(This article was written for the SIFA Blog, which is currently undergoing technical difficulties.)
As some of you will have recently heard, the Flying Inkpot Theatre Reviews has closed down after 19 years of operation. It was Singapore's oldest (and at times, only) arts magazine, founded at the dawn of the nation's Internet history, in 1996.
This is pretty personal for me. I've been one of the writers for the website since 2005, although less active of late. Hell, I used to hang out with Jeremy Samuel and Seow Yien Lin, when they were covering TheatreWorks revue of its Writers Lab program, 30 Plays in 30 Days, all the way back in 2001.
I got to know editors Kenneth Kwok and Matthew Lyon around that time too, back when they were both still at NIE, when we were participating in a playwriting workshop called Playwright's Cove, organised by The Necessary Stage. Back then, both of them were still skinny and eating meat, and Matthew had all his hair. I was an NS boy, mind you, and they'd been to study in the UK, so they seemed so much older.
When I graduated and was hanging around Singapore, looking for a job, I found out they were reviewing shows. So I wrote a trial review for W!ld Rice's Second Link and joined up. (Weird to think that their current show, Another Country, is essentially an extension of that old project.)
Back then, the rest of the team was Deanne Tan, Malcolm Tay, Eugene Tan, Musa Fazal and Nadia bte Ibrahim (whom I never met). Of that lot, I'm the only one left. Oh, and back then, I was reviewing like a maniac. Two, sometimes three plays a month, local and foreign, avant-garde and conventional, Stage Club and Agni Koothu, even a few dance productions, everything, pao ka liao, I was there. I'd catch a show at eight, catch a bus at ten, maybe hang out at Borders till midnight reading plays for free, then get the last bus home and bang out the review before the dawn. Or maybe within three, four days, a week tops. I had energy then. And focus. I think YouTube wasn't a big thing yet, and I had a lot to prove.
Because of my reviews - which were painstakingly detailed and justified, since I was part of the theatre community and couldn't hurt anyone's feelings without explaining exactly why, which were more lyrical than were necessary because I am, after all, a poet - I ended up reviewing for other sites. The Substation Magazine, Singapore Art Gallery Guide, The Online Citizen. And of course, the Straits Times, eventually.
And oh boy, was I furious at the limitations on style I got from the Straits Times. No "I" statements, even though theatre appreciation is subjective! No contractions, even though my natural writing voice is casual and conversational! And just 500 words to express everything I wanted to say! I'm just glad ST never called me out on those times when I emailed them a review for print, then proceeded to submit a more detailed review of the same show for the Inkpot.
I had a great sense of pride as an Inkpot reviewer. Part of it was the vintage of the website, but another thing was the fact that theatre people really appreciated the efforts the editors and (most of) the writers. They felt we were more balanced, when really, we just had more space and time to explain what we thought, and any negative things we said were easily forgotten.
We were an obscure site, you see. At one point, most of the theatre community may have known about us, but as the years rolled by, and audiences grew wider and more mainstream, it became clearer and clearer to us that we were a trade magazine, appreciated principally by insiders. We knew there were other review sites popping up - Buttons in the Bread, Just Watch Lah, QLRS - and we welcomed them, even recruited a few people based on their blogs.
But as time went by, I think we started to sense we were that much less relevant. We couldn't keep up with the huge calendar of today's theatre (let alone dance), and these days, everyone with a Facebook or Twitter account is a reviewer of sorts. If we wanted to really matter, we had to devote more time to it. But we were getting older and busier, and attempts at renewal (such as when I tried taking over parts of the site maintenance) turned out to be less than effective.
So, I get Matthew's explanation for why he and Kenneth decided to pull the plug. (Mayo Martin's entire article for TODAY is worth reading, btw.)
'Lyon said: “Internet technology, along with the public’s expectations of websites, has progressed greatly since The Inkpot started. We realised there is so much more we could be doing — for example, videos, podcasts, social media and feature articles. I get frustrated when I feel I’m not doing something to the best of my ability, and that’s the feeling I have with the site ... it can’t continue as it is.”'
But I'm not content. I'm really hoping that the flag is carried on somehow - perhaps The Online Citizen could simply adopt the name for their meagre theatre reviews? Or perhaps some earnest new NIE grads could shoulder the responsibility themselves?
So yeah, I'm putting a call out: does anyone want to take over the Flying Inkpot? I'll still write for it off and on.
I'm also making this call out of guilt, because I overslept (jet lag) on the evening we were supposed to meet for our last photo shoot. We hardly get to meet in real life, you see. We're virtual colleagues.
But here's (clockwise from top left) Kenneth Kwok, Karin Lai, Jocelyn Chng, Naeem Kapadia, Selina Chong and Matthew Lyon, for your viewing pleasure. Just imagine me curled up behind them in the back, preparing to say boo.
P.S. This is relevant to SIFA because Inkpot used to review stuff at the festival diligently. And now this fest will be post-Inkpot. Another empire gone.