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Theatre companies focus on development and training as venues remain closed

Fans of local theatre will still have to wait a little more before productions resume.

Fans of home-grown theatre will have to wait until at least the last quarter of this year for new productions. That is a best-case scenario, theatre veterans say.

As Nine Years Theatre’s co-founder Nelson Chia, 47, points out: “Even if theatres open in the later half of this year, we need to be rehearsing now.”

The likelihood is that new shows will probably be in theatres only from next year. Even that is a cautiously optimistic assessment.

The Necessary Stage’s general manager Melissa Lim, 43, observes: “Frankly, I don’t know when theatres can present work again. At least I’m not confident that it can happen effectively this year. The reopening of theatres as we know it is dependent on many factors.”

She lists the many obstacles: “Will there be a second wave of infections of Covid-19, which experts worldwide are already cautioning may be on the horizon? Will venues be able to put in sanitisation procedures that can safeguard everyone’s well- being, and be reassuring enough to convince artists and audiences alike to return to the theatre?

“Even so, will it even make economic and logistical sense to pump in so much resources for a staged production, if safe distancing measures literally reduce our house to a quarter of its usual capacity, while there’s no significant reprieve for rental rates?”

Pangdemonium’s co-founder Adrian Pang, 54, asks: “Is there some innovative but practical way to install transparent screens behind each seat, as a kind of ‘shield’ in place of the 1m distancing? Some office spaces seem to be implementing that already. What about face shields?”

He notes that even though theatre companies are mindful of public safety, audiences themselves may not return so quickly.

“Their readiness and willingness to sit in a roomful of strangers, even with masks on, for up to two hours, is something that might take a while to embed.”

Pangdemonium has rescheduled the musical The Full Monty from October to next year.

Checkpoint Theatre’s co-founder Huzir Sulaiman, 46, says even if theatres reopen now, the economic model needs to be reworked.

“If venue costs don’t come down in line with checker-board seating or the reduced audience capacity, then it becomes financially impossible for theatre companies to rent the venue. That’s a really important structural issue.”

The published rental rates for Victoria Theatre, for example, starts at $3,000 a performance with additional charges for bumping in when a production sets up in the space, technical crew and ushers.

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NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL

While museums, art galleries and even cinemas have reopened with capacity caps and social distancing measures, theatre companies are still limited in what they can do, which makes them wary of planning too much in advance.

Wild Rice returned to its Funan premises for meetings for the first time in three months recently. Founder and artistic director Ivan Heng, 56, says: “We can go back to work, but we can’t go back to business.”

While companies dealt with the sudden closures by turning to online platforms, they question the initial rush to stream shows, often for free, especially since many companies are facing debts from cancellations and have no revenue stream for the foreseeable future.

Teater Ekamatra’s general manager Shaza Ishak, 30, says the company has lost more than $200,000 this year and had to let go of two employees recently “as we were not able to afford them any longer”.

She adds: “Moving forward, while we are not able to produce physical productions, we are increasingly working on our fund-raising capacity as one sustainable way to climb our way out of this.”

The company is exploring ways of releasing Berak, a play about the afterlife which was cancelled in March due to Covid-19.

But theatre veterans say digital is merely a stopgap.

Pang says: “With the relentless push towards everything digital, which goes against everything that theatre stands for, we are being forced to reinvent ourselves as half-baked YouTube video producers.

“There are already people and companies whose actual jobs are precisely that, so aren’t we encroaching on their livelihoods, notwithstanding the fact that we do not have their skills and expertise?”

There is also the additional problem of the difficulty of monetising digital content.

Checkpoint’s Huzir says: “While we went through a period of releasing content for free, we will be thinking very hard about transitioning to a model that signals to the audience that there was an investment of time, resources and talent in this production, that needs to be directly paid for by the end user.”

His company has been talking to Sistic Live, which is a platform for arts companies to monetise their digital content.

Without a live stage outlet, companies are investing in training and workshops as well as creating digital content.

As Heng says: “We are focusing on incubation and generation rather than presentation.”

He has been mentoring young directors in a residency programme that Wild Rice has started. “That has made me so happy, given me a reason to get up and go,” he says.

This programme allows the company to make experimental pieces that can be stepping stones back to a full-scale production. “These are small works that are going to be part of the transition to recovery.”

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Nine Years Theatre moved into a new office recently, but Chia says the company’s members are still working via video conferencing as rehearsals under phase two limitations are difficult.

The company has resumed its Suzuki and Viewpoints training, and has also conducted an online workshop in these methods of physical theatre which was well received.

It is also working on a research and development programme to make experimental new work, a long- brewing idea kick-started by the pandemic.

The Theatre Practice’s artistic director Kuo Jian Hong says the company “has never been focused on generating output for the sake of it”, but is concerned with “an ongoing search for answers and a desire to respond to the changing world we currently live in. During this pandemic, these changes are larger, faster and more amplified”.

She adds: “While it is important to incubate work and gather strength for the future, it is equally important to present programmes that currently respond to the needs of our audiences.”

Hence the decision to make its upcoming M1 Patch! Festival, which is on from Saturday to Aug 30, an online event.

Checkpoint Theatre, too, is going full steam into creating original content. It has produced audio experiences and will stage Two Songs And A Story, a new digital festival with music and storytelling, next month.

Huzir says the company considers itself “not just a theatre company, but as storytellers across different media disciplines”.

He adds: “Because we produce exclusively original Singapore work and we develop from a blank page with the live creator, we’re not particularly fazed by the closure of theatre.”

It is currently developing 18 works by young writers and artists.

He adds that the pandemic has, ironically, aided development in other areas: “We see ourselves as now being given a push to fully embrace that multi-disciplinarity that is within our family of live creators.”

Similarly, Chia sees a silver lining in theatre’s enforced suspension: “Artistically, yes, there was a pause. Some of us realised how busy we were. We don’t stop to assess, review. In that sense, it is a blessing.”

But this state of suspended animation is exacting a cost, both financial and artistic, that has yet to be paid.

Pang says: “Our theatre industry is young, but has been evolving at an enormous rate over the past 10 years, so for it to come to a desperate ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario is heart-breaking.

“If theatre companies start folding, it is going to have a massive knock-on effect on many livelihoods of freelance theatre practitioners in multiple creative and technical disciplines.

“And if the arts industry is allowed to collapse, something that has come to represent the heart and soul of our community will be rendered virtually obsolete.”

This article was originally published in The Straits Times

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