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Theatre treats this December

From a big brassy comedy concert, to a horror-mystery gameplay, Singapore's theatre scene is starting to come alive again.

If you want live theatre . . .

Crazy Christmas
Fun-Raiser Concert

By Dream Academy

Dream Academy is the company behind the popular Dim Sum Dollies, Kumar and Broadway Beng shows. But 2020 saw it teetering on the brink of ruin. Its Vote Kumar live show had to be cancelled. And its Crazy Christmas concert almost went the same way – if not for the government allowing theatres to reopen in November, albeit with reduced capacities.

The company is now turning its Crazy Christmas show into a “fun-raiser concert”, in the hope that it can raise enough money to get through this extremely rough patch. Tickets are pricier than normal, from S$75 to S$500. But Dream Academy founder Selena Tan says: “Because of social distancing measures, we can perform to only 250 people per show – instead of the usual audience of over 1,000. In order to cover the costs of producing a great show with professional production values, we have to charge higher than normal.”

Ms Tan says: “Although it’s tough to sell tickets at these prices, we’re determined to do it, because we want to pay everyone a decent wage. These past seven months when theatres were shut, most of us have had little to no income coming in. So if the audience would like to support the work that Dream Academy does and all the creatives involved in it, please consider buying a ticket.”

The year has been particularly punishing for the company, which had planned to celebrate its 20th anniversary with blockbuster productions. Vote Kumar, for instance, was timed for the election season, promising many topical punchlines. The company is now hoping that its Crazy Christmas “fun-raiser” would help it reverse the losses incurred then.

The marquee cast is led by the Dim Sum Dollies (played by Tan, Pam Oei and Jo Tan). Kumar is fluttering his wings as an archangel, while Broadway Beng (played by Sebastian Tan) makes an appearance as a Singlish-spouting Santa Claus. Other performers include Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu, Robin Goh and John Lee.

Ms Tan says: “There are nine performers on stage for the finale, but only five people are allowed to sing without a mask at any time. So we’ve come up with creative ways of performing our routines without breaking any rules . . . It’s all really so bizarre. But the more challenging the moment, the more difficult the issue, the funnier everything becomes. The pain is what makes comedy special.”

  • Crazy Christmas Fun-Raiser Concert runs from Dec 15 to 20 at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available from Sistic.

If you want digital entertainment . . .

  • Local Theatre Treats

    Crazy Christmas Fun-Raiser Concert.

Murder At Mandai Camp: The Case Reopens
By Sight Lines Entertainment & Chong Tze Chien

When theatres were forced to close in Phase One, some of the earliest theatre-makers to successfully pivot to the digital realm were playwright-director Chong Tze Chien and Sight Lines Entertainment. Chong has been writing and directing his own scripts for over 20 years. So he was able to quickly create the first edition of Murder At Mandai Camp, a gripping online whodunit involving a dead recruit in a spooky army camp.

Shown live on Zoom for only three nights in June, the show attracted 700 viewers who paid S$15 each to help solve the case. About 30 per cent of them watched it from outside of Singapore – even though the producer, Sight Lines Entertainment, made no effort to publicise it overseas.

Derrick Chew, Sight Lines artistic director, says: “For a long time, Tze Chien and I had been trying to figure out how to make theatre that appeals to younger audiences, who can’t fork out the S$40 or S$50 that a theatre ticket typically costs.

“We wanted to make plays that spoke to them instantly – the way escape rooms, computer games and social media spoke to them. So when Covid-19 struck and Zoom became the video conferencing platform everyone used, we thought this could be an answer.”

Debuting in June, the first Murder At Mandai Camp was well-received commercially and critically. Despite the fact that many top theatre companies were streaming their past productions for free, Sight Lines still managed to attract a sizable paying audience to more than cover its production costs.

Mr Chew says: “Using popular technology, we were able to create a show that was cheaper than what it would have cost if we were to stage it live. So we managed to keep our ticket prices low. And, as it turned out, we were even able to reach hundreds of audiences outside of Singapore. Now that’s a big, big deal, because Singapore theatre companies have always had to struggle with the small audience base here. But now we know that it’s possible to scale up and find an audience outside of the country simultaneously.”

For the second iteration of Murder At Mandai Camp, Chew and Chong are going for broke, with a “highly-interactive horror-mystery live-action gameplay that has elements of theatre, cinema, literature, escape room and haunted house all rolled in one”, says Chew. Knowledge of the original murder-mystery isn’t necessary to enjoy the sequel, which has brand new 360 degree views, immersive surround sound and choose-your-own-adventure algorithms.

Chew says: “We don’t even dare to call it ‘theatre’ any more, because we’re using everything and anything. But we think the audience will love this one too.”

  • Murder At Mandai Camp: The Case Reopens runs from Dec 22, 2020, to Jan 2, 2021. Tickets at S$20 from Sistic.

If you want a hybrid of digital and live theatre . . .

How To Break A Window
By T:>Works

T:>Works – the company formerly known as TheatreWorks – has been reimagining the arts for the pandemic and post-pandemic audience since the lockdown. When it held its popular annual 24-hour playwriting competition in June, the rules were instructive: Participants had to create a performance piece for one or multiple digital platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom and social media. The plays could also be potentially performed live before an audience.

Now the winning scripts have been chosen, and the company is set to present them as a hybrid showcase of live performances, short films and staged readings, provocatively titled How To Break A Window.

Veteran theatre practitioner Noorlinah Mohamed, who conceptualised the showcase, says: “We wanted to explore different ways of engaging, gathering and communing with the audience. The world has changed so much and we cannot keep doing theatre as before. There are myriad possibilities now.”

The winning plays are Third Eye written by Wong Chen Seong, about a man haunted by the ghosts of his past; The Correspondence by Sarah Zafirah, centred on a teenager asked to deliver a eulogy at his estranged father’s funeral; Onthakan – The Blue Hour by Rajkumar Thiagaras, about two souls trying to connect across vast expanses of time and space; Tadka by Carolyn Camoens, about an immigrant finding connections in a new country by uploading cooking videos; and La Façade by Bernadette Koh, about civil disobedience.

Ms Noorlinah says: “Even though we didn’t ask the playwrights to respond to the pandemic (we gave them other stimuli to work with), many of them ended up reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on society. And the quality of writing this year has just been amazing, considering they had to complete the plays within 24 hours, and many of them had never written for the digital format before . . . For them, writing has been the best way of trying to make sense of the crisis we’re in.”

  • How To Break A Window runs from Dec 16 to 19 at 7.30pm. Visit howtobreakawindow.peatix.com for tickets. 

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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