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Talent aplenty on the small stage
JASDEEP GILL is a 23-year-old law student at the University of Oxford. But when he's not pondering contract, tort and criminal laws, he's dreaming up his new production in Singapore by Couch Theatre, a theatre collective of which he is artistic director.
The four-year-old company is one of numerous small theatre groups that have sprouted on the scene in recent years. Government statistics put the total number of theatre companies in 2014 at 493, of which many comprise serious self-starters, highly-trained professionals and semi-professionals who do not practise theatre full-time because of its unstable wages.
Now on a semester break, Gill is back in Singapore and extremely excited about the company's new production, Eurydice, which opens next week. The play is a contemporary retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus told from the perspective of Eurydice, his wife. It was written by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and its 2007 Off-Broadway production received wide acclaim, with The New York Times calling it "weird and wonderful".
Gill is struggling with Ruhl's script description of the set design which contains "a raining elevator, an abstracted River of Forgetfulness and an old-fashioned glow-in-the-dark globe", but says: "That's the challenge of doing Ruhl's plays - they're incredibly poetic and sophisticated, and they deal with complex issues such as life, death and loss, in an unusual manner. I read the play four years ago when we founded Couch Theatre, but it's only now that I have the courage to tackle it."
Doing more with less
For him, theatre will always be a passion which will help him grow as a person. But like others, the financial struggles of being a full-time artist are too real to ignore.
Many well-trained actors, directors, producers and designers have chosen to practise theatre on the side while they hold down a steady day job. Because of the talent surplus, some new theatre companies have managed to put out high-quality productions typically in theatres with no more than 120 seats, and garnered strong followings despite having no budget for marketing and publicity.
Asylum Theatre, for instance, has earned good reviews for their first two productions, The 39 Steps and Holiday In My Head. The two-year-old company was started by Dean Lundquist, a 46-year-old Singapore-based American playwright-director. Lundquist holds dual masters degrees in playwriting from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, and directing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Next month, Asylum Theatre is staging Ira Levin's Deathtrap, a classic 1978 play that was made into a film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in 1982. Lundquist says: "The goal of Asylum is do quality plays and generate good word-of-mouth. We can't afford the high cost of theatre rentals in Singapore, so we play to a small audience each night, but we play for a longer duration - so people will tell their friends to see it."
His cast includes Andrew Mowatt, Paul Lucas and Chris Bucko, all of whom had given strong performances in previous Asylum productions. Lundquist explains: "A lot of us teach in order to make a living, but we need a creative outlet, and that's why we do this."
For previous productions, Asylum tried to raise money through crowd-funding campaigns on platform such as Indiegogo. But these met with mixed success. So Lundquist got savvy with his ticket pricing, offering discounts, bundle deals and even an irresistible package for parents - for its Oct 15 matinee show, you can leave your kids at the Mint Museum of Toys to be looked after during the show and pick them up after.
Differentiation is key
If most companies are choosing to stage well-known plays for their commercial appeal and built-in audiences, other collectives are choosing to differentiate themselves by staging only original scripts.
Dark Matter Theatrics, for instance, was founded last year by two playwrights - Christopher Fok and Marcia Vanderstraaten - and an actor, Lian Sutton. Vanderstraaten had clinched the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards trophy this year for co-penning Hotel with Alfian Sa'at.
The collective's upcoming production is a comedy-drama about teachers called Micromanage Overwork Exasperate, whose acronym translates to MOE, also an abbreviation of the Ministry of Education. It is written by Vanderstraaten, a former teacher, and directed by her and Fok.
Already, Micromanage Overwork Exasperate has sold all the tickets for its seven shows "through word of mouth", according to Fok. "We had staged a different version of the play before in 2014 under a different company name, and it got good feedback from teachers who felt we could give a stronger voice to their struggles. So we decided to bring it back with a new script based on interviews with a wide range of teachers. And this time round, the tickets sold very quickly."
In the past, the collective tried to raise funds on crowd-funding platforms, but failed. Like Asylum Theatre, they've started using different tiers of discounts, such as package deals and special discounts for schoolteachers. The strategy proved effective.
Fok says the collective's founders have no plans to turn Dark Matter Theatrics into a full-fledged professional company yet: "Right now, we have the freedom to work on projects we like and reject those we don't. If we go full-time, things would change because we would be subject to certain KPIs and the bottomline. So we're happy not to have the company go full-time for now."
"At the same time, we won't call ourselves 'amateurs' because we see ourselves as serious theatre practitioners who spend a lot of time honing our art. We prefer the term 'emerging artists'."
Attracting the pros
As these small companies continue to make their mark, they're drawing strong talents to work with them. The Second Breakfast Company, for instance, is only a year old. But its first show is an ambitious one, a production of Leow Puay Tin's sprawling 1996 play Family which features 34 characters across 100 years. In the lead role as the family matriarch is Chio Su Ping, a drama teacher and seasoned actress who has appeared in a range of productions by new as well as established companies including Singapore Repertory Theatre, Action Theatre and TheatreWorks.
The Second Breakfast Company is founded by five young theatre practitioners, all under the age of 25. Its artistic director Adeeb Fazah says: "Our goal is to bring young people into the theatre and introduce them to great drama by reviving classic Singapore plays, reimagining Western canonical works by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and others, and staging new and original plays. Ultimately we hope to increase theatre-going among Singaporeans."
Chio, who was worked in the scene for nearly two decades, notes: "When you work with established theatre directors and companies, they know exactly where they're going and what they want from you. When you work with younger theatre companies, they're still feeling their way through things, trying to find their voice and direction. As an actress, there's a certain satisfaction in being able to lend something to that direction."
Four upcoming productions
By Couch Theatre
From Sept 22 to 25
Drama Centre Black Box
Tickets from Sistic
A loose take on the Greek myth of Orpheus, Sarah Ruhl's acclaimed 2003 play tells the strange and funny tale of Eurydice, a woman who dies on her wedding day and is reunited with her dead father in the underworld. However, her groom Orpheus misses her. He travels to the underworld to look for his bride to bring her back to earth. But Eurydice comes to realise that perhaps death, loss and separation are part and parcel of this bittersweet life, and some things are better left as they are.
MICROMANAGE OVERWORK EXASPERATE
By Dark Matter Theatrics
From Sept 27 to Oct 2
Tickets are sold out
First staged in 2014, this remake centres on the struggles of Singapore school teachers in the face of burgeoning bureaucracy, precocious kids and demanding parents. Playwright Marcia Vanderstraaten used to be a teacher too, and this script is distilled from her own experiences as well as those of other teachers. Though tickets are sold out - most have been bought by teachers! - Dark Matter Theatrics plans to restage it in the future. The cast includes Jo Tan, Edward Choy and Shafiqah Efandi.
By Asylum Theatre
From Oct 12 to 30
Drama Centre Black Box
Tickets from Sistic
Ira Levin's best-known play Deathtrap is an excellent thriller crammed with twists and turns. The story centres on a famous playwright plagued by writer's block. When his student asks him to read a script that the former had written, the playwright is convinced that the student's script will be a big hit. The playwright is now determined to murder the student. The cast includes Andrew Mowatt, Paul Lucas and Chris Bucko.
By The Second Breakfast Company
From Oct 13 to 16
Centre 42, Black Box
Tickets from Sistic
Taking place over the course of a century, Leow Puay Tin's ambitious and sprawling play features 34 characters spanning four generations. The story centres on Tan Neo (played by Chio Su Ping), a controlling matriarch whose decisions over various members of her family ultimately lead to their downfall. The play is particularly significant for its illustrative portrayal of Singaporean-Chinese history from the early 1900s to the present era.
By Helmi Yusof