Opening up a world of imagination

Canadian group DuffleBag Theatre will perform Snow White for the ACT 3i Festival for Children.
Canadian group DuffleBag Theatre will perform Snow White for the ACT 3i Festival for Children.PHOTO: ACT 3 INTERNATIONAL

The vivacious Ruby Lim-Yang is a veteran of the children's theatre scene, having seen it develop from its infancy more than three decades ago.

But her dedication to delighting children has not diminished. She will not settle for anything less than extraordinary when it comes to the shows that her company, ACT 3 International, presents.

This year, the ACT 3i Festival for Children - a brand new festival for children aged two to 12 - swings into town. From May 24 to June 5, children can watch shows from well-known companies such as Canada's laugh-a-minute DuffleBag Theatre.

A retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by Vicky Ireland from the United Kingdom, with an all-Singapore cast, will kick off the festival.

Ms Lim-Yang, 59, says: "Any festival that puts the child at the heart of it will need excitement and variety. Nothing run-of-the-mill or ordinary.

"I feel I owe it to the child who is there, open and ready to come along with me on my adventures of imagination, to offer something that is worthy of his or her time with us in the theatre, with something that is worth doing and that is done well."

Before this, the company's Children First festival for children started in 2000 and had its last run in 2009.

"One could say it's the seven-year itch," she quips. "In all seriousness though, it has everything to do with evolution."

The festival is the latest addition to a vibrant children's theatre scene that has burgeoned in the past decade - with parents among the keenest driving forces.

"Today, we have a generation of parents who know what the arts are about and have been themselves positively exposed when they were children," she says. "We have better-informed, better-travelled, better-educated parents who see, understand and appreciate the value and impact of the arts on their children. What better time to bring together great quality work to their doorstep?"

She first waded into the world of theatre in 1984, when she co-founded ACT 3, a theatre company for children. In 2003, it split into two independent entities: Ms Lim-Yang's ACT 3 International and her co-founder R. Chandran's ACT 3 Theatrics.

"The awareness grew, audienceship expanded, children's theatre artistes honed their skills and children, watching these shows, were being inspired by the arts," says Mr Chandran, 60. "Today's professionals such as Sharda Harrison (actress and founder of Pink Gajah Theatre) were nourished by being involved in children's theatre."

The scene truly took off in the 2000s and there are now, he estimates, about eight companies that roll out shows for children.

One of them is I Theatre, which had its start in 2001.

Its artistic director Brian Seward, 58, says: "There really wasn't a scene for theatre productions for the young then. It seemed as though people thought theatre for a young audience was the shopping- mall shows, with the loud colourful mascots bouncing around the stage.

"There was not so much awareness of the educational, creative and aesthetic values that can be developed through good quality theatre productions for the young."

Things have changed; both parents and educators see the value theatre can hold for young children and demand has risen dramatically.

When I Theatre started, an audience of 3,000 was deemed "very good" for a children's play. Now, a show in one of the bigger performance venues can easily draw 15,000 people over 35 to 40 performances.

More than 12,000 tickets for the group's The Rainbow Fish at the Drama Centre Theatre were sold a week before its opening show.

And the efforts of children's theatre practitioners have not gone unnoticed.

This year, a new Best Production for the Young award, administered by The Straits Times and organised in partnership with the National Arts Council, was given out at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for the first time.

Though government funding has given children's theatre groups a leg up - I Theatre and Paper Monkey Theatre, for instance, are recipients of the arts council's Major Grant - corporate sponsorship remains a challenge.

Commercial sponsors, says Mr Seward, have constantly passed his company by "and as long as there is still the perception that children's theatre is merely 'Mascot Mall' show, it will be a struggle for groups such as ourselves to attract major sponsorship".

Paper Monkey Theatre's artistic director Benjamin Ho, 48, says: "Lots of companies don't want to support children's productions as they lack the 'glam' factor when compared to adult theatre. A common rejection reason is also that their target clients are not children."

This mindset, he says, needs to change, as parents too benefit from children's shows, which help to mould a child's identity outside of academics.

"We're spending adult money to earn money from putting on children's theatre shows, so we do need a lot of funding in this area," he says.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Opening up a world of imagination'. Print Edition | Subscribe