By Benny Lim
Singapore Theatre might have a crisis soon. There seems to be a trend – A lack of trained actors in Singapore. It is pointless to levy the blame on arts institutions or practitioners. It is a collective effort. This short essay aims to highlight this trend.
When I refer to actors as ”trained”, I am not specifically referring to just graduates from acting schools, but also experienced actors with sufficient artistic and technical knowledge in theatre. Theatre actors should not just solely act on stage, they should also understand the intricacies of theatre-making. That, in my opinion, is more important.
I reckon when TheatreWorks began their theatre-making journey in the eighties, actors were being pushed into the deep end of the pool with difficult scripts. There weren’t that many stage actors then. That period was considered the developmental stage of Singapore theatre. There was less emphasis on “trained” and “untrained” actors as both “trained” actors from drama schools – both local and overseas, as well as “untrained” actors work alongside each other, trudging through rehearsals. I believe veterans such as Tan Kheng Hwa, Gerald Chew, Karen Tan, Claire Wong, Neo Swee Lin, to name a few, grew from that period. As these actors became better in performance through the years, they became some of the most sought after performers in present day theatre. Their growth in theatre to a certain extent has been accelerated through the lack of trained actors among the younger generation of actors in Singapore. It has also been further accelerated with companies wanting to work with experienced and “trained” actors, so as to maintain high production values.
What about younger actors? Would they be given the opportunity to be thrown in the deep end of the pool? The answer is Yes, but young actors nowadays are not willing to do that. Simply, there are many other companies who could promise them high-paying roles (usually in school shows) without having to go through what Neo Swee Lin went through in the early eighties with Theatreworks. There is an alternative route to reaching to what Neo Swee Lin is today, in a much shorter time frame. Once they have accumulated enough production numbers under their belt, they could well be the next Empress Dowager in Forbidden City. The main and crucial difference is Tan Kheng Hwa has inherited practical training in theatre through rigourous rehearsals, the young ones don’t.
What Neo Swee Lin, as well as the host of other veteran theatre actors gained in their experience is concrete training and experience. Since they are still in active service in local theatre, they usually get important roles. As such, young actors are given small roles to support them. It is not because veterans dominate the scene. Young actors simply do not have the concrete training and experience to carry these roles. If these young actors continue to refuse hardship in theatre making, there wouldn’t be adequate “trained” actors left to take over these veterans 10 years later.
In assembling a cast for any theatre production, producers take risks. Immature acting will definitely affect ticket sales, resulting in bad reviews. So why use the new ones when there are veterans for you to choose? But allow me to counter that with this argument; If we don’t choose new actors to give opportunities, will there be any veterans in the future?
Another parallel problem that gives rise to the lack of “trained” new actors in Singapore is the lack of funding given to young potential hardworking theatre artists and companies. It is strange there aren’t that many new theatre groups emerging from the local scene. From my own experience as a theatre practitioner, it is getting harder to run a theatre company with the current weak financial support system. Usually, funding support for a new company will be rejected based on its corporate inexperience. Lack of funding comes compromises made through inability to invite “trained” actors on the project to work alongside with new actors.
New artists and groups suffer in audience attendance through weak marketing and publicity efforts. New groups have two options, one to persevere or two, to give up. New groups who persevere can only rely on project grants, which are usually 10 – 20 % of their total budgets, which are largely inadequate.
The balance between funding an established company that will ensure money well spent and taking risks to develop new potential companies likens that of a chicken and an egg – while funding authorities argue new groups should work for results in order to get support, artists justify funding support to be given for them first so as to push their hard work further for better results. Another simple example would be – do we get the press’s attention in order to attract audience or do we get audience to attract the press’s attention?
The fact is, new theatre companies are no longer in the pioneering stage like Theatreworks in the eighties. Survival is key rather than developing local theatre. While pioneering companies such as Theatreworks, Singapore Repertory Theatre, The Theatre Practice, Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble etc have been milestones of Singapore theatre development, new companies are ones that will take over the baton for continued development. Do these new companies (or artists/actors for the matter) deserve less than these flagship companies. The pioneers have been well-endowed by funding authorities for many years. Reviews in funding support should be conducted to allow space for other future runners in this relay race.
My essay cannot provide a total solution. It can only highlight pressing problems in Singapore theatre today. Perhaps, our main funding body- National Arts Council could do something to help develop new actors/artists/companies or institute new schemes to assist new and struggling theatre companies, with great potential. Maybe, theatre practitioners should look into these problems together and find suitable and workable solutions for the community. This is only the beginning of a long tedious journey ahead.
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Benny Lim produces, directs and teaches drama in schools. He is currently Artistic Director of The Fun Stage, a non-profit theatre company. (http://www.thefunstage.org)