Established theatre groups in Singapore are investing in new voices. From Thursday, Checkpoint Theatre stages FRAGO, a play about a group of men doing their reservist training, written by the group's associate artist Lucas Ho. It is his first full-length work.
From July 22 to Aug 7, Toy Factory Productions presents the debut plays of Al Hafiz Sanusi, Gina Chew, Samantha Chia and Tan Jia Yee. The four were mentored under The Wright Stuff, the company's new initiative to support aspiring writers.
Next month, The Necessary Stage presents a double bill from emerging playwrights Faith Ng and Nabilah Said in The Orange Production.
And from late September to October, Wild Rice will restage Grandmother Tongue, the debut work of playwright Thomas Lim. It first showed in Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival last year and was nominated for Best Original Script in this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.
Of the festival's five other plays, four were from new playwrights. Wild Rice founder Ivan Heng says he and his team actively attend smaller stagings of plays in black box theatres, looking for productions that need or deserve a bigger stage.
He says: "We're always on the lookout for new voices. If we don't take the time and effort to invest in young playwrights, they might easily fall by the wayside - their plays, voices and stories disappearing into the ether. We don't want that."
There are many new voices clamouring to be heard on the Singapore stage. Wild Rice says it receives six to 10 unsolicited scripts a year.
Similarly, The Finger Players received 40 applications for the year-long playwriting mentorship Watch This Space - plays created under this are showcased publicly. The troupe took two applicants: actor Jo Tan and emerging playwright Euginia Tan.
FRAGO BY CHECKPOINT THEATRE
What: This is the first full- length play from Lucas Ho, an associate artist with Checkpoint Theatre. A group of men on reservist struggle with relationships and new pressures. In English and Mandarin with English surtitles.
Where: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street
When: Thursday to July 23, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 3 and 8pm (Saturdays), 3pm (Sundays)
Admission: $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg) Info: Rating: Advisory 16 (some sexual references and coarse language)
THE WRIGHT STUFF BY TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS
What: The four plays in this series mark the debuts of playwrights mentored by Toy Factory Productions' new playwright incubation programme. The playwrights are Al Hafiz Sanusi (Sejarah-ku), Gina Chew (Permanence), Samantha Chia (A Piece Of Cake) and Tan Jia Yee (Chicken Curry).
Where: 17A Smith Street
When: July 22 to Aug 7, 3 and 8pm,
Admission: For details and ticketing, go to www.toyfactory.com.sg
Plays by emerging playwrights
THE ORANGE PRODUCTION BY THE NECESSARY STAGE
What: This double bill is part of The Necessary Stage's 30th anniversary celebrations and features emerging playwrights Faith Ng (Whale Fall) and Nabilah Said (Drip).
Where: The Necessary Stage Black Box, 278 Marine Parade Road
When: Aug 10 to 13, 8pm
Admission: $28 from theorangeproduction.peatix.com
DEAF BY SPLIT THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS
What: Writer-director Darryl Lim Yu Cong stages a play about school life and the importance of listening to students. It is his second work under the group he founded, Split Theatrical Productions
Where: Centre 42 Black Box, 42 Waterloo Street
When: Aug 6, 2, 5 and 8pm
Admission: $25 from www.facebook.com/splitstages, for the 2pm show; 5 and 8pm shows are sold out
Company director Chong Tze Chien, 41, found his feet 20 years ago through The Necessary Stage's support for new playwrights and directors. He says: "It was less competitive in the past. A young playwright now has more opportunities, but there are fewer platforms to develop them."
Converging efforts from universities, the National Arts Council and theatre groups ensure that more playwrights are emerging in Singapore.
The National University of Singapore's (NUS) Theatre Studies programme and the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) minor in drama and performance offer playwriting modules, taught by professionals from theatre companies.
Graduates from these programmes have at least one script in hand. Some apply for grants to help them stage the work. Others seek a platform to help them refine and stage the script.
Several theatre companies offer playwriting masterclasses or longer-term mentorships of their own good will - where playwriting and talent development are not must-haves for grants from the arts council.
Theatre groups offering such playwriting programmes include Checkpoint Theatre, The Necessary Stage, The Finger Players, Saga Seed Theatre and Teater Ekamatra.
