Archive of arts rehearsals goes online

Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes act
Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes actress Jo Kukathas (far left) to meet playwright Huzir Sulaiman's grandmother (far right), who is the subject of the play Occupation by Checkpoint Theatre. (Left): Actors Lim Kay Siu (far left) and Zachary Ho (centre) learning puppetry from Benjamin Ho for their roles in Lao Jiu by The Theatre Practice.PHOTOS: TAN NGIAP HENG
Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes act
Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes actress Jo Kukathas (far left) to meet playwright Huzir Sulaiman's grandmother (far right), who is the subject of the play Occupation by Checkpoint Theatre. (Left): Actors Lim Kay Siu (far left) and Zachary Ho (centre) learning puppetry from Benjamin Ho for their roles in Lao Jiu by The Theatre Practice.PHOTOS: TAN NGIAP HENG
Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes act
Drama Box director Kok Heng Leun (second from left) discussing the prison settlement of Pulau Senang with his cast for the production of Senang. Research notes are pinned on the studio wall. (Above): Director Claire Wong (second from right) takes actress Jo Kukathas (far left) to meet playwright Huzir Sulaiman's grandmother (far right), who is the subject of the play Occupation by Checkpoint Theatre. (Left): Actors Lim Kay Siu (far left) and Zachary Ho (centre) learning puppetry from Benjamin Ho for their roles in Lao Jiu by The Theatre Practice.PHOTOS: TAN NGIAP HENG

Arts photographer Tan Ngiap Heng worked on project for three years with support from Lasalle College of the Arts

Performing artists often choreograph dance movements or test their lines in rehearsal studios away from the public eye.

But well-known photographer Tan Ngiap Heng, 48, is now shedding new light on these oft-mysterious processes of creating art by way of a new digital archive.

Over the past 15 years, he has captured thousands of publicity and production photographs for home-grown performing arts groups, and these evocative images have graced the pages of numerous programme booklets, newspapers and magazines.

Last week, together with Lasalle College of the Arts, Tan unveiled a personal project three years in the making: Work In Process, an online archive which aims to document the rehearsal process of local arts groups through photography, videos and interviews, as well as scans of documents such as programme booklets.

It comes at a time when many groups and institutions are pouring more effort into their own archives, including The Necessary Stage, the National Library Board's National Online Repository of the Arts, which hosts digitised manuscripts, and writing space Centre 42 which has plans for a repository of theatre-related material.

Tan says of this move to document: "I think we've matured - we are no longer just struggling to become. Once it comes to this stage, these memories are important as a celebration, and they're also a good guide for people from the next generation to study how we did it, and give some insight or inspiration for other people to do work.

"I think it's this maturity that prompts us to look back and try to note down historical things."

The archive is still in an early stage, but both Tan and his Lasalle counterparts, including senior fellow Aubrey Mellor and and Ngee Ann Kongsi Library director Malar Villi Nadeson, hope that it will give both researchers and members of the public insight into the way performing artists work in Singapore, and their evolution and influences, as well as capture emerging trends in the scene.

The archive will host 23 productions by the end of the year. They include rare behind-the-scenes images from performances such as spell#7's intimate and inter-generational Family Duet (2013) and The Necessary Stage's genre-bending collaboration with Croatian company Trafik, titled Crossings (2012). Others will soon be online, including candid images from the 2012 revival of the one-woman show Occupation by Huzir Sulaiman, and election docu-drama Cooling Off Day (2011) by Alfian Sa'at.

Tan, a former programmer with the Esplanade, began his work behind the lens by taking casual pictures of Lasalle contemporary dance students. This caught the eye of Mr Phan Ming Yen, editor of the now-defunct Arts Magazine, who asked him to take photos for the publication.

"I accidentally became an arts photographer," recalls Tan with a laugh. Since then, he has become a trusted go-to person for arts groups here.

But while his photographs form the backbone of the archive at the moment, he hopes the project will continue to grow and gain more contributors, whether in the form of other photographers' images or researchers interviewing artists about their process and uploading these audio files to the archive.

Tan says: "I think it's important that not only what is seen on stage is captured, but also some of these interviews that actually discuss the attendant issues that happen in the process."

And since the archive is digital, artists can retain the original copies of documents and will not have to fear losing them. The team welcomes contributions from artists and arts groups.

The project received $25,000 in funding from the National Arts Council and was granted additional funding from the Lasalle Research Committee, a central body that disburses funds for research projects across the college.

Mellor, who is also a theatre director hailing from Australia, is one of the leaders of the project.

He tells Life! that while the performance events themselves might be much discussed, the rehearsal process is often overlooked.

He says: "Archival material preserves things that get lost in what I call ephemeral art forms - there's nothing left of us when we go, just the memory in audience's minds. But now there's something more tangible, and I think that becomes a tribute to the people in the art form, that something more is kept, not all thrown away."

He hopes that Work In Process will become increasingly comprehensive and a valuable resource for both academics and the public.

He says: "For someone from the outside, it demystifies a lot of things and shows actors at work. What I'm appreciative of is that they're doing their private work in public."

He adds: "What I love is you've got wonderful close-ups of wonderful artists at work. Just looking at Ivan Heng rehearsing for The Weight Of Silk On Skin, for example, is a privilege. It's an honour just to look at him immersed in that work, to see him doing this deep psychological exploration. I'm humbled."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

To view the archive, go to www.workinprocess.sg