Michael Chow

Podcast 76: The Runaway Company

Duration: 30 min

Nabilah Said speaks to Izzul Irfan and Mahirah Abdul Latiff of The Runaway Company about structures, succession and misconceptions about their work. The Runaway Company has an upcoming show, The Story of Tonight, which runs from 6-8 March 2020 at Stamford Arts Centre Black Box.

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Nabilah Said (NS): Hi, everyone, this is Nabilah Said from ArtsEquator and we are doing our Fresh Blood podcast series. I have with me Izzul Irfan and Mahirah Abdul Latiff from The Runaway Company. And we’ll be talking about the upcoming show The Story of Tonight that runs on March 6 to 8 at Stamford Arts Centre. Hi Izzul.

Izzul Irfan (II): Hi.

NS: Hi, Mahirah.

Mahirah Abdul Latiff (MA): Hi.

NS: Thank you so much for being here by the way.

MA: Thank you for having us.

NS: So you guys are repping The Runaway Company. What is The Runaway Company, can one of you tell us?

II: All right, so The Runaway Company is basically a non-profit youth theatre organisation that really focuses on telling the stories of youths through the integration of music and theatre. And we are basically a community of people – it’s really just a community of youths who really want to tell their own stories.

MA: Yeah. And we accept youth participants from all sorts of backgrounds and experience. So whether it is in terms of their arts, theatre or music experience, we really just want to be a platform where people who are interested in the arts – youths who are interested in the arts – have a place to explore the arts, music, theatre, that sort of thing.

NS: That’s really nice. So when was it formed?

II: It was formed in 2018. Yah, we were formally founded in 2018. Before that, we were really mostly like a collective, from school. So we staged some shows in school, like a revue. And eventually, once we graduated, we staged our own original musical. And we sort of wanted to like formalise this platform because we thought that, you know, it was a very special thing to have. And yeah, the community that we found there was really special. So we decided to formalise it, and that’s how we came about with The Runaway Company.

NS: Okay, but who is “we”?

II: So the “we” in question… it’s sort of like – we’re friends…

MA: Maybe we start from the beginning. So in the beginning, there was a group of about 10 of us who are really passionate about this idea. And so because we had previously worked on the production that he mentioned – when we graduated, we all put up this production together. And so after that show, or during the course of that show, while we were working on it, the 10 of us came together, and we were like, it’d be really cool if we could formalise this platform somehow, so that people like us, you know, other youths like us also have this opportunity that we did. Because it was really difficult, and we had to source for a lot of things. So we decided, why not we try and formalise it. And so the 10 of us formed the committee of The Runaway Company.

NS: Yeah.

MA: So that I guess is sort of who “we” are. But also on a wider scale, “we” also just refers to the participants of The Runaway Company, like our production participants who– a lot of them are actually our friends or people we know from school who have worked on the aforementioned productions as well.

NS: What was that first production?

II: So the production is called Runaway. It was made up of a revue, in the first part, and then an original musical that we wrote. So it was entirely composed, written by youths. So it was really exciting for us to explore that genre originally for the first time. Yup.

NS: And so that’s how the name came about?

II: The story of the name goes back, way longer. No, not… Actually it was from there. We were like thinking “what why should we need our little group, guys?”

MA: Yeah.

II: And then we were like why not name it after the first production that kind of started it all.

MA: Yeah, we met through that production. So we thought it would be a nice name. But also on a larger scale, “runaway” – because Runaway the musical was basically about this magical train and that picks up runaways over space and time. And so we were thinking, “Oh, that is a very nice concept for what we are aiming to do as a collective, which is just this platform for everybody, no matter where they are, to find a home in the arts, and music and theatre, so we were thinking that would be a really cool tie-in as well.

The Runaway Company. Photo: Michael Chow


NS: Mahirah, you’re the director of The Story of Tonight.

MA: Yes.

NS: Can you tell me about what people can expect from the show?

MA: Okay, so The Story of Tonight (preview here) is really a collection of musical theatre numbers, I guess you’d say it’s a revue of some sorts, where each musical number is staged as its own self-contained narrative. So each song or each musical number or each scene follows the story of one particular youth, or a particular group of youths. And all of these numbers, all of these stories revolve around the idea, or the theme of youths and their dreams or aspirations and stuff like that. Yeah.

So we explore a lot about the different aspects of dreams. So things like aspirations, fears, anxieties, the difficulties that come into play when you want to work towards your aspirations or sometimes it’s a really motivating factor for some people, or, you know, just talking about how do you reconcile your aspirations with reality? That sort of thing.

