According to theatre lore, a lone bulb should always be lit even on an unoccupied stage to ensure that the theatre never “goes dark”. This year, as the pandemic forced many performing arts companies to close, this ghost bulb tradition was revived in many locations around the world — all Broadway theatres in New York City are said to have kept theirs going — to signify that they will reopen again.
In Singapore, this symbolic gesture can be seen in the opening scenes of local short film The Pitch, when Ivan Heng, artistic director of Wild Rice, stares wistfully at the company’s empty theatre at Funan Mall, the ghost light casting its glow on the stage.
The free-to-air short film, a collaboration between Singapore’s three leading theatre companies Pangdemonium, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Wild Rice, is a satirical take on the complex challenges facing arts companies in Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic. Directed by filmmaker Ken Kwek, the comedy takes viewers behind the scenes of a fictitious co-production between the companies. The film’s three leads — veteran theatre makers Heng, Gaurav Kripalani of SRT and Adrian Pang of Pangdemonium — grapple with the realities of trying to make art in a pandemic, including cash-flow problems, multiple safety protocols and an indefinite reopening timeline.
“Our entire industry is suffering, on a scale unlike anything we’ve experienced before. We have had practically no income since theatres closed at the beginning of the year. My biggest worry is the attrition rate and that it will take a long time to recover,” says Kripalani, artistic director of SRT.
In April, the company cancelled its staging of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse, just weeks from opening day. Since then, other cancelled highlights on this year’s lineup include its annual Shakespeare in the Park performance and an upcoming musical about Lee Kuan Yew. In light of the continued uncertainty about when live performances may be able to resume, Kripalani says the company will only plan for large scale shows in 2022.
This widespread cancellation is happening on a global scale. “Except for a handful of countries, the arts have come to a standstill globally,” Kripalani points out. For instance, Broadway in New York City will remain closed through late May next year.
Other segments of the performing arts industry are reeling too. At jazz bar Maduro, one of Singapore’s few small venues for live music, customers are still able to drop by for food and drinks, but there are no longer any performances.
“A lot of musicians have essentially lost a big chunk of their earnings and that bandstand experience and audience interaction is something that they have gone for months without,” says Maduro’s director Peter Ng.
He has teamed up with the National Arts Council to tap on its Digital Presentation Grant to set up live-stream equipment so musicians may film on its premises after operating hours. Still, it does not make up for the lack of an audience.
Ng adds: “For budding jazz students who used to come by for our live jam sessions, they no longer have an avenue to grow in that aspect, and that could be detrimental to their growth as musicians.”
The Road to Restarting
As part of plans to progressively reopen the arts and culture sector in Singapore, the authorities started piloting small-scale live performances at selected arts venues in September. The outcome of these trial sessions are slated to be announced by end October (after this issue goes to print).
However, some members have questioned these steps as being out of sync with the general pace of reopening, considering that cinemas reopened in July and the greenlight was given to hold Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) events of up to 250 people in October. While safety and public health is of utmost importance, an entire sector of the arts scene has, in the meantime, been left to grapple with the uncertainties of their livelihood and an indefinite road map towards reopening.
Of particular urgency is the fate of freelancers who make up an estimated 50 percent of the performing arts industry.
While there has been government support schemes for out-of-work freelancers, not everybody can qualify for this aid. The Pasar Glamour Art Aid fund — which offers a one-off grant of $500 to Singaporean and permanent resident freelance performing arts workers who have lost income from cancelled arts projects due to Covid-19 — aims to help those who have slipped through the cracks. Since its launch in April 2020, the fund has supported 216 individuals, and disbursed a total of $108,000, says actress and Pasar Glamour co-founder Janice Koh.
To extend more assistance, Koh suggests that the government support non-profit arts organisations through the Job Support Scheme at funding levels they currently give the tourism and aviation sectors.
