Meet the Best Director nominees for the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards

The women and men nominated for Best Director at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year pushed themselves with unusual productions

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This year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards best director nominees Tracie Pang, Natalie Hennedige, Edith Podesta and Ian Loy share with us what's special about their productions and the challenges they encountered.

Natalie Hennedige, 42

Natalie Hennedige. PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Nominated for: Electra by Cake Theatrical Productions

Previous nominations: Fifteen, including for Best Director, with Sean Tobin, for Sing Song (The Necessary Stage, 2005). Solo nominations for Best Director include for What Big Bombs You Have!!! (The Necessary Stage, 2006); and Divine Soap (2007), y grec (2008) and Temple (2009) - all by Cake Theatrical Productions

Previous wins: Best Director for Nothing (2008); Best Costume Design for Queen Ping (2007) and Temple (2009); and Best Sound Design with Zai Kuning for Queen Ping (2007). All shows by Cake Theatrical Productions Hennedige's treatment of Greek tragedy has won the most nominations of any at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards: eight, including Production of the Year.

Edith Podesta is up for Best Actress, while Lian Sutton and Sharda Harrison are nominated for their supporting roles in gender-switching performances as Electra's mother and father. Hennedige is nominated for Best Director as well as Best Original Script, with co-writer Michelle Tan.

Electra is the second in a series that reimagines literary heroines, following Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet in March last year.

"Electra is interesting to me because she's stubborn and won't be silenced," says Hennedige. "Her life would have been much easier if she had been silent."

Electra sought revenge for the brutal killing of her father Agamemnon. He was no hero, according to the old texts written by Sophocles: He forced Electra's mother Clytemnestra into marriage and sacrificed the young girl Iphigenia for good weather.

Hennedige's reworking is avant- garde. Actors wear masks, but not as the old Greek performers did. Physical theatre, pop soundtrack and gender-neutral casting require the audience to dig deeper into the story.

"It's not entirely that the men are the aggressors," the director says. "Electra represents every man or woman in our world who refuses to be silenced."

Edith Podesta, 37


Nominated for: B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species (Edith Podesta, presented by M1 Singapore Fringe Festival)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Home Boxes (Paper Monkey Theatre, 2011), Best Director and Best Original Script for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta; presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 2015), Best Supporting Actress for Versus (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2016)

Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2014); Best Ensemble for Dark Room x8

At this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, Podesta is nominated for having written, acted in and directed the two-hander B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species. Yet, she wants to make it clear it was not a solo effort.

Fellow Australian directors Rodney Fisher and Stefanos Rassios gave feedback during the first read- through of the play. During development, she constantly checked in with the production team, from stage manager Mirabel Neo to multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan. Tan is also nominated this year for his work on the production.

"One night, I even pulled in actor Julius Foo who just happened to be taking his dinner outside my rehearsal room at Centre 42 to give me feedback," Podesta says.

Foo was not in the play. It starred Helmut Bakaitis as a stroke patient recalling his relationship with his wife, who has dementia. Podesta played both his wife and his canine pet.

Another play she wrote and directed and presented with the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Dark Room, is up this year for Best Ensemble as well as Best Lighting Design (Adrian Tan).

She also has a Best Actress nomination for Electra by Cake Theatrical Productions.

She puts her heart and soul into every new work, but says she has special feelings for B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species. The play, commissioned for last year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, was the first work she did without a day job to fall back on. She gave up a full-time teaching job at Lasalle College of the Arts in 2015 to be a freelance artist.

She plans to come back to the work some time, which is good news for those who failed to score tickets to the sold-out show last year.

"I haven't finished playing with it yet," she says, adding that in her eyes, the work is still "an untrained puppy".

Ian Loy, 37


Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Equus (Asia-In-Theatre Research, 2001), Cat, Lost And Found (The Finger Players, 2010) and Turn By Turn We Turn (The Finger Players, 2012)

Previous wins: None

Creating theatre that will hold the attention of two- to four-year-old children is hard enough. With Grandpa Cherry Blossom, director Loy also offered sensory- friendly performances for kids with special needs.

As some children with special needs are sensitive to the dark and to loud sounds, during the shows, there were no blackouts and no noises that might cause distress.

Loy, a married father of two, wants to create theatre for under-served sections of society, offering a "safe space" where families can come together "with no judgment". He adds: "The reward is seeing children react to the aesthetics and values of the show."

Grandpa Cherry Blossom is based on a Japanese folk tale about a man who made cherry trees bloom. It was presented as part of the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's Playtime! series for kids aged two to four. It has also been nominated for Best Set Design (Sebastian Zeng).

Loy has been an actor, director and playwright since 1999, starting with the now-defunct Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre. He graduated from Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts in 2002 and, with director Natalie Hennedige, developed theatrical work for students that led to the Esplanade asking him to create work for its Playtime! series. In 2009, he started MySuperFuture Theatrical Productions, which designs theatre for young people and schools. In 2014, he received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award for his work in children's theatre.

He says: "Performing for young audiences is a very delicate skill. It requires the performer to have no pretence. In front of children, you have to be there, looking at them, be interested in them."

Tracie Pang, 49


Previous nominations: Nine for Best Director, including for Singapore Repertory Theatre shows The Snow Queen (2006); The Dresser (2007) and The Pillowman (2008). Nominations for shows by Pangdemonium include The Full Monty (2011); Dealer's Choice (2012); Rabbit Hole and Next To Normal (2014); Fat Pig (2015) and Tribes (2016)

Previous wins: None During auditions for Falling, director Pang asked actors to drag her around the room by her hair.

This was for a scene in which an autistic young man suddenly becomes violent with his mother. It is one of several eye-opening moments in a realistic play about a family with a member who has special needs. The parents try to cope, but often fail.

"The challenge of this show was trying to make it truthful and not to over-dramatise it," says Pang. "I didn't want it to be a bleeding-heart portrayal. I wanted it to be honest."

Falling, written by American playwright Deanna Jent, has four nominations at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

It is up for Production of the Year and Pang is nominated for Best Director. Andrew Marko, who plays the autistic character, is nominated for Best Actor, with a Best Actress nod for Tan Kheng Hua, who plays his mother.

Pang was nominated for Best Director last year for another family-focused drama, Tribes, about a deaf son coping with his family.

Both won her over with the script, says the director, who decides Pangdemonium's yearly programme with her husband, actor Adrian Pang. He is nominated this year for Best Supporting Actor for another company show, The Effect.

"The minute I read Falling, I was emotionally drawn to it," says the mother of two. "I could see this was a story that would touch people."

Some performances of Falling were marketed as autism-friendly. Not a word was changed, but a room was kept aside in case some audience members needed to be away from lights and stimulus.

Families with special-needs relatives thanked Pangdemonium for this consideration and for bringing attention to a topic often swept under the carpet.

"I know people who have autistic children and they don't tell people. They're embarrassed to say it," says the director.

Alvin Tan, 54, and Kok Heng Leun, 51

Alvin Tan (left) and Kok Heng Leun. PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, ST FILE

Nominated for: Manifesto (Drama Box and The Necessary Stage)

Tan's previous nominations: Best Director for Fundamentally Happy (2007); Good People (2008); Gemuk Girls (2009), untitled women (2016) - all shows by The Necessary Stage

Previous wins: Best Director for Model Citizens (The Necessary Stage, 2011)

Kok's previous nominations: Best Director for A Stranger At Home (2007) and with Koh Wan Ching and Lie Xie for It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson And The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk, 2016); and for Best Original Script for Happy (2006). All shows by Drama Box

Previous wins: None Manifesto is an epic, time-travelling portrayal of the past, present and future joys and woes of local artists, from those in 1950s Malaya to future sparks in 2020s Singapore.

Multilingual and multilayered, it has the second-highest number of nominations at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, including for Best Ensemble, Best Original Script (by Haresh Sharma) and Best Director for The Necessary Stage's Tan and Drama Box's Kok.

Apart from its artistic merits, Manifesto boldly asked the question of whether artists have a right to be political. It was given an R18 rating by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for "mature content" a day before its opening night - the same day the script was submitted.

It was just the kind of headline show expected when two of the most respected theatre directors in Singapore collaborated.

Kok and Tan had waited more than 20 years to work together again. Kok used to work at The Necessary Stage, but left to join Drama Box in 1999 and focused on the Mandarin troupe's repertoire.

Manifesto was a true collaboration, both say. The directors supported each other on the scenes, "taking the lead as and when needed", according to Kok.

Tan says: "It was based on mutual respect, turn-taking and openness to try each other's proposals, and proposals from our other collaborators and cast members."

The biggest challenge was managing the time jumps, the multilingual text, which included Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin and English, and also the non-verbal modes of communication, such as Bani Haykal's sound and Loo Zihan's multimedia.

For Kok, the best part was learning "that the collaboration that was built up many years ago was not lost".

Tan agrees and adds: "Collaboration is essential for intercultural works. It is possible to create meaningful and challenging theatre out of diversity and democratic processes, contrary to the belief that artistic visions are compromised with a collective creation approach."

Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that Kok Heng Leun left The Necessary Stage in 1990. It should be 1999. We are sorry for the error.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline Meet the Best Director nominees for the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards. Subscribe