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Arriving at “Asia”

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 9 / Day 6


One of my early, naïve propositions – or suppositions, rather – when I mooted the idea of an Asian Dramaturgs’ Network, was that I was interested in dramaturgs working in the Asian region. Dramaturgs who were based in Asia. Very quickly, I discovered that the dramaturg, of whatever ethnicity, in Asia, was quite a rare individual. The reasons for this are almost the same as in the West: lack of financial resources, the specific function of the dramaturg’s work (I found out this sometimes depends if you belong to the Europe or American model / system of dramaturgy, including institutional needs), and, contradicting the former reason, the ambiguous nature of the dramaturg’s position within the arts ecosystem.

The term ‘dramaturgy,’ on the other hand, elicited more varied responses. It went from, ‘Oh it's a very complex Western thing, isn’t it?’ or ‘It’s a German thing, isn’t it?’, to ‘Yes, we know it exists and it should be important in our work, but…’, to ‘Yes, of course, we owe much of our work to dramaturgy’.

So, while doing initial research as to who we would like to invite for this all-important inaugural symposium back in 2016, it became clear that we had to consider individuals beyond the figure of the dramaturg in Asia. And so we turned our attention to dramaturgy instead of looking for dramaturgs in Asia.

There were quite a few of us who were not only interested in dramaturgy but actually engaged in it in our performance practice. Some never called it dramaturgy. ‘Intelligence’, ‘rigour’, and even ‘good sense’ were used to describe how they did what they did to ensure they worked toward critically-sound performances. More than that, however, these individuals never called themselves dramaturgs. This led to an exciting meeting of theatre directors, choreographers, academics, researchers, educators, producers, visual arts curators, reviewers, writers and critics who came with these official work titles but, in reality, at any one time straddled quite a few jobs.

Having said that, for me, a network is about establishing relationships, connections and links between humans first and foremost. I wanted to forge and build networks between people who think and engage in dramaturgy who then relate to one another through dramaturgy. And so the name of Asian Dramaturgs’ Network was born.

Photo: ADN working group session

ADN working group. We found that breaking out into working or tutorial groups were very useful to focus discussions on specific talking points.

In a closed-door working group session on the first day of the inauguration, we agreed resoundingly that the figure or the person of the dramaturg and the concept and function of dramaturgy were mutually exclusive. This led to a fundamental and essential understanding that dramaturgy was immanent in performance, the dramaturg does not imbue or even endow the performance project with dramaturgy. The dramaturg becomes very useful to focus on strengthening the dramaturgy of any work together with the performance-maker. As you can see, this line of argument can very quickly go deep into the dramaturg / dramaturgy rabbit hole. Hence, one of the first challenges I put forth at our 2016 symposium was: ‘How do we talk about dramaturgy without ever using the term “dramaturgy”?’

Photo: ADN working group session

ADN working group. Our first working groups meeting in 2016 focused on broad areas of what it means for dramaturgy to be practised in reality in Asia (‘praxis’), changes and conventions to dramaturgical practices unique to Asia, and the function of education in dramaturgy.

One route in which I became interested was to have us talk, present and discuss the work of the dramaturg in the different fields of performance. We wanted to hear experiences, to see and hear case studies of dramaturgs working in their fields. We had speakers talking about their work with theatre directors, choreographers, dramaturgs and text translation, educators dramaturging their students’ politically-charged performances, to name but a few. And being in Singapore and Southeast Asia where cultural mixings and hybridising comes naturally to all communities, we had a fascinating panel on dramaturgs working on intercultural and interdisciplinary projects. These ideas, thoughts and concepts brought up in this panel resonated with all of us: the translation work of the dramaturg, especially in this region, went beyond linguistics. The translation was between cultural practices, between social norms, between aesthetic forms.

The reality was that the individuals who met at the 2016 symposium were mostly highly travelled people who worked in different socio-cultural, political and aesthetical environments, with artists from different socio-cultural and socio-political backgrounds:

  • a Japanese theatre dramaturg working with Singaporean artists of Chinese and Malay ethnicities;

  • a Malaysian dance dramaturg working with a Cambodian choreographer;

  • a Malaysian dramaturg (of Sri Lankan-Tamil descent) working on an interdisciplinary performance project that took on cultural and social issues of death and dying among the Chinese community.

These were just some of the case studies that were brought to light during our inaugural symposium.

While we do know of the demands of multitasking and ever-shifting roles of the dramaturg, varying from one project to another, the Asian dramaturg is also sensitive to different cultural and social aspects in her group dynamics. And perhaps it’s not even about many cultures or overlapping social norms; it’s about different subcultures within the very same national border, different dialects that give birth to subtle differences in social practices, etc. It struck me that perhaps one of the most unique features of the ability of the Asian dramaturg is that she is a cultural mediator / moderator / translator who must be able to read very quickly into diverse cultural and social nuances in which she works.

A snapshot of the dance dramaturgy lab in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2018. The translation work that took place in this event included simultaneous language translation from English to Indonesian and vice versa, Javanese language to Malay language, not to mention the explication of subtly different cultural practices between Indonesian subcultures.


Malaysian-born LIM How Ngean has been actively involved in the performing arts for 30 years, practising in both Malaysia and Singapore. He has dramaturged dance for the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, with critically acclaimed Singaporean choreographers Daniel Kok, Joavien Ng, Kuik Swee Boon and Ming Poon, and Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun and Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts.

In 2016 How Ngean founded the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN), a platform for critical exchange on dramaturgy among dramaturgs and performance-makers in the Asian region. It has had five successful symposiums and conferences since 2016. ADN organised its first dramaturgy laboratory in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in September 2018 in collaboration with Cemeti Institute for Art and Society. In 2018, he worked on a transnational curatorial performance project called Jejak-Tabi with co-curators Akane Nakamura (Japan) and Helly Minarti (Indonesia), which presented Asian contemporary performers specifically in Asian cities.

How Ngean was conferred his doctorate degree in 2015 from the National University of Singapore with his thesis entitled Choreographic Modernities: Movement and Mobility in Southeast Asian Contemporary Dance. He now resides in Victoria, Australia.


Portrait photography is courtesy of LIM How Ngean.

Other photography taken from the ADN archives, courtesy of Centre 42, Singapore.


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