Making a theatre production for kids is not child's play.
Often, the effort put into the writing, acting, directing and production design is similar to staging an adult theatre production.
This year, for the first time, an award for Best Production for the Young will be given out at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2016. It gives much- deserved attention to the best performances created by Singapore companies for audiences aged 12 and younger.
The award is organised in partnership with the National Arts Council.
The productions nominated include local stagings of beloved children's stories such as Treasure Island by the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company and Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine by Players Theatre.
Original stories were also honoured. The Finger Players, along with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, presented Samsui Women: One Brick At A Time, a tale set during the time of the Bukit Ho Swee fire in the 1960s.
The Wee Question Mark And The Adventurer - A Children's Musical by The Theatre Practice is a Mandarin musical about a child looking for her father.
Rounding up the nominees is Journey West: Web Of Deceit by Paper Monkey Theatre, commissioned by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, which takes familiar characters from the Journey To The West epic and tells a new story from an uncommon perspective.
The winner will be announced on April 25, during the invitation-only awards ceremony held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
For more stories on the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, go to str.sg/Zy7U
By Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company
The Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) has two productions in the running for two Best Production awards. The LKY Musical, which it produced with Metropolitan Productions, is vying for Best Production of the Year, while Treasure Island, a production under its children's theatre arm, The Little Company, is nominated for the Best Production for the Young award.
"They're both equally important," says artistic and managing director Gaurav Kripalani, 44. "Being nominated for both is a reflection of all the work that SRT puts into growing the theatre scene in Singapore."
Like the SRT, The Little Company puts on three to four productions a year. SRT was founded in 1993 and The Little Company was founded in 2001.
A musical adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Treasure Island, follows the swashbuckling adventures of Jim Hawkins on the high seas.
In a twist on the original, Jim is female in this production, played by actress Ann Lek.
Treasure Island features colourful and elaborate sets that do double-duty work, transforming from a bar to a ship in minutes.
Award judge and The Straits Times' entertainment editor Andy Chen noted that at around 80 minutes, the show was longer than the usual children's production, but it captivated children with its set, "great sing-along songs" and "energetic" cast.
He says: "It never pretended to be anything other than great stage entertainment and it didn't need to."
Jumping off from the successful run of the show last year, Treasure Island will be restaged next year in Mandarin, with further plans to tour outside Singapore.
JOURNEY WEST: WEB OF DECEIT
By Paper Monkey Theatre
Benjamin Ho, artistic director of Paper Monkey Theatre, thinks his company is the "dark horse" in the competition. "We are one of two Mandarin productions which are nominated. And puppetry is a very different form from the rest."
His company, formed in 2008, specialises in puppetry productions for children and he has more than 25 years of experience in the field.
Paper Monkey Theatre stages two to four new productions a year.
In Journey West: Web Of Deceit, the company's third show based on the classic Journey To The West, Ho makes children question whether the actions of the villain, Spider Demon, can be justified.
He says: "In Journey To The West, it is always about good versus evil. But why are villains evil? There must be a reason."
The production revisits beloved characters from the epic, such as Sun Wu Kong, the monkey king.
He incorporates three forms of puppetry in the show - finger puppetry, metal rod puppetry and shadow puppetry.
"I especially want to revive Teochew metal rod puppetry, which is nearly extinct in Singapore," says the 48-year-old. This form of puppetry, which came to Singapore from southern China in the 1920s and 1930s, uses three metal rods to animate the puppets.
The show was commissioned by the Esplanade for Moonfest - A Mid-Autumn Celebration.
One of the judges for the Best Production for the Young award, R. Chandran, founder and director of drama education company Act 3 Theatrics, appreciated that cameras were used in Web Of Deceit to provide close-up footage of the puppetry work happening onstage.
"Otherwise, much of the intricate puppet work would have been lost in the cavernous space of the Esplanade Theatre Studio. That made it an intimate experience for the audience."
SAMSUI WOMEN: ONE BRICK AT A TIME
By The Finger Players
The Finger Players' company director Chong Tze Chien welcomes the Best Production for the Young nomination for a number of reasons - one of which is that it will remind audiences that the company also does children's theatre .
