Bilingual theatre groups offer range of new work despite challenges of Covid-19

Toy Factory Productions also produced its first animation, Tang Xianzu: Rebirthing Of A 400-Year-Old Dream.
Toy Factory Productions also produced its first animation, Tang Xianzu: Rebirthing Of A 400-Year-Old Dream.PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

SINGAPORE - Theatre fans can pick from an array of bilingual theatre offerings online this month from veteran theatre companies forging on despite the financial and emotional toll of the pandemic.

Toy Factory Productions' Old Songs Of Redhill Market, part of the National Arts Council's (NAC) Silver Arts Festival, went live on Facebook on Sept 5. Toy's artistic director Goh Boon Teck, 49, says the show is a "storytelling concert": "It is a heartwarming gentle reminder for us to live slowly, and to still be inspired by our rich history of the carefree days of Singapore."

The company also produced its first animation, Tang Xianzu: Rebirthing Of A 400-Year-Old Dream, about the life of the Chinese playwright. The English-language short film will debut on Sept 24, Tang's 440th birthday, on the Singapore International Festival of Arts' online platforms.

Another veteran bilingual company, Drama Box, launched its weeklong participatory workshop festival Scenes on Sept 7. Artistic director Kok Heng Leun, 53, says the company decided in early March to go digital with the festival when they realised Covid-19 was going to be a challenge. The third edition of the festival, which the company organises once every five years, has become an incubator for it to think about the challenges of art-making in a pandemic.

Kok says the festival addresses a critical issue: "How do we engage people if we can't do it in real life?"

Hence its project The Little Cooking Club That Could, created by Singapore-born, Australia-based artist Jamie Lewis, which sent a tiffin to 10 children and seniors. Participants enjoy a meal and cook one for the next participant while listening to an intercultural conversation with children and seniors in Australia.

Kok says: "The tingkat becomes a premise to talk about exchange, the food that they sent from one participant to another participant becomes a premise to talk about connection."

For something less cerebral, audiences can turn to Body X The Culprit, a popular Mandarin experiential theatre piece which returns for a third staging on the video platform Zoom from Wednesday to Sunday(Sept 9 to 13). Produced by Danny Yeo, the work invites audiences to help solve the cold case of a coffeeshop patron found dead some 35 years ago.

Yeo, 47, says he was motivated to restage the work, which sold out two previous runs at the Arts House in 2014 and 2016, to provide work for freelance theatre practitioners. His co-director and co-creator Li Xie as well as original cast members including Alvin Chiam, Doreen Toh and Judy Ngo return for this installment.

While the production has offered some work, Yeo says the $20,000 Digital Presentation Grant from the NAC cannot cover the cost of the production. He breaks down the numbers: 20 people working on the production over three months means each receives just about $333 a month for their efforts. He says: "As a producer, I feel sad I can't provide more yet I'm asking them to do more."

He hopes ticket sales will help but thus far, the production has sold about 400 tickets whereas in previous years they would have hit 600 to 800. He reckons he will have to chip in for the cost of the production, which in previous years cost about $70,000 to stage.


The experience has forced him to think seriously about quitting theatre despite his passion for the form.

"To put in all that effort and facing all the challenges, you really think it's not worth fighting. If not for the camaraderie," Yeo says, his voice trailing off as he become visibly emotional.

English language companies dominate the theatre scene here, and bilingual theatre practitioners have to fight harder for sponsorship as well as audiences.

The Little Cooking Club That Could sent a tiffin carrier of food around to 10 children and seniors who ate a meal then cooked one for the next participant. PHOTO: DRAMA BOX

The Theatre Practice, founded by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and now headed by his daughter Kuo Jian Hong, is celebrating its 55th anniversary later this year with a 55-hour livestream from Nov 27. Jian Hong says: "We'll be revisiting old memories, relooking at some of our most seminal works, and most importantly bringing together all our old and new friends of Practice."

The company recently concluded its M1 Patch! Theatre festival, most of which was conducted online and is already planning next year's edition. She is heartened by the healthy viewership for the digital events, which were sold out for small shows and drew an average of 100 screens for larger shows. While she admits "at this point, it's hard to know definitely if we have gained new audiences", she chooses to look on the bright side: "Going beyond physical spaces means we are able to reach audiences from all over the world."

Smaller groups such as The Finger Players are focusing on other work beyond the theatrical. Players' co-artistic director Ellison Yuyang says the company "made a conscious choice" not to stream their archive online. Instead they have revamped their website and working on an audio adaptation of Turn By Turn We Turn, which won the 2012 Life Theatre Awards for Production of the Year and Best Director.

She says: "While we are re-looking at new ways to continue creating, we are also worried about the industry and its potential talent drain due to lack of income."


Battle-scarred veterans Goh and Kok are more sanguine, however, having both survived crippling debts and the 2003 Sars crisis. Kok says the latter was more challenging because "we were younger and we had less resources".

Covid-19 is challenging because of its prolonged impact and he foresees more damage before it is done. Nonetheless, he sees cause for hope, especially in the way the arts community has come together to help each other out.

"I look forward to five, 10 years later when we make art work about this experience. We may create something very different."



Where: Zoom

When: Sept 9 to 12, 8pm

Admission: $18, $28, $38 from peatix



Where: Facebook

When: Till Dec 31

Admission: Free

Correction note: Toy Factory Productions' Old Songs Of Redhill Market went live on Facebook and not YouTube last Saturday.




When: Till Sept 13

Admission: Pay as you wish