I Theatre celebrates 15th year

The 2013 production of The Enormous Turnip by the cast of I Theatre.
The 2013 production of The Enormous Turnip by the cast of I Theatre.PHOTO: I THEATRE

Artistic director Brian Seward of I Theatre has been writing musicals and plays for children since 2001.

But the children's theatre company actually started out staging classic plays such as Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet for teenagers.

In 2001, it staged The Magic Paintbrush, a local take on a Chinese folk tale involving a boy and his magical paintbrush. The musical, which featured live actors and puppets, was a hit with audiences.

"I guess we were doing something like Avenue Q before they did," says Seward, 58, referring to the popular American musical involving live action, puppetry and live singing.

He tells Life: "The Magic Paintbrush opened up the possibility that we could make productions for a much younger audience aged between three and 13 years old."

The company celebrates its 15th anniversary next year with a mix of old and new works. It will stage its 2013 musical, The Enormous Turnip, based on the Russian folktale by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, this month and has four shows for next year, including a rerun of The Magic Paintbrush. Another production is The Rainbow Fish, a musical based on a book by Marcus Pfister.

  • BOOK IT / THE ENORMOUS TURNIP

    WHERE: Sota Drama Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: Nov 21 to Dec 6

    ADMISSION: $32 (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    INFO: Go to www.itheatre.org

Two other productions it will stage next year are The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a new work based on one of Aesop's Fables; and Little Star, a new tale catering to two- to six-year-olds. I Theatre's other productions tend to target audiences of three to 13-year-olds and their families. The company organises a children's theatre festival, ACE Festival, on and off since 2003 and introduced an 18-month performance training programme for 16- to 26-year-olds in 2013.

The Magic Paintbrush was the company's first musical theatre work. Seward was approached by puppetry company Mascots And Puppets Specialist and Dr Kenneth Lyen from the musical theatre company Musical Theatre Limited to create a musical theatre show that had puppets.

Seward had some initial misgivings. He recalls: "I actually never appreciated musical theatre before. I was thinking that it could be a huge mistake."

He wrote the script and lyrics while Dr Lyen wrote the music. It was such a hit that it was restaged in 2004 and was published as a book by Marshall Cavendish. Seward says: "It changed the course of history for the company and its vision."

I Theatre's shows attract an audience of more than 10,000 for performances based on children's books and familiar tales, and about 3,000 for original works.

But despite healthy ticket sales, he says the children's theatre scene remains challenging, with the company constantly "skating the edge of that thin red line in the bank accounts".

I Theatre is a major grant recipient of the National Arts Council. He says: "We learnt very early on that you can't charge the same for a children's production and an adult production, even though the production value is the same."

I Theatre is charging $32 a ticket for The Enormous Turnip, as well as for The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which will be staged next February and March.

A recent challenge is competition in the form of international shows that vie for the same audience.

I Theatre's strategy is to bank on its own brand of children's theatre with a local twist.

Seward says: "International shows, for all their professional polish, come from a culture that's not Singaporean. We're looking at how we can make the shows local without losing anything and making them of an international standard."

He is looking to work with top children's theatre companies worldwide and introduce productions which are not commercial but "bring something new in terms of skills, techniques and ideas".

Seward adds that I Theatre is committed to the future and hopes it can attract its first major sponsor who sees the value in investing in children's theatre.

"After all, reaching out to children and giving them the gift of imagination is very valuable and it will pay off later on," he says. "If you have a group of children who are imaginative, creative and intelligent, you can do anything."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'I Theatre celebrates 15th year'. Print Edition | Subscribe