It started off as a children's division within theatre company The Theatre Practice, specialising in traditional Chinese hand puppetry. In 1999, it became a full-fledged company incorporating both Eastern and Western puppetry styles in its work.
The company's first production for adults, Furthest North, Deepest South, was staged in 2004. It snagged the Best Production of the Year award in the 2005 Life Theatre Awards - the first of three such wins for the company.
The company has been nominated for the award seven times in the awards' 16-year history.
Incidentally, Chong says the Reach Out! division of The Finger Players, which does its children's productions, is slated to become an autonomous company, possibly by the end of the year.
With English-language production Samsui Women: One Brick At A Time, Chong had wanted to feature a story that could coincide with Singapore's 50th birthday celebration, by presenting a side of its history that has not been very well-documented.
For example, he says there has not been an official explanation of why samsui women wear their signature red cloth head gear.
"Ours is not the official story - we give some possible explanation for it - but it adds to the documentation about their history," says the 41-year-old.
The puppetry tale is set in the 1960s, during the time of the Bukit Ho Swee fire which destroyed thousands of attap dwellings and left about 16,000 kampung residents homeless.
The show had a one-night run for the public, after a run for school students. It was commissioned by the Esplanade for its Feed Your Imagination series.
Despite the short public run, award category judge Jeffrey Tan, a seasoned drama educator and assistant director for talent development and programming at the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts, calls it "a very meaningful and well-crafted piece of theatre that is not just for children".
THE WEE QUESTION MARK AND THE ADVENTURER - A CHILDREN'S MUSICAL
By The Theatre Practice
With a minimal set, props and almost nondescript costumes, The Wee Question Mark And The Adventurer shines in the one place it can - its story.
At the heart of the Mandarin musical is a story of the lead character, who is trying to find her long-lost father. However, The Theatre Practice introduces another layer of storytelling with characters Question Mark, Exclamation Mark and Comma quibbling over how the story goes.
Mr Andy Chen, The Straits Times' entertainment editor who is one of the judges of the award, calls the company "brave" for managing to "introduce meta- fiction to young ones without dumbing it down".
He says: "The story and treatment were as rich as the set and costumes were sparse, which proves that children do not need a lot of razzle-dazzle to hold their attention - just a great story brilliantly told will do the trick."
The bilingual company has its roots in 1965 as the Singapore Performing Arts School, started by theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun and his wife, dance pioneer Goh Lay Kuan. It is currently headed by Kuo's daughter Jian Hong, who declined to comment on the nomination.
The Wee Question Mark is also noteworthy for not providing a clear-cut resolution about whether its protagonist finally manages to find her father.
Mr Chen, who took his two daughters to the show, says: "Both my daughters asked me whether the girl found her dad and it gave me an opportunity to open a discussion with them on the possibilities based on what we had watched."
Fellow judge R. Chandran, founder and director of drama education company Act 3 Theatrics, praised its "heartwarming storyline" and "tight and clever script", adding that he enjoyed the show even with his "non- existent" grasp of Mandarin.
ROALD DAHL'S GEORGE'S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE
By Players Theatre
The judges for the award keep using the term "homemade" when referring to Players Theatre's take on Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine.
Independent artist educator Peggy Ferroa, also the vice-president of the Singapore Drama Educators Association, says: "The production had gusto and sincerity and made no apologies about its set and costumes."
Players Theatre's artistic director Carina Hales buzzes with quiet pride. "It's very nice to know that the crazy, unorthodox way that we approach children's theatre has paid off," says the 39-year-old.
Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine tells the tale of how George causes mayhem when he decides to recreate his grandmother's medicine using unusual ingredients found in his home.
The company's take boasts zany and colourful costumes, set and props all made in-house.
"As long as you see something in the show, we've made it. We even hang the fly bars in the theatre," she says. Fly bars refer to the overhead rigging system which controls the components used for lighting, parts of the set and the curtains in a stage production.
Players Theatre, which was founded in 2003, stages its productions in Ulu Pandan Community Club Theatrette, which is not a traditional, fully equipped theatre space, says Hales.
Ms Ferroa has great appreciation for the production's homemade feel.
She says: "I can imagine some of the young ones saying, 'Maybe I can do this when I get home', and that's what theatre for young audiences should do. "