THE MULTI-HYPHENATE YOUTH CHANGING HOW THEATRE IS RUN: THEO CHEN
This charming and spirited 21-year-old (main image) is trying to cultivate a more holistic approach to theatre. For one, Playwrights Commune – an initiative he had helped kick-start in 2020 – is more about developing a space where new and emerging writers can focus on writing. What this means is that instead of simply writing to churn out productions, they can make connections and build relationships with peers, and get feedback even before staging a play.
That said, Chen – an emerging star himself who has been performing since he was a child and has acted in, written, produced and directed various projects – sees great value in giving life to what’s been penned.
“I was trying to get scripts from Playwrights Commune executed by larger theatre companies, but I kept getting told that it wouldn’t be possible because of the pandemic and that they can’t take a risk with a new writer, and so on,” he says. “So I next tried to convince these young or new playwrights to execute their plays independently, but they felt very unconfident and that they don’t have the resources to do so on their own.”
Actors Padma Sagaram, Aiswarya Nair, and Sanchala Sanju in Strawberry Girls, written and directed by theatre-maker Aswani Aswath. Strawberry Girls is one of the many independent plays that showcased in the A Mirage platform (co-founded by Theo Chen and arts manager Pearlyn Tay), which espouses a grassroots approach to theatre-making and sharing profits among all involved.
This led him to set up A Mirage – a pop-up pub-slash-theatre started with arts manager Pearlyn Tay in May that calls Projector X at Riverside Point home. Inspired by similar models in London where drinking holes offer spaces to emerging theatre names to stage productions and in turn help draw in crowds, it allows the talents to experiment without financial pressure. The upfront costs can be reduced to under $500, says Chen, and the revenue from ticket sales is shared among everyone working on the show. Indeed there’s a scrappy, can-do mentality at A Mirage – props and costumes are typically borrowed or self-made and actors do their own make-up – but there’s a beauty in that.
“I think when you don’t have to invest so much time and effort into looking for funding, you can transfer that energy elsewhere such as into focusing on creating good theatre and marketing the show instead,” says Chen. “You’re still getting an income stream. It’s just a different way of doing things.”
As of press time, A Mirage (@a.mirage.sg) has put on three productions and another five are set to debut by the end of August. All are what Chen calls “original Singaporean” stories – something he believes what the scene here needs more of, more than ever.
Photography Athirah Annissa Grooming Sarah Tan
THE FUN-FILLED DRAMA GROUP RALLYING THE INDIE SCENE: PATCH AND PUNNET
A reviewer once described Patch and Punnet’s shows as akin to “a series of Youtube sketches pieced together”. Some might take offence, but this youth theatre collective started in 2017 welcomed it. “We like that description because that’s the kind of energy we go for: It’s sketch-y and skit-like yet, at the same time, we do fully fleshed out work,” says its artistic director, Krish Natarajan.
Besides staging fun, light-hearted works, the zany independent youth theatre collective Patch And Punnet aims to rally local independent groups together to create a lively and collaborative industry. Here, its five millennial members strike a pose at Kult Gallery, the friend and neighbour to its cosy office space on Race Course Road: (from left) Nadya Zaheer, Astley Xie, Pearl Zuzarte (beaming in via Zoom), Krish Natarajan and Moira Loh.
Also on board are Pearl Zuzarte, Astley Xie, Nadya Zaheer and Moira Loh. This zany outfit identifies itself as a pack of millennials creating works for the like-minded. Its productions are typically convivial, laid-back affairs that have been staged everywhere from a bookstore to a shophouse. The audiences do not conform to the quiet theatre-goer trope – members are encouraged to talk to the actors, and take photos and videos.
This anti-establishment attitude might explain its deftness in adapting to roiling circumstances. Last April, the group, along with fellow collective The Second Breakfast Company, co-organised Strike! Digital Festival, an initiative that saw seven local indie theatre groups band together to stage works across social media channels such as Telegram, Tiktok and Instagram.
A scene from The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa, an interactive theatrical tour of the eponymous space, conceptualised by Strawberries Inc (the events and experiences arm of independent theatre outfit Patch & Punnet).
The results surprised many, not least the practitioners themselves, as they witnessed how others adapted theatre for the digital space. Says Xie, who handles business matters, as well as its events arm Strawberries Inc: “Things got very introspective and it got all the participating groups thinking about what constitutes theatre.”
While Strike!’s digital debut was born of the pandemic, Xie points out that its goal is to make a statement about the local indie theatre scene: “We realised that there are quite a lot of small groups like us, but we never properly coordinated what we do. There might be several shows on a weekend and, as a result, we cannibalise one another’s ticket sales.”
Patch and Punnet are known for putting on satirical, light-hearted productions that encourage audiences to get comfortable with the settings and the actors themselves. Here, a recent production (with collaborator Cherilyn Woo) titled McBeat and the Lil’ Shake Crew, a workshop-in-performance commissioned by The Esplanade to get students to reimagine the classic story of Macbeth through rap.
Work is under way on Strike!’s sophomore edition, with the hopes of staging a live, in-person version at Dhoby Ghaut Green next September. “Our top ideal is to rally everybody together and put ourselves out as a microcosm of the theatre scene here, with something unique to offer Singaporeans,” says Xie. We say they’re well on their way to achieving that.
Photography Phyllicia Wang Hair Tan Eng Chong/Kizuki+LIM Makeup Sarah Tan
THE STAGE STAR BRIDGING SOCIAL COMMUNITIES: SIM YAN YING
This fast-rising theatre artist, who prefers to be known as YY, was drawn into the discipline as a child, seeing it as a way of questioning the world and channelling her curiosity. Now 26, she’s translated that inquisitiveness into an eclectic portfolio that spans acting, directing and writing, both in Singapore and New York. The heavy topics she has tackled are diverse – from the complex dynamics of mother- daughter relationships in Singapore, to processing death and grief, the worshipping of white culture, and post-colonial baggage.
A bout of Covid-19 thwarted our plans to photograph theatre artist YY, but it certainly won’t prevent us from acknowledging her diverse and sophisticated portfolio.
While her productions are known for being experimental (an early play titled 06:58, for example, was structured based on a sonata) and intercultural, she’s always made it a point to keep them accessible. “I learnt from my mentor, (the veteran director) Alvin Tan, that it’s important to distil complex topics into simpler modes of presentation… We shouldn’t lose the complexity and nuances of the topic, but it’s equally key to not make it academic and elitist, so that all types of audiences have a way in,” she explains.
For YY, the beauty of theatre lies in how it builds bridges between people from different communities who might not otherwise be exposed to one another – something crucial in a fractious world. That belief is reflected in how her works tend to involve folks of different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Spanning acting, directing and writing, the portfolio of thespian YY includes the plays Where Are You?, a piece that explores death through experiences of grief.
Take her recent digital show Bloodlines, with a cast of Chinese-identifying artists from Hong Kong, China, the US and Canada exploring what it means to be Chinese. Her next production, Who Are You?, to be held at the Esplanade next month, is a collaboration between local actors and the Migrant Writers of Singapore group.
Her plays have caught the eye of major theatre organisations. Last year, she was one of four selected for Wild Rice’s Directing Residency programme for next-gen theatre-makers. She’s also in a directing residency at the Singapore Repertory Theatre.
YY (in foreground) in The Bacchae #2, an ensemble number based on the ancient Greek work by Euripides.
“We go through our lives without having much exposure to migrants, especially in a non-hierarchical setting in which both sides are equals, experiencing art and sharing our perspectives together,” says YY of her upcoming show. “I think theatre deepens our understanding of who we define as the ‘other’ and humanises them and their struggles more.”
THE COLLECTIVE GIVING LIGHT TO OVERLOOKED STORIES IN MALAY SOCIETY: RUPA CO.LAB
Comprising theatre-makers Nessa Anwar, Nabilah Said, Raimi Safari and Hazwan Norly, this collective aims to tell uniquely Singaporean stories through the lens of a contemporary Malay person. Since being founded in 2019, it has put on three well-received plays, each written by one member (they take turns, with the others assisting the writer).
Working on a round-robin framework, the members of theatre collective Rupa co.lab – (from left) Nessa Anwar, Nabilah Said, Raimi Safari and Hazwan Norly – take turns to write a new play, with the others taking on ancillary roles.
What exactly does “Malay” connote though? Stories commonly told in the mainstream media typically focus on the model minority or reinforce the stereotypes, says the collective, so what it prefers to highlight are micro Malay communities that aren’t talked about much and don’t receive much attention.
Its debut work Rumah Dayak, directed by Nessa, examined the worlds of commonly maligned wayward youths, while Hazwan’s Pandan looked at the secret lives of queer Malay men. The group’s most recent play, Rindu di Bulan (明月千里寄相思) – written by Raimi and staged at this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January – talked about interracial adoption within the Malay community and the complications that arise due to religious beliefs.
Jointly, they focus on telling stories of and from the “subsets” of the local Malay community, with previous works such as Rumah Dayak (pictured here) exploring the topics of wayward youths.
Authenticity and accessibility are important factors in the creative process. As part of research for Rumah Dayak, the collective visited juvenile homes and reached out to Mendaki (an organisation that assists under-privileged Malay students).
And because she wanted the work to be accessible to the youths it was centred on, the play was staged at the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam, instead of more popular theatre venues. As Nabilah points out: “I think it’s irresponsible if you tell the story of a particular community, but the audience is largely made up of those from another community – one that the play is not really meant for.”
Written by Hazwan Norly, Pandan explores how Muslim men navigate queerness.
That’s not stopped the crowds and plaudits from coming in. Pandan, for example, had a sold-out run and was nominated for the Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for Best New Script. The group adds that its attendees often include first-time theatre-goers who return for repeat performances.
Next up: a piece on the Indian-Muslim community written and directed by Nabilah to be staged next year. Of it, she says: “We often talk about being Malay, but there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily fall into the traditional classification of Malay, but still belong to the Muslim community. There are a lot of shades of grey to unpack and that’s something I’m hoping to explore with this piece.”
Photography Athirah Annissa Grooming Sarah Tan
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2022 Drama Edition of FEMALE