Life! Theatre Awards: Highs and lows over 15 years

The Life! Theatre Awards weathered early criticisms about its credibility before going on to capture the sweep of Singapore theatre over the last 15 years.

Playwright-director Chong Tze Chien, company director of The Finger Players, acknowledges that while awards of any nature will always carry the burden of subjectivity, theatre practitioners here have moved "from being sceptical and cynical of it to accepting it and finally embracing it as part and parcel of our theatre ecology".

The Finger Players has nabbed the coveted Production of the Year award three times. This has helped to turn its fortunes from half-empty houses, following a rebrand of its puppet theatre troupe in 2004, to sold-out runs and a loyal following for its mode of intelligent and inventive object-based theatre catering to adults.

Chong adds: "Whether you agree with the awards or not... it has achieved what it set out to do, which is to celebrate the year and the theatre practitioners. It goes beyond the winners - it's always a great occasion to meet friends, colleagues and peers at the awards ceremony, and everyone will go there and clap for everyone, and celebrate everyone, and that's an amazing feeling."

Each year's awards ceremony has had different themes and dress codes, from 2013's Hipster Cheek to 2007's Curse Of The Golden Flower (And Other Dysfunctional Royalty), which saw former judge, theatre academic K.K. Seet, sweeping in with 20 of his students carrying the train of his red Chinese silk overcoat. Dressing up has become part of the tradition, with practitioners such as costume designer Frederick Lee and director Beatrice Chia known to come in far-out fashion, adding to the fun and bonhomie.

This year, the awards are judged by a six-member panel comprising 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 The Business Times, Lianhe Zaobao and The Straits Times: Helmi Yusof, Tang Hwa Kwee and Corrie Tan.

Mr Purushothaman, who was on the very first panel of judges in 2001, recalls how in the theatre scene then, the awards had "a good number of supporters, but there was also an equal number of detractors as to the usefulness of the awards".

There was "a particular kind of trepidation that it would endorse notions of standards or preferences or might be deemed too subjective in its rendering", he adds. The awards came with "a lot of teething issues" such as how to give complimentary tickets to a large body of judges, which would cost a substantial sum; practitioners also wondered how the judging panel would look at complex, abstract work, compared with plays that were text-based and representational.

But over time, the awards proved itself by recognising an eclectic array of works both large and small, abstract and naturalistic and, in the process, striving for a more inclusive view of Singapore theatre.

Mr Purushothaman says: "I'm glad the enterprise continued and, slowly, people started to build their confidence in it. Today, artists are proud to say, 'I'm a Life! Theatre Awards winner.'"

He notes that having these credentials, and to have a production supported and acclaimed in its home country, is a step towards global recognition and has "phenomenally supported capacity building" for the theatre sector.

Crucial to the awards' credibility has been the streamlining of the judging panel to a smaller group of informed and dedicated theatre watchers, comprising academics or reviewers from the major newspapers, says Life!'s arts editor Clarissa Oon, a former theatre reviewer who was on the judging panel in the early years.

The awards were initially judged by a panel of 15 - including reviewers, arts managers and audience members - who scored the productions before their votes were tallied by auditors.

In the last decade, however, the process was simplified. Now, half that number of judges meet at the start of the year to debate on the merits of various productions before determining the nominees and winners in each of the 12 categories.

"The judges' debates can get really heated sometimes. But such conversations push us to consider what is really of value in the theatre and we hope this has kept the awards on top of what is going on in the scene," Ms Oon says.

Corrie Tan

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