Puppet masters from Finger Players want company to become an academy for artists

 lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.
lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.PHOTOS: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, DESMOND WEE
 lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.
lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.PHOTOS: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, DESMOND WEE
 lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.
lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.PHOTOS: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, DESMOND WEE
 lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.
lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.PHOTOS: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, DESMOND WEE
 lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.
lighting designer; Chong Tze Chien, company director; and Ang Hui Bin, resident artist.PHOTOS: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, DESMOND WEE

The Finger Players, which turns 15 this year, wants to become academy for artists

In the late 1990s, theatre practitioner Tan Beng Tian called up a school and asked it if it wanted to bring in a puppet show for its students.

The co-founder of The Finger Players, 48, chuckles as she recalls the conversation. "They went, 'Carpets? Huh? No, we don't want to buy carpets'," she says with a laugh.

"Schools had hardly heard the word 'puppets'. It was very alien to them and we had to explain it to them and give them references such as 'Do you know Kermit the Frog?'"

Today, 15 years after The Finger Players split from its parent company The Theatre Practice to carve out its own niche, puppets are very much in demand - and not Sesame Street-type muppets, but the sort of puppetry that breathes life into everyday objects and has made the traditional art of Chinese hand puppetry contemporary.

The award-winning company performs for about 80,000 students and members of the public each year under its Reach Out! arts education programme, and another 2,000 attend its main season showcases, usually held in an intimate black box space.

While it started out developing shows exclusively for children, it has since cultivated a strong following of adults with a brand of serious, cutting-edge and inventive theatre, be they historical epics or socially conscious productions, by reinventing the very genre of puppetry that could have pigeonholed the group in its earlier years.

The group tends to blend strong, sleek production design with good, old- fashioned storytelling, creating images that stay with audience members long after the curtain call: Actors channel life-size marionettes to a T with their stiff gait and swinging limbs (Furthest North, Deepest South, 2004); a young girl remembers her dead father, whose disembodied head seems to float in a sea of black (Poop, 2009); the Milky Way seems to unfurl on the walls of the theatre by way of shimmering, spinning globes of intricate paper cut-outs (The Book Of Living And Dying, 2012).

While the company's aesthetic has varied largely from piece to piece, there is a certain je ne sais quoi to each work that makes it deeply recognisable as "a Finger Players production".

Company director Chong Tze Chien, 39, says: "I think it's always visceral. Because it's always a seamless blend between the text and staging devices. You can't separate the two.

"The Finger Players' aesthetic is very much about equal emphasis on the text, as well as the mise-en-scene and the imagination. It becomes something that's organic. So you can't quite put a finger on it. Which is why, especially when things work, it blends seamlessly and that's what we go for all the time."

Academic and theatre critic Dr K.K. Seet has described each Finger Players' production as "a veritable totality of different artistic devices" - a sentiment that has been echoed by various theatre critics and reviewers here.

The group has won three Life! Theatre Awards for Production of the Year - more than any other group in Singapore - for Furthest North, Deepest South, Turn By Turn We Turn (2011) and Roots (2012). Its productions are also mainstays on the annual nomination lists.

Turn By Turn We Turn follows the fates and fortunes of a traditional Chinese hand-puppet troupe through the tide of history and Roots is a deeply moving tale of one man's journey back to China to uncover a family secret.

Both productions will be restaged next month and Chong hints that older work might be revived in a new annual repertory season. He says: "Our 15th year is not about celebrating and then going back to the status quo. It's about marking a new phase of our development."

The company will increase its emphasis on programmes that will nurture practitioners at different stages in their career. There are plans for an acting masterclass at the end of this year and a puppetry masterclass in May and to take in a second batch of apprentices in an associate actors scheme. The pioneer group of four will conclude its term in July and selected apprentices will be invited to join the company as full-time artists or associate actors.

The goal is to expand the company into an academy of sorts.

Chong says: "I think it's a very good environment for artists to develop themselves. We want to share that expertise and resources with artists, especially emerging and younger ones, to have this resource centre so they can better themselves, be it as an actor, director or playwright."

The company will continue to foster connections at home and abroad: Chong will premiere a new play at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Japan in late November titled Rice - A Japanese Play, as part of the Asian Performing Arts Festival. Rice comes to Singapore next year.

Resident artist/director Oliver Chong will be staging a new play in collaboration with theatre practitioner Elvira Holmberg in the second half of next year and resident artist Ang Hui Bin will be working on a community play.

But before they move forward, the company is taking a bit of time to look back. Production pictures, theatre reviews, fliers, puppets and other paraphernalia from all the company's productions will be put on display in an exhibition space at the Drama Centre Black Box Foyer, styled as a sort of "home" with a living room and dining room.

