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Producers Lab: “What if we do it this way?” | Banupriya Ponnarasu, Mark Benedict Cheong and Deanna Dzulkifli

Have you ever been a part of a project in the arts, and felt something needed changing? Or have you been either the creator or spectator of a programme, and went away from it thinking, “what if we do it this way?” ?

“What if we do it this way?” was the title of a Producers Lab organised by Producers SG, which ran from October 2021 to March 2022. 

The professional development programme comprised a total of 15 independent arts managers, producers, self-producing artists and artist-producers based in Singapore. Participants engaged in workshops, guest lectures, and Open Space-format discussions to explore and reflect on the diverse issues in the arts, including processes of creating and producing in a Covid-19 endemic world. 

Participants also had to conceive and develop a proposal for a speculative project, which asked “What if we do it this way?”, with “this” referring to a specific issue or project they wanted to address within the context of the arts space in Singapore. 

I spoke to 3 participants from the Producers Lab: Banupriya Ponnarasu (Banu), Mark Benedict Cheong, and Deanna Dzulkifli, to find out more about their experience and the issues and speculative projects they each explored in the 6-month programme.

[Interviews were edited for grammar and organised/condensed for clarity]

“What if we do TRADITIONAL ARTS PROGRAMMING this way?” by Banupriya Ponnarasu

Image courtesy of Producers SG.

 1) Tell me a bit about yourself and some practices that you identify with, in the context of the “Producers Lab: What if we do it this way?”. 

I started out as a Bharathanatyam practitioner, at Apsaras Arts Ltd, with an interest in Arts Management. After finishing my arts management degree at LASALLE College of the Arts, I started working professionally with Apsaras Arts, and then the Singapore Drama Educators’ Association (SDEA). 

I didn’t start my career as a producer, but I think it all started with me wanting to really remedy gaps and issues that I faced as an arts practitioner. 

[One such issue] was the identity of a traditional arts practitioner in Singapore — what does it mean to be one? And even if I am one, why do I feel like we are usually sidelined?

I realised that I wasn’t the only one who faced such issues and that many others faced similar issues as well. These included issues in the context of criticism, feedback for growth, professional development and questions such as “is it just performance for performance’s sake?”. 

Reflecting about all that I had done led to the creation of the Scarlet Mela Festival of the Arts (Incubation Programme). When “What if we do it this way?” came out, I thought it would be the catalyst for me to think deeper about this project.  This also became my first official work in producing. I identify as a creative producer, as I am still a practicing artist aside from creating the festival as well. 

2) Tell me a bit more about the Scarlet Mela Festival of the Arts

Scarlet was about the coming together of independent traditional arts practitioners in Singapore, mainly targeting the youth. 

The incubation programme provided a small stipend for them to work with, and Scarlet held four different workshops, mainly to provide tools and techniques to help with their work’s development. Participants also received consultations with creative consultants from the festival team, who helped to scaffold their ideas and “brew” it a little bit more. The dancers then did a work-in-progress presentation, about 5–10 minutes each, and a small choreographed bit, incorporating costumes and fellow dancers as part of the work. 

It also gave these practitioners a very neutral space to think out of the box, and see how they can evolve as an artist. So it was very artist-centric, and it focused a lot on their process and art-making, instead of the output.

What was mind-blowing to me was how all 10 of the participants actually presented 10 different, unique presentations.  And I think what was heart-warming was seeing people who were never really open to watching traditional arts, or never knew what traditional arts practitioners were like in terms of personality and work, get to know them a little bit and think “wow, I didn’t know you could do this with your traditional arts form.” So I think that was a tiny little breakthrough for me. 

3) What were some specific activities that you felt was helpful to you during the process of “What if we do it this way?” ? And did you feel that this helped you find any answers to the issues and questions you set out to explore during this process? 

My favourite was the consultation session. Having to hear from another producer, who has much more experience [than me], gave me a lot of “eureka” moments, in terms of thinking perspective, and it helped to restructure my thought process.  

The workshops were really useful as well, in equipping us with different kinds of tools and strategies to use as a form of inspiration and motivation in broadening our minds to the possibilities of doing things differently. 

I think the biggest question for me has always been: how are the myriad programmes in the traditional arts sector creating a ripple effect for people to want to do better, and create a new ecosystem of traditional arts practitioners who can provide a space for growth and constant involvement? 

With Producers SG, I really learnt a lot about that in terms of watching how everyone worked together, built upon each other, and grew as a team. Despite other commitments, they were still able to practise with care and nurture our fellow artists at the same time. 

“What if we LOWER THE BARRIER this way?” by Denise Dolendo and Mark Benedict Cheong 

Image courtesy of Producers SG.

1) Tell me a bit about yourself and some practices that you identify with, in the context of the “Producers Lab: What if we do it this way?”.

 I’m [Mark], an arts manager, and I work as part of the full-time Secretariat at the SDEA. Outside of that, I also write, make theatre, and play too many games. 

2) Why did you apply to be a part of “What if we do it this way?” ? 

I’m at a point in my career where I have to think quite carefully about what I want to do in the future, and how to sustain that. And opportunities for this kind of professional development are very rare. I also really admire the people in Producers SG, and getting to know that network of arts managers and producers beyond my current circle was something that I really needed and got, at the end of the day. 

3) Tell me a bit more about your speculative project, “What if we LOWER THE BARRIER this way?”.

I saw a need to improve the fluidity between people of different skill levels. I think Singapore has a “professionalising” [arts] scene, which is good, and which I definitely advocate for as well. But as we do that, as the industry continues to professionalise and established organisations strengthen their roots, I saw a need for younger artists to also receive opportunities and support to explore the arts at varying levels and stages of development.  

