“Because it is talked about so extensively, ‘sustainability’ has now become a catch-all word that doesn’t mean much on its own,” muses Ang Xiao Ting, a director, actor and dramaturg at Singapore’s longest-standing bilingual theatre institution, The Theatre Practice. Ang is also the programmer behind Practice Tuckshop, an initiative from the theatre company that functions as an eco-conscious cafe and arts space. Through her work, Ang has made a name for herself in the field of eco-theatre, opening up critical conversations about sustainability with theatrical experiences that blend genres and disciplines.
She breaks the definition of eco-theatre down into three parts. “The first is any form of theatre that has an explicitly ecological story. The second relates to what goes on behind the scenes, where the foundation of the production—that means anything to do with raw materials, budget allocation, resource management or human labour—prioritises sustainability. The third part of it has to do with advocacy. How are you bringing non-theatre-goers into the conversation? For me, that’s especially important in Singapore, because one of our biggest challenges is climate literacy.”
As the director of last year’s production of Extinction Feast, for example, Ang playfully weaved together theatre and food to tell the story of a man saddled with the responsibility of running his family’s Chinese restaurant despite knowing the harm that the seafood industry has on the environment. The set made creative use of reused materials, and canapés by local fish farm Ah Hua Kelong reimagined what eco-conscious dining could look like.
“There’s a lot of context for how people make environmental decisions, and it’s not our place to judge”
In her work, Ang approaches the topic of sustainability with great nuance. “When we were preparing for Extinction Feast, we worked very closely with Jing Kai, the owner of Ah Hua Kelong. He told us that he doesn’t consider his business sustainable. That really stood out to me, because if we judge his business by the usual markers of sustainability, it certainly is. Yet he pointed out that if he were to take on every sustainability measure imaginable, he would likely not be able to sustain the business financially,” she shares, “I appreciated him being completely transparent, especially as he has been thinking about sustainability long before most of us came onto the scene.”
Here, Ang shares about the complexities of blending art with advocacy—and what she hopes to achieve through her work.
Eco-theatre is a very specific way of practice. How did you get involved in it, and does it mirror your personal journey with environmental advocacy?
To be honest, getting into eco-theatre happened by accident. About eight years ago, while we were brainstorming a programme for Practice Tuckshop that would involve bringing people together through food, one of my colleagues suggested using materials found through food rescue—which is the when you collect and reuse fresh food that would otherwise have gone to waste at restaurants and grocers. On those food rescue missions, I met volunteers who would dedicate hours of their week to reduce food waste. I was compelled to find out what was motivating them. That’s when climate grief and anxiety really hit home for me. At that point, I was very overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. I had all these feelings about a topic that I cared strongly about, and my only tool was theatre.
What do you enjoy most about eco-theatre?
The innovation, imagination and community. I didn’t expect myself to be practising eco-theatre for so long, but one of the things that keeps me motivated is witnessing how theatre can move people. You’re immersing people in a complete experience, and I find that to be very captivating. As a director, it’s really exciting to work with different artists to figure out how to make things work within certain constraints, and it’s also very rewarding to hear from audiences about what they take away from the shows. I believe that any work related to sustainability is work you can’t do alone—and I’m really lucky to have a team and community that are supportive.
How do you hope to add to the sustainability conversation with your work?
I am passionate about presenting stories that are not preachy or didactic, because I believe that people are not going to be frightened into caring. Taking local context into account, I also hope to spotlight the topic of labour within the discussion of environmental awareness, because a lot of the talk about sustainability is instructive and black-and-white.
One may think, it is so easy to bring a disposable straw, or to bring your own containers—why doesn’t everyone do that? But imagine being single mother with three kids, juggling so many things. If getting a take-out container makes your life easier for five minutes, should you be criticised for something like that? There is a lot of context behind how people make decisions, and it’s not our place to judge. As a programmer, I try to make these nuances visible. If I talk about how I reused container lids for the set of a production, for example, I will also show exactly how many people and hours it took to scrub those lids clean.
What do you hope your audience will take away from your work?
Given how discouraged we can get about sustainability, I hope my work is able to help viewers untangle what can be confusing or overwhelming about climate knowledge. I hope that they laugh a little, walk away feeling moved, and take with them a bit of hope as well as actionable steps with which to move forward.
Do you have any advice for artists who are looking to go into eco-theatre, or any sort of artistic advocacy?
The best piece of advice that has been given to me so far is to always be aware of your audience. Spend time to really understand what matters to them. For example, when I did Poppy, a play about climate impact made for young audiences, I went in with preconceived notions on how they would think. When we started doing post-show dialogues, the conversation remained on a surface-level because I wasn’t sure whether they could go deeper. I then realised that these young people were a lot more informed than I had initially assumed. They cared a lot, and knew a lot more than I thought they did. Once I got a sense of that, the dialogue immediately changed, and we had a really meaningful conversation about environmentalism.