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Bold march into theatre

Despite having interned at established theatre companies such as The Necessary Stage and Checkpoint Theatre, student Ang Kia Yee struck out on her own to start her arts group, Make Space, which turned one this year.

The 19-year-old, who received her drama training from Nanyang Girls' High School's theatre club, wrote a script last year and wanted to stage it.

"I wanted to do it on my own, even if it was a mess, and apply what skills I had. So my friend and I approached people to join us. When we submitted our grant application, we realised we had to have a name," she recalls with a laugh.

"We felt it was more useful to figure out everything ourselves, so we did the producing from scratch, from applying for grants to writing up proposals and press statements to budgeting, logistics and ticketing," she adds.

Make Space eventually staged its first play, Flicker, which deals with themes of home, gender identity and mental illness. The group's second play, Figs, wrapped up its run early this month with a sold-out final show. Both plays were staged at The Substation.

Louise Marie Lee, 19, director of Make Space, says: "With every production, we pushed ourselves to learn more. In a safer space, we might not have been able to do that."

They are among a growing number of young people who, fuelled by creative vision and an appetite for discovery, are mustering what little resources they have to launch their own theatre collectives.

At least five such groups have emerged in the past two years.

One of them is art collective Unsaid, which is made up of practitioners in their 20s. It is staging its debut work, Every Singaporean Daughter, this weekend.

The play's content was crowdsourced from real-life stories about gender stereotypes and inequality.

Unsaid's co-founder and undergraduate, Woong Soak Teng, 22, says: "As young people, we're more open to trial and error, which pushes us to constantly find bold and innovative ways to experiment and present our work."

Another group is Couch Theatre, founded in 2013 by theatre-makers fresh out of Raffles Institution. The same year, Couch Theatre put on Melancholy Play, written by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. It has successfully staged a play every year. Its next production, Eurydice, also by Ruhl, will be in September.

The group has survived and grown, despite a rocky transition when some members were enlisted for national service, while others went overseas to study, says undergraduate Yee Jia Rong, 23, the group's managing director. Its artistic director, Jasdeep Singh Gill, 23, is studying law at Oxford University.

Yee says: "In 10 years or so, we do want to see ourselves up there, but we don't know if our professional lives will steer us away from theatre. It's also been tough trying to run with half the group overseas."

  • Productions to watch

  • HANDLE WITH CARE

    What: This original play by School of the Arts, directed by theatre practitioner Alessandra Fel, explores the process of growing up and what people take with them when they leave their homes behind. It will star students from the school's International Baccalaureate Career-related programme. Where: Sota Drama Theatre, School of the Arts Singapore, 1 Zubir Said Drive, Level 2, When: Thursday and Friday, 7.30pm Admission: $10 from www.apactix.com/events/detail/handle-with-care Info: www.sota.edu.sg

    EVERY SINGAPOREAN DAUGHTER

    What: This debut play by arts collective Unsaid looks at issues that Singaporean women face, including lingering gender stereotypes and workplace sexism. Part of the earnings will be donated to Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support, which helps teen mothers. Where: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road When: Friday, 7.30pm; Saturday, 3.30 and 7.30pm; Sunday, 3.30pm Admission: $25 from unsaidsg.peatix.com

    TEN IN A BAG

    What: Students from drama groups across Singapore will perform 10-minute original works, using only costumes and props from a single bag. This production is part of Celebrate Drama! 2016, organised by the Singapore Drama Educators Association. Where: The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Saturday, 11am and 2pm Admission: $25 from www.bytes.sg and The Arts House box office Info: www.sdea.org.sg/celebrate-drama-2016- celebrating-diversity

    IN THE CRACKS WE FIND, PULL UP AND DANCING IN THE DARK

    What: This triple-bill of plays, featuring students from Raffles Girls' School (Secondary), Clementi Town Secondary School and theatre group Buds Theatre, will be staged as part of the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival. Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, the Esplanade, 1 Esplanade Drive When: July 29, 7.30pm; July 30, 3 and 7.30pm Admission: $19 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www. sistic.com.sg) Info: www.peerpleasure.org

Youth theatre groups say their biggest obstacle is a lack of funding, which is compounded by high venue rentals in Singapore.

Many of them write to individual sponsors and also seek funding from the National Arts Council.

The council's Matchbox platform, started in 2013, supports arts projects to the tune of up to half of the project costs or $6,000, whichever is lower, and provides guidance and assistance as well.

To date, it has disbursed more than $65,000 to 20 theatre groups.

Bound Theatre, a five-year-old group founded by alumni of the drama education company, inwardBOUND, estimates that it spends $4,000 on venue rental for each production - this makes up half the total cost of staging a show.

One of its members, undergraduate Seet Yan Shan, 22, says: "We adapt to financial limitations by re-using sets and costumes, making our own props and looking for open spaces to rehearse. Our earnings from each show have allowed us to cover only the show costs, but not to pay for the next production."

Others rely on the generosity of partners. Youth theatre collective Unmute Theatre had its funding applications rejected, so it was a relief when it secured the 250-seat Woodlands Regional Library auditorium for free as a venue to stage its play, Enough, in January.

One of the group's founders, polytechnic student Ong Si Ying, 18, says: "We filled only about half the house and didn't get much from ticket sales, as we let audience members pay what they wanted. We believe theatre should be accessible and affordable to all, especially people who might not normally watch plays."

Co-director of ArtsWok Collaborative Ko Siew Huey, 41, sees a place for such groups. "It's encouraging that young practitioners are striking out on their own, working hard and learning from their mistakes. They should also aim to have that balance between working on their own and asking for mentorship or help when they need it."

Mr Sean Tobin, head of the theatre faculty at the School of the Arts, says that while having access to money and resources is important, practitioners should remember that "the real investment is in ideas, risk-taking and experimentation".

He adds: "Technically, you just need a bunch of people in a room who want to dream and make something."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Bold march into theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe