Clarissa Oon Deputy Life! Editor

Keep Singapore theatre fresh by embracing risk and failure

Restaged award-winning drama The Weight Of Silk On Skin sold out its four-day run at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. One cannot blame practitioners when tried-and-tested productions are more warmly received than new productions, such as Legends Of The
Restaged award-winning drama The Weight Of Silk On Skin sold out its four-day run at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. One cannot blame practitioners when tried-and-tested productions are more warmly received than new productions, such as Legends Of The Southern Arch, which played to half-full houses.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE
Restaged award-winning drama The Weight Of Silk On Skin sold out its four-day run at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. One cannot blame practitioners when tried-and-tested productions are more warmly received than new productions, such as Legends Of The
Restaged award-winning drama The Weight Of Silk On Skin sold out its four-day run at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. One cannot blame practitioners when tried-and-tested productions are more warmly received than new productions, such as Legends Of The Southern Arch, which played to half-full houses.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE

New productions help theatre grow even if the stakes are higher

At the turn of the millennium, theatre was in the doldrums and there was a sense that practitioners were turning inwards or away from the Singapore audience.

Around that time, TheatreWorks' artistic director Ong Keng Sen was making avant-garde productions abroad with overseas artists. Another major company, The Necessary Stage, was going through an experimental phase and its socially conscious works had become more abstruse.

Its artistic director Alvin Tan observed back then that "not enough is being done to get first-time audiences into the theatre because most practitioners are caught up with cutting-edge works".

The gloom intensified when drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun succumbed to cancer in 2002 at age 63 and when the severe acute respiratory syndrome pandemic hit the following year. Half-empty theatre venues were a common sight.

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Fortunately, the theatre scene would become more dynamic and diverse in the course of the noughties and this is reflected in the 14 plays that have won Production of the Year at the annual Life! Theatre Awards since 2001.

Nine were original, some reflecting breakthroughs in playwriting and performance styles for their creators. The rest were strong home-grown takes on international classics.

Funnily enough, if edgy and at times alienating experiments were the norm 15 years ago, in the last two years, the pendulum seems to have swung - for better or for worse - towards audience-friendly stagings of the tried-and-tested, from adaptations of resonant world classics to restagings of acclaimed original works.

There are just three nominees for Production of the Year this year, and two of them - Art and The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice - are adaptations.

Now known as the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, the event recognises the best of each preceding year's productions, as judged by a panel of reviewers and academics, and the 15th such ceremony will be held next Monday at the Esplanade Recital Studio. A glance at the list of past winners provides a useful snapshot of theatre trends.

One notable development was the emergence in the mid-2000s of two theatre companies with their own fresh aesthetic: rebooted puppetry troupe The Finger Players and the comic-surreal Cake Theatrical Productions.

The Finger Players' collaboration with nowdormant physical theatre group Mime Unlimited on Furthest North, Deepest South (2004) inaugurated its brand of puppetry-infused theatre for adults, by turns thought-provoking, whimsical and macabre.

Playwright Chong Tze Chien's reading of a Ming dynasty eunuch's relationship with his emperor went on to dominate the Life! Theatre Awards. Along with later productions Turn By Turn We Turn (2011) and Roots (2012), it exemplified the company's ability to create intimate theatre out of the larger forces of history and ancestry.

Then there was Cake, which had a knack of turning out productions rich in both visual imagery and inspired exchanges among oddball characters.

Nothing (2007) saw playwright-director Natalie Hennedige working with frequent collaborators such as multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan and performance artist Rizman Putra. Cake showed how the stage could draw from other disciplines and tap into the sensibilities of Gen-Yers and millennials. The production went on to bag top prize at the Life! Theatre Awards.

By that point, the impact of training and mentorship programmes set up from the late 1990s could be felt. These included The Necessary Stage's Playwright's Cove, where Hennedige and Chong cut their teeth; and the Intercultural Theatre Institute, which gives actors a grounding in Asian and Western performance traditions. Peter Sau, who was in Nothing and is up for a Best Actor nomination this year for the Nine Years Theatre comedy Art, is a graduate of the programme.

If The Finger Players and Cake were the more esoteric cousins of the scene, Wild Rice and Pangdemonium led the charge of producing more conventional, well-made textbased theatre that connected with a wider audience.

Wild Rice, founded in 2000 by actor-director Ivan Heng, had won a following by the end of the decade for its original plays and adapted classics with a provocative, anti-establishment bent. This included its all-male version of Oscar Wilde's romantic farce The Importance Of Being Earnest (2009), which sold 95 per cent of the tickets for its 21/2-week run, won Production of the Year and was restaged in 2013.

Founded in 2010 by theatre power couple Tracie and Adrian Pang, Pangdemonium has built its reputation on stellar stagings of stirring plays and musicals that have won acclaim elsewhere, including the musical Next To Normal (2013), about life with bipolar disorder, last year's Production of the Year.

Finally, the mid-2000s saw The Necessary Stage's return to socio-political-themed, text-based plays, but with layered narratives that saw playwright Haresh Sharma at his most assured.

Among them, Fundamentally Happy (2006) and Gemuk Girls (2008) wowed reviewers, audiences and the awards' judges. The first revisits an episode of child sexual abuse that may or may not have taken place, while the second tackles the thorny subject of detention without trial.

In all this, theatre practitioners were aided by a relatively more open climate, although the regulatory guidelines remained mindful of conservative sensibilities. The once-proscribed, unscripted forms of performance art and forum theatre began to be funded from 2004. Several significant plays with political, gay or racial and religious themes were allowed uncut, including Gemuk Girls and The Importance Of Being Earnest, which received advisories for mature content and were recommended for audiences aged 16 and above.

The audience, too, grew along with theatre. From 2003 to 2013 - a decade which felt the effects of the opening of flagship arts centre the Esplanade and the two integrated resorts which have year-round arts and entertainment shows - total ticketed arts attendance nearly doubled from 971,600 to more than 1.8 million. Half that number bought tickets to watch theatre productions. In comparison, audience growth was much slower in the previous decade.

With more arts groups and venues than ever, the battle for audiences and sponsorship has intensified. Add the fact that maturing theatre companies have accumulated a solid body of work that deserves to be seen by more people, throw in the retrospective fever of the nation's golden jubilee, and you have a scene leaning towards adaptations and restagings rather than creating new work.

In a sense, one cannot blame practitioners; just look at the contrasting fates of two productions out of several that ran last week.

There was The Theatre Practice's new Mandarin wuxia play, Legends Of The Southern Arch, a heroic and magisterial attempt to recreate in the flesh an action genre more commonly seen on film and television, over a two-week run that saw it playing to half-full houses on some nights.

Then there was The Weight Of Silk On Skin, a restaging of Huzir Sulaiman's eloquent 2011 script about the travails of an ageing playboy. Part of the Esplanade's SG50 celebrations, the award-winning drama sold out its four-day run at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

But even as my heart ached seeing The Theatre Practice's 17-strong cast feint, kick and act their heart out to a less-than-enthusiastic response in a play that was not without its kinks, I felt Singapore theatre was the richer for their having tried.

I remembered what director Kuo Jian Hong told me about how it took eight years for her to get a Mandarin musical right with 2012's resounding Lao Jiu: The Musical. Perhaps, I thought, it will take her and her team another few years to create a truly potent wuxia play, one which goes beyond replicating well-loved genre conventions to having something bold and original to say.

The stakes may be higher now, the competition greater than ever. But lose the appetite for risk and failure and the theatre scene will become a pale shadow of all that it could be, doomed to repeat itself.

clare@sph.com.sg

Go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre-awards-2015 for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.