NS: Ok, I went to look at your Spotify playlist. It basically consists of very recognisable tunes or show tunes, or musicals that people might know. So just to clarify, you’re saying the stories themselves, they don’t follow the musical, right? So you’ve created kind of like, self-contained stories that would fit with the songs – is that how it was composed?

MA: It depends, sort of. So that’s true for some of the songs. So for some of the songs, we retain the original context, but for some of the songs we recontextualised it into a story or a narrative that makes sense for us, like the youth participants who are participating and all that because, I mean, musical theatre, their songs in itself like tell a story. Or, you know, it talks a lot about character and stuff.

And so it may not necessarily be constrained to one particular narrative. So there was a lot of room for us to play around with it to make it more relatable to our demographic.

NS: Okay. Can you guys give an example?

MA: Oh, okay. Yeah. So, for example, one number that we sort of adapted the original context was Almost There in the the original musical Princess and the Frog. Basically, this song’s talking about how this young lady has her own dreams of opening up her own restaurant, her own cafe. And this song is basically about her shutting down the haters and telling them about you know, how she is almost there. And she is on her way to achieving her dreams. And she knows that she can do it that she has the tools and the skills with her, all that sort of thing. So for that number, we adapted the context of the original musical, but for other numbers, for example…

So there’s this really nice one called All I’ve Ever Known from Hadestown, which is a newer musical, maybe some of them might not know it. Yeah, the show is basically retelling a modern or like a recontextualisation of the Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice. But for us, we sort of recontextualised it into the concept of like to youth in a long-distance relationship because that’s something very relatable for people of our age, you know, especially with a lot of people going to uni and stuff. There’s a lot of long-distance relationship among our friends. Yeah, so that was a narrative that would be more relatable for people like us. And so the song instead now we recontextualised it to talk more about how do you maintain that emotional connection even over a physical distance or maybe the fears and anxieties, the vulnerabilities that come with that and the reassurance also at the same time?

NS: How many performers are there going to be?

MA: Performers… so including musicians, it will be about 30.

NS: Three zero?

MA: Yeah it’s a lot.

II: It’s a big cast, and we also have quite a big orchestra this time around. Yeah. So it’s quite exciting.

NS: So how big is the orchestra?

MA: It is about 10 people. Yeah. And then the cast itself is about 21. But I think the reason why that is so is because there are 17 numbers in the show. And each of the cast members, a lot of them are taking a few numbers and rotating among themselves, you know, and some of the numbers they require, a bigger ensemble. So yeah, that is sort of why it seems so big.

NS: But it does seem quite large-scale.

MA: Yeah. Especially compared to like our previous production.

NS: Really? Is it that different?

II: I think that yah – I mean, generally, I think this time around, I think definitely we’ve gone a bit bigger, like we’ve done a jukebox musical before with Void Deck , which was our first formal production. And now I think we’ve definitely grown even bigger. I think that’s thanks to like… people start to get to know us and people audition for us and yeah, we have a really wonderful talent pool this time around, who are really great to work with. I think like with this particular one, especially because it’s about musical theatre mostly, and so with that you have a lot more people interested, you know. Yah.

MA: It’s a lot easier to appeal to people.

NS: Who writes the – is there lines or a script of something?

MA: Oh, yes. I mean, for some of the songs it’s just the songs tells its own story, but for some, maybe you need to set the context or the characters and so those do have dialogues or monologues involved and it was written by this gentleman right here– (coughs)

II: It’s me.

MA: Our script writer for this production, yah.

NS: Talking about different roles, right – how do you guys decide like, who does what for each production? And also within the company as well, because you also have roles within the company?

II: So we try to… for our process of selecting both our production committee members as well as our cast members. We do have quite a lengthy process of auditioning, as well as having interviews. So for the cast members itself, we make sure that all the cast members go through a set of auditions. So including if you are a committee member, and you want to be in the cast, you still have to audition. We wanted to keep it fair for everyone.

MA: To be fair to everyone, you know, sometimes the organisational skills does not translate to, you know…

II: Performing skills.

MA: To be fair and to ensure that you put up a good show.

II: Yeah. And the right person gets the role, you know. Rather than just anyone else out there. Yeah. And as for our production committee, we do have interviews with them, and we have them indicate their interest as to what sort of production roles are they interested in and then we interview them based on that. And we try to see where we can put them in and what they can best contribute it in general.

