$8,000 for 1 minute of talent time

The team from Singapore that took part at 2013's World Championships of Performing Arts.

Rub shoulders with casting directors and agents from Hollywood and New York. Learn from world-class trainers at an intensive boot camp. Take part in what is touted as the Olympics of the performing arts with various rounds of elimination and win a clutch of medals.

Is this experience worth paying thousands of dollars for?

The World Championships of Performing Arts, held annually in Los Angeles for the past 17 years, brands itself as a possible stepping stone to entertainment industry success.

The most recent edition of the competition took place last month at the four-star Westin Bonaventure Hotel, attracting about 1,000 contestants from more than 50 countries. Eleven contestants from Singapore aged between five and 36 brought back dozens of medals and awards in categories such as singing, acting, dancing and modelling.

There are detractors, however, who have cast doubts on the way the competition is run and the value of the contest.

Netizens have criticised the championships' recruitment methods, where participants can make accommodation arrangements only through one travel agency and can join the contest only if they have been evaluated by the organiser's talent scouts. The championships is organised by US entertainment company Worldstars.

It can cost between $4,000 and $8,000 for each contestant to take part, depending on the sponsorship each individual is able to get. This includes accommodation, airfare and the cost of the boot camp.

Mr Griff O'Neil, founder and chief executive officer of the championships, tells SundayLife! over the telephone from the United States that the accommodation is arranged through one travel agency for "safety and insurance" purposes.

Since last year, the championships-appointed national director for Singapore, Mr Sean Wong, 38, has acted as a sort of local talent scout for it. He took part in 2009 and picked up six awards in singing.

He says that more than 100 hopefuls took part in auditions last November. Many had heard of the auditions through advertisements and word of mouth, and he also approached schools in Singapore, such as the Lasalle College of the Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, to send students for the tryouts.

He says the championships offers a unique experience in terms of training and development, something he believes is rare in other such competitions across the globe.

The championships has dozens of sub-divisions by age group and genre for its six main categories - dancing, singing, modelling, acting, instrumental and variety acts. Each contestant is given one minute to perform before a panel of judges and can take part in as many categories as he wants.

Previous judges have included actor Mehcad Brooks (a lead actor in US television series Necessary Roughness) and Emmy Award-winning choreographer Anita Mann.

Spending the money on a prestigious competition - and winning - can be a boost to any artist, say established arts practitioners. But they also urge caution and a balanced approach.

Mr Lionel Choi, artistic director of the annual Singapore International Piano Festival, says of the way the championships is organised: "I think one needs to listen for himself if a prize-winner of any competition, however prestigious, is really as remarkable as his award suggests. There is something intrinsically unartistic and unreal about a competition. Musicians aren't athletes going for points and an artistic endeavour isn't a sporting activity."

At the same time, he reiterates that a competition can be a quick and sure way for a talented young musician to get recognition and to be signed on by a big agency, if that is the performer's goal. He suggests that contestants should take part in competitions with an established track record and which are specific to a contestant's skills, such as singing or dancing, rather than a general talent contest.

Theatre practitioners whom Life! spoke to also expressed concern over the acting categories, where contestants prepare their own one-minute monologue to perform, rather than learn a standard piece.

Mr Gaurav Kripalani, artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, says: "We specifically tell people who audition for us - don't perform your own work. It's hard to judge because you don't know what's being made up and what's being improvised. You want to know that they can act from a piece they've been given."

Mr Wong explains that this largely has to do with issues of copyright, as the finals are broadcast live over the Internet. He says that this also gives contestants a chance to promote original work.

Mrs Tracie Pang, artistic director of home-grown theatre group Pangdemonium, says actor hopefuls can also learn a great deal from the process of auditioning for a production, and not from just taking part in competitions. She also stresses the need to get an agent to make those industry connections.

One online commenter likened his experience of the competition to "watching an American Idol rejects show". Another questioned the relative lack of fame of some of the championships' past overall winners.

The championships counts among its success stories Filipino singer Jed Madela, who went on to sign a contract with Universal Records and released at least five double-platinum albums in the Philippines.

Young Australian dancer Michael Dameski won the 2007 Junior Grand Champion Dancer Of The World and later played the role of Billy Elliot in the 2008 Australian production of the musical and was a Broadway replacement in New York from 2009 to 2010.

Founder Mr O'Neil, a former executive with the Miss Universe pageant, says: "The purpose of the World Championships is education. We make no claims, we're not managers or agents. What we do is have a platform for them to excel."

If anything, the championships experience seems to have boosted the self-confidence of the young contestants, going by the reactions of their parents.

Through a talent showcase organised by Mr Wong in March, sponsors pooled about $20,000 to give to the 11 Singapore participants this year.

Mrs Irene Wong, 38, a joint venture manager, flew to the US with her husband and their seven-year-old daughter Isabelle, who has dyslexia. The trip cost the three of them about $12,000, inclusive of a small travel sponsorship from a group of sponsors, including Worldstars Media.

Isabelle took part in several singing categories, including contemporary pop, classical Broadway and gospel. Mrs Wong was thrilled at the change in her daughter, who she says was "a totally different person" on stage, compared to her usually more reserved self.

She adds: "I don't think you can put a price tag on it. She's gone through not just a stage journey, but a personal journey as well. Her attitude towards learning is so different from before. She now looks forward to going to school."

Secretary Serene Tan, 42, accompanied her 11-year-old daughter Shannen to the event. There, Shannen, who has been taking Latin dance classes from a young age and has participated in several regional competitions, picked up nine medals and awards.

Shannen's trip was fully sponsored by way of the March talent showcase.

Mrs Tan says: "I wanted her to step out of her comfort zone to see what a world-class competition is like and to see different talents - and there are a lot of them. It's definitely worth it and I'm very happy she had this platform."

Shannen, who has acted in TV dramas on Okto and Channel 8, says: "It was very exciting and gave me a lot of confidence to perform."

Singapore actress Judee Tan, in her early 30s, took part in the championships in 2008 and stresses that she went there for the exposure. She says of the competition: "I don't think anyone should think of it as a way to advance his career.

"It's a learning experience but whether or not it will make you a star - you probably have a better chance going on the TV show The X Factor."

 

corriet@sph.com.sg


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