The company is also publishing nine plays in a special anniversary box set, including plays such as Twisted (2005) and I'm Just A Piano Teacher (2006), which can be purchased at $150 at the front-of-house for its upcoming productions. It will cost $200 in stores. Individual plays can be bought at $20 at the front-of-house and $25 in stores.

The Finger Players was a very different creature when its first incarnation was born as part of The Theatre Practice's Children's Unit. It was set up by the late theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun, who saw a children's platform as a good way to cultivate young audiences who would become Singapore's theatre-going public.

He hired Tan, fresh from a 11/2-year stint learning hand puppetry in China, together with theatre practitioner Ong Kian Sin, to promote a love of theatre and puppetry among the young. Its first show for preschoolers, Escape Of Croaker And Buzzer (1996), about a frog and a bee sick of "fighting" each other in an Atari game, was well received and toured various libraries.

But the group was not able to secure many school bookings, due to the unfamiliar genre and language barriers - it was performing mostly in Mandarin - and it was difficult for its parent company of The Theatre Practice (then the Practice Theatre Ensemble) to justify spending so much on the children's wing and recouping so little.

Kuo felt the solution was for The Finger Players to go independent, with a new identity, and secure full grants from the National Arts Council on its own.

In 1999, after this separation, the group had no roof over its head - quite literally. The members would rehearse on the car porch of the semi-detached home of Tan's mother and that meant they could not rehearse when it rained. Half of her mother's living room was converted into a small office and storage space.

Tan says with a laugh: "I think it frightened my neighbours initially because they were seeing all these people dressed in black and with life-sized puppets. They had a shock when they walked past."

The tiny company soon managed to wrangle a workshop and office space at the Cairnhill Arts Centre in Cairnhill Road, where it has stayed till today, gaining a studio rehearsal space as well.

But Tan was not satisfied. She says: "When we were doing children's shows, we had a hard time - firstly, getting acknowledgement, because people did not take children's companies seriously.

"So I told Tze Chien - can you help change the image of the company? Because his forte is in doing adult shows, but that's not my forte."

The playwright-director was previously with socially conscious theatre group The Necessary Stage.

Chong Tze Chien joined The Finger Players and the first thing he did was to remove all the old puppets and photographs of children with puppets from the corridor. He was adamant - everything had to go. Tan says: "It was heartwrenching for me, but that change had to be done... With his new injection, it really turned the company around."

The group also started to work in English and became a bilingual theatre company.

Today, its operating cost hovers between $500,000 and $1 million each year, depending on the type of shows it does. A major grant recipient from the arts council, it receives about $300,000 in annual funding, deriving other income from ticket sales and arts education programmes. It typically presents between three and five Reach Out! programmes, two to three main season showcases and does commissions for other groups and festivals. It has seven full- time staff, two associate artists and four apprentices.

On how its season is decided each year, Chong says: "It's very democratic. Basically, who wants to do what? Because we work as a collective, it's very important that before we develop the craft, we develop the artist.

"We don't dictate what the artist should do. Instead, it's the other way round. The artist would express what he wants to and The Finger Players will try its best to support that vision."

The company's five associate and resident artists do feel that they are part of a theatre family, dubbing The Finger Players their "artistic home".

This carries over into their social interactions - several of the company members surprised Oliver Chong, who recently turned 37, with a birthday cake halfway through the interview.

Freelance lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, 37, a 2011 Young Artist Award recipient, says the company has given her room to grow by trusting her work. "There's no contract and the company isn't obliged to hire us all the time, but having a base matters, where you can go back to and they trust you."

Award-winning sound designer Darren Ng, 35, another member of the company's design backbone, agrees. "This chemistry is not love at first sight. It's not like we get it the moment we start working together, but there's a lot of give and take along the way. We learn from one another."

Ng, Lim and set designer Lim Wei Ling will collaborate on a design-focused production to be staged in March under The Finger Players' main season.

Actress Karen Tan, 46, who has worked with The Finger Players on several productions, such as Wong Kar Wai Dreams (2007) and To Whom It May Concern (2011), says it is one of the most "prepared" groups she has ever seen. Props, sets and scripts are either complete or in the form of a good working prototype from Day One of rehearsals.

And it is not just its strong work ethic that has her hooked. She adds that its shows are very relatable: "They are based on very ordinary people and things, who happen to go through extraordinary days or choose to do something extraordinary.

"It is so humble as a whole group, but yet so confident and clear about who it is. It doesn't need to explode in fireworks."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan