From October 2021 to March 2022, Producers SG, a community network for independent producers, arts managers and self-producing artists, ran a professional development programme, Producers Lab: “What if we do it this way?”.
With 15 participants working across a range of art forms (literary arts, storytelling, theatre, arts education, arts media, multidisciplinary work, traditional dance, contemporary dance, sonic arts, experimental music, immersive theatre and visual arts), Producers Lab was a space for producers to explore contemporary issues in the arts and imagine ways of creating and producing in a COVID-19 endemic world.
Through activities such as lectures, discussions, gallery tours and socials, with a theme for each month, participants were introduced to new perspectives and invited to reflect on aspects of their practice, such as their personal and professional values, negotiating power in institutions and ways of working with others. Each participant also developed a proposal for a speculative project based on the prompt “What if we do it this way?”, which they presented at the closing weekend.
Producers Lab was supported by the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Self-Employed Person Grant (SEPG), a grant made possible by the government support for the arts during the pandemic.
ArtsEquator spoke to Mohamad Shaifulbahri (Shai) and Mok Cui Yin (Cui), members of Producers SG’s organising team, about the process of planning and running Producers Lab.
Replies have been edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea for Producers Lab come from? Was it already brewing before SEPG was announced?
Shai: When SEPG was announced, I saw it as an opportunity to look at something that was not product- or presentation-driven. And there was room for capability development, because there aren’t many capability development opportunities for producers. We’d been creating such opportunities for others, but what about for ourselves? That was one of the starting points.
Cui: This idea had been brewing in various ways across the organising team. Shai was a very big push, he nudged the team to sit down and think about something we could do with this opportunity.
But the other big push factor was how COVID meant that we couldn’t gather people like we used to do through [our regular] Producers Socials. It was the right opportunity at the right time. We sat down to think about the gaps in the arts ecosystem that couldn’t be filled through the existing grant scheme and were worth experimenting with, because SEPG was a different kind of grant that allowed for experimentation.
When SEPG came up, although many of us were tired from the pandemic, we felt very motivated to try something new. Because of the Lab, we got to explore questions that we’ve always been experimenting with as a group – about flexibility, fluidity and delegation without hierarchy. That’s the part that participants and the public don’t see.
How did the prompt “What if we do it this way?” inform the participants’ speculative project proposals and the way Producers Lab was run?
Cui: While planning, we thought about what to unpick and unlearn, so the Lab wouldn’t just become a culmination of pitches for productions, but rather a place of imagination. By calling it a speculative project, we wanted to enable people to imagine possibilities that current conditions might not allow. So it wasn’t about proposing tangible feasible ideas, but exploring proposals for a future where things are different.
I was pleasantly surprised and fulfilled by how varied the proposals were in terms of topic, entry point and positioning. They covered very wide-ranging content: What if we lower barriers in theatre this way? What if we diversify the casting process this way? What if we do facilitation this way? What if we research this way? All sorts of things. Maybe it was because we were intentional about selecting a diverse mix of participants, thinking about how participants would fit and challenge each other without being fearful of differences, but also without just replicating the dynamics of an existing community.
Shai: The pandemic made us think about how things could be done differently. When people applied, they’d been sitting with thoughts or questions for some time, and this was an opportunity for them to allow that to gestate, and hopefully be inspired by the sessions, readings and conversations.
Producing can be quite a lonely endeavour, and those conversations gave participants space to build new friendships and shape their ideas further. There was joy on that closing weekend of sharing, with everyone supporting each other. Participants presented their speculative project proposal and then had a conversation with others in the Zoom room. Some participants were also thinking about how to make their proposals happen now.
Producers SG organising team. Image courtesy of Producers SG.
What did it mean to feed participants’ imaginations?
Cui: Every organising team member will have different ideas about what “nourishment” and “nutrition” to a practice look like. For me, it was about giving space and signposting the participants’ agency. There was a lot of free room, we weren’t dictating what participants had to do each month.
It’s like aerating soil – not just dumping fertiliser and compost in, but putting an idea in and giving it time to interact with everything else in a person’s life. These ideas didn’t have to manifest in instant revelation or be immediately visible in participants’ speculative proposals. You just trust time to take its course.
Shai: Having space to bounce ideas off each other and feed off each other’s energies was also extremely important. That was something we’ve been missing a lot during the pandemic.
How was the response to Producers Lab?
Cui: We had over 40 applications and had to narrow it down to 15. Many people said it was great to finally have something like this in Singapore. This kind of intensive producers’ programme where we can deepen our practices usually happens at international performing arts meetings or arts markets like TPAM or BIPAM.
Shai: Some people thought this platform was only for emerging producers. So we’re thankful that there were people with even more experience than the organising team members, who applied and got in, and fed off the energy of the participants who were starting out. It was also encouraging that even with an organising team of seven people, there were applicants we didn’t know, who brought different ideas to the table.
After the process of running Producers Lab, what is Producers SG thinking about in terms of going forward?
Shai: If we cannot gather, then how do we gather? There might come a time – touch wood – when that might happen again, so what might that look like?
We’re also looking at the new ways of presenting and working that came out from the pandemic – what positives can we keep if we return to fully in-person? How do we maintain accessibility and equity? Producers SG is looking at reorganising first, while also thinking along those lines. If we’re going to do Producers Socials again, how do we maintain that audience and also be inclusive? We don’t have the answers yet, but it’s something we’ll definitely work towards.
The pandemic happened, and as much as we all want to go back to what was normal before, we’re living in this idea of the new normal. We cannot try to go to a pre-pandemic time as if it didn’t happen. The possibilities are endless; what might they look like?
Producers Lab has spurred us on with renewed energy about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, asking ourselves, “What if we do it this way?” because we’re also trying to work in a different way, post-Producers Lab.
Cui: We’ve all been changed by the pandemic: our relationships, our awareness of our mutual responsibilities, our ideas of what’s possible. Things we thought were inconvenient were things we turned to in the pandemic, and it seems deeply irresponsible to chuck them to one side just because things are opening up.
The digital options that we turned to in the pandemic shifted the demands we made of each other. We became more flexible, people could multitask a lot more. It’s not necessarily great to have to multitask, but for those who already do, there was that accommodation.
Making most Producers Lab activities hybrid meant that people with caregiving commitments could participate on terms that were comfortable to them and the people they were looking after. That was really important to me. As producers, we need to treasure the demands we make of people, and be more intentional when demanding people’s entire presence and attention.
Also, since another outcome of the pandemic is burnout, how do we make sure Producers SG isn’t reproducing that pace and conditions of production? How do we let Producers SG be a space of exploring new possibilities, where “What if we do it this way?” is always on our minds?
Producers Lab participants from Producers Lab Opening Weekend. Image courtesy of Producers SG.
Any final thoughts about Producers Lab and what it means for the arts in Singapore?
Shai: We need more money for such opportunities. There are producer-related platforms, but they’re limited, and often aren’t able to support a larger group of people in capability development, whether initiated by NAC or anyone else. If people have any ideas, we encourage them to do it, or come and talk to Producers SG. We’ll see how we can work together or support them.
Cui: The way SEPG was structured was very important because it didn’t demand a tangible product. Producers are often carving out spaces for artists to have process-driven work, so it was precious for us to carve out space for producers to reflect on their practice and their future.
I wish SEPG didn’t have to come out of COVID, because then it seems like an exception rather than the norm. My invitation to policymakers is, what if we kept the language from SEPG and the Organisation Transformation Grant (OTG) about experimentation and being process-driven, and baked it into our funding system? Instead of saying that the Presentation & Participation Grant will now benefit more freelancers, which isn’t as big a thing as the other aspect of SEPG, which is that you don’t have to put up a show; you’re trying something new and testing out collaborations, which you can’t dictate at the start of a project. It’s strange that after so many years, we still don’t have an artists’ research and development grant. For many people, SEPG was that.
SEPG and OTG were very good things to happen to the sector, and I hope they’re not one-offs, because we could be so much richer in ideas and space to develop new things, and have collaborations across practitioners of different generations and backgrounds. That’s something I feel very strongly about, and I want to be hopeful about the future.
To find out more about Producers Lab: What if we do it this way?, you can view a copy of their Lab report here. Producers SG also maintains the Producers Directory, an online database of independent arts producers and managers working in and across Singapore and the region, as well as a monthly e-digest with listings of open calls and opportunities for the community. You can also check out their ongoing interview series with producers and arts managers in Singapore, or join their online Facebook community here.
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About the author(s)
Azura Farid is an arts manager and practitioner with a background in theatre and music. Recent works include projects with The Second Breakfast Company, Mediacorp, Bored Whale Theatre and The Opera People. Azura is a member of Playwrights Commune and a graduate of King's College London’s Music/Liberal Arts course and Wild Rice’s Young & Wild programme.