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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Is this thing on? Singapore theatre in the midst of a pandemic

By Nabilah Said
(3,200 words, 10-minute read)

“Boosted by online efforts, support for Singapore theatre through the roof.” That would be a dream headline, wouldn’t it? Bit lengthy, sure – but it would tell us that the theatrical technological shift happening right at this very moment would be worth it. With COVID-19 shuttering live arts venues, and an economic crisis unfolding at our door, moving the work online has become a question not just of necessity but of survival.

In the early days of the pandemic, even before the government shut theatres on 27 March, The Necessary Stage was the first to respond by putting up an archive recording of its 2007 play, Good People, online for free. “At that point, we could sense a collective heaviness and dread—especially with shows being cancelled around the same time. I think [people] were already anticipating more cancellations ahead, and even the possible closures of theatres,” says TNS’ general manager Melissa Lim. “Personally, I think it’s crucial that we bring a sense of hope to our audience, and even more so during these times.”

True to the spirit of the adage “the show must go on”, theatremakers worked quietly behind the scenes to respond and adjust to the various government advisories and announcements that came in hard and fast from mid-January – from introducing temperature checks, to reducing audience capacities, and using various ways to ensure one-metre distances between audience members and even between performers. 

The industry was roiled as shows were cancelled – some voluntarily, in anticipation of what was to come, and others, forcibly, due to government measures. Four Horse Road by The Theatre Practice was the last live theatre show in Singapore before theatres went dark. It opened on 25 March and closed the next day – putting on just two out of 26 planned shows. Petrina Kow, who performed in the 2018 staging of Four Horse Road, was in the audience for that last show. “It feels like that happened a year ago. At that time we weren’t wearing masks yet,” she recalls. “There was this weird feeling of, ‘this is the first and the last’. It was bittersweet.”

Screengrab from The Theatre Practice Facebook

 

As theatres closed worldwide, the immediate instinct for some artists, in Singapore and worldwide, was to release archive footage. These recordings were often accompanied by links to company donation pages, urging viewers at home to consider making a contribution. Nine Years Theatre screened archive footage of five different titles, including Enemy of the People and Pissed Julie, each of which were made available for a week on its YouTube channel. These were titles which would not involve copyright issues when put online.  

Says company co-founder Mia Chee: “Very honestly, we were at first not quite certain that we wanted to make these archival recordings available for viewing, as there were already so many other free viewings online, of international productions that are recorded much more professionally than ours, which are really just recorded for archival purpose. But we gave it a shot nonetheless, as we really have nothing to lose!” 

The screenings of four past plays by Pangdemonium included a short opening statement by its co-artistic director Adrian Pang, which gave context about each work and why it was timely to screen it, akin to what might happen in real life in the theatre, though usually at the end of a show. On its Facebook page, Pangdemonium wrote about the importance of stories in this time: “stories of courage, of strength, of survival”. 

WILD Rice too came out in full force, releasing recordings of its shows under the banner of WILD@Home. These included the restaged versions of the Stella Kon classic Emily of Emerald Hill and Thomas Lim’s Supervision, which had been staged in its new theatre in Funan as recently as last September. To preserve an element of liveness, these week-long runs premiered with live watch parties on YouTube – usually with some of the show’s actors also commenting and responding to comments – and there were also live talkback sessions online towards the end of the runs. Emily attracted close to 150,000 views, Supervision garnered over 61,000 views. 

 

As Singaporeans eased into the circuit breaker (which started on 7 April and was extended till 1 June), the blending of technology and live elements into online shows started becoming more apparent. The Vault: Ties That Bind, an NUS Theatre Studies and Centre 42 project, was an experiment in utilising the functions of Zoom. In a Zoom Watch Party on 17 April, two plays, GEL and Old Lines New Meanings, were screened, involving performances which had been pre-recorded in Centre 42 before Singapore’s circuit breaker commenced. These had originally been planned to be performed live in Centre 42. 

In contrast to archived footage of a theatre show which often captures the entire stage in one frame, recorded by a single camera (unless you’re the UK’s National Theatre and can afford 8-camera recordings), the recordings for Ties That Bind were done in consideration of the viewer using a Zoom platform. Students performed directly to the camera, in individual shots; in some cases, it appeared as if they were looking at each other through their various Zoom boxes. 

Theatremaker Henrik Cheng, the show’s technical consultant, and Centre 42’s Daniel Teo worked together behind the scenes to deliver a show that would appear seamless through Zoom – no mean feat, given that the platform was designed for corporate teleconferencing. Daniel utilised Open Broadcaster Software to create specific layouts and effects, even using post-its on his computer screen to “spike” or mark the sizes of the performer’s individual screens, to ensure they could fit the desired layouts on Zoom. The Zoom version was “very much an adaptation for an online platform, of what was meant to be a live stage presentation”, says Daniel. 

Old Lines New Meanings even utilises archival footage of a work-in-progress showing to help audiences visualise how certain scenes were intended to be realised onstage, especially those that were heavily based on movement. But the students also used the opportunities presented by the Zoom platform that are not necessarily available for a stage presentation. For example, every performer of GEL employed two cameras, a primary (head-on) angle for a more direct performance to the audience, and a secondary, oblique angle that conveyed a sense of voyeurism,” he adds. 

Courtesy of AWARE

 

Interestingly, the first online livestream performance done on Zoom – with no pre-recorded segments – was a stand-up act organised by AWARE and performed by comedian Sharul Channa back in April. In Am I Old?, Sharul takes on the role of 68-year-old Savitri, speaking directly to the audience, asking them questions and responding to their reactions. The pay-what-you-can show captured insights from a 2019 AWARE study on eldercare, and was followed by a panel discussion. Over 300 people watched the livestream version that ran from 18-24 April, and it was brought back in early May. 

Staging the work on the Zoom platform came with its own unique quirks. For example, while audiences were put on mute to prevent disruption, they were encouraged to switch their cameras on to allow Sharul to “read the room”. As the jokes came hard and fast, the chat function was buzzing with “LOLs” and laughing emojis. Later, the comments became more earnest as the comedy act deepened into an emotionally revealing monologue about the realities of caregiving. Along with the short runtime of about 40 minutes, this helped keep the audience engaged.   

Says AWARE’s communication manager, Kelly Leow: “A participatory, fast-moving chat keeps the audience from feeling like they’re watching a pre-recorded video […] Zoom is simply a different medium from live in-person theatre, and there are trade-offs you have to make. What you lack in atmosphere and audience camaraderie, you perhaps make-up for in real-time feedback.”

The show was first performed by Sharul at the Drama Centre Black Box back in March. For the online performance, Sharul had to work to modulate her performance pitch, as she was always framed close-up. “Whereas in the theatre, we as the audience, still get to choose whether to take in the whole stage, the whole tableau, or focus only on the actor or a prop at any one moment. For screen images, it’s even more so heavily dictated by the angle/framing/blocking,” explains filmmaker Jasmine Ng, who sits on the board of AWARE. 

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

 

A show that also underwent an adaptation process is The Heart Comes To Mind by Checkpoint Theatre. Initially planned as part of the Esplanade’s The Studios season this year, it will now be realised as an online audio experience for audiences. The show, which is written by Lucas Ho, depicts the relationship between ageing writer Peter and his scientist daughter Lynn. It will run from 8 to 12 June, on a donate-as-you-wish basis, as part of The Studios Online

With many arts companies creating visual content, Checkpoint sets itself apart with this audio experience, which gives the audience a much-needed break from their screens. In creating this audio version, the team, which includes performers Oon Shu An and Julius Foo, worked with Shah Tahir as the show’s composer, sound designer, and audio engineer, as well as cellist Ryan Sim. The initial plan had been to do a video version – with the company working closely with Joel Lim of Calibre Pictures and Sweeky Collective, and James Khoo of Pangolin Films to calibrate everything from blocking and choreography that suited specific camera angles, to adjusting the lighting rig and set design – but the circuit breaker threw a spanner in the works.

“Our plans to film the live performance – which were to have taken place three weeks later – were halted. I then quickly decided to capture as much of the work-in-process as possible and one aspect of this was the audio recording of The Heart Comes to Mind […] We decided to turn the production into a full online theatrical experience. We wanted the work to meet an audience. If the audience couldn’t come to us, we would go to them,” says Checkpoint’s Claire Wong, who directs the show. 

“Miss Aruna Nair Teaches Plato’s Cave” by Michelle Tan, performed by Sindhura Kalidas, part of SRT’s Coronalogues.

 

The Singapore Repertory Theatre was the first to present brand new stories written in response to and/or in the context of the pandemic. The showcase, collectively titled The Coronalogues – Silver Linings, comprised nine pre-recorded plays which were presented on Facebook Live earlier this week (they can be found on SRT’s Facebook Page). SRT is also presenting live rehearsed readings of plays, including an upcoming one for Boom by Jean Tay on 5 June. The company worked with consultant Rafi Dean for these online endeavours, who not only recommended which hardware and software to use and helped ensure the smooth running of the live feed, but also ran master classes for the team so that they can eventually run such live activities in-house later.    

Coronalogues was funded by the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Digital Presentation Grant, part of the S$55 million Arts and Culture Resilience Package offered because of the effects of the pandemic. As of 22 May, NAC has supported more than 60 digitalisation projects. Applications for the grant, which gives out a maximum of S$20,000 per successful proposal, are currently open and have been extended till 31 July 2020. This means that audiences can expect many more different kinds of digital presentations from now till the end of the year. 

This prospect is both sobering and heartening. For many theatre companies, the online efforts are ways they can keep their connections with their audiences going, while waiting for theatres to re-open. Though fundraising has always been a regular part of a company’s work, the gentle prompts to their various donation pages is an indication of the larger uncertainty about the industry’s fate in the coming months. This hinges on the possible precautions that may still be required even after theatres re-open (this picture of a theatre in Wiesbaden, Germany, with its physically distanced audience members is a little heartbreaking), and, more to the point, if audiences will return. 

Photo: Susan Wolk, Twitter  

 

On its website, NAC acknowledges an emerging grouse, that digital experiences cannot replace live arts experiences. “While we also look forward to going back into the theatres to experience the arts fully, the reality is that for now, this is not possible,” it notes. The council positions digitalisation as a means to “cultivate a larger group of arts-embracing audience” and better future proof arts companies for the post-pandemic days. Notably, digitalisation is one of the priorities of Our SG Arts Plan (2018-2022). The plan, which was released in October 2018, noted that technology is “relatively underutilised in the arts and culture sector, lagging behind global leaders such as Australia and the United Kingdom”. It was envisioned that this picture would change by 2022. 

The clarion call to digitalise isn’t entirely bad. The digital space need not be a poor cousin of live theatre. It has the potential to be used to create distinct and experimental presentations. Henrik shares that in making content for online, theatremakers can borrow from the conventions of online videos, films, television as well as current telecommunication technology such as Zoom or Skype. Teater Ekamatra’s Baca Skrip: #_ , a monthly ticketed series of live Zoom readings of plays, utilises the “screen share” function for English surtitles. The first one, a reading of Irfan Kasban’s trilogy of plays, Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa, takes place today (Friday, 29 May).   

Theatremaker Jo Tan, who wrote new scripts for Coronalogues as well as Checkpoint Theatre’s upcoming online festival of music and storytelling, Two Songs and a Story, has started to use screenplay formats to write scripts, “since what viewers will see will translate more as a film than a play”. “I find it puts me in the right frame of mind, and also I quite liberally put in all my amateur little directions for angles or closeups that you might see in a screenplay script. Because I think that is something you have to be quite cognisant of, where the angles or the closeups make everything read differently,” she says. 

Online shows could perhaps even be considered as a kind of site-specific performance, suggests Centre 42’s Ma Yanling. Adds Henrik:“If the Zoom platform is seen as a site-specific space, if they were to fully utilise it, then they would go through the practices that a site-specific creator would typically do […] investigate and create to the space they are presenting their performance in.”

Henrik is also currently part of an international theatre show titled Long Distance Affair, which involves monologues performed live by theatre makers from six cities. As one of the show’s “navigators”, Henrik orientates the audience and sends them to different rooms to watch the performances, which happen simultaneously. The ticketed show utilises the “break room” function of Zoom, allowing audiences to watch monologues in small groups or even one-on-one. Singapore artists Jean Tay and Sabrina Sng are also involved. 

The Madrid show is actually a restaging of a play that Jean first wrote in 2013. It was performed through Skype for audiences in New York as well as for Edinburgh Fringe. Madrid-based performer Angel Peraba and Romanian director Ana Margineanu were involved in the original as well as the current staging. 

“It was always a bit scary to know that this was going to be a one-on-one interaction on Skype, and just wondering how the audience would respond to him […] I think that to create or find a unique connection with someone who’s in a totally different timezone from you is a very precious thing. Especially in these times of global isolation,” says Jean.

Mama White Snake by WILD Rice.

 

Technology has always been a great connector – with closed borders and lockdowns, even more so. Online shows allow people outside of Singapore to enjoy made-in-Singapore content. Responding to WILD Rice’s current online offering, Mama White Snake, a YouTube user wrote: “[…] today I waited to watch this with my friend in the UK, with me explaining the cultural references as best as this potato can…  We both enjoyed it so much! I hope lots more people abroad can see the richness of what Singapore has to offer! <3”.

Another major positive outcome of the increase in digital presentations is the improvement in accessibility, not least because most of them are offered for free. Being able to access a performance online gives audiences the freedom to watch a show anytime they want (subject to when the shows are made available), wearing whatever they want, with whoever they want, from the comforts of their own homes. Online videos with subtitles, panel discussions with simultaneous sign language interpreters, even the ability to turn off one’s camera during a Zoom performance or pause a YouTube video allows more people to enjoy online offerings in a way that invites us to reconsider whether traditional theatre spaces are more exclusionary than we think.   

As shows and even entire festivals like Singapore Writers Festival, Singapore International Festival of the Arts (or SIFA v2.020) and N.O.W Festival of Women go online, questions of audience engagement, access and even measurement metrics have to be reconsidered. Notions of value and worth are also up in the air when a lot of this online content is made free. On the one hand, this issue is about how theatre practitioners can continue to be paid for their work – and this conversation should be particularly attuned to the needs of production and technical practitioners as well. But on the demand-side, there are also twin fears: that people will not want to pay for the “real deal” once theatres are re-opened, and with an expected recession, that they would not be able to anyway.

Currently, the government, and to some extent, private donors, are picking up the tab to help keep the industry going. But for some in the industry, producing content is not the point. These voices call for artists to slow down, to reflect, to not add to the noise. Many still cannot bring themselves to watch any theatre shows online –  an act of rebellion for some, of mourning for others. Added to that is the pressure for practitioners to leave the industry, hopefully temporarily, but faced with very real questions of survival, perhaps not. 

For now, what truly underpins the efforts of theatremakers are a real desire to find meaning and connection with others, and a collective hope to go on. For the past few weeks, performer Izzul Irfan and his friend Hidayat Malik have been curating and reading found online texts on Instagram Live, on various viral topics – from the short-lived ban on home-based businesses, to the robot dog of our dystopian nightmares and the closure of McDonalds. These sessions, which emerged out of the pair’s boredom during this period, take place close to midnight. With a small but highly engaged audience, they feel very much like communion.

In one of the sessions, Izzul speaks to viewers while waiting for Hidayat to join him. He is dressed in an army t-shirt, the green blending harmoniously with the yellow of his bedroom walls. The video lags occasionally, but no one really minds – in fact it makes it feel more alive. “Today we go back to our roots. We’re just here to share.”


Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.

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