Thoughts: A New Theatre for Singapore

This post was first posted on shouck.com (Jan 31, 2010), forgive me if this is a bit “academic”, I try to keep those entries on shouck.com but because this entry examines one facet of my artistic development, I thought it relevant to post it here too:

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The Pasadena Playhouse announced this past week that the final curtain will fall on Feb 7, 2010. It will cease operations with the closing of the currently running Camelot. The historic theatre represents 90 years of American Theater history and undoubtedly, its closing will be a big symbolic and physical loss to the artistic world beyond the shores of the United States.

Founded in 1917, the playhouse was designated in 1937 as the state theater of California. Actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman have been associated with it through the years, and the current company has launched productions that went on to runs elsewhere: The musical adaptation of the hit film “Sister Act” is currently playing in London, and “Looped,” a one-woman show about Tallulah Bankhead starring Valerie Harper that was seen at the playhouse in 2008, is to open on Broadway this spring. – LA Times

Non-profit regional theatres serve as as important incubators and stepping transitional blocks for works that are eventually pipe-lined into the commercial machines on Broadway, the West End, and other theatre markets around the world. Like the rest of most of America’s economy, it’s clear that the non-profit arts needs to find a financial model that allows for the nurturing of important works that are less commercially viable (ahead of its time etc), keep the organization afloat, and (perhaps most importantly) relevant in the community’s eye.

In observing how and why people donate or purchase, the big financial donors are often those who want the glitz, glamour, and prestige of being associated with a theatre, or simply a tax break; on the occasion ticket buyers buy tickets as treats or luxurious indulgences; season subscribers or regular goers could be sincerely appreciative of the nuances of theatre, see the organization as a relevant community space, or simply all of the above above. Needless to say, a purchase decision is complex and highly subjective so I shan’t profess that I’ve got it distilled into its elements.

One thing is clear though: buying a ticket to watch a theatre is not as simple a decision as buying a ticket to watch a movie. Neither art forms are mutually exclusive, but both are competing for our time and money. I bring up movies because with the cheap proliferation of cinematic media, going to see the theatre is more expensive and therefore considered luxurious by a more practical society. Theatre is largely perceived as high brow. To me, this is theatre’s double edge.

But what I am personally struggling with, in trying to figure out a financial and brand model for COLLAB Theatre Ensemble, the new Singapore theatre company I set up with 7 other actors, is how do you make/create a theater product that is relevant – commercial and community-wise? We’re lucky that there is a growing number of young Singaporeans (X, Y, and Z generations) who value theater as a social space for voicing and hearing alternative points of view. But theater nonetheless remains a subject for those who are excelling academically or have free extra-curricular time outside of class, those who can drop $30-$100 for a ticket, those who understand the abstract – it’s still considered pretty high brow in the Singapore mass market.

I’m convinced that to create a financially viable (not commercially viable) theatre organization, we need to be relevant to the community. Some companies use humor (some low brow, others more “sophisticated” with flying rigs and all) others use celebrities and TV stars (i.e. glitz and glamor) to pique interest and access minds. We’ve also seen companies explore specific themes targeted at specific communities (remember those few years where everything on stage was about a gay issue?). The success and failures of these individual experiments is the litmus test, so there is no need to superimpose my own aesthetic sense or value of the trajectories (in some cases, tragic-tories) that they eventually took.

I do know that the theatre I want to be part of looks past the glitz and glamor, into what is relevant and true. It has to touch the heart, our sensibilities and hopefully incite some kind of change (change in aesthetic appreciation, change in thought, change in status quo, change in sensibility, change in inertia). This, I suppose, is draft one of my artist manifest.

Post Script: Would love to hear your thoughts on the relevance of theatre to you personally, be it if you’re a regular theatre goer, or a theatre newbie 🙂

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2 responses to “Thoughts: A New Theatre for Singapore

  1. Hello shou chen 🙂 First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your entry! I hope you'd bear with the inconsequential rambling that follows below. Personally, I have a problem with the assumption of “high brow” that everyone operates on. A lot of what people assume to be high brow, especially in the context of theatre, are arguably technicalities- be it experimental stage directions, faux accents- and I like to believe that in straddling the argument on delivering theatre to the masses, there is an undesirably substantial amount of concern being placed on “downplaying” the highbrow qualities of such productions. Essentially, theatre is a medium to communicate ideas, and therefore, “highbrow” is an unnecessary word to define these ideas. Ideas are universal.I guess at the same time, you are right on highbrow being a double-edged sword because it still pulls in the right crowds, the right shareholders who believe in the sanctity of the theatre. But it's possible to assure potential audiences- the masses- that these ideas any production is presenting are meant for them. Which prob explains why To Kill a Mockingbird is proving to be quite successful- people are distinctly aware of To Kill A Mockingbird as an all-time favourite, as a former literature text, as a 1990s classic they watched. And because of that, I guess the production probably felt comfortable innovating with the stage direction, precisely because they knew that the masses were familiar with the ideas behind the story instead of the veneer and glamour behind the production.Hence, I personally believe that this is an example of how theatre can be commercially viable- it needs to transcend across all mediums without coming across as foreign. It can mould with literature, or cinema. These don't have to be mutually exclusive. It can find a place in the heartlands without retaining its “theatre” tradition. People should look at an advertisement for a production and be drawn to its ideas, and dispel that foreboding image of circle seats and theatre etiquette. Why shouldn't a person look at an advertisement for Chicago and relate to its age-old tale of the cheating spouse, instead of having to listen to the voiceover boasting of its track record in the west end or its tony awards? Experimental stage direction, choreography, dialogue should only be highbrow for the benefit of promoting its cause, so this doesn't necessarily need to be compromised for the masses. For example, certain things which other cultures may consider “highbrow” doesn't necessarily retain that same identity in our Singaporean culture because of the relevance of such ideas e.g. wuxia films, Joan chen flicks, catherine lim novellas etc etc. In making theatre commercially viable, we should be innovating instead of dumbing down these elements 🙂

  2. “In making theatre commercially viable, we should be innovating instead of dumbing down these elements :)”I fully agree 🙂 I would've phrased it as “watering it down” cuz it's sometimes necessary to make things more palatable to an audience, before giving them the full flavour, so to speak. Hey Nasri! Thanks for your comments. I really enjoyed reading your response to my post and to Mocking Bird. Are you involved in theatre as well? p/s: sorry it took me a while to write a proper response, it's been a crazy week and a half.

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