Flexible seating at new Esplanade theatre a big draw for artists

An artist's impression of the new Waterfront Theatre at the Esplanade. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

SINGAPORE - The adjustable seating capacity of the proposed $30-million waterfront theatre at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, appeals to artists here. But many question how affordable the space, which opens in 2021, will be.

On Monday (Dec 18), the Esplanade announced that Singapore firm architects61 would lead the team to build the new mid-sized theatre of at least 550 seats. The firm would work with international design consultancy Charcoalblue and their design proposal includes movable seating elements to allow seating capacity to increase beyond 550.

The need for another indoor theatre of around 500 seats was put forward to the National Arts Council in 2015 by arts groups. The existing Esplanade Theatre and Esplanade Concert Hall seat just below 2,000 each, while its two studio spaces fit around 200 viewers each.

However, arts practitioners said their ideal audience per show is 500 to 1,000 seats. There are only a few theatres here of that size and all are heavily in demand. The 600-seat Drama Centre Theatre and similar-sized Victoria Theatre, managed by the Esplanade, are 80 per cent in use, for example, and Victoria Theatre is booked through 2019.

Groups have to book venues at least a year in advance to get a good slot, said Mr Dedric Wong, 31, general manager and assistant conductor of Chinese chamber music ensemble Ding Yi Music Company. He calls the 550-seat capacity of the new waterfront theatre "ideal" for his 10-year-old musical ensemble.

"Having flexible seating also opens up a whole new level of creative music experiments," said Mr Wong, adding that he hopes the Esplanade will consider what local arts groups can afford when renting out the new theatre.

Performer and director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, founder of experimental arts collective Akulah Bimbo Sakti, said: "Flexibility is key and we really need more medium to smaller size spaces that can seat 300 and below because that's the target reach of most theatre productions in Singapore per show."

However, Effendy, who was artistic director of independent arts space The Substation from 2010 to 2015 also asked how affordable the new theatre would be for local arts groups.

Theatre-maker and actress Ellison Yuyang Tan, 28, said she would like to work with a flexible space to stage theatre in the round, where the audience surrounds the stage, but "I know theatre collectives like mine can never afford to hire the Esplanade. I hope that with this new theatre, the Esplanade would consider using other spaces to incubate new works and young artists."

In response to such feedback, Ms Yvonne Tham, assistant chief executive officer of The Esplanade Co, said the new theatre, like other Esplanade venues, would have a range of hiring rates including subsidised rates for not-for-profit arts groups in Singapore.

A large number of the programmes at the theatre will be presented by the Esplanade and she pointed out that the Esplanade regularly commissions and co-produces work with Singapore artists.

"A key objective of this new mid-sized theatre is in fact to work closely with Singapore artists to continue creating new works, but also works for greater impact and reach," she said.

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