Tay Tong, or TT as he is affectionately known in arts circles locally and internationally, is one of Singapore’s pioneer producers and arts managers. After 30 years as the MD of TheatreWorks, TT left in April 2018. During his time with TheatreWorks, TT produced works that entered the Singapore and SEA canon, built TheatreWorks into a company of international repute, and helped develop regional arts infrastructures.
ArtsEquator got TT talking about his latest journey, towards himself.
On Leaving TheatreWorks
It is amazing how one’s identity is so associated with one’s job. Especially for me – after 30 years, all of a sudden I am no longer the MD of TheatreWorks, I’m no longer the producer for Keng Sen. I was completely stripped of any kind of identity, and it’s crazy, it’s ridiculous. It took me eight weeks to deal with it. After eight weeks, I said “Okay, got to let go.” I’m not very different working or not working, I am who I am, right? It’s just that the world sees us through that particular lens, of “What do you do?”
On His New Focus
What do I put down as my occupation now? Cultural worker. I was asked at BIPAM, “Where are you from?” I said “I’m not from anywhere! I’m not with any particular organisation or any institution.” And then she said “What do you do?” I said “Nothing.” Then she said “Cannot be nothing.”
And of course it took me literally five minutes to just sit there and think a little bit about it.
I feel that increasingly worldwide, there is a reduction of resources which support the creative process. There was one stage where there was a lot of it: money for laboratories, collaborations, explorations and all that. But that is drying up. Now everyone goes, ‘okay, I need a product to show, so I’m going into full production’.
And I thought, I could use the thirty years of experience, and the different connections that I’ve made, and whatever soft influences that I may have, to contribute to the scene, whereby it’s the making that matters, as opposed to the final production.
This is where the gap is. How do you persuade anyone to give you ten thousand dollars just to do a try-out? It’s a very difficult terrain to work in, but you know, I can give it a shot to see whether that makes sense or not.
On the National Resource Centre for Arts Freelancers
The NAC asked me to take the lead on this, and I felt that if we do this project right, it will actually make life a little bit easier for those of us working as arts freelancers in the independent scene. The gig economy has been growing in the last 2 years in Singapore and there are many schemes that arts independent workers can tap into but overlook, because the schemes are always positioned for freelancers from other industries. Through the Resource Centre, we are able to aggregate these programmes and information so that to a certain extent the independent arts freelancer need no longer be completely dependent on the National Arts Council alone.
Because the writing is on the wall that state support will never be sufficient. The pie remains the same, but the number of people tapping on that pie would have increased tremendously.
Actually, it took me by surprise a couple of years ago when this terminology started. I always had that quizzical look that said “Huh, what do you mean by that? Huh?” Because for me, it made no difference; as a producer you simply produce things which you believe in and have a vision for. Is it trying to subvert the lead role of the artist, and therefore have the producer being the top dog as opposed to the artist being the top dog?
While I still question the concept of ‘creative producer’, what has happened– which I’m very happy for – is that we have a group of young people within Southeast Asia that has an aspiration. This has actually galvanized them to seriously ask, “How can we work together? What are the resources that we could actually put together to make things happen?” It’s a very different generation.
But, it’s also important for the “doing” to begin. Little point in just talking and networking when there is no “doing”.
On growing regionalism
In the 80s and the 90s, it was more organic, dependent on friendships and contacts that you made, not in Asia, but in New York, London. That’s where you met your fellow colleagues from Asia. Now, it’s a little bit more organised and therefore, a serious network has taken shape in the last decade in Asia. But we are still struggling in Southeast Asia because we don’t have a touring network. The Europeans, it’s really in their DNA that if you make a work, it has to go onto a tour. For instance, The International European Theatre Meeting (IETM), has been very helpful for them. It allows producers to do two things: they co-produce and co-commission new work, or they take on board each other’s work, as presenters when it goes onto a tour within Europe.
I think that a role I can play, is to plant seeds for growing regionalism & internationalism. Take for instance, one conversation I had with three younger producers from Singapore was to say “Well, do you want to start presenting interesting South-East Asian works, and contextualize them, on a platform that presents the ‘best four presentations a year’?”
On artists he admires
Let’s talk about Singapore first. I think we have become less willing to take artistic risks – which to a certain extent I can understand because it’s about the bottom line – and as a result of that, the works that have been offered on the platter are actually not so interesting to me personally, because I think it’s the same old, same old kind of theatre, of dance, of music. I still find Cake Theatre’s Natalie Hennedige and Sharon Tang doing interesting stuff by constantly relooking and rethinking their own practice. I like very much what Ricky Sim (and his two dancers) does with his dance company, RAW Moves; very often he is less understood, and I think that there’s a lot he’s doing in redefining what dance is. There’s Daniel K with his work in Dance Nucleus and his own work as well. I like particularly [Liu] Xiaoyi’s work in Emergency Stairs where he is consistently rethinking this whole [practice of the] intercultural, cross-cultural collaboration and creative processes, and of course his own theatre-making as well.
And of course there is a whole new generation of dance makers that’s coming up: Bernice [Lee] is one of them, who is always rethinking, and of course [Eng] Kai Er. I miss Joavien Ng’s work as she is now based in Europe. There’s Loo Zihan, and Shawn Chua, Farid [Jainal] at Teater Ekamatra, and an emerging new set of practitioners in the Mandarin-language theatre.
Regionally, Mark Teh in Malaysia – he is rethinking what he is working on and I like the work he does. In Thailand, B-floor and Democrazy and Pichet [Klunchun]. But if we are looking at a newer generation, there is a dance person by the name of Sun Phitthaya Phaefuang who was in some of our Singapore productions; his current take is on “vogueing”.
You can see form the complexion of these people, they are risk-takers. They dare to do, even though it may not always work out at the end of the day. This is the kind of spirit worth supporting.
On his next act
My next act, which has always been my act, is to enable. I like to do that. Whether it’s by way of giving some kind of advice, or by taking [younger practitioners] through some kind of strategic planning, or just connecting them with the right people in order for them to have more opportunities, that’s what I like to do. I’ve always done that, and that’s what I will continue doing la. But how? I now got to think about it.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.