Singapore Theatre Directors Discuss the Changing Face of Live Productions in 2021
Fans of local theatre would have probably caught a rare sighting in 2020: Adrian Pang, Ivan Heng and Gaurav Kripalani together on stage, er ... screen in a short film called The Pitch by Singaporean filmmaker Ken Kwek.
You might ask if the artistic directors of Pangdemonium, Wild Rice and Singapore Repertory Theatre, respectively, are even friends? For the record: they are friends and have been theatre colleagues for years, says Pang. “But the type of work that we do is different,” reasons Kripalani. “The show of solidarity of the three biggest companies coming together is an important message to send out.”
Heng adds, “One of the few silver linings in the pandemic has been this shift towards more collaboration and cooperation among the arts groups in Singapore. It’s reminded us of how we’re all in the same boat—one that was in real danger of sinking beneath the storm of Covid-19. We wanted to join forces—not just to raise funds to help us survive, but also raise awareness about the challenges faced by theatre-makers in Singapore right now. We will do anything in our power to help one another stay afloat, so we certainly don’t rule out more collaborations in time to come.” We are excited already.
We check in with the trio, along with the artistic directors of Checkpoint Theatre, The Necessary Stage and The Theatre Practice, to discuss how the pandemic has redefined the presentation of live theatre, and the need for a different “gathering” of artists and audiences, considering how it strikes at the heart of the very purpose of theatre—the collective experience of a live audience.
Adrian Pang, co-artistic director of Pangdemonium
“The theatre community has a love-hate/push-pull relationship with the whole tilt towards ‘upskilling’, ‘pivoting’ and ‘digitalisation’—words that made us all collectively heave into our mouths even as we said them. While it goes against the grain and spirit of live theatre, we also had to come to the reluctant conclusion that it would be inevitable for us to embrace digital technology in some form. And while the experience of producing an online play was quite an invigorating experience for us, and we are gratified that viewers welcomed and appreciated our efforts, we know that this is just a stop-gap ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ model of not-quite live theatre. So we know that online theatre has a limited shelf life. Hence our experimental adventures into digitalisation of theatre will be short-lived. We can’t wait to get back on stage.”
Pangdemonium’s 2021 Season
• Girls & Boys, from February 25 to March 14, at Drama Centre Theatre
Nikki Muller stars in this adaptation of British writer Dennis Kelly’s compelling solo play, which explores ambition and gender roles, directed by Tracie Pang.
• The Glass Menagerie, June 2021
Director Tracie Pang offers a new perspective to this classic by American playwright Tennessee Williams, which looks at a fractured family through the prism of memory.
• The Full Monty, October 2021
Part of the original line-up for its 2020 Season (along with the aforementioned productions) and in celebration of its 10th anniversary last year, Pangdemonium offers a bigger, bolder and ballsier reboot of its first-ever production starring Adrian Pang in this musical comedy about six ordinary guys and a strip show.
Ivan Heng, founding artistic director of Wild Rice
“There’s nothing like a full house at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. There are no walls between performer and audience, and audience members can see and hear one another. The applause and standing ovations are quite overwhelming. Our goal will always be to have artists and audiences gather in the same space to share the stories we need to tell, and the stories we need to hear.
Nothing can replicate live theatre. But when we went into circuit breaker [mode], we embraced technology so as to continue to entertain, uplift and engage our audiences. We started screening recordings of our past shows and organised digital talkbacks. We even experimented with technology with The Rice Ball, our annual fundraising extravaganza, which was nothing short of a televised live gala event.
At the same time, we incubated new projects and focused on training the theatre-makers of tomorrow. We have an exciting season of works-in-progress that we will be presenting now that theatres have been allowed to reopen. These shows have already sold out—indicating that audiences are ready to support new voices and stories.”
Wild Rice’s 2021 Season (January to March)
• Grandmother Tongue, from January 14 to 31, at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre
After two sold-out runs, Singaporean playwright Thomas Lim’s insightful play about language, in particular dialects, is reimagined for the thrust stage at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre.
• The Amazing Celestial Race, from February 19 to March 21, at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre
Welcome the Year of the Ox with the world premiere of this original play based on the ancient folk tale of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac calendar. Directed by Glen Goei, with book and lyrics by Dwayne Lau and music by Julian Wong.
• The Other F Word, from March 24 to 28, at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre
Singapore-based actor, singer and writer Miriam Cheong explores body image, especially as a performing artist, in her playwriting debut—her response to an open call for the 2020 Singapore Theatre Festival—directed by Aidli Mosbit.
Gaurav Kripalani, artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre
“We were the first theatre here to produce digital content with The Coronalogues – Silver Linings, but at the end of the day, we are a live medium. For the staging of Tuesdays with Morrie [in November and December last year], it was such a joy having the audiences back in the theatre and hearing the end applause was the nicest sound in the world.
We are looking at how to incorporate digital elements [into our live shows], and how we can collaborate with artists, directors, designers, remotely. It would have been challenging to get some of them to come to Singapore, but to be able to now work with them digitally, they are open to that idea—so we’re seizing that opportunity.
There could be a live actor on stage, interacting with a hologram of an actor performing live in another country. We are looking at the mediums for a hybrid performance, which is becoming a buzzword, where you will have a physical audience in the theatre and an audience watching at home. What we are exploring at the moment is how do audiences at home participate in the theatrical experience and how do we interact with them?”