MA: And in general also I think the interviews with the production committee and the cast members and the musicians, I think it’s very helpful also in that we want to ensure that we are a good match for each other, you know, because sometimes what we offer is not what people are looking for. And sometimes when that misunderstanding or miscommunication happens, then that’s when you get a lot of unhappiness and stuff. So we just want to ensure that both of us we are a good match for what each other are looking for. As opposed to just having auditions.

NS: Since you mentioned the committee, right, can you give us a bit of a explainer about the committee because it sounds quite interesting, slightly complex.

II: Alright, so for the committee, you have 10 people in total. So you have one creative director, one secretary, one treasurer, two music directors, as well as five executive members. And the executive members, are spread over several roles such as publicity, ops head and membership. Yes. So it’s a pretty big general organisation.

NS: It’s so legit.

II: We do that mostly because we want to make sure that we cover all our bases. And I think it’s really reflective of how we want our organisation to be, which is that we try to run it as professionally as possible, even though our productions may not necessarily be, you know, full of professionals. We wanted to make sure that we give a proper platform to these people. And of course, when you’re interacting with the outside world, when you’re dealing with grants and everything, there is that sort of like formalisation that you need to have. Yes, but ultimately, I think the committee we work together, when we have meetings, we are very democratic, we make sure that everyone has a say. So it’s not very like hierarchical like “Oh, I’m creative director, so I call all the shots for this” or like “I’m treasurer, I call all the shots for this”. No. We bring it to the table. If we have any ideas, if we have any issues that we need to talk about, we bring it to the table and we talk it through and we decide it together as a committee.

NS: I’m just curious this structure, right, were you emulating something in having the structure? Because I find it quite an interesting structure for a young collective.

II: Hmm. That’s a good question. I think maybe it’s just like our bureaucratic selves. Or like, I think maybe that’s sort of the structure that we have in CCAs, right, in school.

MA: Sort of. Almost.

II: But also, like, it’s sort of an extended version of that. But I think yeah, we weren’t really trying to emulate anything, but I think we just naturally fell into that, because we decided we needed a wide base of committee members. But at the same time, we wanted to make it as efficient as possible.

NS: Yah it sounds efficient actually.

II: I think we just generally want to make sure that – because I think after we’ve done it for some time, we realise that producing the work itself and even having the platform in general takes a lot of effort. So we were like “Ok, we need to have a good strong team to do the heavy lifting so that our productions can be, as much as possible, a creative endeavour, rather than a self producing endeavour, but also a creative endeavour. And it gets really straining for the participants.

MA: So in that sense, the committee really serves a more organisational role on a wider scale. So they look at TRC activities as a whole, and not just focus on one production, but they have to look at, you know, things like spaces, and the overall art season, that sort of thing. So then each team that is working on a particular production, like he said, it can really focus on that production rather than worrying about, you know, the wider scheme of things.

NS: Very interesting. Going back to the kind of work that you do, right, is it always a case of like musical theatre? Is that the genre that you guys are set in doing?

II: I think for us… when we started off the company, we kept it broad, we were saying that we were all interested in both. We all started out being very interested in musical theatre. But we realised that there’s something really special about just the presence of music in the theatre space. And so we were like, Okay, so let’s make it such that we are a place where we can integrate both music and theatre to tell stories. So like for our past few productions, we have had our first production, Void Deck, that’s a jukebox musical. So it was an original script, but all the songs were just like taken – it was like revue style in a sense.

MA: And what was interesting about the production also was that quite a number of the songs were pop songs, but sometimes pop songs in themselves can tell a story especially if we set it within a context. So we were really trying to see what are the different permutations that music or all different types of music and theatre can sort of work together?


Void Deck by The Runaway Company. Photo: Michael Chow


II: And then following from that, in our August production, we had Wilderness, which is a straight play. But at the same time, we were thinking, “ooh, there’s a musical quality to it”. So we were very lucky to have Erika (Poh) with us who was actually the original composer for that show. So she composed some of the music for the show, but also she did an arrangement of Carole King’s… what’s that song called?

MA: So Far Away.

II: So that particular production saw us integrating music into the show in a very… as almost like a character in the story. So it was not necessarily songs with lyrics, but it can be like ambient music, background music, but at the same time it builds the atmosphere of the story. And it sort of like tells the story along together with the characters and together with the script, sort of thing. And yeah, Erika always says that we experimented with like, very raw music. We had very unconventional instruments. We had a bassoon, we had a bass drum. And we also used conventional instruments like violin in very interesting ways. Like we were trying to find like, if we strain the sound, how can that affect the story and how can it tell the story? Yeah, so that was a very exciting, very experimental work that we did.

MA: And just human voices as an instrument itself. Like not necessarily in terms of just seeing songs with lyrics, like he said, but also, if the voice were to work, say, like a bassoon or like a violin, you know, what are some of the potentials that you can work there? That was really her interest and her focus.

II: So it was really interesting thing to explore because that show was about kids going through a wilderness therapy camp, which is not something that you have in Singapore, but is very popular in the United States to set kids straight. And it sort of talks about those teenagers and the trauma that they’ve been through. And we’re trying to find a performance vocabulary to talk about their experiences in a new way, other than just the words. So we were thinking “ooh, let’s use music then”.

NS: So this was an existing script.

MA: Correct.

NS: And you asked the playwrights for permission?

II: Yep, for the rights and everything.

NS: Did you also have to ask them like can we also add music to it? Or how does that work?

II: Not really. When we found the script itself in the authors intro section, they said, “Yah, you can do anything you want to do” like they were quite flexible about a lot of things. So like, in the original show, actually, they use – because it was based on interviews with the actual parents of the participants of wilderness therapy. Like they use the actual videos but of course for us we were like “can’t be lah”. It’ll be weird and disjointed. They were like “take any creative liberties you want with it”. As long as the essence of the story still came through. Okay,

NS: So the music was original.

II: Yeah. So it was a combination of original music and like arrangements of like, like some Karaoke songs.

NS: Okay, who is Erika? Is she part of the group?

MA: Sorry, Erika is Erika Poh. She’s actually our friend from JC. And so she was the music director in the original founding committee. Yeah, she was also the music director for that show. And because for her composing was really her passion. So there’s something that – so she actually took a gap year that year, and she really just worked on this project among others. Yeah. And now she is at USC doing composing.

NS: There is a sense that people who founded the company in the first year or whatever, like, don’t have to, continue – this sense of… continuation. Yeah. So what is that like?

MA: So in a sense, it is quite interesting and quite fresh. It keeps things fresh, you know, like, every time you have new people, it means you get new experiences, you get new ideas, you get new opinions. And that is always definitely very nice, especially when you are talking about how do you – especially when you’re in the process of like, building a collective like we are. It’s always good to have all these different experiences and opinions. And that has been very nice.

II: In addition to that, I think that sort of constant refreshing of the committee is very important to us, because at the start we were very sure that we didn’t want it to be personality-based. So we didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, this person is the face of the company”. And then after that, it becomes about like that person or that person’s creative vision, which is we understand how that works in the industry in general, but for us, we were thinking that we are mostly a platform, we don’t want to be that thing that directs people to do this that.

We wanted to make sure that as much as possible, we sort of refresh the company. So some of our offices have term limits. So, for me, creative director, I have a term limit of two years, to make sure that you know. And I’m already working with the next creative director to work things out about how to move forward. Yeah, because we wanted to make sure that everyone had a chance to be in the committee, but also, contribute to it. Yeah.

NS: It’s quite interesting also, because with some of the discussions that we’ve had in the arts scene in general, has been about succession. And how that often is not talked about or dealt with sufficiently like early on. In a sense you’ve built it into the structure.

II: We were reading about things like, The Finger Players and stuff like that. And they were talking about, you know, how they are moving on with succession and we were like, “Oh, that’s cool”, because that really resonated with us. So we decided that we wanted to put it into the DNA of the company to constantly be refreshing itself.

MA: And I think in some sense, it was also a practical concern as well. Because a lot of us we are not doing this full time. It’s sort of something that we are doing in addition to like, say, studies or work and so it is understandable that maybe our commitment periods may not be as long as, say, in the professional industry, you know, where this is their livelihood and stuff. So we wanted to be able to account for that.


Wilderness by The Runaway Company. Photo: Michael Chow


NS: Yeah, you guys are kind of like in a transition stage of your lives, right?

II: Yes, a lot of us are.

NS: Going back to like, the idea of music and theatre right, when you were first starting out or even now, are there misconceptions of the work you do? Or musical theatre?

II: From what I see, definitely. I think when we say integration of music and theatre that is generally a very loose term. So wherever we say “music and theatre”, people always think musical theatre. So it’s a natural connection that you make.

But at the same time, I think sometimes, yah, there are misconceptions about what we do. But I think if you are a repeat audience member, you will sort of see that “oh, my God, wait, this is completely different from the previous production”. And we realised that actually, yeah, we are trying to just find ways to play around with music and theatre and see how it works out lah. And not necessarily moving beyond musical theatre, because musical theatre is an important genre on its own, but at the same time just finding other permutations.

