Singapore's theatre community turns up to celebrate 15 years of the Life! Theatre Awards

It was a gold rush at the 15th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards on Monday as the Singapore theatre community turned up in a dazzling array of glittery hues, lighting up the hallways of the Esplanade.

The Solid Gold-themed awards ceremony was at once riotous and reflective, with comedienne Pam Oei masterfully directing the flow of festivities from the moment she stepped on stage in what looked like a gold chain-mail peplum tube top and shiny gold tights by costume designer Frederick Lee, topped off with an intricate gold headpiece created by hair maestro Ashley Lim - which she affectionately referred to as her "helmet".

Telco M1 has come on board as title sponsor for the annual awards, which was also held in collaboration with the Esplanade for the first time. It is part of the ongoing The Studios: fifty season of 50 Singapore plays, which runs till May 10.

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Some of the earlier guests to arrive were not bedecked in gold, much to the dismay of director-producer Beatrice Chia-Richmond, who looked down at her shiny toga dress and remarked: "I feel like a gold coin!"

But the sequinned and shimmery crowd soon showed up in full force, from playwright Tan Tarn How's subtle gold tie and actor-host Chua Enlai's sparkly bowtie to DJ and Dim Sum Dolly Denise Tan's scalloped gold dress and quirky heels with a bit of fluff from British label Irregular Choice.

Past Life! Theatre Awards and Golden Horse winner Yeo Yann Yann turned up in a charming black and gold number from the boutique Moiselle and Life! Theatre Awards nominee Elizabeth Lazan wore a fully beaded dress with a vintage feel from Alice + Olivia.

The guest of honour and chairman of the National Arts Council, Professor Chan Heng Chee, exuded elegance in a floral green and gold cheongsam.

As part of the awards' 15th birthday, former winners were invited to give out the crystal trophies to this year's batch of awardees. They included 2009 Best Actor Najib Soiman and 2011 Best Director Alvin Tan. Oei spent a bit of time before each of the award presentations bantering with her captive charges on stage.

Janice Koh, who won Best Actress in 2003, was coaxed into doing a complicated yoga pose ("I challenge her to do this without exposing her underwear to you," Oei commanded) and multiple acting award-winner Adrian Pang was strong- armed into singing in character as Lee Kuan Yew. He will play the titular role in The LKY Musical. Oei even interviewed herself when it was time for her to give out the Best Actor award.

The actress-host, who is part of the popular cabaret trio Dim Sum Dollies and a versatile director and performer, showed off her ad-libbing skills at several points, especially after she nearly skipped a special retrospective video lauding the past 14 Productions of the Year.

She gasped when she realised: "I'm so sorry, they're signalling me. I've totally skipped one giant step, which is that we are going to go down memory lane! Please forgive me, I am now 43 years old. After I gave birth without epidural, many brain cells died. You can ask Selena Tan. I can now hardly remember any dance steps - nor my lines. Nor this very important presentation!"

Amid the fun and games, there were also sweet, meaningful trips down memory lane.

Koh, for instance, gave this year's Best Supporting Actor winner Remesh Panicker a hongbao that she had been meaning to pass on since Oei gave it to her at the 2003 Life! Theatre Awards. She even factored in inflation, which transformed her $10 red packet into a $15 one.

Panicker later told Life! that his mother, whom he thanked profusely in his acceptance speech, had pocketed the cash - for safekeeping, of course.

To the loudest cheers and a standing ovation, Oei created a special mention for hairstylist Ashley Lim, the man behind almost every hairdo on the Singapore stage for more than 25 years. An overwhelmed Lim, who usually shuns the spotlight, shed a few tears on stage and could barely speak.

Oei said to appreciative screams, laughter and applause: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have decided to ownself make my Best Hair category. We all know that there isn't a Best Hair category because it would be pointless. All the nominees would be Ashley Lim. Every year."

She presented him with a spray of brightly coloured orchids and he, in turn, gave out the Best Costume award.

Several of this year's winners are based overseas for residencies and further studies, but the delight and excitement in the Esplanade Recital Studio travelled quickly halfway around the world through text messages.

Best Actor winner Peter Sau, who is in London studying, had just woken up on Monday morning - "in my London apartment checking the temperature to decide how many depressing layers of clothes to wear".

