Awards for the long run

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 2, 2013

Thirteen years ago, as an arts journalist involved in the organising and judging of the first Life! Theatre Awards, I was unsure if it would become an accepted part of the theatre scene.

It was the first, and still the only, awards to judge and honour the best of the previous year's theatre productions. In its inaugural year, though, a few theatre companies objected to the awards on the grounds that it would turn the serious-minded theatre scene into a popularity contest.

Thirteen years later, that has not happened. Thanks to a dedicated and equally serious judging panel, comprising current theatre reviewers from different media as well as theatre academics, the award has honoured an eclectic roster of quality productions and kept pace with the developments of the scene.

For example, the Best Production shortlist this year included two well-received adaptations of Broadway musicals - Company and La Cage Aux Folles - and one little-seen experimental black box performance - Pretty Things - that nonetheless knocked the socks off the judges. A heartwarming monodrama about family history, Roots, and an otherworldly take on Shakespeare using virtuoso Asian performers in Lear Dreaming rounded off the nominees.

Over the years, major theatre companies and fledgling groups, established artists as well as newcomers have all mounted the winners' rostrum in turn. In the process, companies which once declined to be a part of the awards have embraced it, with the exception of The Theatre Practice, the late drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun's company. Kuo, who died in 2001, a few months after the inaugural awards ceremony, was adamant that one should not do theatre for the sake of awards, and I respect his view.

I stopped being a theatre reviewer and awards judge in the mid-2000s. For several years, I had little or no contact with the local theatre scene, being first a Beijing-based China correspondent and then coming back to cover Singapore politics. I returned to the Life! section and arts journalism two years ago - older, a mother now and more conscious of the theatre scene's rich history and the broader policy environment in which it operates. I still love watching theatre, but am no longer a reviewer or theatre awards judge, having left these roles in the good hands of my younger colleagues.

But as I caught up with old friends amid the revelry of yesterday's Life! Theatre Awards 2013 ceremony, I realised with a jolt that the event has stood the test of time, even though there have been years when we were not sure if there would be funds and sponsorship for another awards ceremony.

Due to the daily pressures of putting out a newspaper, journalists hurtle from one deadline to the next. As a result, apart from organising and writing about each year's awards, we have never really thought about how to give the awards a long-term, sustainable presence, or even to make available an archive of past nominees and winners who, in themselves, reflect a considerable chunk of history.

This is unlike, say, Malaysia's annual Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, which has a website with details of the judges and judging process, lists of past winners, videos of the ceremonies and links to press coverage. The awards, which celebrates not just theatre but also dance and music performances, was inaugurated in 2002 by cultural website Kakiseni with a host of corporate sponsors including Boh tea.

Speaking personally and not for The Straits Times, such documentation in the form of a dedicated website would be useful because even now, I still get queries about how judging is done for the Life! Theatre Awards.

In a nutshell, there are 12 categories up for judging, including Production Of The Year. Selection of nominees and winners is by debate and consensus - with a vote conducted if consensus cannot be reached. Before the selection meeting, the Life! theatre reviewer sends out a complete list of the previous year's productions, and judges come prepared to support their favourites. Over the years, this was found to be the fairest method as every judge has different perspectives of each production, and it is good to hear various reasons for or against a play.

Whether the Life! Theatre Awards succeeds in getting longer-term sponsorship is, of course, beyond my control. But its 13-year track record, hard-won acceptance by the theatre community and badge of recognition among audiences - that among other things, makes it easier to have good productions restaged - are all not to be sniffed at.

Throughout its history, the awards has been an indicator of artistic and sociopolitical trends. Theatre has always tested the boundaries and from around 2006, original scripts shifted their focus to political issues and testing more entrenched out-of-bound markers such as race and religion. This was reflected in the nominees for 2007 and beyond.

The last two years have also seen the rise of the docudrama, or perhaps its return, if one thinks of 1990s productions such as Broken Birds. Docudramas use verbatim text from real people, incorporating journalism and oral history on the stage.

There is one more role that the awards has played: Putting a final layer of community into the "theatre community" so that two groups frequently seen on opposite sides of the fence - theatre critics and practitioners - can come together and celebrate the best of the medium.

If theatre allows us to see ourselves on stage, the awards should not only be a barometer of excellence but also an occasion to look back and take stock.

The introduction this year of a forum - in which leading theatre practitioners debate topical issues before the awards are given out - is one stab at that. Hopefully, this reflective function can grow in future years.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 2, 2013

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