Families spoilt for choice with buffet of children's theatre productions

Hairy Maclary And Friends. -- PHOTO: ABA PRODUCTIONS
Hairy Maclary And Friends. -- PHOTO: ABA PRODUCTIONS
Junior Claus. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE'S THE LITTLE COMPANY
Junior Claus. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE'S THE LITTLE COMPANY
Peter Pan, The Never Ending Story. -- PHOTO: LESLIE ARTAMONOW
Peter Pan, The Never Ending Story. -- PHOTO: LESLIE ARTAMONOW
Hop and Honk – The Ugly Duckling And The Frog Prince. -- PHOTO: I THEATRE
Hop and Honk – The Ugly Duckling And The Frog Prince. -- PHOTO: I THEATRE
Stick Man. -- PHOTO: ABA PRODUCTIONS
Stick Man. -- PHOTO: ABA PRODUCTIONS
The Nightingale (Mandarin). -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE'S THE LITTLE COMPANY,
The Nightingale (Mandarin). -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE'S THE LITTLE COMPANY,
The Tiger Who Came to Tea. -- PHOTO: ALASTAIR MUIR
The Tiger Who Came to Tea. -- PHOTO: ALASTAIR MUIR
The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites. -- PHOTO: MERMAID THEATRE OF NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA
The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites. -- PHOTO: MERMAID THEATRE OF NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA
Disney Live! Presents Three Classic Fairy Tales. -- PHOTO: DISNEY
Disney Live! Presents Three Classic Fairy Tales. -- PHOTO: DISNEY
Once Upon A Peacock’s Tail. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
Once Upon A Peacock’s Tail. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
Something Very Far Away. -- PHOTO: ROBERT DAY
Something Very Far Away. -- PHOTO: ROBERT DAY
Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus!. -- PHOTO: STUART SLAVICKY
Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus!. -- PHOTO: STUART SLAVICKY

Look forward to a dozen children's theatre shows in the next few months

Little Seraphina Koh was a little tense when she watched her first theatre production, The Gruffalo, last year.

"She was very scared as it was dark and she didn't know what was going to happen," says her mother, Mrs Micki Koh, 33.

Thankfully, Seraphina, now four, soon recognised the characters from the books she had been reading with her mother, which dispelled the jitters.

"Now, she looks forward to going to the theatre, like she's going on an adventure," says Mrs Koh, an educator.

She plans to take Seraphina to two shows this year - The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites by Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, Canada, and presented by Act 3 International; and Stick Man presented by ABA Productions and Britain's Scamp Theatre.

With 12 shows and festivals catering to children aged two and up opening in the next six months, parents such as Mrs Koh will be spoilt for choice. There were about nine such shows or festivals held during the same period last year.

But the spike in numbers is a double-edged sword. Industry players tell Life!Weekend they feel the heat from the growing competition, but are also thrilled with the more lively scene.

"We're all competing for the same family time and there's always an exam coming up and other commitments. We just have to keep delivering," says Ms Charlotte Nors, 47, executive director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). Its children's theatre arm, The Little Company, stages five shows a year, including the current Mandarin run of The Nightingale.

Brian Seward, 57, artistic director of I Theatre, which is presenting four shows this year on top of the annual ACE (Arts and Creativity for Everyone) Festival, echoes this sentiment: "It does cause me to lose sleep - if we don't sell tickets, we will die. There's an awful lot of competition from overseas as well."

Overseas productions include those brought in by players such as ABA Productions and Base Entertainment Asia, which are usually held in Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. Tickets to such shows go for about $50 to $200 each, compared with home-grown shows which usually charge $15 to $40 a ticket, besides family packages at discounted rates.

To stand out, companies here strive to offer something different for the pint-sized crowd. These include using puppets, visual effects and different techniques to encourage audience participation.

Adults watching such shows for the first time may suffer from culture shock.

Talking during the show is not only tolerated, but in fact encouraged, with characters addressing the audience directly and getting them to do singalongs or even "dancealongs".

Besides keeping the little ones engaged, these shows often weave in educational messages and life lessons too.

Ms Diah Mastura Roslan, 33, recently caught the English version of The Nightingale with her three daughters, six-year-old twins and their older sister, aged seven.

Staged by The Little Company, it tells the story of how the Emperor of China learns the values of friendship and freedom after his new friend, the Nightingale, lost her ability to sing when he insisted on keeping her in a cage.

"Before I could even ask, my elder daughter told me what the moral of the story was. I was quite surprised," says Ms Diah, a full-time blogger.

While English productions for the young are a dime a dozen, shows staged in vernacular languages are now sharing the limelight.

SRT first put on a Mandarin production last year. The Three Little Pigs was staged in English for six weeks in 2012 and then in Mandarin for four weeks last year. The two shows shared a similar storyline, with a different cast save one or two actors.

The experiment paid off - it sold 90 per cent of the tickets for both runs. The Mandarin show also drew a new audience, based on the customer lists and bookings from schools that had never booked SRT shows previously.

The success has prompted SRT to do the same this year with The Nightingale.

Though the sales figures are not out yet for the English version of The Nightingale, which ended its six-week run on Sunday, SRT expects it to have done similarly well. The Mandarin version opened yesterday.

Last month, the Esplanade also staged a Malay-language children's play during its annual Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts.

The Esplanade declines to reveal figures, but says both performances of the play, called Kuat Ketam Kerana Penyepit, Kuat Burung Kerana Sayap (The Strength Of A Crab Is In Its Claws, The Strength Of A Bird Is In Its Wings), were nearly sold out.

Dedicated children's theatre festivals, which offer a slew of plays and workshops for kids and parents, are big draws too.

Octoburst!, the Esplanade's annual festival of arts and culture for children aged two to 12, opens next month, coinciding with Children's Day on Oct 3.

ABA Productions, which also presents theatre shows for adults such as last year's Woman In Black, is bringing back KidsFest too from January to March next year for the fourth time.

Mr Matthew Gregory, 41, executive producer of ABA Productions and founder of KidsFest, says response to the festival has been "truly impressive", with audience numbers growing by 40 per cent on average each year.

He attributes this to parents who are "starting to recognise that children's theatre is not just an engaging platform to nurture a child's interest in the language but it also presents a wonderful opportunity for a family to have a shared experience together".

This may explain why even with the buffet of choices, the five industry players Life!Weekend spoke to - SRT, I Theatre, Act 3 International, Esplanade and ABA Productions - still report good response to their shows.

SRT, I Theatre and Act 3 International sell about 80 per cent of their tickets on average, with school packages chalking up about half of the sales. The other two organisers decline to reveal attendance figures.

Steps are being taken to further nurture the industry, with the National Arts Council announcing plans to set up a dedicated Children's Arts Centre in its recent Performing Arts Masterplan.

Although no date has been set for this, a series of children's theatre shows will be held in interim venues next year as a pilot project.

These moves are a recognition of the role that children's theatre plays in shaping young minds. Specifically, the masterplan acknowledges that children "are a key demographic whom artists need to capture imaginations of, as they will be the future audience, supporters and even patrons for the sector".

Indeed, for practitioners such as Act 3 International, whose shows cater to the young, putting on a show for kids is a chance to cultivate their tastes for the performing arts. This is an endeavour it takes seriously.

Its upcoming show, The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites, features three stories from award-winning children's book author Eric Carle and takes the form of black light theatre, which uses UV light and a dark environment to bring out colours on stage.

Says its artistic director Ruby Lim-Yang, 58: "Anyone can do puppetry, but the question is, 'What is the artistry?'. We help children see things from different perspectives - to be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things. This is not TV, it's about firing the imagination."

nabilahs@sph.com.sg