Toy Factory turns 25 with aim to focus on original works

The Crab Flower Club (above). -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
The Crab Flower Club (above). -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions’ founder and artistic director Goh Boon Teck aims for the theatre company to stage one new musical, large or small, every two years. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions’ founder and artistic director Goh Boon Teck aims for the theatre company to stage one new musical, large or small, every two years. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions, which staged its acclaimed Titoudao (above) for the fifth time earlier this year, will be bringing back the romantic musical December Rains in August. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions, which staged its acclaimed Titoudao (above) for the fifth time earlier this year, will be bringing back the romantic musical December Rains in August. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions, which staged its acclaimed Titoudao for the fifth time earlier this year, will be bringing back the romantic musical December Rains (above) in August. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
Toy Factory Productions, which staged its acclaimed Titoudao for the fifth time earlier this year, will be bringing back the romantic musical December Rains (above) in August. -- PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

The lavish musical. The intimate monologue. The intense Chinese-language drama. The Shakespearean classic. The provocative, sexy blockbuster.

Toy Factory Productions, which turns 25 this year, has done all of the above and more. But this year, the intrepid theatre company has a more focused vision in mind - to become Asia's leading Chinese musical theatre company and to produce solid original work.

Founder and artistic director Goh Boon Teck, 43, is aware of how his company has defied categorisation over the years.

Speaking to Life! in a narrow upstairs room at the company's shophouse space in Chinatown, he says: "We've received feedback countless times about a sort of identity crisis. But I enjoy it. Because I think, if I knew the answer, there wouldn't be a quest."

The company has managed to stay afloat despite several rough moments. Goh says there were "a few periods" when they were on the verge of bankruptcy and might have had to shut down.

"Those were very scary," he says. "I try not to remember those times. The only way to keep going is to stay positive and not dwell on those horrible mistakes."

In 2012, the National Arts Council cut the company's annual funding from $105,000 to $70,000.

The grants panel wrote: "Toy Factory remains important in the local scene as a bilingual theatre company. However, its artistic output is lower compared to previous years as Toy may be going through a quiet phase to recharge itself for renewed artistic development in the future. The Major Grant will continue to sustain the company and its work and provide support while Toy rejuvenates itself."

This came after a hectic few years when the company had rolled out several big-budget works back to back, including the Buddhist-themed Maha Moggallana (2010), the star-studded December Rains (2010) starring Kit Chan, and the $1.8million musical version of Royston Tan's hit getai film 881 at the Esplanade (2011). There were also several poorly received productions, such as Sleepless Town (2009), a musical about failed superheroes.

But by 2013, Toy Factory was working its way back on track, bumping its arts council funding back up to $200,000. Goh says: "The beauty of theatre and working with artists is that it really rejuvenates you and energises you."

For the next few years or so, his continuing quest will be to shape defining original work by local writers and artists for the stage and to develop work from Toy Factory's repertoire. His goal: one new musical every two years, large or small. The company is looking at creating a sequel of sorts to its original musical production Innamorati (2014), which looks at the lives of seven artist-singer hopefuls.

This direction is a departure from an earlier phase, when Toy Factory found success in its staging of Broadway classics such as Cabaret (2006) and Guys And Dolls (1999), and also in daringly provocative adaptations when director Beatrice Chia-Richmond was at the helm, such as Shopping & F***ing (2001), which garnered a slew of Life! Theatre Awards nominations, and the racy Fireface (2002), where the company was instructed by the authorities to withdraw its raunchy publicity images.

Today, Goh says it required a critical mass of experience before making the pivotal change from imported work to original work: "I think it requires a decade or more to hone that skill in creating Mandarin musicals.

"It's like creating our own CPF of works. We didn't have the confidence to say that we would do only original work in the past. It's only this year that we could say we are ready to become more serious artists in this theatre world, to create our own work."

The company is planning to either commission new writers to create new work, or look at the work they have written and produce it. Goh understands the risks that come with betting on an up-and- coming practitioner without an established track record.

He says: "Are we going to judge them by the success of one production or are we going to put them in the context of the history of theatre here, to justify their existence? Sometimes, it's difficult to judge. For a very bad creation disliked by a lot of people - there might be something in this artist where he might learn from it and become a stronger one."

