The Singapore theatre scene

Many years ago, before I started this blog, I wrote a letter to The Straits Times about the state of theatre in Singapore. It was probably an article in Life! on the arts scene that had spurred me to write in for the first time. The letter was unfortunately never published due to space constraints but since I happened to stumble across the file, I thought I'd share it. Glad to say that much of it still applies today.


"Theatre, that wonderful medium that allows us to connect with each other in a far more realistic and tangible way than a book or film, has always held a fascination for me. Being an avid fan of the theatre, I have been an enthusiastic participant of drama workshops and school-based theatre productions since young.

My experience of the Singapore theatre scene, however, has been fairly limited until recently. I remember relishing musicals such as Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and Singin’ in the Rain when they came to Singapore, ignorant of the many burgeoning local theatre companies that have been steadily evolving over the years, companies which have served to both enlighten and entertain audiences with the diversity that is our local theatre.

It was only in my junior college years that I began discovering the plays of Stella Kon, Michael Chiang, Haresh Sharma and other local playwrights. Even back then, my contemporaries were far more likely to peruse the works of Beckett, Pinter or Stoppard instead of our local writers, a fact that surprised and disappointed me. I remember wondering why local theatre did not have such a major following in Singapore. Is our society so culturally brainwashed by Western media that it fails to appreciate the Eastern voice?

While I can't deny the appeal of world-class Broadway and West End shows, it's vital for every society to celebrate its local theatre. What other way would it possibly have to learn the lessons of the old, to see its rich culture, politics and economics depicted through a variety of tales, both comic and tragic?

Singapore theatre today has come to reflect a combination of the old and new; a revival of many successful Western plays (some with interesting local touches a la W!LD RICE) and original plays that celebrate and chastise all things Singaporean: from racial identity (Haresh Sharma’s Rosnah) to political commitment (Robert Yeo’s A Singapore Trilogy) and even national service (Michael Chiang’s Army Daze). Local theatre spans the gamut, offering something for everyone and yet it is sometimes unceremoniously tossed aside as 'entertainment for the elite', a common perception of many Singaporeans.

What haven’t local theatre companies done to market their plays to the public? The Necessary Stage eschews swanky city venues and prefers to stage its plays in Marine Parade to reach out to the denizens of the suburbs, W!LD RICE brilliantly localises productions such as Animal Farm to attract the crowds, Singapore Repertory Theatre has a unique subdivision, The Little Company, which specializes in plays for the young and Toy Factory has come to reach out to the gay community by presenting plays that explore the homosexual psyche (such as Beautiful Thing and Bent). Theatre indeed reaches out to all groups but are we ready to embrace it?

It seems that many Singaporeans are still intrinsically bigoted when it comes to theatre. They would much rather spend their money on big-name international musicals like Mamma Mia instead of a local one such as Dim Sum Dollies, believing the former to be more 'value for money' simply by virtue of it being more tried and tested in an overseas market. The few who actually support and regularly patronize local theatre performances can easily judge for themselves just how much it has to offer. The fact that expatriate friends of mine rave about local productions only goes to show our theatre is every bit as comparable as those on distant shores.

Of course, there is still much room for improvement in the local theatre scene. Since regional talents have been seen to raise the ratings by their foray into local TV, why don’t theatre companies follow suit and attract such talents to the stage? Furthermore, more active recruitment campaigns should be instituted to unearth the thespians amongst us: Fly Entertainment’s acting school helmed by Irene Ang is a good example. There’s nothing like watching our compatriots like Kumar, Hossan Leong and Selena Tan take the stage and showcasing their unique humour and style.

Ticket prices have always been cited as a major factor that discourages people from attending theatre events. Watching a play, more often than not, costs at least three times the price of a ticket to the cinema. Theatre groups maintain that the lack of funding and rising rental prices inevitably results in them raising the price of tickets. Attracting crowds, particularly the younger ones with a more elastic demand for leisure, is therefore a prime concern. Loyalty cards, a wider range of concessions, half-price ticket booths (like those in London) are all options that could be explored by the authorities.

Indeed, the theatre scene in Singapore has flourished in recent years. Being a regular patron of local theatre events, it always gives me great pleasure to read about the Life! Theatre Awards and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the community for their role in expanding the uniquely Singaporean voice."


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