Singapore Repertory Theatre’s 2021 Season (January to March)
• The More Further Adventures of Dick Lee, from January 19 to 24, at the KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT
Part of a fundraising concert series in aid of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), singer-songwriter Dick Lee, who is also SRT’s associate artistic director, performs songs from his prolific repertoire, along with the untold stories and unreleased songs from his private songbooks in this special 90-minute solo recital.
• The Sound Inside, from March 13, at the KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT
Award-winning American writer Adam Rapp’s haunting play explores the bond between two brilliant but social misfits.
• The Theatre Ball, March 27
One of the most anticipated fundraising galas annually, thanks to its sporting guests who come dressed according to the outrageous themes, proceeds from The Theatre Ball helps SRT continue to deliver productions of the highest calibre.
Claire Wong, co-founder and joint artistic director of Checkpoint Theatre
“Since we are always incubating new work, Checkpoint Theatre had the advantage of being able to conceptualise for, and pivot to, a new medium. We embraced digital platforms and created a new season comprising recorded audio experiences of plays such as Lucas Ho’s The Heart Comes to Mind, and launched our first video series, Two Songs and a Story.
For artists like myself, who write our own plays and develop our own original work, it is more important than ever to be making theatre during this pandemic. Theatre is a critical lens through which we consider the human condition, in a specific place and at a specific time. I feel an urgency to listen and observe, and to reflect and respond, through my art-making. For audiences, our stories have the power to comfort and make us feel less alone, to inspire and help us carry on, to challenge and push us to do better. For me, this pandemic has amplified the importance and power of theatre and storytelling.”
Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 Season
• Two Songs and a Story 2
The sophomore edition of Checkpoint Theatre’s successful video series released last year.
• Two new publications
A graphic novel Putu Piring and a play anthology New Singapore Plays Volume 3.
• Works in Development 2021
Live stagings of plays which were postponed last year such as The Nuclear Family, Keluarga Besar En Karim (The Karims) and Normal.
• New plays and programmes leading to Checkpoint Theatre’s 20th anniversary in 2022
For more details, follow @checkpointtheatre on social media and sign up for its mailing list.
Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage
“[The pandemic] has given me time to reflect on theatre as a form, and if other forms can be made that borrow from live theatre, such as Zoom performances.
I co-created Who’s There? with the Transit Ensemble, and I threw myself into the exploration and discovered Zoom performances must be made for Zoom and with cyber devices. Zoom performances are not to replace ‘live’ theatre because it cannot. It should be regarded as a new form. If things do or can go back to normal, then I would—from my foray into making Zoom performances—have new approaches or ideas of how I would use multimedia in my black box shows; or my appreciation of interdisciplinary composition would be different, as I would now be able to draw from the interdisciplinary experiences I had from creating Zoom performances.
The purpose of theatre heightens during Covidian times. It’s the physical gathering of a community that cannot be replaced by Zoom performances. Yet how theatre inspires Zoom performances make us use Zoom as a platform for international intercultural collaborations, in a way that the usual form of theatre-making would find challenging to afford due to the costs involved; these can only happen when there are special commissions.”
The Necessary Stage’s 2021 Season
• M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021, from January 20 to 31, at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and singaporefringe.com
Themed Quiet Riot, the 17th edition of this annual festival features nine works inspired by revolutionary change and protest, curated by The Necessary Stage artistic director Alvin Tan who returns to the role of festival director.
• Model Citizens, March/April 2021, at The Necessary Stage Black Box
Goh Guat Kian, Karen Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal, the original cast of the 2010 production, will reprise their roles in this restaging (but with a brand-new design team), which will be the last public performance at The Necessary Stage Black Box before the theatre company is evicted from its home in August.
• The Year of No Return, May 2021
Centred around the topic of climate change, The Necessary Stage’s The Year of No Return was a commission of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2020, which was cancelled last year due to Covid-19. It is set to be staged at this year’s festival.
(Related: A Drink With... Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal)
Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Theatre Practice
“At the end of March, we had to close our big production of the year, Four Horse Road 2020. In the style of promenade theatre, audiences roamed with the shows, interacted with the characters, and we drew great pleasure and strength in connecting with them.
We only managed to run two out of the intended 26 shows due to the pandemic. The impact was huge, not just financially but emotionally. We felt like we were forced to say a long goodbye to our audiences, to the ‘liveness’ of theatre. But that also prompted us to rethink and redefine the relationship with our audiences.
Live online performances, instead of pre-recorded, have been our focus in the past few months. How do we interact with our audience? How would the ‘presence’ of the audience make a difference to the work? In this very disempowering situation, how do we re-empower both the artists as well as the audience?
The digital space was all that we had for a while, so that was where our exploration started. It was a very steep learning curve, as well as an exciting and unexplored territory. We dream, we create, then we are ready to adapt. That’s the natural state of art-making, pandemic or not.”
The Theatre Practice’s 2021 Season
• Patch! A (Live) Theatre Festival of Play, March 2021
This annual festival explores the spirit of play while advocating meaningful exchanges between artists and audiences alike. This year’s edition will take a hybrid format of live theatre and digital productions, along with other related activities.
• Four Horse Road, August 2021
The Theatre Practice’s promenade theatre experience continues from where it left off in 2020 with a mix of brand-new stories and crowd favourites, hopefully in a live theatre format.