Homegrown theatre company, Wild Rice, opens the doors of its new 358-seat Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre to its first audience today

“Open your bag”—these will be the first words uttered by Janice Koh when Wild Rice opens the doors of its new home at the revamped Funan mall today. No, the veteran theatre actress is not conducting bag checks at the entrance. She will, however, take on the role of a no-nonsense daughter who hires a caregiver (played by Umi Kalthum Ismail) for her prickly retiree father (Patrick Teoh) in the restaging (and reimagined for the new stage) of the award-winning domestic drama, Supervision, by local playwright Thomas Lim.

Upon hearing these words, Wild Rice founding artistic director, Ivan Heng, and executive director, Tony Trickett, along with the team behind the purpose-built theatre, could probably heave a sigh of relief for it took eight attempts (and many missed chances with such locations as Capitol Theatre, Sculpture Square, and even St James Power House) before the homegrown theatre company finally found a home to call its own—and just in time for its 20th anniversary next year.

Three years in the making, Wild Rice @ Funan takes up 20,000sqft across three floors and comprises of the 358-seat Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, a 60-seat performance studio, as well as rehearsal rooms and the company’s administrative office. We take a closer look at the new home for Singapore theatre.

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Singapore’s first thrust stage

“It’s time to think about our legacy,” enthused Heng, when he gave the media a tour of Wild Rice @ Funan. “We thought long and hard about what the theatre scene in Singapore needs.” He added that there were two main considerations when designing the theatre: to create the optimum condition for audiences to experience a theatre performance and help theatre practitioners deliver their best work.

Together with co-artistic director, Glen Goei, they decided upon a thrust stage, measuring 10m deep and 6m wide, modelled after the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. Unlike a proscenium stage, where the audience sits directly in front, a thrust stage extends into the audience on three sides—the first of its kind in Singapore—offering a more immersive theatre-going experience. Singapore architecture studio, Zarch Collaboratives, and internationally renowned theatre design consultancy, Charcoalblue, were brought in to share their expertise.

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Creating intimate connections between audiences and performers

All aspects of the theatre design and construction were taken into consideration to create an intimate space. For one, the theatre is column-free, with two balconies suspended from the ceiling, so no audience member will be further than 12m away from the performers on stage.

Heng explained, “This is a theatre of our times. So rare in a world that is building walls, there are no walls between the performer and the audience.” He further elaborated his point with this apt anecdote: while he was performing M Butterfly in the 1990s, he recalled seeing a crying woman, and a man sitting on the other side of the theatre passing a piece of tissue paper down the row.

To enhance this “theatre magic” between audience and performer, everything has been thoughtfully considered, from the custom-designed seats installed at optimal angles for the best view to air-conditioning piped in beneath each seat, and even the acoustics, where there is little or no need for microphones.

“The theatre is very intimate—the character will feel that they are being watched in every single detail that they do. And this is appropriate for Supervision,” Goei touched on the production he is directing, which explores themes such as growing old, caring for the ageing population, as well as the right to privacy.

Fun fact: Goei also helms Wild Rice’s next two productions, Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill and Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin’s Merdeka, with the latter alongside Malaysian actress-director Jo Kukathas.

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A nod to Singapore’s rich cultural heritage

Some of the design touches in the theatre recall cultural memories, especially that of Singapore’s performing arts history. You can find wayang timber—planks and beams used in the construction of traditional Chinese opera stages over the past 70 year—used on the back wall and ceiling of the theatre. Meanwhile, the walls feature a diamond pattern inspired by the five-pointed facade of Singapore’s old National Theatre on River Valley Road, which was demolished in 1986. The five points of the original design signify the values of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality represented as the five stars on the Singapore flag.

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Home is where the art is

Since Heng founded Wild Rice in 2000, the theatre company has endeavoured to tell Singaporean stories, which have captured the public's imagination till today. Now with its own theatre right in the heart of the civic and cultural district, Heng said Wild Rice will continue to “stage stories about home” and push the envelope in its ongoing mission to seed, develop and present the best of Singapore theatre.

With Supervision as its “housewarming” production, Wild Rice @ Funan will officially open next month with a Grand Opening Season featuring a line-up of four productions by Singaporean playwrights—Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill; Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin’s Merdeka; its annual Christmas pantomime, Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens, with a book by Thomas Lim, lyrics by Joel Tan and a score by Julian Wong; and Lim’s Fair Play, which will kick off Wild Rice’s Theatre-In-Education programme.

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Plant a seat and show support for Singapore Theatre

Building a home for Singapore theatre is an ambitious undertaking, but thanks to the generous support of its patrons, Wild Rice has seen its vision come into fruition. Over the past 18 months, it has raised $13.5m to build and sustain the performing arts facility and continue its mission of creating world-class theatre and nurturing the next generation of thespians and audiences. However, it is still short of its $15m target, and is thus appealing to the public to raise the final $1.5m through the Giving.sg platform.