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BWW Interview: Sharda Harrison, Founder of Pink Gajah Theatre, Singapore

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Miss Sharda Harrison is a local theatre performer and arts educator in Singapore. She graduated with a B.A (Hons) in Acting from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2009. Since then she has performed in a spectrum of theatre shows in Singapore as well as internationally. Sharda founded Pink Gajah Theatre in 2013. She uses Pink Gajah as a platform to showcase arts focused on social and environmental activism. In addition, she also runs an education wing which focuses on bringing movement, drama and balance to children, teenagers and adults.

Miss Harrison's latest work, Temuan, a one woman piece starring herself, recently premiered at the prestigious Perth Fringe Festival in January 2017.

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Q: What was the inspiration for the name "pink gajah" ?

A: The inspiration for the name of our company came from a combination of the phrases White Elephant - issues that society prefers not to discuss - and Pink Elephant - which means to see hallucinations from a drunken state.

By combining of the two "elephants", we aim to talk about lesser spoken social and environmental issues (which are rooted in a sense of activism), and to do so in more unconventional ways, through the manipulation of sound, visuals and movement to create a surrealistic and bordering on hallucinatory experience for our audience. At Pink Gajah, we want to push our artistic boundaries as far as possible.

At the time of the inception of the company with my previous partner Najib Soiman, I was keen on making the company bilingual and inter-cultural - hence the use of the Malay / Sanskrit word for Elephant - Gajah.

Q: Of all the works / productions that you've performed so far under the Pink Gajah , which is the most memorable / personable for you and why?

A: Temuan (the meeting) which is a revamped version of Bi(cara). This is because it was the first time I performed my work in a foreign country (The Perth Fringe Festival, Australia) . Also, this work is close to my heart because it is based on my father, Bernard Harrison's talk titled, 'Why do we do what we do?' which questions human ethics in the treatment of animals.

It is a one woman solo show and many of the characters portrayed are Singaporean. We were nervous as to how the foreign audience would react to our piece. I was very honored that it had an enthusiastic reception in Perth, and we appreciated the love and feedback during our time in Perth.

Q: What do you feel , separates / differentiates you from other theatre companies in Singapore /regionally ?

A: I feel that we are not very different from other companies.

First off, I think any company that produces theatrical work should be saluted as it is not an easy business to be in regardless of genre, artistic style or the quality of the material.

However, I do think that what really sets us apart is that Pink Gajah Theatre is a family run business. That is quite rare. My brother, Sean, is the main media artist and my number two in the company and my mother, Ajuntha Anwari, runs the business and education wing of the company with me. My father, Bernard Harrison, always acts as the inspiration behind my works with his logic, talks on human and animal relationships rooted in science which I then expand on into my works, regardless of subject matter.

I tend to use science and rootedness as a launching pad for any ideas / concepts that I have before delving into the shamanistic/animistic nature as I further explore said ideas or concepts.

Q: I notice that the productions that you have done (publicly) so far have been more fringe / non-mainstream, and mostly original productions. Do you intend to stick to this model of theatre or also incorporate mainstream / traditional theatre and interpret works written by others (in the future)?

A: I intend to stick to this style, yes. Thank you for observing this. I am keen on building up the Fringe scene in Singapore, which on its own, has an array of other performers and works. I have set up Pink Gajah Magic Labs, which will act as a platform to feature or showcase new and emerging artists, with the intention of aiding them in creation of their original works.

This is to ensure that I do my part in ensuring that new works are always being created, which add to the Fringe scene in Singapore, with the ultimate goal of the Singapore Fringe scene being noticed by the rest of the world.

Q: What are your intentions / aspirations for any future projects / future of Pink gajah in general?

A: I am currently focusing my energy on the 'The Process of Honesty' where my mom will be starring as a 66 year old woman who has just lost her 92 year old mother. It is less theatrical and more about an experience for ten people at a time, with a woman in a space, talking about walking into the next leg of life, death.

Q: If you could go back ten years in time , what advice would you give your younger self? / what advice would you give current aspiring theatre artists ?

A: I would say to my 20 year old self, "drop the men and get on with the art. "

Advice? Follow your dreams and aspirations, your heart, your gut with an intense ferocity and surrender to it. You never know, you might be totally surprised by where it leads you.

Q: Who inspires you as a theatre artist?

A: Haresh Sharma, Alvin Tan, Jo Kukathas, Ivan Heng, Frida Kahlo, Kathryn Hunter, Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Loo Zihan, Janice Koh and Bani Haykal.

Q: In the current wave of socio-political climate of populism and isolationism that is sweeping across much of the western world (and may spread to other regions) do you think theatre / the arts can counteract / counterbalance against such thinking / ideology ?

Do you believe that theatre / arts practitioners have such an obligation / responsibility to do so, especially in a more active (and some may use the term 'aggressive') role ?

A: I do not believe in aggression. I think theatre is a sacred and healing space and as much as we can keep up and be on par with what the Western world may or may not be feeling, I reckon it is best to stick to our own beliefs which is inclusive of all cultures, races and religion and keep striving for that peaceful, non-confrontational essence in the theatre.

Q: In your profile description (on the Pink Gajah Theatre website), it is mentioned that that you use theatre / performing arts as a medium to promote environmental activism.

Which issues of environmental activism interest you the most , and how do you think the theatre can provide a bridge between today's very materialistic, technocentric society and preservation of our natural surroundings?

A: Yes, the environment is the biggest passion for my entire family. It is almost as if we were born to fight for this cause. The issues we tackle is the human heart and pricking at the human conscience without needing to be didactic. At times, I do feel that my own work does flirt with notions of didacticism, but sometimes it can't be helped, especially when I am extremely passionate about the particular piece.

In my opinion, when it comes to pieces with an activist theme or undertone, it is important to remind the viewer's conscience about endangered species, pollution, animal cruelty, dwindling rain forests and so on. To do this, we have to appeal to the human heart, through stories. Theatre can provide a bridge by awakening the human soul, by stirring it alive slowly to realize there is no gap between nature and the human. We are Nature.

Q: What is your outlook for the future of English-language theatre in Malaysia / Singapore, seeing as these two are neighbours? Do you see it as being/ becoming stagnant , or is there positive growth in the local/ regional theatre scene ?

A: If the Malaysian government does not pump in more money into the arts in Malaysia, I fear that the English language theatre scene, cannot expand as positively as it could and should, potentially. In Singapore we get a lot of access to grants, arts housing, rehearsal space. Yes all this does come with a cost, but we are heavily funded. I think funding the arts is extremely important. Having said that, it is also dangerous or murky when an artist relies only on government funding. So Malaysia and Singapore are on two extremes.

For more information on Pink Gajah Theatre and Miss Sharda Harrison, visit www.pinkgajahtheatre.com, their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pinkgajahtheatre/) or their Instagram (@pinkgajah)


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