Intimate plays dominate this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards nominations. Three out of five shows in the running for Production Of The Year featured fewer than five actors.
Among them is Cake Theatrical Productions' Electra, a reworking of the Greek tragedy about a princess seeking to avenge her father.
There were only four performers in the play, directed by Natalie Hennedige and written by her and Michelle Tan. But it has the most nominations this year - eight in total. Its other nods are for Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Original Script and Best Actress for Edith Podesta in the titular role.
Podesta's own show, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, is competing with Electra for Production Of The Year, Best Director, Best Original Script and Best Actress (Podesta again). The actress wrote and directed the feminist love story, which she performed with her former teacher, German-Australian actor Helmut Bakaitis. The only additions to this two-person cast were a miniature schnauzer and the dog's handler in minor roles.
Podesta's verbatim theatre project about life in prisons, Dark Room, is also nominated this year for Best Ensemble and Best Lighting.
"I'm overwhelmed," says the 37- year-old. She says the recognition validates her decision to give up a full-time job teaching at Lasalle College of the Arts in 2015 and dedicate her days to art.
B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, commissioned for last year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, was the first work she did without a day job to fall back on. "It was terrifying. Every single night, I would have these nightmares that it was going to get canned," she says.
Plenty of new faces
Another play that punched well above its weight is Grandmother Tongue, a three-actor show which was the maiden effort of 26-year-old playwright Thomas Lim. Grandmother Tongue is up for Production Of The Year, Best Original Script and Best Supporting Actor (Rei Poh).
The play is based on Lim's own experience of interacting with his Teochew-speaking grandmother. It was staged during last year's Singapore Theatre Festival, organised by Wild Rice, and will be restaged by the troupe later this year.
Lim, a drama educator who works with several schools, credits Wild Rice for picking his script from an open call and helping him develop it professionally. He says: "This was my first show at a professional level. I've only ever written for schools. To be recognised for your first show feels like there's a lot of pressure on what's going to come next."
Also up for Production Of The Year is Pangdemonium's staging of the American play Falling, about a family caring for a child with special needs, featuring a cast of five.
The contender with the biggest cast is Manifesto, developed by Drama Box and The Necessary Stage. Seven actors presented a sweeping look at the history of arts and censorship in Singapore.
Both Falling and Manifesto are nominated in other categories, including for Best Director.
The Straits Times' Life section has organised the awards, to recognise the cream of Singapore theatre, since 2001. Communications company M1 Limited came on board as title sponsor in 2015. The awards are also organised in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.
Mr Ivan Lim, director of corporate communications at M1, says: "The arts have been a part of M1 since our inception, as we believe a thriving arts scene is important in enriching the quality of life and in strengthening social bonds and identity in our multi-cultural society.
"The Singapore theatre scene has delivered another incredible year of standout performances and we are proud to partner The Straits Times in appreciating the best of Singapore theatre at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2017."
Ms Yvonne Tham, assistant chief executive officer of The Esplanade Co, says: "The work of Singapore's theatre community is important, for the stories told through theatre often help us better understand ourselves and one another.
"We are glad to partner the Life Theatre Awards in celebrating the achievements of theatre practitioners once again and pleased to note that this year's awards recognise not only established practitioners, but also newer faces and emerging talents."
There are 68 nominations in 14 categories this year. As in previous years, readers will get a chance to vote for their choice of Production Of The Year. Ten winners will each receive a pair of passes to the invitation-only awards ceremony held at the Esplanade Recital Studio on April 10.
One of these 10 readers will win the grand prize of a two-day, one- night stay at the M Social Singapore hotel. The stay, sponsored by M Social Singapore, will be in a Loft Gallery room, with breakfast and dinner for two.
The award for Best Production For The Young returns for a second time to recognise Singapore companies that create outstanding performances for audiences aged 12 and younger. It is organised in partnership with the National Arts Council and is judged by experts in theatre for younger audiences. A total of 24 shows were up for consideration this year.
All other categories were judged by educator Matthew Lyon from the School of the Arts' faculty of theatre; Ms Adeline Chia, associate editor of ArtReview Asia; Ms Cheong Suk-Wai, senior writer at The Straits Times; Mr Wang Yiming, correspondent at Lianhe Zaobao; and this writer.
Judges say it was a year of strong scripts and experimentation. There was increased diversity among the productions nominated this year, compared with last year's overwhelming focus on themes arising from Singapore's Jubilee Year.
Ms Chia says: "After a year of intense soul-searching about history, politics and national identity in 2015, post-SG50 Singapore theatre has settled back to normal - which means the usual diversity of subject matter and form so valorised by judges in every edition of the Life Theatre Awards for the past 17 years."
This year features family dramas and retelling of myth along with sociopolitical commentary on current issues.
Judges also say it was heartening to see younger names in categories such as Best Original Script and Best Ensemble.
Nominees for Best Actor include 20somethings Joshua Lim (Starring Hitler As Jekyll And Hyde), Thomas Pang (Ophelia) and Andrew Marko (Falling), as well as 30something Fido Ahdross (Raden Mas: An Epic Of A Princess), and Lim Yu-Beng (Art), a veteran actor in his 50s.
Mr Lyon says: "We have four generations of theatre-makers represented in force, from 20somethings like Marko to the older cast of Red Sky such as Yang Shi Bin and Johnny Ng (nominated for Best Ensemble). I'm pretty sure that hasn't happened before to this extent."
Ms Cheong says: "For me, what is most heartening is how the many newer faces on the scene stand toe to toe with Singapore's most established and respected exponents of theatre."
Correction note: In our earlier story, under the list of nominees for Best Sound Design, we had credited the production Rosnah to only The Necessary Stage. It should have also included a credit for co-producer, Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Small wonders'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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