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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

This is what succession looks like: The Finger Players

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By Corrie Tan
(3,800 words, 15-minute read)

 

I. “They are constantly making magic look like it’s very simple.”

You could call it love at first sight – the moment Ellison Tan and Myra Loke encountered The Finger Players, they knew they wanted to work with the beloved Singaporean theatre company. For Myra, that show was Cat, Lost & Found (2009); for Ellison, it was Turn By Turn We Turn (2011). Their reactions were strikingly similar:

Ellison: “I was like, wow, oh my God, this is amazing. I want to work with them. I was really, really taken by the company.”

Myra: “I think I told myself that this is the company that I want to work with. And then after that, all the subsequent shows that really like – mmm, yes. I want.”

Their fondness for The Finger Players is movingly palpable; here in the company’s quiet second-floor studio in the Cairnhill Arts Centre, they conjure up memories before me – of a company that’s made its name by overturning what audiences expect of puppetry. For these brand-new joint artistic directors, the clincher was the tightly knit ensemble, the precision and care and vulnerability of the performers on stage revealing themselves to the public and demonstrating quiet but extraordinary skill with their puppets and objects. 

Myra says: “I was blown away by how simple the set-up was. You could actually see people manipulating it, or how they did it – but it just looks very magical. […] Even after going into apprenticeship and seeing these people work, I think they are constantly making magic look like it’s very simple. I think it’s that effortlessness that is really very amazing.”

This isn’t the first leadership change that The Finger Players has gone through. In 2004, former company director Chong Tze Chien joined the group when he was – like Ellison and Myra – on the cusp of turning 30. The company’s co-founder and long-time artistic director Tan Beng Tian had invited him to take the reins and to help shift the image of the company, which had been struggling to develop new audiences and, as a children’s theatre company, wasn’t being taken seriously as they’d have liked. Beng Tian, now in her 50s, has been with the company since its departure from The Theatre Practice’s Children’s Unit in 1999 – when the fledgling group had to rehearse on the car porch of her mother’s home, having converted half the living room into office and storage space. 

“Turn By Turn We Turn” by The Finger Players. Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

The company’s come a long way since then, presenting an astonishing repertoire of work that I often feel almost reverential about recalling. There are the shows I missed that were told to me in breathless, excited detail, like the maritime journeys of Furthest North, Deepest South (2004), or the domestic excavations of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2005). My supercut of the past decade would look something like this: 

· my barely controlled sobs during Poop! (2009), where a terminally ill young girl confronts the death of her father, as well as her own mortality – especially the precise shifts in perspective conveyed by the clever use of objects as scale, like when little Emily holds her mum’s hand on the MRT and we magically telescope between mother and child;

· Oliver Chong playing an entire chorus of Chinese villagers in his one-man show Roots (2012), and then his agonised, muffled cries into a bed of rice as he struggles with the gaps in his family’s history and the burden of being forever root-less, forever orphaned; 

· the spiralling cosmos of The Book of Living and Dying (2013), which confounded me on my first watch and then entranced me on my second, and seemed to house entire galaxies and universes within the confines of a black box, moving through hundreds of years and unravelling deeply intimate histories in 90 minutes;

· the hilariously uncouth white dog of Citizen Dog (2018) padding its way past seductive fox spirits and dark magic and expiring housing leases – an incredible production that played, unfortunately, to a half-empty theatre; 

· and the life-changing gift of a chest of traditional Chinese hand puppets that set the stage for Turn By Turn We Turn (2011), some of which I had the pleasure of turning over in my own palms, then see their flat and silken forms swell to life on stage.

 

Myra and Ellison in rehearsals for “Turn By Turn We Turn”.

 

I’m lingering on Turn By Turn We Turn because it happens to be a play about a puppet troupe finding a way to continue their work over the decades – about a puppet master continuing his father’s legacy, making difficult decisions to survive, and how each generation of new students must move with the times and trust that something beautiful and timeless will remain. It sets up the theatre company as family and leadership as inheritance – and questions about how life imitates art. 

There’s a narrative that’s been put together about the journey of The Finger Players as it makes its way through a significant transition. And I do think this narrative is an important one. It reflects the challenges of being a “major” theatre company in Singapore today that is subject to a specific rubric of what public impact and artistic excellence means, and the burnout that long-time practitioners face maintaining this; it also takes us through what it feels like to be younger theatre practitioners deciding that they will commit to this process despite how daunting it has already proven to be – and what it means to remain true to the ethos of a company while remaking it anew.

 

II. “I think both our hearts dropped a bit—”

When The Finger Players put out a call for apprentices in 2014, Ellison and Myra were instantly keen to participate in the two-year programme. They each made tough decisions, setting aside other engagements to focus on training and being a part of the company. Now, I can feel echoes of this in their decision to set aside personal projects in order to lead The Finger Players for the next three years. 

Their appointment initially came as a surprise to me, because for the large part of the past two years they’d publicly invested a great deal of time and effort into building up their own collective dedicated to theatre for the very young, called The Wanderlings. The group had slowly but surely been developing their repertoire with two popular mobile productions: You Can Reach The Sky (2017; for 6- to 18-month-olds) and Tape Tape World (2019; for all ages). At the same time, I could sense the profound influence that their work with The Finger Players has had on You Can Reach The Sky, a beautiful, immersive encounter for infants filled with dramatic imagery and intimate moments, and a lot of soft, inviting objects and textiles that, in the hands of the performers, transform into an entire party of animals and plants.

It wasn’t an easy decision for them to make. When the company’s core team invited them to take over in the first quarter of this year, they didn’t say yes immediately. 

Myra says: “I think both our hearts dropped a bit—”

“A LOT,” Ellison interrupts.

Myra continues: “We were like, oh, okay. Wanderlings cannot do already. I think that was our first reaction. And after maybe like five minutes – to me, I always think that there’s always a way. We will just do it. Maybe it will be a bit more difficult, but we will do it.”

Ellison and Myra in “Tape Tape World”. Photo: Joe Nair

 

As it stands, I’m not sure how they have time for our two-hour chat. It’s the last day of August and the beginning of a mad month for them. Myra is flying off for Norway early the next morning to take part in the annual gathering of ASSITEJ – the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. Ellison’s directing a dramatised reading of a brand-new play by Zee Wong at Centre 42’s sprawling Late-Night Texting – the following weekend, her own play tracing the personal and political histories of a struggling multilingual radio station, Let Go Lightly, will get a reading as part of the Singapore Chinese Language Theatre Alliance’s New Works Festival. All this, on top of putting together a new board, hiring new staff members, and taking on a new set of grant proposals so that The Finger Players can stay on the National Arts Council’s Major Company scheme.

They asked for a month to think the decision over – they recall a brutally frank meeting mapping out pros and cons at a cafe in the Paragon shopping mall, as well as a slew of meetings with people they consider mentors and respected members of the industry (such as Tay Tong, Sharon Tang, Kok Heng Leun, Elvira Holmberg, and Michele Lim). And as they talked through their options they started to get a clearer sense of what they wanted to do for the company, and their list of “pros” began to overtake the “cons”. They began to get excited about expanding outreach programmes, giving older puppets a second life, overturning the previous model of operations and introducing new ways of working.

One of their ideas involves rendering visible the hard work behind the invisible magic that first enchanted them. One of the signatures of The Finger Players, the duo agree, is that the company creates work from “top to bottom” – collectively designing puppets, making them, building props and the set, and then performing in their own shows. The pair wants to focus on not just the cultivation of performance skills, but also on designing and making. Myra says: “Personally, I’m a maker, and I know that it’s very difficult to earn a living, and it’s not a very recognised [position] – you’re not a set designer, you’re not a performer, you’re not a director – you’re a builder.” So they’re hoping to establish a research and development platform in this area for a position essential to the creation process but often overshadowed by others. They’re calling it “The Maker’s Residency” at the moment, styling it after an artist’s residency – and the idea is that one selected maker will take part in a year-long programme that will allow them to research, develop and eventually helm a project with an object or puppet as the starting stimulus.

 

III. “If we let go too late, only when we retire, it’s not fair to them.”

As I was rifling through digital newspaper archives for the relationship between the Singaporean arts landscape and the notion of “succession”, I was struck that most of the search results turned up political reporting and commentary about governments changing hands. Closer to home, there’s an unavoidable whiff of the familial in our political leadership and grouses about “dynastic” succession. It makes me wonder if this is the best term to use when it comes to the arts, and if our ideas of artistic leadership are entangled with this sticky metaphor that sets long-time artistic directors as heads of families, whose personal visions – while very often exciting and extraordinary – may run the danger of eclipsing a company’s broader and more long-term ethos and mission. (Singapore strikes me as having an unprecedented number of spouses running arts companies.) At the same time, many theatre companies in Singapore have been stretching and adjusting themselves to operate more sustainably, and beyond the lifespan of the current leadership – whether it’s Wild Rice’s decision to build a physical theatre, or Drama Box’s quiet, fluid transition that has seen associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling gradually taking over, or Teater Ekamatra’s different “eras” under different artistic directors, and its continued dedication to mentorship platforms for nurturing emergent artists that have spawned other active collectives.

Beng Tian is deeply aware of this. She tells me: “When I got Tze Chien to come in, that was also a transitional point […] I found it important to revamp the image of the company, and Tze Chien really helped propel The Finger Players to a different level. So many years down the road, he also knows the importance of legacy, and therefore we decided to let the youngsters try. We need to give them a number of years to experiment and fail and try again. If we let go too late, only when we retire, it’s not fair to them.”

The Finger Players’ Tan Beng Tian. Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

It’s with Tze Chien, who’s in his mid-40s, that the familial metaphor gains further traction: “If you raise children, when they hit their teens, they want things for themselves – that’s only right. As a parent, you want to give them the necessary resources for them to thrive as adults. But the way that we were spreading resources so thinly among ourselves, it would not be fair to us and it wouldn’t be fair to them if we’d kept going the way that we were doing it under the old model. Something’s got to give. We want the company to be better, and I thought about succession planning as well. [Kuo] Pao Kun died in his 60s. Mortality is something that you need to prepare for, inevitably. And I don’t want succession to be an inevitable measure, when you can’t help it.”

In early November 2018, a post went up on The Finger Players’ Facebook page explicitly discussing the restructuring of the company and what its “succession plan” might look like.

With the present in-house artists being mostly in their 40s and 50s, we ask ourselves this: can the company survive beyond the lifespan of its founders and first generation of artists? 

Can we roll out a succession plan to ensure the longevity of the company, one that goes beyond the lifespans of its artists and creatives?

The post announced that the company would be “dropping all conventional labels” to move a little “closer to a collective”, and would instead “convene a core team” of “independent artists”. I’d interviewed the group back in 2014, for their 15th anniversary celebrations, and their striving for collectivism was pronounced even then. Tze Chien had said: “Because we work as a collective, it’s very important that before we develop the craft, we develop the artist. We don’t dictate what the artist should do. Instead, it’s the other way round. The artist would express what he wants to do and The Finger Players will try its best to support that vision.”

He continues to stress this today, that The Finger Players remains an “open resource centre” for artists and that collaboration is “inherent in its DNA”. There is a group of practitioners who have come to be closely associated with the company, including director-playwright Oliver Chong (whose one-man show A Fiend’s Diary opens this week), sound designer Darren Ng and lighting designer Lim Woan Wen. The new rotating three-year artistic directorship grew out of this desire for the spirit of the collective to continue.

But we also take some time to unpack what Tze Chien’s 15-year role as company director has meant for the company in more structural ways – not just its artistic trajectory, where his vision and voice have been very distinctive – but also his approaches to producing, administration, and managing the company’s finances, among other things. He talks about complete physical exhaustion, and his frustration at having to divide his limited time and attention between the company’s administrative development and his craft of playwriting. Stepping down has allowed him more time to let ideas percolate and germinate. “I don’t want to think about these things anymore,” he says, “I want to have someone else to do it. The producers, the marketeers, the publicists. That should be their job, not my job.”

It’s a blunt statement, but if several duties went undelegated in the unforgiving role of the company director, it  happened “unconsciously”. As Tze Chien puts it: “I think personally I ended up […] doing all these things, all this knowledge is contained within me. Which means that my publicist, or whoever, will have no idea how to execute without me telling them what to do. So you’re not actually nurturing thinkers. You’re just nurturing soldiers to execute an order.”

This sounds like a flawed system to me, and I say so. He acknowledges this: “I’m the solution – and also the problem, you see.” Pause. “So… I have to take myself out, right?”

The Finger Players’ core member, Chong Tze Chien

 

Ellison notes that this isn’t unique to The Finger Players, that companies might “really pump in a lot of resources to grow artists, but they don’t really focus on growing a management team”. Both Tze Chien and Beng Tian are candid about the fiscal and operational challenges the company has been facing, particularly in its push to move from their comfort zone of black box spaces (80-120 seats) to larger mid-sized venues like the Victoria Theatre (500-600 seats). Especially when ticketed attendance at arts events is in a national slump: according to the arts council, this declined by 12 per cent from just over 2 million in 2012 to 1.81 million in 2016. Part of the three-month restructuring process that The Finger Players went through last year looked at ways to make the company more financially sustainable, to balance artistic integrity with a healthy revenue. I do a quick check of the company’s profit and loss statements published on its website; the most recent report ends in 2017 and about $105,000 in the red, although this may have changed since then.

For Beng Tian, one of the practical priorities of the company is to build up its financial reserves. “And to me, this is not an easy task, [Ellison and Myra] are not spoonfed, they really have to start from scratch – like what I did when we first started out,” she says.

 

IV. “Making mistakes is crucial.”

Stepping away from The Finger Players has allowed its former leaders the space and time to reflect on their own development as artists. Beng Tian has left the company to focus on her own practice in making accessible theatre, particularly for communities with disabilities. When we speak over the phone, she’s halfway through a day of spring-cleaning at home. 

She laughs: “I brought a lot of stuff back from the office – I’ve accumulated a room full of stuff! Because The Finger Players was my second home, there’s a lot of things I have to clear, and I’ve been busy cleaning and sorting out my life. And also, once it’s done, I can sit back and reflect on my past work. […] A lot of artists have no time to sit down and assess our own work, to critique our own work and see how we can progress. I don’t want to just keep going forward blindly and always use the same old bag of tricks. I think I had to really look back and see what I’d been doing, and what I had not, and make myself explore some more.” 

This theme of self-reflexivity comes up with Tze Chien as well: “Mentorship is good for me because as I’m explaining, and trying to unpack my processes, I’m also hearing it for myself. And I have to think about it systematically, scaffolding it in such a way that while it makes sense to other people, it also clarifies a lot of my processes for myself too.” 

Ellison and Myra do want to build up their own repositories of knowledge about what it’s like to run a theatre company – so that this body of knowledge isn’t located solely in the bodies of their predecessors. 

Ellison and Myra in The Finger Players’ “Samsui Women”.

 

But it’s a terrifying prospect, and Myra admits that her greatest fear is disappointing people. She picks her way through the next few sentences, which are rife with pauses: “I think because… The Finger Players has a certain amount of history and a certain reputation that we are inheriting. So… I mean of course I’m worried [about] whether or not I’m up for it. […] There are a lot of responsibilities that we have to uphold to the industry, to the artists, to ourselves, to the founders, to our audience.”

Ellison spends a long time mulling over this question, and the studio fills up with a thick silence. She finally says: “I’ve always struggled with my identity in The Finger Players, because I don’t think I’m an exceptional puppeteer. I definitely cannot build or design things. I don’t have production experience, so I can’t support them in any way. I didn’t see myself as being particularly strong actor at the time [during my apprenticeship]. I felt like I was just there because they were nice and everyone was really supportive.” She winces and laughs. “Yah lor. So that’s why whenever people equate me with The Finger Players, I would always feel a bit self-conscious…”

And now? “I feel that even more, now that this has happened.”

I feel the unmistakable ache of imposter syndrome, and I understand its burden. At a dialogue session on the future of Chinese-language theatre organised by the Singapore Chinese Language Theatre Alliance in mid-September, Ellison parried questions about moving out of Kuo Pao Kun’s long shadow, and what it means to establish one’s identity as a playwright beyond a relationship to his lineage of contemporary Singaporean theatre. 

This makes me think of queer kinships, and how there are families we are born into – and families we make. I think this fretting over a sense of belonging is also a kind of gift. We’re seeing the beginnings of a new kind of gathering, one that doesn’t fit so easily into metaphors of nucleated family structures. In Karen Savage and Dominic Symonds’ recent book Economies of Collaboration in Performance, they pay attention to the popularity of the collective as a way of working in 21st-century arts groups, where in performance collectives like Forced Entertainment or Gob Squad, “membership is fluid and evolving […] and there exists an element of freedom within collectivism that enables the individual to move in and out of participation” (2018: 16). 

Ellison and Myra still have their personal projects, but they’ve also accrued a variety of experiences in various other arts companies, including work with Drama Box, The Necessary Stage, Nine Years Theatre, and soft/WALL/studs. A healthy ecology also means a diverse gene pool and lots of cross-pollination, and the varied work that they’ve taken up feels like good proof of this.

Beng Tian recalls being swept off her feet by their exceptional work ethic and respect for their craft, and feeling an immediate sense of kindredness. She says that the only reason she’s been able to let go of a company she’s steered for 20 years is because “I know it’s in great hands” – she wouldn’t have stepped down otherwise. “When I first started The Finger Players, I learnt from a lot of mistakes. It’s what groomed me and grew me, and what gave me the confidence I have now in life. I shouldn’t take that away from them. Making mistakes is crucial. I hope they go ahead boldly, and I’m always around to support them.” 

And judging by the outpouring of love and celebration when their directorship was first announced, I think Ellison and Myra can expect this support from the theatre community too. You’ll be ok. We’ve got you.

 

References

Adeline Chia. (2010). “Staging a succession plan”, The Straits Times, August 2. 

Adeline Chia. (2009). “Wanted: More leaders for the arts industry”, The Straits Times, August 2.

Corrie Tan. (2014). “Puppet masters from Finger Players want company to become an academy for artists”, The Straits Times, September 16.  https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/puppet-masters-from-finger-players-want-company-to-become-an-academy-for

Corrie Tan. (2011). “The Monday Interview with Chong Tze Chien”, The Straits Times, August 29.

Karen Savage & Dominic Symonds. (2018). Economies of Collaboration in Performance. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

National Arts Council. (2018). Our SG Arts Plan 2018-2022. https://www.nac.gov.sg/dam/jcr:d8c447f2-078f-4566-b722-10e750c5495b

 

Related coverage

Ong Sor Fern. (2019). “A new generation of puppeteers”, The Straits Times, August 27. https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/a-new-generation-of-puppeteers

Sam Kee. (2019). “Interview with Ellison Tan & Myra Loke – New Phases, New Faces for The Finger Players,” Arts Republic, September 10.

https://artsrepublic.sg/backstage/interview-with-ellison-tan-and-myra-loke-new-phases-new-faces-for-the-finger-players/

 


The Finger Players core team member Oliver Chong’s new production, A Fiend’s Diary, runs from Oct 24 to 27 at the Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore. Tickets are available here.

Corrie Tan is resident critic and contributing editor with ArtsEquator.

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