The A-Zs that rocked 2021: ART for art's sake

Pam Oei in Faghag which was staged as part of Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival 2018. PHOTO: W!LD RICE

People complain about having to pay through the nose for theatre, but this year, it took a literal slant, as antigen rapid tests (ART) became de rigueur for the unvaccinated audience member.

A fresh spike in Covid-19 case numbers led to the introduction of new restrictions in May, including caps on audience numbers for live performances and the requirement of pre-event testing for shows with more than 50 attendees.

With Singapore's vaccination drive still under way then, many theatre- and concertgoers had to contemplate if getting swabbed in the name of art was worth it.

Pre-event testing was already present in early pilot performance trials late last year, as the beleaguered arts scene made myriad, repeatedly thwarted, attempts at recovery.

In December last year, The Straits Times reviewer Mervin Beng described the process of getting an ART in the 24 hours before attending the concert O Soothest Sleep by The Opera People and Orchestra of Music Makers at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

"The time needed to book a slot for the test, travel to the clinic, register, take the test and wait for the result all adds up to at least an hour unless the clinic happens to be next door," he wrote. As this was for a pilot trial, the test was free, though an ART at a clinic typically costs between $30 and $50.

He concluded then that it was worth it for this particular concert, but had no plans to submit himself to similar ordeals in the near future.

By the time phase two rolled round this year, pre-event testing had evolved to the extent that it could be implemented on site.

At events such as the Singapore International Festival of Arts, you got swabbed, had the results sent to your phone in less than half an hour and, if they were negative, could proceed into the auditorium without further ado.

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay chief executive Yvonne Tham suggested that an ART might soon just be another pre-show ritual. "In the new normal, you can go get swabbed, get a meal and then go for a performance. It will still be within the audience's normal performance routine."

The cost of absorbing pre-event testing for audiences was, however, substantial. Theatre company Wild Rice estimated in June that this might potentially amount to $40,000 for one-woman show Faghag and called for donations to its fund, the Wild PET Kitty.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said on May 15 that the authorities would subsidise the cost of pre-event testing for live performances affected by the new rules till June 13.

Now that most of Singapore is vaccinated, ARTs are less of a requirement for theatregoers, though self-administered tests have since become part and parcel of everyday life. For example, many now have to take ARTs to enter their workplaces.

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