$30m waterfront theatre to seat 550 at Esplanade

At the site of the future waterfront theatre are (from far left) Ms Yvonne Tham; National Arts Council CEO Rosa Daniel; Minister Grace Fu; Esplanade CEO Benson Puah; and Mr Yeo Whee Jim, senior director of the arts and heritage division at the Minist
At the site of the future waterfront theatre are (from far left) Ms Yvonne Tham; National Arts Council CEO Rosa Daniel; Minister Grace Fu; Esplanade CEO Benson Puah; and Mr Yeo Whee Jim, senior director of the arts and heritage division at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mid-sized venue, to be ready by 2021, will be a boon for arts groups

A $30 million waterfront theatre is slated to open at the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay by 2021. The 550-seat venue will give arts groups much-needed space to stage new work and attract more audiences.

The new mid-sized theatre was announced yesterday by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu during the annual theatre awards organised by The Straits Times Life section.

At the M1 - The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards ceremony at the Esplanade Recital Studio, Ms Fu said the Government would contribute at least $10 million to the new waterfront theatre. The Esplanade will raise the rest.

She said: "We hope that the new theatre would give our arts groups an appropriate size to create new content, not only for our local audience, but also for regional and international audiences."

Her speech mentioned that local troupe Checkpoint Theatre's ongoing run of school drama Normal was sold out but could not pay for itself. The play needed a 300-seat venue to break even but is shown in the 120-seat Drama Centre Black Box.

Currently, community, school and professional arts groups battle it out for the 600-seat Drama Centre Theatre and similar-sized Victoria Theatre, managed by the Esplanade. The spaces are 80 per cent in use, and heavily in demand during school holidays.

Artists here have long felt the lack of theatres with 500 to 1,000 seats. Most new works of dance and theatre created in Singapore or overseas are meant for such mid-sized spaces but the existing Esplanade Theatre and Esplanade Concert Hall seat just below 2,000. The Esplanade also has two 200-seat studio spaces.

Ms Yvonne Tham, Esplanade's assistant chief executive officer, said that last year, due to the lack of a suitable mid-sized theatre, viewers had to be seated on the stage of the Esplanade Theatre to better appreciate a new work by Thai troupe Pichet Klunchun Dance Company.

In 2012, the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which advised on cultural policy, called for mid-sized theatres to be built at the Esplanade to support the development of new work by local artists.

Theatre-maker Chong Tze Chien, 41, company director of The Finger Players, said: "A mid-sized theatre is the optimal size for artists who want to create a more technically challenging work but retain the intimacy of the black box." The new waterfront theatre might inspire him to rework older pieces that "didn't quite work" in existing spaces, such as his 2007 play Wong Kar Wai Dreams at the Drama Centre.

Puppeteer Benjamin Ho, 49, of Paper Monkey Theatre, stages shows for 200 at a time in the Esplanade Theatre Studio but could bring in twice as many viewers in a mid-sized theatre. "I hope they will keep the rent low," he said of the new waterfront theatre.

Currently, community, school and professional arts groups battle it out for the 600-seat Drama Centre Theatre and similar-sized Victoria Theatre, managed by the Esplanade. The spaces are 80 per cent in use, and heavily in demand during school holidays. Victoria Theatre is booked till 2019 and bookings are accepted 18 to 24 months in advance, said Ms Tham.

The new theatre is likely to host Esplanade programmes 60 per cent of the time and be hired out the rest of the time. Ms Tham said there is increasing demand for theatre for young audiences and seniors and the new theatre would help fill that gap plus make space for new commissioned work.

The waterfront theatre will occupy a 3,000 sq m area along the Esplanade Waterfront, including the Edge, where music festival Baybeats used to be held, and the Waterfront Carpark.

The Esplanade will call for interested project consultants to submit design proposals for the theatre later this year. Construction will begin in 2019 and the venue will start operating in 2021.

To raise the $20 million it needs, the Esplanade will offer naming rights for a fixed term of more than 10 years - for the new building, specific facilities, or even programmes.

Public contributions to the new theatre are welcome. The Esplanade will announce more details in October, at its 15th anniversary celebrations.

The Esplanade Theatre and Concert Hall are part of phase one of a development plan mooted in the 1990s for the arts complex. Rehearsal spaces and three medium-sized theatres were supposed to be built in phase two. A feasibility study commissioned by the Esplanade and completed in 2012 estimated phase two would cost as much as phase one - $600 million. This expenditure is not considered viable in the current economic climate.

To meet its space needs, in August last year, the Esplanade transformed the former club Queen near Makansutra Gluttons Bay into the two-storey Esplanade Annexe Studio. This hosts musical gigs and is also a rehearsal space.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline '$30m waterfront theatre to seat 550 at Esplanade'. Print Edition | Subscribe