Thirunalan Sasitharan



Thirunalan Sasitharan (b. 1958, Singapore–), also known as Sasi, is an actor, art critic, arts educator, activist, former journalist and former philosophy teacher. Besides being an outstanding actor, Sasitharan is one of the foremost thinkers in the local arts community and a leader in some of the most significant arts institutions in Singapore. The impact of his work has gone beyond the shores of Singapore and his insights have been sought after internationally. In 2012, Sasitharan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for his dedication to the development of theatre in Singapore.1

Early years
2

Sasitharan had his first taste of theatre as a 13-year-old student at Victoria School in 1971. His principal, T. P. Naidu, fostered an environment of arts and culture and made sure that students had the opportunity to attend or participate in various theatre festivals. Fuelled by Naidu’s commitment to theatre, Sasitharan actively participated in these festivals. Theatre became an extension of his love for literature, reading and the literary arts.

In the 1970s, the former National Library of Singapore at Stamford Road ran a series of theatre workshops for young people. Conducted by local practitioners from arts companies such as the Experimental Theatre Club, the Stage Club, and Stars, Sasitharan had the opportunity to take part in productions and to learn everything from acting, directing, playwriting, making props and doing make-up, to lighting and sound.

Outside of school, Sasitharan auditioned for performances, which brought him into contact with many companies and directors. Through listening to their conversations on art, aesthetics, politics and social issues, he became aware of the power of theatre.


Artistic development3
While a philosophy student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Sasitharan found himself more often in the theatre than the lecture halls. In 1981, he was sought out by dramatist and arts activist Kuo Pao Kun, a pioneer of Singapore theatre. Kuo had seen Sasitharan’s theatre work and invited him to co-write and perform a script, No Parking On Odd Days. This was to be the first of many more plays that the pair would collaborate on and marked the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. The veteran artist Kuo opened up a different world for Sasitharan and deepened his understanding and appreciation of theatre.

Sasitharan’s portfolio as an actor broadened and he was cast by many leading directors of the 1980s. However, he never intended to make a living from theatre. It was to be more than a decade later before he would devote himself full-time to theatre.

From 1983 to 1989, Sasitharan taught philosophy at NUS. He later worked as a journalist and art editor for The Straits Times newspaper from 1988 to 1996. His keen observations, critical perspective and well-articulated opinions on censorship, political art and the state of the arts not only gave voice to the emerging arts scene in Singapore, but also presented him as an arts leader and thinker.

A Singapore theatre4

In 1996, Sasitharan succeeded Kuo as the artistic director of The Substation. By then, local theatre had developed a distinctive Singaporean character.

Literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng was an early advocate of a Singaporean identity for local theatre by introducing Singlish to the stage in his play When Smiles Are Done (1965).5 Kuo’s Mama Looking For Her Cat (1988) was the first multilingual play to reflect the reality of Singapore as a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society. These, and other Singapore-themed works by playwrights such as Stella Kon and Max Le Blond, paved the way for an emerging theatre that could truly be called Singaporean. For Sasitharan, “it became clear that there was a viable Singaporean identity which could be presented on stage”.6


Theatre Training and Research Programme7
Sasitharan left The Substation in 2000 after five years there. The move was precipitated by Kuo’s plans to close down The Practice Performing Arts School – a school that Kuo had co-founded and where he had been grooming local acting talent since 1965. There were no theatre schools then and Sasitharan was concerned that nobody would be teaching young actors how to act.

In 2000, Sasitharan and Kuo founded the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP). They crafted a unique post-graduate level curriculum for training actors how to act in a multilingual, multicultural, interdisciplinary context for the new millennium.

Kuo passed away in 2002, leaving Sasitharan on his own to carry the work the two had started. Losing a friend and partner was a devastating blow, but in the end Sasitharan decided to press on.

By then, interest in the programme had gone worldwide as it offered a practical curriculum for working actors that did not require academic credentials. Students were picked from auditions. Unlike in commercial theatre where actors were given roles but with little say in the production, the specialised programme empowered actors to be active agents in the process of making theatre.

Immersing actors in Asian traditional theatre and contemporary theatre, the programme appealed to actors who were searching for something new, original and outside the boundaries of commercial theatre. Sasitharan recognised that this kind of work was not going to be commercially viable or profit driven. It would be smaller in scale but would allow for more interesting experimentation. The programme required students to be socially aware because their work was intended to resonate with their communities.

In 2011, TTRP was re-launched as the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI). The school has trained artists not only from Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia, but also from countries like India, Japan, Macau, Philippines, Taiwan, Mexico and Poland.

Contributions8

Over the years, Sasitharan’s insights have been sought after not only in Singapore but also internationally. He has been invited to lecture on the various aspects of theatre such as theatre training and education, as well as theatre criticism, aesthetics and creativity both at home and abroad.

For more than a decade, Sasitharan has served on the boards and panels of several Singapore and multinational institutions, including The Substation, National Arts Council, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore International Foundation, National Book Development Council and the Asian Arts Network.

Family9
Wife: Kavita Kumari Ratty.
Children: Two daughters.

Education10
Victoria School.
Master of Arts in Philosophy, National University of Singapore.

Career11

1983: Actor, The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
1983–1989:
Lecturer, Philosophy, National University of Singapore.
1985:
Actor, Woza Albert!
1986: Actor, No Parking On Odd Days.
1988: Actor, Mama Looking For Her Cat.
1988–1996: Arts editor, The Straits Times Life! section.
1990: Actor, Kaliyug.
1996–2000: Artistic director, The Substation.
2000: Co-founder and director, Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP), later renamed the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conferences12

1998: Conference on Civil Society: Harnessing State-Society Synergies organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.
2002: Asian Contemporary Theatre Festival Conference organised by The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and the Professional Photographers Association.
2009: Keynote speaker, World Arts Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
2011: Asia Intangible Cultural Heritage Performing Arts Forum, Hong Kong.



Author

Angeline Koh



References
1.  Chia, A. (2012, October 18). Winners’ circle. The Straits Times, pp. 6/7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127
2. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127; Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
3. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127; Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
4. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127; Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
5. Yap, S. (2008, January 6). A writer and more. The Straits Times, p. 70. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
7. Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
8. Intercultural Theatre Institute. (2014). Profiles: T. Sasitharan. Retrieved from http://iti.edu.sg/profiles/sasi/; Lee, K. (2013, April-June). The curtain only rises. Singapore. Retrieved from The Singapore International Foundation website: http://singaporemagazine.sif.org.sg/the-curtain-only-rises/
9. Chia, A. (2012, October 18). Winners’ circle. The Straits Times, pp. 6/7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127
11. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127
12. National Arts Council. (2012). Cultural Medallion: Thirunalan Sasitharan. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:9dcc8145-c90c-4baf-a724-a7cbc0b06127



The information in this article is valid as at 19 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts