Directing programmes put new directors in the spotlight

Experienced theatre directors hope to help younger practitioners hone their skills

Fish (above), helmed by Eng Kai Er, blends physical theatre and dance. -- PHOTO: THE SUBSTATION
Fish (above), helmed by Eng Kai Er, blends physical theatre and dance. -- PHOTO: THE SUBSTATION
An adaptation of classic Greek tragedy Medea, directed by Tan Shou Chen (above), stars Chad O’Brien, Ruby Jayaseelan, Farah Ong and Jo Tan. -- PHOTO: THE SUBSTATION
An adaptation of classic Greek tragedy Medea, directed by Tan Shou Chen, stars (from left) Chad O’Brien, Ruby Jayaseelan, Farah Ong and Jo Tan. -- PHOTO: THE SUBSTATION

Two directing programmes are giving emerging practitioners a chance to hone their directing skills over a sustained period of time.

One is The Substation's Directors' Lab, and the other is the directors' cycle of Watch This Space, helmed by director-playwright Chong Tze Chien.

The final showcases for the 18-month Directors' Lab will be held from this month to the first quarter of next year. Watch This Space has a first round of invitation-only showings next month and in November, with a second phase of showcases likely to take place next June at new arts space Centre 42.

While playwriting programmes have long been around in the theatre scene due to the constant need for new plays, directing programmes have sprung up recently because practitioners worry about the lack of new blood able to bring a play to life.

The question is how effective Directors' Lab and Watch This Space have been in training the next wave of directors. In both, participants are mentored by home-grown and regional practitioners.

The 2013 Directors' Lab recipients are Eng Kai Er, Tan Shou Chen, Agnes Christina, Timothy Nga, Tan Liting and Patricia Toh. The selected participants for Watch This Space are Thong Pei Qin, Zelda Tatiana Ng and Tan Liting.

Most have theatre experience and are under 35 but have not yet directed a major work.

The Substation's artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 41, says that such programmes give directing experience to the growing number of young practitioners who are working independently "outside of the main theatre company format", either by choice or because established companies already have fixed programmes and collaborators in place.

He adds: "The frustration for an independent practitioner is often about finding spaces and also an ensemble of artists and production people who want to go through that uncertainty over artist fees, production budgets and so forth."

Directors' Lab participants are each given a small stipend of $500 a month for the lab's duration, a production budget of up to $4,000 for work-in-progress performances, workshops and presentations, and up to $10,000 for the final performances.

Eng, 30, and Tan Shou Chen, 32, say they have learnt a great deal from the process.

Eng comes from a dance and choreography background. Her experimental work, which blended physical theatre and dance, was staged at Lasalle College of the Arts' Creative Cube early this month. Titled Fish, it wrestled with the concept of freedom.

She described the 18 months as a "luxury" that was integral to the creation of the work, giving her time to "question" what the role of the director was and gain a better understanding of it, and to create a safe collaborative space for her performers.

Tan, whose work in the theatre has primarily been as an actor, also found himself in the driver's seat for the first time. He will stage an adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy Medea, starring Jo Tan, Farah Ong, Chad O'Brien and Ruby Jayaseelan. Instead of living "from moment to moment" as an actor does, he found it "scary" and refreshing to be the one to "string all these moments together".

But Chong, 39, the architect of Watch This Space, has a more sobering view of these developments. The company director of theatre group The Finger Players fears that the industry has entered a Catch-22. While the arts scene has matured and there are many more platforms and financial fillips to help nurture young practitioners, he fears that a glut of these programmes may cause them to be too comfortable in art-making, bringing about a celebration of the mediocre rather than the truly outstanding.

He says: "It robs them of that initiative and will to survive in the scene because there are always these platforms and avenues they can go to, and it's easy to be hired as a writer and get instant fame as a playwright as long as the work is competent enough and they will be celebrated as such."

His hope for new programmes, including Watch This Space, is that they will be "halfway houses" of sorts for arts graduates and young practitioners to "assimilate themselves better into the professional requirements and demands of working in the real scene". He hopes that by focusing on the process of creating a work and allowing young directors to struggle with challenges, it will move them away from "instant gratification" and complacency.

Effendy acknowledges that certain tweaks need to be made to the Directors' Lab pilot run. He hopes that it will continue next year, funds permitting, with a focus on one or two candidates so that more resources and support can be devoted to them.

Good directors are not made overnight, he says, adding that the most exciting thing about the scheme is "how the participants resolved challenges and problems as independent practitioners, whether production-wise or on issues of aesthetics and artistic content, and how they worked with limited resources".

"For me, personally, it's not about being the next Ong Keng Sen or Alvin Tan, it's to see how sustainable the landscape is for independent theatre practice."

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

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