He has also been keeping an eye out for fresh talent, particularly from the younger generation: "I'm very interested in casting actors who are not very well known. I want to open that 'born in the 1990s' brain and see what they're thinking - the way they contribute to the production has a very different kind of energy."

Toy Factory began with that sort of lively energy, as a group of young, enthusiastic university students. Its 1990s work was experimental and rooted in movement - its name was inspired by a Thai puppeteer whose nickname was Toy (real name Somsak Kanha), who taught the group puppetry techniques.

Some of its strongest work has had a distinctly Asian focus. The critically acclaimed Crab Flower Club (2009), a Qing dynasty drama about five daughters who are preparing their father's 60th birthday feast, also toured to Beijing in 2010. And the company's showpiece, Titoudao (1994), won hearts again earlier this year in its fifth staging. It swept the inaugural Life! Theatre Awards in 2001, winning Production of the Year.

Goh would like to choose six plays from Toy Factory's repertoire to finesse and hone even further by 2017. This year, the company is also bringing back two popular original productions - the romantic musical December Rains in August and the intimate monologue White Soliloquy in September.

Both will feature new generations of performers, with Sugie Phua, Andie Chen and Chriz Tong in the sprawling musical written by local songwriter Liang Wern Fook, and Timothy Wan stepping into the very large shoes of actor-director Nelson Chia for the monodrama written by Goh, which traces the life of veteran Singapore actor Bai Yan.

Goh says: "A company evolves and changes with the people who are running it. It's like a lab... I would like to keep it evolving and changing."

The company has six full-time staff, "but we do the jobs of 60 people", Goh says with a laugh.

He adds: "We do not want to spend any more time developing other people's established work. We have learnt enough from working in that method. We are thinking that we should be creating now, if we have any energy, we should spend it on creating.

"There's a demon telling me, 'Are you going to make the company close down?' I think the next few years will be quite hard, but I think it's worth setting that direction and safeguarding it."


PLAY TIME THROUGH THE YEARS

1990: Toy Factory Productions, originally Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, is formed by a group of 14 students who performed in Kuo Pao Kun's Lao Jiu, staged at the Singapore Arts Festival. Its first production is a 20-minute play by Goh Boon Teck called The Bull Over The Rainbow.

1994: Goh writes and directs Titoudao, about Singapore's fading traditional arts heritage, inspired by his mother Oon Ah Chiam, who was a street opera performer.

1995: The group moves into the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. It presents its first full-length dance performance, choreographed by Lim Chin Huat of Ecnad.

1996: Goh is the pioneer recipient of a scholarship given by credit card company Visa, the Visa Arts Scholarship. He studies directing at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom.

1998: The group moves to its current premises in Chinatown's Smith Street.

2000: Toy Factory gets its first Singapore Arts Festival commission. A Tinted Edge is a play about a gay man who hides his sexuality to avoid hurting his mother.

2001: The group's revival of Titoudao the year before, starring Pam Oei, sweeps the inaugural Life! Theatre Awards, including trophies for Best Original Script and Production of the Year.

2002: Associate artistic director Beatrice Chia-Richmond's take on the provocative Shopping & F***ing (2001) wins her a Best Director trophy at the Life! Theatre Awards. Another production helmed by Chia-Richmond, Fireface, runs into a spot of trouble with the authorities for its raunchy publicity images. The company is instructed to withdraw them.

2006: The group puts on a successful run of the Broadway classic Cabaret, a musical set in a seedy nightclub and starring Taiwanese pop idol Fei Xiang.

2009: Another Singapore Arts Festival commission, The Crab Flower Club, receives rave reviews. A Mandarin version, about five women in the Qing dynasty, tours Beijing later that year.

2010: For its 20th anniversary, Toy Factory continues its spree of large-scale musicals with xinyao hotshot Liang Wern Fook's December Rains, a tumultuous love story set in Singapore from the 1950s to 1980s, starring Kit Chan.

2011: The group puts on a large-scale musical adaptation of Royston Tan's hit getai film, 881, to mixed reviews.

2013: Mandopop starlet Della Ding Dang takes up her first musical lead role in Toy Factory's stage adaptation of the Taiwanese movie, Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing? (1983). The production travels to the 2014 Shanghai Original Musicals Festival, the first time a foreign group is invited to participate in the festival.