He said in a text message: "The producer of Art, Mia, WhatsApped me about my win with a photo of the trophy and I was like, 'What is this... OH MY GOODNESS, really?' It warmed me up immediately and I was ready for the cold outside."

Sau, who played the part of a snarky, priggish art snob, dedicated his award to the late Kuo Pao Kun, one of his theatre mentors. It was his first win in this category.

Another first-time winner, Best Actress Mina Kaye, is in Boston pursuing a master of fine arts in musical theatre. She said in an e-mail that co-star Denise Tan had been sending her live updates via text messaging throughout the ceremony. Tan broke the news to her with gibberish - "Aaaahhhhhhhhghhhhhhjhjjjjhhhghhhhhhhhhh" - before sending her a photo of Adrian Pang holding the coveted trophy on her behalf.

Kaye said: "Everything was quite surreal and still is! I went back to sleep and now that I've woken up, I am still trying to process the news. It's such a high honour to share this title with all the amazingly talented actresses and theatre veterans who have won in the past."

She clinched the award for the role of LV in Pangdemonium's Singapore adaptation of the Broadway classic, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, where she had to channel the vocal styles of 10 iconic divas, from Shirley Bassey to Marilyn Monroe.

Through the hubbub and hurrahs of the awards, the 15-year milestone was one to remember, with the introduction of a new category for the best children's theatre production, as well as a history- making tie for Production of the Year - between Wild Rice's pantomime Monkey Goes West and Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of the French drama Art.

Life! editor Helen Chia and Prof Chan gave unexpectedly personal speeches touching on their own relationships with the theatre, particularly in the early years of the development of professional local drama.

Ms Chia paid tribute to theatre pioneers such as Cultural Medallion recipients Max Le Blond and T. Sasitharan and recalled how, as a student, she would pore through tomes of classic plays at the National Library or attend performances at the old DBS auditorium in Shenton Way and the Drama Centre on Fort Canning.

"Those of you of a certain vintage would remember that," she said to chuckles from the audience.

She added: "Throughout the decades, The Straits Times has always devoted much space and resources to charting the growth of the theatre scene.

"The arts editors and writers have played the role of champion, critic and reporter. We may not always see eye to eye, but I would like to think that there is a professional respect between theatre practitioners and arts writers."

Prof Chan spoke of a decades-long love for the theatre and how she grew up on Cantonese opera and plays, then coyly remarked that back in the day, "I went on quite a few dates to Stage Club plays. The guys then bought the tickets".

She, too, recognised early Singapore playwrights such as the late Lim Chor Pee and Goh Poh Seng and lauded the groups of practitioners actively shaping today's dynamic theatre scene.

She noted: "Britain has its Oliviers. America has its Tonys. In Singapore, we have Life! Theatre Awards."

A 15th anniversary is usually a Crystal one, but on Monday afternoon, it certainly felt like Solid Gold.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Additional reporting by Sarah Giam and Lisabel Ting


2015 AWARD WINNERSProduction of the Year: Joint winners Art by Nine Years Theatre and Monkey Goes West by Wild RiceReaders' Choice for Production of the Year: Monkey Goes WestBest Director: Nine Years Theatre founder Nelson Chia for ArtBest Actor: Peter Sau for Art by Nine Years TheatreBest Actress: Mina Kaye for The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice by PangdemoniumBest Supporting Actor: Remesh Panicker for The Merchant Of Venice by the Singapore Repertory TheatreBest Supporting Actress: Jo Kukathas for The House Of Bernarda Alba by Wild RiceBest Original Script: Liu Xiaoyi for Fluid by The Theatre PracticeBest Ensemble: Dark Room x8 by Edith PodestaBest Costume Design: Tube Gallery by Phisit & Saxit for Monkey Goes WestBest Lighting Design: Andy Lim for Ten Thousand Tigers by Ho Tzu Nyen, co-commissioned by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Asian Culture Complex - Asian Arts Theatre Korea, Carriageworks Australia and Wiener Festwochen AustriaBest Sound Design: Bani Haykal for Gitanjali by The Necessary StageBest Set Design: Ho Tzu Nyen, Andy Lim and Jed Lim for Ten Thousand Tigers