“I think it would also be helpful for agencies like the National Arts Council to commission more new writing, new music and artworks to help keep our freelance art workers employed, and to encourage new creative content for Singapore. When our scene starts to find its legs again, we’ll have a fresh slate of cultural content and stories to present,” she says.
The industry has necessarily pivoted to the digital medium where possible. Following in the lead of international companies, theatre groups here are streaming past recorded shows while appealing for donations. Groups like Pangdemonium launched its first ever digital play called Waiting For The Host while Andsoforth sold tickets for interactive game nights via Zoom.
Wild Rice, whose annual fundraising gala Rice Ball is one of the most highly anticipated events of Singapore’s social calendar, broke with tradition to host it online this year.
“We have never live-streamed an event of this scale, but our team is pushing the envelope to find meaningful and memorable ways to entertain and engage. This is our most urgent fundraiser yet. It’s not just the Rice Ball, it’s our rice bowl,” says Heng. It went on to raise $650,000, which will go towards supporting the company’s artistic and educational programming.
Naturally, there are challenges to switching from the immediacy and group dynamics of a live performance to online streaming. Actress and voice and presentation coach Petrina
Kow, who has a role in Waiting For The Host, says preparing for the play was a “weird experience”.
“Everything, from rehearsals to filming, was isolated. I really miss hanging out with the gang as that was really where all the bonding happened,” says Kow. “From your warm-ups and getting hair and makeup done to sound checks, being in a live show is always a process. There is richness in the transitions and this was very much lost in this online format.”
Performers also have to figure out how to essentially transform into one-person production companies when they stage performances at home. Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal, whose last stage performance was in January, says she had to navigate a learning curve for her Zoom appearances.
She says: “I have to transition to doing it all on my own in my room. I have to make sure the audio quality is good, get the ring light set up, use what I have for props and costumes, and I also had to get used to acting with just my upper body.”
Making More Connections
Still, there are upsides to going online.
“The Rice Ball was our most intimate event yet. All our guests have front-row seats in the safety of their own homes,” says Heng. The company was also able to expand its reach by hosting guests in countries including Australia, Qatar and the United Kingdom.
Plus, communicating a sense of intimacy via a screen is not exactly new to today’s audiences, observes performance artist Xue. She often records a “stream of consciousness style
documentation” of her research and musings on Instagram and also holds improvised live shows on occasion.
“Sharing and creating content with a device that one keeps close to the body easily conjures the illusion of intimacy and proximity,” she says. “When the pandemic took away all other alternatives, what I initially perceived to be a compromise, was actually a huge facet of my creative process.”
Some are also finding opportunities to pick up new skills. Besides taking on voiceover jobs and roles in television drama series, actress Audrey Luo now has a regular gig hosting a Facebook Live sales event for a seafood company.
“It’s still a performing ground for me. While my heart still lies deeply in theatre, I won’t say no to other options that help me diversify, and I feel this will eventually aid me in acting. And I can now say I am a Facebook Live salesperson,” she quips.
There have been other silver linings too, such as the community rallying to support each other. A fundraising campaign that was launched together with The Pitch, has since raised over $120,000, which will be split between the three companies. The three theatre companies are also further collaborating by offering discounts to each other’s shows.
In anticipation of the green light being given to resume performances, SRT has started selling tickets to its first post-pandemic show, Tuesdays With Morrie. Whether this two-person play will go ahead in November is contingent upon prevailing safety advisories but the company felt it was necessary to get the ball rolling.
“Even with a two person play with 50 people a night, it’s not going to make money,” says Kripalani, pointing out that sanitising costs will add up to about $18,000 a month. “But we thought we should lead the way and have a show out there.”
After a drought of performing arts content for the greater part of the year, the response has been heartening, with early bird tickets snapped up soon after their release.
Kripalani says: “It clearly demonstrates that people want to be back in a theatre watching a show in person, and that there is now a greater appreciation for the arts. People now know they miss it, which I think is wonderful.”
The Ministry of Health has since announced the resumption of indoor live performances on November 1.
This story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of A Magazine.