Life! Theatre Awards: Crowd-pleasers and intimate encounters

Comedies, smaller shows and new experiments take the spotlight at the Life! Theatre Awards

Singapore's longest-running theatre awards turns 15 this year, a major birthday for what remains the only annual awards to honour excellence in the country's theatre industry. From the audaciously experimental to irresistibly provocative to good ol' fashioned drama, Life! Theatre Awards has welcomed and celebrated them all.

With this milestone comes a new identity: telecommunications company M1 comes on board as the awards' title sponsor this year, which will now be known as the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards.

Actress Pam Oei will host an invitation-only ceremony, themed Solid Gold, at the Esplanade Recital Studio on April 20, where the winners will be announced. This is held in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay and is also part of The Studios: fifty season, featuring 50 Singapore plays, which runs from April 2 to May 10.

Over the past 15 years, the awards have celebrated some of the most stunning and spine-tingling productions to grace the Singapore stage and charted the meteoric rise of many artists from newcomers to established players.

Each annual slate of nominees presents a snapshot of Singapore's diverse theatre industry and last year was no different - it was a year for sharp-tongued, crowd-pleasing comedy and intimate, unexpected encounters.

Wild Rice's rollicking pantomime with a heart of gold, Monkey Goes West, leads the pack with six nominations - including Production of the Year - for its musical take on the Chinese classic of Journey To The West, coupled with a uniquely Singaporean twist. It was a banner year for the company, with another four nominations for the intense The House Of Bernarda Alba, for a total of 10 nominations.

The company's founder, Ivan Heng, was thrilled by Monkey Goes West's nominations. He says of the work: "When you really think about Monkey Goes West, it had Xi You Ji (Journey To The West), flamenco, Chinese opera, wushu, shadow puppetry and the goddess of mercy Guan Yin played by Siti Khalijah Zainal, a Malay actress - I think what it offered was an experience you'll never see anywhere else in the world.

"This is what we've been trying to do with our entire body of work, to celebrate what it means to be Singaporean and to explain to ourselves and our audiences what it means to be Singaporean, with the ability to so freely adapt and borrow and bring it all together."

Another comedic production with almost as many nominations is Art, a razor-sharp Chinese adaptation of Yasmina Reza's popular French comedy about three friends clashing over an artwork. Nine Years Theatre bagged five nominations for the production.

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Pangdemonium, last year's big winner for the heart-rending musical Next To Normal (2013), scooped up a total of eight nominations across all three of its main season shows: the tragicomedy Fat Pig, a Singaporean adaptation of the musical The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice and the provocative drama Frozen.

The company has proven that it has an eye for new talent, notching up four acting nominations for the emerging actors and fresh graduates it has taken under its wing, including Mina Kaye, Frances Lee and Zachary Ibrahim, who are all under 30.

Co-artistic director Tracie Pang, who is nominated for Best Director, says the actors were "over the moon" about the nominations and that the awards seem to have had a positive impact on these budding artists. In previous years, younger actors such as Seong Hui Xuan, Eden Ang and Nathan Hartono have received nominations for their roles in Pangdemonium productions.

Pang says: "It gives them the confidence to know they've made a right career choice and that other people see that their work is being recognised. It's really exciting to see them flourish in the acting community."

Awards judge Helmi Yusof says of this promising batch of young practitioners: "There was a whole batch of young talents delivering work that was up there with the best. I was taken aback, for instance, by Tracie Pang's very solid Fat Pig. It had a cast of four young actors - three of whom are relatively fresh faces - and they were all delivering pitch-perfect turns in a pitch-black comedy." He also lauded Pang's ability as a director to draw out these performances from the actors.

Another production featuring an up-and-comer was 28-year-old Oon Shu An's deeply personal production #UnicornMoment, which she wrote and starred in. It had its finger on the pulse of the millennial identity; one of the videos she made in the lead-up to the show, titled My 5-Minute Magic Routine, went viral with more than 443,000 views on YouTube. The production is nominated for Best Original Script. It was presented by Checkpoint Theatre, known for its unflagging efforts in nurturing new writing blood for the theatre.

Mr Helmi, The Business Times' arts reviewer, says: "I hope some of these nominees stay on for the long haul."

The judges also include Lasalle College of the Arts provost Venka Purushothaman; online arts journal The Flying Inkpot co-editors Kenneth Kwok and Matthew Lyon; as well as arts reviewers from Lianhe Zaobao and The Straits Times: Tang Hwa Kwee and Corrie Tan.

Smaller shows and new forms also took the spotlight. Actress-director Edith Podesta was pleasantly surprised to find that her play Dark Room x8, which had a one-day, two-show run as part of the Esplanade's RAW series, had received three nominations. The stripped-down work was a candid but humane docudrama of the real-life experiences of eight male inmates incarcerated in Changi Prison, from their day in court to the day of their release.

Feted visual artist and film-maker Ho Tzu Nyen's forays into theatre and performance have also been rewarded. His performance-installation Ten Thousand Tigers gained three nominations for its technical finesse. The visual spectacle, akin to a cabinet of curiosities, examined the mythos of the tiger in Singapore history.

The Necessary Stage also broke new ground with its play about the whims of social media, Poor Thing, where audience members were allowed to comment on the action - a road-rage incident gone wrong - in real time on Facebook.

On the whole, however, there were fewer nominees from the 2014 season, with the Production of the Year category at an all-time low of three.

This was largely due to the fact that there were fewer new productions than usual last year. It seemed that many theatre companies and practitioners had their eyes on 2015, with a slew of commissions for the SG50 celebrations as well as the blockbuster Singapore International Festival of Arts. Mr Lyon hopes the upcoming new works might be "able to jolt the scene out of what appears to be a bit of a nap".

Ultimately, the awards will always be a celebration of the arts and Singapore's artists, even as the quality of theatre productions vary from year to year.

Mr Lyon says: "It's easy to watch the Oscars and feel that actors and directors are all glamorous and rich, but in the local theatre scene, a lot of people are doing wonderful, creative work with little financial reward and little recognition.

"If winning a Life! Theatre Award means a company can mention it in its publicity materials and sell a few more play tickets, or if a practitioner finds herself among the nominees and feels her work has touched someone, then at least we on the judging panel have been able to give back just a little to the industry."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

For all stories and photos of the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre-awards-2015