MA: Which is literally in the name.

NS: I think that’s cool. So both of you are young practitioners. How old are you?

MA: We are both 21 this year.

NS: A very young 21. So how do you guys feel, being young practitioners, right, being in this scene, what is important to you or what concerns you?

II: I think, for me, mostly, is the issue of accessibility. So I was watching An Actress Prepares a few years back at the Singapore Theatre Festival, and Siti K saying that –Oh, yes love Siti K– she wanted to get into The Necessary Stage’s ensemble programme, but she didn’t have enough funds to enter it and get the training. And I was sitting there in the audience thinking, “Oh, my God, we were so close to not having like, this performance”, you know, this show, or even her in general, right. And then I sort of thought about it and I realised that this issue of accessibility is something that is quite real.

I mean, we always talk about things like privilege and income inequality, and how sometimes that bars people from even entering industries, like the arts, you know. Especially because the arts has quite a high barrier to entry lah, you have to be trained, and there’s the whole politics around it.

So it’s quite difficult but at the same time, I think, I find that it’s important to have the arts be as accessible as possible. And I think that’s part of the reason why I feel that The Runaway Company is also very important is because we are providing quite literally a free platform for people –for youths– who just want to like try out theatre or music, and just like do it for free. We’re providing the platform and you can literally just develop yourself and grow in your skills

MA: Just build experience.

II: And we think that that kind of space is so hard to come by. If you are, for example, even a performer and you want to – you have so many companies you can enter but you have to the audition and you’re going up against professional and it’s such a… and you’re just wanting to try out, you know, you’re not a professional yet. And then they like you know, they get maybe discouraged. Or they realise “oh, maybe this is not for me, because I don’t have the training”.

But for us, it’s just like, yeah, just try. Like even like the idea that you know, even if you don’t necessarily have the experience, but you have that passion and drive, like the rest of us to just like, do music and theatre, you can like join us sort of thing. So you’ll find a way and we’ll work with you and we’ll try to see how to make things work. Yeah, so I think that’s one thing that is important.

Yeah, related to accessibility also, like what he was saying, I feel like if you join a professional production, there is that expectation that you are going to continue in this line of livelihood for the rest of your life, which is not something that people our age especially, are interested in. Or maybe some people our age, they’re not sure whether they want to do it or not. Or maybe it’s just like a hobby for them. You know, like they’re interested in pursuing other paths in life, but theatre and music is a passion of theirs and it may just be a temporary thing that they want to you know, experience and be a part of.

And so The Runaway Company provides that platform, I think, without that expectation,

NS: I saw on your website that your audience, the average age of your audience is 20 years old. Yeah. Is that very important to you to get young people as audience members of the kind of shows that you make?

II: I think, yeah, definitely. The youth audience sector is definitely a big part of why we want to do this, because we want to make sure that not only are we telling the stories of youths, we want to see youths be represented on stage. And I think it’s important that youths can see themselves on stage and realise that, you know… And I think is that thing where people think that youth issues are trivial.

MA: Teen angst.

II: Or just like millennials being millennials. But at the same time, these are real issues, and these are things that we need to think about because youths are the future. Therefore it’s important to address it, you know, and I think yeah, having that sort of audience is very encouraging to us lah. It’s something quite quite important.

NS: So last question: what gives you hope?

MA: I think the drive of our participants and so far everybody that we have worked with, they have a genuine interest in what they do and a genuine drive to do the best in whatever they are doing in this area. And I mean, that is a large part of the battle won. If you have that motivation and you have the drive to be your personal best. I think that gives a lot of hope for me personally.

II: I think tagging on to that. Not just the passion for me, but also the stories and the fact that every youth out there has a particular story to tell. And I don’t think we’ll ever run out of that, ever. And that’s something that sort of like drives me, in a sense, because you realise that we need to do this, you know, we need to have that platform to uplift this kind of voices and especially voices that may not necessarily be heard often. And that’s something that yeah, that really gives me hope.

NS: Thank you so much.

II: Thank you so much.

NS: All the best for The Story of Tonight.

MA: Thank you.

NS: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. So hopefully people all buy tickets and you guys are doing temperature screenings right?

MA: Oh yes, we are abiding by all the precautions.

II: If anyone is worried, we are abiding by the book–

MA: Even for our participants, not just the audience.

NS: That’s great. Thank you so much.

Both: Thank you.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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