate to with a generous dose of humour.
#5: (2015) The first inflatable pop-up theatre in Singapore
Having established a reputation for being champions of community theatre, Drama Box decided to reach out further by bringing art to the people. And so the idea to build a mobile performance space that can be transported around Singapore was born. The fundraising campaign for a pair of inflatable domes – affectionately named GoLi after the childhood game of marbles – began in 2013, and they were completed in 2015. A week-long festival called SCENES: Forum Theatre took place near NEX Shopping Mall in Serangoon that year to mark GoLi’s official opening, as well as Drama Box’s 25th anniversary.
The Vault: Leng-Geh-Mng is a revisit of the first martial arts production in Singapore theatre of the same title by theatre-maker Zelda Tatiana Ng. Under her direction and alongside some of the original cast members, Leng-Geh-Mng is retold in the format of a radio play refreshed with the use of Chinese dialects.