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New epics, old classics up for awards

Singapore stories retold in Hotel and The LKY Musical lead the pack of nominees in the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards

Productions which broke new ground in considering Singapore's history and identity dominate the nominations for this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

Among the nominees are epic new theatrical works that are more than five hours long and intimate revivals of classic plays.

All represent the best of Singapore theatre in the preceding year, in keeping with the spirit of the annual awards first given out by The Straits Times Life section in 2001.

 

The winners will be announced on April 25 at an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Communications company M1 Limited (M1) continues for a second year as the title sponsor of the awards, which is organised in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

Mr Ivan Lim, director of corporate communications for M1, says: "2015 was a spectacular year for Singapore theatre, with audiences spoilt for choice with the year's packed calendar of insightful and thought-provoking performances in marking our nation's 50th birthday.

"As a passionate supporter of the Singapore's arts scene, M1 is proud to once again partner The Straits Times to stage the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2016, in recognising outstanding works and advancing theatre."

Many theatre groups responded to the all-consuming topic of Singapore's 'coming of age' on many levels.

ARTS REVIEWER CORRIE TAN, who is on the awards judging panel

Head of the pack with seven nominations is Wild Rice's original production, Hotel. It looked at 10 decades of Singapore's history through the lens of a hotel room and was commissioned for the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Hotel has been nominated for Best Set Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Script, Best Ensemble, Production of the Year and co-directors Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, both in their 50s, are jointly nominated for Best Director.

Wild Rice's staging of Ibsen's Public Enemy, directed by Goei, has also received five nominations, making it a banner year even for a troupe that usually stands out at the annual theatre awards.

At last year's awards, Wild Rice received six nominations for its Christmas pantomime Monkey Goes West and won Production of the Year jointly with Nine Years Theatre's Art.

Commenting on the number of nominations it received this year, Goei, Wild Rice's associate artistic director, says: "Last year was our 15th anniversary as Singapore celebrated its 50th anniversary, so we wanted to make it special. This is really special."

Wild Rice was not alone in being inspired to greater heights by the jubilee year.

Theatrical circles had ambitious plans and arts companies allocated more resources to help.

The Esplanade's The Studios: fifty season revived 50 classic Singaporean plays. Three revivals in this season received nominations.

Off Centre, an intimate drama about mental illness first staged by The Necessary Stage in 1993 but directed last year by Oliver Chong, received four nods, including for Best Production, Best Sound Design, Best Actress (Siti Khalijah Zainal) and Best Actor (Ebi Shankara).

Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral directed by Jeff Chen - a meditation on the rootlessness of urban dwellers originally presented by the late Kuo Pao Kun in 1995 - is nominated for Best Sound Design and Best Multimedia Design.

And Stella Kon's 1984 classic, Emily Of Emerald Hill, a onewoman play about a Peranakan matriarch, was directed last year by Aidli "Alin" Mosbit and netted Karen Tan a nomination in the best actress category.

Ms Yvonne Tham, assistant chief executive officer of the Esplanade, says: "Theatre, like many other art forms, gives us insight into a place and its people. This was especially significant in 2015 as our artists and audiences came together to reflect, imagine and understand the world around us, our society and ourselves through theatre.

"We congratulate our theatre community on another meaningful year of theatre-making in Singapore."

Singapore International Festival of Arts, helmed by festival director Ong Keng Sen, also commissioned a number of original works to run during the golden jubilee year. Three of these are in the running for Production of the Year, including Hotel.

The others are Ong's celebration of migrants in Singapore, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, a fashion-cum-visual installation and multimedia work about six hours long; and Drama Box's trilogy on land use, called It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson And The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk), which used forum theatre, scripted drama and site-specific movement to explore land use in Singapore.

In response to the quality of theatre produced last year, there are 70 nominations in 14 categories for this year's awards, including the optional category of Best Multimedia Design, instituted only when there are enough deserving contenders.

As in previous years, readers will get a chance to vote for their choice of Production of the Year. Ten winners will receive a pair of passes to the awards ceremony on April 25.

One of these 10 readers will get a chance to win the grand prize of a weekend stay for two at The South Beach in Beach Road, inclusive of breakfast, sponsored by The South Beach.

There is also a new award to recognise Singapore companies that create outstanding performances for young audiences aged 12 and younger.

This best production for the young award is organised in partnership with the National Arts Council and judged by a panel of experts in theatre for younger audiences.

The rest of the awards are judged by educator Matthew Lyon from the School of the Arts' faculty of theatre, plus arts reviewers Helmi Yusof of The Business Times, Tang Hwa Kwee of Lianhe Zaobao and Corrie Tan of The Straits Times.

Mr Lyon says: "Singapore does not have the world's largest theatre scene, but in 2015, there was a sense that we are developing strength-in-depth - that there is enough talent and professionalism to sustain a large output without a drop in quality."

Ms Tan says: "Many theatre groups responded to the allconsuming topic of Singapore's 'coming of age' on many levels. Some disagreed with the notion of SG50, feeling it was too small or narrow a frame to place on Singapore's much longer history that stretches back beyond independence.

"Both Wild Rice's Another Country and Hotel broke out of the SG50 mold to depict a pre-1965 Singapore/Malaya and how the country and region had been shaped by cultural, political and economic forces pre-dating independence.

"Others ran with the SG50 theme as a springboard for issues they had long wanted to dissect. Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long trilogy reflected on how space and land in Singapore is highly contested, using Bukit Brown Cemetery and the controversy surrounding it as a platform for discussion."

Mr Helmi says: "Nearly every industry stalwart produced something quite special, partly reflecting on how far or not so far the country, the industry or they themselves have come. The works felt like mid-career summations for some of them."

Another contender for Production of the Year is The LKY Musical, inspired by the story of Singapore's founding prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew.

The joint effort by relative newcomer Metropolitan Productions and established name Singapore Repertory Theatre tied with Wild Rice's Public Enemy in receiving the second-highest number of nominations this year: five, including for Best Script (book by Tony Petito, story by Meira Chand).

From this year, the number of nominees has been standardised to either four or five for each category. In previous years there could have been as few as three or as many as six nominees in a single category.

While an individual has been nominated more than once in the same category in the past, this year, set designer Wong Chee Wai is nominated four times for his range of work: for Hotel (a hotel room that changes to mirror the decades), Public Enemy (a clean, near-clinical glass house), Pangdemonium's drama about deafness, Tribes (sets had to incorporate sign-language interpreters) and The Theatre Practice's lavish homage to wuxia, Legends Of The Southern Arch.

Wong, 44, says he is both embarrassed and excited by the nominations. His last win was for Nine Years Theatre's Twelve Angry Men in 2014.

"When you work on so many shows, sometimes you feel self-doubt," he says.

"The audience response is to the show, not just to the set design, so you don't really know if you're going in the right direction with your work.

"It feels fantastic knowing that people like it and they believe in what's happening on stage."

For more stories on the Life Theatre Awards 2016, go to http://str.sg/Zy7U

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'New epics, old classics up for awards'. Print Edition | Subscribe