SINGAPORE - This weekend was meant to have been a comeback for Singapore's arts scene after last year's pandemic closures, but tightened Covid-19 measures announced on Friday (May 14) have scuppered several anticipated arts festival shows.
The Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), which opened on Friday and will run till May 30, is cancelling five live productions as well as the Sunday performances of play The Commission.
The Esplanade's Flipside festival, scheduled for May 26 to June 6, will similarly cancel a number of live performances - to be confirmed later - and pivot to digital for other shows.
This is the second time both festivals have been shut down because of Covid-19. The Esplanade's chief executive Yvonne Tham, 46, said, "It's hugely disappointing."
The new measures announced by a multi-ministry task force are aimed at stamping out the spread of Covid-19 in the community as new clusters of infections arise.
Live performances may now have audiences of up to 100 with pre-event testing and up to 50 without. Previous measures announced on May 8 allowed audiences of up to 250 with pre-event testing and up to 100 without.
The tightened restrictions also apply to cinemas. A spokesman for cinema chain Golden Village said most of its halls have 50 or fewer people in attendance anyway, but eating and drinking will not be allowed on its premises till June 13.
The European Union Film Festival, running now till May 23 at indie cinema The Projector, will be affected. Ticket-holders for films such as fantasy The Infernal Khorugv, animated biopic Funan and black comedy Mythopathy will be informed by e-mail or phone about new seat arrangements or refunds.
A new National Arts Council (NAC) advisory issued on Friday evening said all live performances publicised before May 5 will need to seek approval before going ahead; all performers will have to be masked; and singing and playing of brass and wind instruments will not be allowed.
This will affect concerts such as A 20th Century Fanfare by Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) on June 4, which involves the SSO's brass ensemble and is thus unlikely to proceed.
Singapore Symphony Group chief executive Chng Hak-Peng said the SSO will be making further adjustments to adhere to the smaller audience sizes for its other concerts in May and June, and that ticketholders will be contacted in event of cancellations to process their refunds.
Performer Eugene Tan, also known as Becca D'Bus, who only received approval for his drag show Riot! on Monday, has cancelled his four sold-out shows in May and three scheduled for June.
"You can't lip sync with a mask on," said the 43-year-old, adding that he feels resigned."I've spent a year not working and being made very aware that people like myself are not a priority in this country. I felt very grateful to be back. But this is just unfortunate."
The Necessary Stage founder and artistic director Alvin Tan, who is directing Sifa play The Year Of No Return on May 21 and 22, echoed concerns that the masking requirement will compromise performance quality.
The Year Of No Return had already been cancelled once last year. "It is unfortunate that this is happening - once again - to Sifa," said Tan, 58. "We've worked so hard over the last three years and really want to stage this production. By hook or by crook, we will deliver and we will work with the constraints."
The cancelled Sifa shows are chamber music concerts Be Comforted Now: Bach Cantatas; Before Life And After; Echoes Of Fire And Water and Nature Of Daylight, as well as social experience A Thousand Ways Part III: An Assembly.
Other Sifa shows, including eight commissions and several real-time virtual performances, will be available digitally on the Sistic Live platform.
Over at the Drama Centre Black Box, group HuM Theatre is trying to work out how to mask the actors of its play Jihad Jones And The Kalashnikov Babes, which has sold out 20 of its 25 shows until June 6.
HuM Theatre co-founder Daisy Irani, 61, said: "We have to source masks that not only allow for the audience to see and appreciate the drama but also allow our actors to survive the exertion of their performance."
She added: "Financing this project has been hard. We have had to depend on ticket sales to pay the bills. A cancellation will incur costs that a not-for-profit company like ours can ill afford and will in turn deprive the theatre professionals in our team with earnings from a full run."
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong acknowledged the stress on the sector in a Facebook post on Saturday and promised support, financial and otherwise. "This is a time to look after not just lives, but also livelihoods."
There will be operating grants and venue hire subsidies for arts companies, as well as help for self-employed people in the arts sector, he said.
He added: "We will subsidise the cost of pre-event testing for live performances affected by the recent rules. This will help enable larger audiences to attend performances safely and cushion the financial impact to arts companies."
Ms Tham said the Esplanade is prepared to roll out pre-event testing. "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."
Other groups are shifting back to the digital realm. T.H.E Dance Company's work Pan, which would have been performed live from May 22 to 23 as part of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre's Cultural Extravaganza, will now only be live-streamed online.
While the new measures are a blow, arts companies which have spent a year developing new capabilities and dealing with constraints are better prepared this year.
Ms Tham said the Esplanade team have been operating under crisis mode for the last year, such that responding to last-minute restrictions is now like "muscle memory".
"For instance, we had to cancel outdoor performances, and immediately staff would have said, 'Okay, do we then remove the chairs in the concourse space so as not to encourage crowds?'
"I imagine after two or three years, that kind of crisis mode will wear you down. But for now I think we've learnt from the SOPs (standard operating procedures)."
The Theatre Practice, whose show Four Horse Road was one of the first hit by last year's theatre shutdown, is opening its new multimedia production, The Bride Always Knocks Twice, on May 31.
Artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, 54, said she felt a sense of deja vu. "We were just 'here' not too long ago, and here we are again. This is tough."
She added, however, that they have shifted into gear to adapt their show to the new restrictions.
"Regardless, the show will go on."