More room for the arts

Artists welcome the building of a mid-sized venue at the Esplanade, but raise questions about its programming

There has always been much lament about the scarcity of mid-sized performing arts venues in Singapore.

These venues, which can seat between 400 and 1,000 people, are sandwiched between cosy black box spaces and larger presenting venues such as the Esplanade Theatre, which has 1,950 seats.

There are at least six such venues in Singapore, including the Drama Centre Theatre, Victoria Theatre and the privately run Capitol Theatre.

By 2021, one more will be added to the list - a 550-seat waterfront theatre at the Esplanade, estimated to cost $30 million.

We booked the Esplanade Theatre Studio for a slightly longer run and gave up our preferred timeslot for a later, available one in December.

KUIK SWEE BOON, artistic director of T.H.E. Dance Company, on how the dance company had to change its plans after failing to secure a mid-sized venue, with between 400 and 600 seats, for one of its productions this year. The Esplanade Theatre Studio seats 220

The new theatre was announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards last Monday.

While the Singapore arts scene has thrived in the last few years - with an average of 23 arts performances a day in 2015, according to the 2016 Cultural Statistics - artists have long bemoaned the lack of suitable venues, especially mid-sized ones.

Competition for such spaces means arts companies are often required to book way in advance - sometimes 18 months or earlier.

While artists who spoke to The Straits Times generally welcomed the new waterfront theatre, some raised questions about how the space would be programmed.

In its Performing Arts Masterplan, the National Arts Council (NAC) noted that "more than 80 to 85 per cent of work that is produced throughout the world... takes place in mid-sized spaces" and that this was the same for Singapore.

The arts council's deputy chief executive Paul Tan adds that mid- sized venues are "ideal for creating new and experimental content, or for groups to scale up works previously presented in small studios".

Smaller black box spaces tend to be used for more experimental, intimate works, while the bigger venues show large-scale works which are more costly to mount.

Mid-sized venues, in contrast, offer both intimacy and enough scale for most productions here.

"They are also more cost-effective as some groups, especially the amateur troupes or community groups, may not be confident of filling larger venues like the 1,950-seat Esplanade Theatre," adds Mr Tan.

Even with about six venues available, T.H.E. Dance Company's artistic director Kuik Swee Boon notes that currently, "supply still falls short of demand for peak staging periods".

After failing to secure a mid-sized venue such as Victoria Theatre for one of its productions this year, the dance company had to make alternative plans.

"We booked the (220-seat) Esplanade Theatre Studio for a slightly longer run and gave up our preferred timeslot for a later, available one in December," he says.

Still, Kuik adds that a mid-sized space would be most ideal for the company to realise both its artistic and economic needs, including better revenues to "create greater return on investments in publicity and marketing spend".

In her speech, Ms Fu registered her surprise that for Checkpoint Theatre's recent sold-out run of Faith Ng's play Normal - held at the 120-seat Drama Centre Black Box - ticket sales could not cover the cost of staging the production. It would have needed a 300-seat venue to do so.

A quick survey of the existing mid-sized venues here confirms this current space crunch.

The Drama Centre Theatre and Victoria Theatre, which seat about 600 each, are 80 per cent utilised. Both accept bookings about 18 to 24 months in advance. Victoria Theatre has received bookings up till 2019.

Professional arts groups also turn to arts schools for their well- equipped theatres, but often jostle for space with the schools' events.

The 421-seat Drama Theatre in the School of the Arts, for example, has been used by children's theatre company I Theatre and The Necessary Stage.

And while not traditionally known as an arts venue, the privately run Capitol Theatre, which can seat about 1,000 has been used by arts groups. It is currently showing Tropicana The Musical, a musical about a real-life topless nightclub in Singapore produced by actress Tan Kheng Hua.

A spokesman for Capitol Investment Holdings, which manages the theatre, says the venue has "exceeded our utilisation rate as guided by the relevant authorities", though it did not reveal this rate.

According to the venue's calendar of events, 28 days have been booked for events for last month and this month, though its spokesman says not all events are listed there.

It is no surprise then that arts practitioners The Straits Times spoke to welcomed the news of the Esplanade waterfront theatre, hoping that it will ease the current competition for mid-sized venues.

But will it solve the venue crunch for mid-sized theatres here? Nine Years Theatre's artistic director Nelson Chia hopes that the plans for the new theatre "is only the start for more new and interesting spaces". "I know it's expensive, but one new theatre is not enough," he says.

Additionally, when it comes to mid-sized venues, it is not a case of one-size-fits-all.

For example, Dream Academy prefers 900-seat venues to be "able to create good high quality, theatrical works which will make business sense in the long run", says founder Selena Tan.

She says: "In terms of economies of scale, the smaller venues don't work for us and the larger venues are too risky unless there is big sponsorship money, which is getting more difficult to find."

For Bhumi Collective, a multi- disciplinary performing arts group, a venue with more than 500 seats is too big, at least for now.

"A bigger venue means more cost, which means higher ticket prices. Checkpoint Theatre charged $45 for Normal. If I charge $45, people are not going to come," says the group's joint artistic director, Mohamad Shaifulbahri.

Its current production of Duncan Macmillan's Every Brilliant Thing is being staged at Centre 42's Black Box with tickets at $35.

Freedom to showcase work

And, sometimes, it is not so much an issue of size.

Tan chose to stage Tropicana The Musical at the historic Capitol Theatre because she "wanted to gather actual Singapore heritage establishments as working partners for the production".

When it comes to the new waterfront theatre, artists have raised questions as to who will be able to use the space that is expected to feature Esplanade programmes 60 per cent of the time.

In a press statement issued by the Esplanade last week, its chief executive Benson Puah said that with the new venue, "we will focus on creating even more made-in-Singapore works that will, hopefully, become the stories, music, movements or even traditional art forms that the next generation will hold dear".

The statement said that it will meet the "more immediate needs of the Singapore arts community, as well as the schools and communities served through its programmes".

Independent arts practitioner and producer Noor Effendy Ibrahim says the type of space available - one that will not impinge on the freedom of artists to showcase their work - is more important than the sheer number of venues.

"What we need is a kind of independent arts space which doesn't come with regulations about what can or cannot be performed," he says.

In particular, artists here hope that the future Esplanade waterfront theatre will be a space for new, exciting works of art.

"I think the waterfront theatre can embody the word 'water'," says Natalie Hennedige, artistic director of Cake Theatrical Productions, which is known for its visceral, experimental productions.

"It needs to offer clear, open channels of connection and exchange with the arts community and to reach into uncharted waters too, with a fluidity and exchange of ideas that connect our city and our artists to the region and the world."

•Additional reporting by Akshita Nanda

Correction note: An earlier version of this article mentioned that Sota's Drama Theatre was used for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. This is wrong. It also stated the wrong seating capacity for the Capitol Theatre. We are sorry for the errors. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'More room for the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe