On this week, a year ago, The Theatre Practice was busy preparing for the opening of its promenade theatre piece Four Horse Road. But the spectre of Covid-19 was already looming.
Artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, 54, recalls: “We were racing to be one step ahead.”
The theatre group had a task force that measured every single location to ensure participants could stand 1m apart. It cut down audience sizes and redesigned routes.
Suspecting the axe might fall soon, it also frantically recorded rehearsals. “We were fighting to keep some semblance of the work that everybody did together,” says Kuo.
The March 24 announcement that entertainment venues would have to close came 10 minutes before the full dress rehearsal.
The Theatre Practice artistic director Kuo Jian Hong recalls that her team, then rehearsing for the piece Four Horse Road, was heartbroken when it was announced that live performances had to be cancelled.
Kuo wanted to keep the news from the cast, but the second she walked backstage, the actors knew. She told them to hold it together. “They were quite heartbroken.”
Even then, she recalls, “everybody was still holding on to the idea that maybe in a couple of weeks, we would be back”.
It would be nearly eight months before performing arts venues opened again.
The lengthy closure hit the performing arts community hard. No live shows meant no income for culture workers like freelance production manager Ng Siaw Hui, 29, who lost $10,000 in income that was to have lasted her five months.
The $9,000 from the Government’s Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme kept her afloat till phase two, when she worked part-time at a pet cafe.
By December, with shows returning, she was back in rehearsals. Her schedule is now fully booked with theatre work till August. But she is one of the lucky ones, she says. Other freelancers had to leave the arts scene and find full-time employment elsewhere.
Ivan Heng, 57, artistic director of theatre company Wild Rice, says some of his freelance crew ended up working on small-scale construction projects.
The venue closure came as a double whammy for Wild Rice, which was ramping up to its first season in its new theatre before the pandemic hit. It had expanded its staff from 16 to 26 to run the venue.
NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s sign on its Gillman Barracks exhibition space being taken down. The venue closed earlier this month.
Arts companies say the Jobs Support Scheme helped defray some of the manpower cost, which for large companies like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) runs into millions annually.
On March 26 last year, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the Arts and Culture Resilience Package (ACRP), a $55 million top-up in arts funding, in addition to the $1.6 million already set aside for the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Capability Development Scheme for the Arts and other subsidies.
NAC deputy chief executive (planning and corporate development) Paul Tan, 50, says the $1.6 million has been spent and 80 per cent of the $55 million will be used by the end of the financial year (FY20) to generate more work for arts practitioners.
To date, the ACRP has created more than 13,000 work and training opportunities for arts practitioners and generated more than 1,400 digitalisation projects and programmes. The venue hire subsidy, which
covers 80 per cent of the rental, has been used more than 300 times.
The Feelings Farm, a children’s musical, was staged at the Esplanade as part of its recent March On festival. Performing arts venues were shut on March 26 last year and were allowed to reopen only in November.
A $20 million top-up announced in Parliament on March 8 will support the extensions of the ACRP Operating Grant, which gave companies a one-time sum of $50,000 or $75,000, and the venue hire subsidy, as well as two new grants, the Business Transformation Grant and the Self-Employed Persons Grant.
But as the Digital Presentation Grant and the Capability Development Scheme for the Arts have ended and the rental subsidy is due to end in June, some groups are apprehensive about the year ahead.
Sriwana, a non-profit Malay arts group with some 80 volunteers, is bracing itself for tough times. Artistic director Fauziah Hanom Yusof, 58, admits: “We are panicking.”
The troupe’s biggest overhead is its studio space at Goodman Arts Centre, for which it pays $2,500 a month. The lease ends next year and it is looking for space. “But rental is a killer,” says Fauziah.
“We had to open the theatre as soon as possible even if it didn’t make financial sense because it’s about morale. We’ve created more than 300 jobs in the past four months.”Ivan Heng, artistic director of theatre company Wild Rice
It depends on NAC’s Presentation and Participation grants to fund a third of production costs. Box-office sales account for 50 per cent and grants from charitable foundations and donations make up the balance. But venue capacities are limited by safe management measures. Fauziah says: “We cannot even fend for ourselves because live performances are restricted.”
Performing arts shows are an expensive proposition.
The 10 shows Wild Rice has staged since reopening have been seen by more than 12,000 people, but they are operating at a loss. Heng says: “We had to open the theatre as soon as possible even if it didn’t make financial sense because it’s about morale. We’ve created more than 300 jobs in the past four months.”
Contemporary art gallery Chan + Hori closed its Gillman Barracks space in June, saving the company overhead costs of more than $20,000 a month, says curator Khairuddin Hori, 47.
Digital has become the new frontier for the arts in the past year. While the consensus is that it will not take the place of live experiences, arts groups say they benefited from enforced digitalisation.
Objectifs co-founder and director Emmeline Yong, 44, says: “The pandemic made us rethink some new possibilities. We were a bit old-fashioned. This forced us very quickly to adapt.”
The film and photography centre launched a digital library, which streamed short films at a nominal fee, as well as its Film Club online.
Wild Rice’s An Actress Prepares that took place November last year, starring actress Siti Khalijah Zainal and scripted by Alfian Sa’at.
Objectifs programme director Chelsea Chua, 38, says the online panels attracted between 40 and 70 people each time. “You wouldn’t see these numbers at a physical talk.”
SCO’s digital viewership climbed dramatically in the past year as it bumped up online content.
But executive director Terence Ho, 51, echoes the common lament that digital content is hard to monetise. “You need the platform and the payment gateway.”
All the arts companies who put content online report good viewership for free programmes, but paying customers are few and far between. Ho points out, however, that those who pay tend to stick around for the whole show rather than channel surf, so the SCO’s strategy now is to bundle physical and digital tickets to try to expand its audience base.
Monetisation aside, digital options can offer solutions to physical limitations, as Esplanade chief executive officer Yvonne Tham, 46, notes. The arts centre’s school programmes are oversubscribed and it has introduced digital passes to allow more access.
The set of Esplanade’s recent production #Theatre helmed by lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, post-pandemic.
But she worries about how the pandemic year will shape tastes and accentuate divides. Eight- to 15-year-olds, for example, have had “two very intense years of TikTok”.
“Their exposure to creativity is going to be very much shaped by that,” she says, adding that school excursions need to start again so children from lower-income families can be exposed to the arts.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
During the crisis, arts groups with more resources offered helping hands. Objectifs opened its chapel space to eight women artists to use as an incubator space and supported photographer Darren Soh’s fund-raising effort, which raised almost $60,000 for migrant worker causes.
The Esplanade is encouraging skills acquisition. It has consolidated its technical training courses under an Esplanade Academy umbrella, introduced new training programmes for arts practitioners and is considering practical arts management courses.
Its new waterfront theatre will tentatively receive its Temporary Occupation Permit this year and open next year. “A lot of work is being incubated,” Tham says.
Sriwana’s Fauziah sums up the community’s attitude in the face of more challenges this year: “We’ll make it through lah. Somehow, we’ll make it through.”
Ahead, four arts practitioners look back on the day of the closure last year,
and where this anniversary finds them.