Humour in Plays: Actors, satires and a whole lot of merriment
by Ong Hui Wen and Jyotika Puri; edited by Edward Goh and Lee Russell

In a diverse and politically conservative society like Singapore, how does one preserve the integrity of a production yet still get away with satirising and boldly pushing the limits of political correctness? The answer is simple: You make it funny.

In a session filled with activity and, perhaps fittingly, laughter, acclaimed Singaporean playwrights Haresh Sharma and Alfian Sa’at gave us a number of insightful comments on this. Sharma, who has written over 100 plays, emphasises the importance of having a right mix of humour and drama for a play to be more insightful. Humour that is invoked at the most solemn moments can ‘lock in’ the audience and engage them with the writing.

We found out that the playwrights don’t write in a vacuum and merely put out their final ideas for the actors to play and the audience to watch. Both playwrights work hand in hand with their actors and theatre companies. Working in tandem with other artists who bring something of their own to the table excites and inspires them and they both agreed that it helped bring finesse to their work. Since actors are the ones who will ultimately be portraying their writing, working with them helps to see what will actually work on stage and hence accelerates the editing process.

We learnt about the art of satire where writers make fun of those in authority. It’s a weapon for the weak, a social equaliser because in a satirical piece “we “punch up not down”. They fondly call theatre “an uncommon space”. The plays depict stories written for Singaporeans and tailored for this culture. The work is first and foremost for the local community. The theatre therefore becomes a place where they don’t have to abide by the rules, where art and expression is the heart of the experience and humour is the punch line!

Alfian Sa’at spoke endearingly about one of his recent plays GRC, which is about a parallel SIngaporean society wherein the racial roles have been reversed and the Chinese community became the minority. He told us that in order to keep the plays relevant to the youth and portray the ever dynamic youngsters accurately, they interact with actual youth and actively listen to their experiences, observe their habits and conduct research by keeping their own eyes peeled in public areas like cafes, fast food joints and even the bus!

The bottom-line is: Humour is social and contagious; it’s how we structure conversations with people. It shouldn’t be cheap and low brow but central and important to a story. Never make the mistake of underestimating humour because no matter what kind of writer we are, well-placed humour always serves to highlight the most poignant memories, satirise what seems like a grave moment and ensures that your audience leaves with a smile on their faces, which, ultimately is what art is all about, making people happy!