BOOK CHAPTER: “Between Theatre and the Environment: The Experience of‘Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Promise’: Performing a Pan-ASEAN Archipelagic Identity at Age 50” in Performing Southeast Asia: Performance, Politics and the Contemporary edited by Marcus Cheng Chye Tan and Charlene Rajendran

Performing Southeast Asia: Performance, Politics and the Contemporary is an important reconsideration of the histories and practices of theatre and performance in a fluid and dynamic region that is also experiencing an overarching politics of complexity, precarity and populist authoritarian tendencies. In a substantial introductory essay and essays by leading scholars, activists and practitioners working inside the region, the book explores fundamental questions for the arts. The book asks how theatre contributes to and/or addresses the political condition in the contemporary moment, how does it represent the complexity of experiences in peoples’ daily lives and how does theatre engage in forms of political activism and enable a diversity of voices to flourish. The book shows how, in an age of increasingly violent politics, political institutions become sites for bad actors and propaganda. Forces of biopolitics, neo-liberalism and religious and ethnic nationalism intersect in unpredictable ways with decolonial practices – all of which the book argues are forces that define the contemporary moment. Indeed, by putting the focus on contemporary politics in the region alongside the diversity of practices in contemporary theatre, we see a substantial reformation of the idea of the contemporary moment, not as a cosmopolitan and elite artistic practice but as a multivalent agent of change in both aesthetic and political terms. With its focus on community activism and the creative possibilities of the performing arts the region, Performing Southeast Asia, is a timely intervention that brings us to a new understanding of how contemporary Southeast Asia has become a site of contest, struggle and reinvention of the relations between the arts and society.


An analysis of the summit’s principal public performances, namely the Gala Dinner and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, reflect how a pan-ASEAN identity and politics were imagined and performed in ways that create a virtual, coherent, and regionally constituted archipelago where cultural flows, real and imagined, link states and geographical locations. We interrogate these performances through archipelagic frames to unpack the construction of a pan-ASEAN character and politics. Ultimately, we propose a pan-ASEAN identity seen through the politics and theatre of the summit as an archipelago that extends Southeast Asia to other locations, an identity reflecting the region’s history as a postcolonial intervention and invention of previous imperial forces, while subject to the global forces of neoliberalism.