The arts council says it also funds mentorship programmes such as Teater Kami's Tumpil Yang Tampil, which aims to equip young practitioners with the necessary skills to produce, devise and direct their own pieces, including writing for theatre.
Playwrights such as Nabilah and The Wright Stuff's Tan and Hafiz, completed Teater Ekamatra's merEKA one-year incubation programme for young artists to learn stagecraft and playwriting.
Chia from The Wright Stuff has a decade of experience working backstage, did a playwriting workshop with TheatreWorks three years ago and is on the waitlist for Checkpoint Theatre's playwriting masterclass. The masterclass tends to be oversubscribed. Two classes of eight students were held last year and a third may run later this year to meet demand.
With so much competition for these programmes, some writers are creating their own opportunities to learn from established theatre-makers.
Aspiring playwright Darryl Lim Yu Cong, 27, did theatre studies at NUS and interned at Cake Theatrical Productions. Last year, he formed Split Theatrical Productions to stage his script, Split, performed last November with the help of the arts council's Matchbox grant. His schoolyard play Deaf next month is entirely self-funded.
He seeks input from established practitioners on his work. Cake Theatrical Productions founder Natalie Hennedige has offered suggestions. Actor Julius Foo mentors Split Theatrical Productions in movement.
Lim likes the freedom that comes with having his own troupe. The biggest con, he says, is finding the money to stage a show and then, finding an audience. "You have to grow your audience pool from scratch," he says.
Another 27-year-old playwright, Hafiz, feels lucky to be taken on by The Wright Stuff. He had tried but failed to get funding from the arts council to stage his script about an Englishman writing about Malay legends. Sejarah-ku was drafted in 2013 while he was doing his bachelor's degree in English literature at NTU.
Luckily, the script piqued the interest of Toy Factory Productions founder Goh Boon Teck. Apart from having Goh's connections to bring in actors and a director, the mentorship also helped Hafiz take the script further than he thought it could go. After an actress performed a reading of the play, Hafiz rewrote the work to bring in a female point of view.
"It's no longer just about a colonial man trying to explain history, but about how we view history," he says.
Established theatre groups offer time and resources for playwrights to develop their works to their fullest potential.
Checkpoint Theatre's Ho has taken seven years to bring to fruition FRAGO, short for "fragmentary order". The play is about a bunch of men on reservist coping with new responsibilities. Ho had the idea for a play while on reservist in 2010, he wrote a first draft in 2016.
Fatherhood and coming of age are key topics in the play and also for director Huzir Sulaiman, who taught Ho in NUS and shepherded him through multiple drafts from 2010. "I've literally seen this child grow up," he says.
For playwrights not associated with any theatre group, the arts council-funded Centre 42 offers several programmes to help kickstart their career.
Eleven Boiler Room residencies, each a year long, have been offered since 2014 to help writers research and create new work. The newest batch include theatre-makers Isaac Lim, Christian W. Huber, Al-Matin Yatim, Zee Wong and Timothy Nga. This week, a closed-door reading will be held for a script crafted by young writers from NUS Thespis led by Centre 42's founding board member Robin Loon.
Producers and theatre companies are often invited to these readings to see if they would be interested in picking up the works.
Tan Liting's play about gender stereotypes, Pretty Butch, was developed during a Boiler Room residency and staged this year at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which is held under The Necessary Stage.
The Necessary Stage also has playwriting workshops for seniors, recognising that it is not just teens and 20somethings who want to flex their writing muscles.
The troupe's The Orange Production is yet another platform for established and younger artists to collaborate.
Co-founder Alvin Tan says: "I see it as creating opportunities for new synergies. Singapore is a small country and the more opportunities there are for artists to work with one another, the better.
"It is beneficial for the more experienced artist to work with an emerging artist for so many reasons, including being brought outside one's comfort zone."
The Orange Production originally planned to showcase only Ng's Whale Fall, but Nabilah's script, Drip, about a mixed marriage, had resident playwright Haresh Sharma laughing so hard that he decided to direct it. Nabilah is a Straits Times arts reporter.
It will be his first time in the director's chair since the 2000 production of his drama about music and friendship, This Chord & Others.
"It feels good for once not writing a new play, but facilitating the staging of one," he says.
Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.