When I started talking about the speculative project with Denise [Dolendo, my friend from The Second Breakfast Company], she spoke about utilising neighbourhood spaces for young artists. Both our ideas came together and formed something completely different, namely, our project, “What if we LOWER THE BARRIER (of entry)”, which was about lowering the barrier of entry for people who wanted to explore the arts. 

The realisation we both faced was Singapore (in its pursuit of professionalisation) doesn’t have a strong enough avenue for people who want to pursue theatre as a hobby. A lot of the way the National Arts Council (NAC) looks at engagement is through consumption. But they don’t look enough at people who engage in a deeper way, although not to the point where they professionalise. 

I always hear people say, “Oh I took drama in school, and it was really fun,” but then the fun just stops there. There’s a need for that “amateur drama” scene to develop, because that’s how people who are curious about the scene explore without having to spend thousands of dollars on a class or on a Diploma just to explore. 

When someone’s interested in becoming a football player, the first step would probably be go to down to the void deck and play football with their friends. Right now, there’s no such “first step” for drama. 

So for us to deepen engagement with audiences, there needs to be that step, that ability for people to engage in drama on their own terms. Something with a lower barrier of entry for them to come. Maybe even just doing a play or a reading without having the need to be “professional”, and they could even get their friends to join them. 

4) Could you tell me a bit more about your process and experience, and how you benefited from both your project and the programmes of “What if we do it this way?” ?

I appreciated that a lot of views were brought in, in the form of speakers, both local and foreign. 

Something interesting was a talk by Clarence Ng, who’s based at the Yamaguchi Centre of Arts and Media (YCAM). He spoke about placemaking, how they created an open venue for artists and visitors with an open hierarchy, to allow children to play and education to happen, and how they built that community. 

The more practical workshops, such as Wang Liansheng’s on negotiation, was great, because that’s not information you can easily learn unless you’re trained in law or already have a lot of experience scrutinising contracts. It helps you avoid a lot of mistakes you would have made had this knowledge not been shared.

I think the network was important, the understanding of different people’s perspectives on certain things. You don’t get a lot of producers coming together like this, much in the same way that directors or playwrights have programmes which gather them together (such as TNS’s Playwrights’ Cove). 

“What if we do FUNDRAISING this way?” by Deanna Dzulkifli 

Image courtesy of Producers SG.

1) Tell me a bit about yourself and some practices that you identify with, in the context of the “Producers Lab: What if we do it this way?”.

I’m Deanna, my pronouns are she/her, and I would identify most with a producing practice, because I like making things happen. I say that with some hesitation because I’ve always had a bit of an issue trying to understand what kind of label I most identify with. Because for me, it’s more about what are my values? And what are my priorities? 

I’ve been back in Singapore after completing my studies since September 2020, freelancing since then in producing, production management, stage management, and project coordination. I’m also a Program Coordinator with Dance Nucleus. 

2) Why did you apply to be a part of “What if we do it this way?” ? 

Something about the community element of Producers SG really attracted me to the Producers’ Lab. I was also looking for ways to improve and upgrade myself, not only learning from people who were coming from different places than I was, but also from Producers SG’s current network and the resources which they provided us with such as lectures, talks and site visits. 

3) How did you come up with “What if we do FUNDRAISING this way?” ? And what were some of the issues that you wanted to explore along the way with this project? 

Within arts management, everyone has a different “in”, and a different starting point, which becomes the first lens that you take on. And over time, you have different lenses that you then change out. 

Shai [Mohamad Shaifulbahri] was the first person in the [arts] scene who spoke to me about what producers do, what producing was about, and he kind of just took me under his wing.  

With this, a lot of how I’ve been introduced to producing has been through the state grant funding model. Usually, the idea is you figure out what grants might be applicable to fund the project you’re doing. So that’s how I was exposed to producing and how I’ve been doing it since 2018. 

I’ve also met different artists along the way whose work I really feel strongly for, specifically, my relationship with Mervin Wong, an electronic music producer, which made me realise that the grant model perhaps is not necessarily designed to be applicable to every artistic pursuit. This made me wonder how I might approach alternative ways to fundraise. 

And surely I’m not alone in thinking about this, because that’s how businesses do it, with venture capitalists, different types of investing modes, individual donors etc. That was my original interest going into Producers’ Lab… me trying to see what I could do about this big topic of fundraising. 

4) Tell me a bit more about how you went about investigating fundraising in “What if we do FUNDRAISING this way?”.

My original idea was to interview a whole spectrum of people with different profile types, to understand the psychology behind giving and their intention. But slowly I started reflecting on what I was actually asking these people about – their relationship with money – and I realised that I didn’t know where I was coming from with these questions. 

I realised I needed a “pre-experiment” in order to ask the right questions when it came to gathering data points in order to map different funder profile types. I was also approaching it with the mentality that anyone can be a funder, not just an elusive millionaire sitting on a pile of cash, but having an engaged conversation with a person about their goals and desires. 

That’s what my project became about: essentially, it was me becoming a funder, so that I could put myself in those shoes, to understand and empathise better with what exactly I’m asking of people. I gave myself a small budget over over six months to fund different projects, in different capacities. The projects ranged from film-based work, fashion, dance and performance. What was important to me as a funder going into these projects was making sure that the money, the experience and the project, multiplies itself.

That meant dissemination [of the impact] after the projects needed to be significant for the artists, not just in terms of their career, but also in terms of what was their positionality? How were they framing it? And that realisation was already an example of a data point for me. as to what was important to a funder. I also realised that that was important to me because I came from an arts management background. It was very natural for me to think about the lifespan of a project, that for me, the effect should increase tenfold for the artist, until one day you see them being offered to play at a festival or something like that.

To find out more about Producers Lab: What if we do it this way?, you can view a copy of their Lab report hereProducers 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.
This content is sponsored by Producers SG. The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

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