The Pandemic Year Of Arts

One year on from S'pore's theatre closures: 'We might go back to normal, but we won't be the same'

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s sign on Block 43 being taken down. PHOTO: NTU CCA SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - Four arts practitioners look back on the day of the theatre closures on March 26 last year, and where this anniversary finds them.

Raka Maitra, 51, dancer and founder of dance company Chowk Productions, co-artistic director of The Substation

March 2020: My first thought was: I am not going digital.

When the curtains fell, I thought it would last a month or two and we'd be back to normal.

But the lights didn't come up and the prospect of going for months without work and the pleasure of dance was palpable.

So, for our sanity and sustenance, we dived into the digital pool. We earned our keep, but the digital was no substitute for actually being in a space in front of audiences.

March 2021: As co-artistic director of The Substation, I am busy wrapping up at the arts centre, which is having its last festival. We have had a very good response - people are craving live shows.

I'm curious to see what's going to happen with The Substation. The way the arts community is responding, people don't want it to close. If it really does, we might start a small festival at Chowk for people who are doing movement theatre.

The pandemic has taught us the value of the small, the intimate. As a performer, I have never liked big theatres. It's always the small black box that has excited me. And now, I am convinced that's the way to go.

At Chowk, we finished Pallavi Through Abstraction, a live production with music group Nada last month. We are reworking an older piece, from: The Platform, and doing an experimental work responding to Albert Camus' novel The Plague.

We have gone through a pandemic and our lives have changed. We might go back to "normal", but we won't be the same people anymore.


Mohd Fared Jainal, 47, artistic director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra

Teater Ekamatra's artistic director Mohd Fared Jainal. PHOTO: AKBAR SYADIQ

March 2020: We had to make the decision to cancel our production Berak. We had been trying very hard to look at the possibility of staging it.

But a few days before the opening night on March 25, we had to raise the white flag. We were busy apologising to our friends and the public about the cancellation.

But there was a silver lining - we presented a digital version of the show in October as part of Festival/Tokyo 2020.

March 2021: We have been surviving, but we had to downsize the core team to just me and managing director Shaza Ishak.

Our company and production managers had to leave, although they managed to find jobs elsewhere in the creative industry. That was hard for us because we lost not just colleagues, but also friends.

We still believe in what we do, even if it's not seen as "essential". Within Malay theatre, a lot of people rely on us. We need to show them we are strong, that we will keep trying till our last breath.

At the moment, we are working on our children's play, Mat Champion, and it's going to be digital. It's been a huge learning curve - we are not a production house and screen work is quite foreign to us, but we are jumping into it.

But we also understand audiences are getting tired of watching works on the screen. In time, we will get back to live theatre.


Professor Ute Meta Bauer, 62, director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, which closed its Gillman Barracks exhibition space earlier this month

Professor Ute Meta Bauer. PHOTO: NTU CCA SINGAPORE

March 2020: The hardest thing for me was to learn that when our current funding would terminate, we would have to raise funds ourselves for the majority of activities.

Everyone in the team knew that his or her contract was bound to our grant duration, but to tell the team members during the pandemic that their contracts could indeed not be renewed - I think that was one of the lowest moments of my entire career.

We had about 18 contract staff at that time and had to let 12 of them go at the end of March 2021.

March 2021: Our exhibition hall's last day was March 7, when we shut doors at 8pm with the Singapore Art Book Fair.

To close Block 43 was, of course, emotional. We have our office space left and have repurposed two of our residency studios as screening and seminar rooms, which means we are keeping Blocks 6, 37 and 38 and will continue with local residencies supported by a National Arts Council grant.

Together with the European Union, we are now launching SEA AiR - Studio Residencies for South-east Asian artists in the EU. The artists will bring back their findings, be it in the form of exhibitions, screenings or talks.

We also received an Academic Research Fund grant from the Ministry of Education, which allows us to continue our work looking into climate change.

Yes, we are very sad about what we are giving up, but we also have to look ahead to the future.

From January to the first week of this month, we had roughly 33,000 attendees at our events - more than the entirety of last year.

The irony is we are shutting down these activities while the local audience seems to be attending more arts events than before. I think there is now, due to the Covid-19 experience, a deeper understanding of what the arts can do for you.


Low Yik Hang, 34, percussionist of Ding Yi Music Company

Ding Yi Music Company percussionist Low Yik Hang. PHOTO: DING YI MUSIC COMPANY

March 2020: When everything started to close, we initially felt that, as performers, we could not contribute much.

Nevertheless, we looked into other possibilities and later went into digital productions.

Our musicians went on digital platforms to practise together from home, switching on our videos to show moral support for one another.

I had a four-month-old baby at home and my wife works as a nurse.

As a percussionist, I have to keep the volume of my home practice minimal by making various adjustments - for instance, by using a drum mute and a headset or covering my instruments with several layers of cloth.

March 2021: We can now rehearse at the Stamford Arts Centre and have resumed live concerts.

I am now preparing for Ding Yi's DY-Logue concert next month. It's a musical dialogue between a Chinese and Malay percussionist.

From March to June last year, my income was down by at least 50 per cent as we could not conduct co-curricular activities (CCAs) or go to schools physically.

But now, schools have given us the option of conducting CCAs physically or digitally, and things are gradually getting better.

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