SINGAPORE - Shipping executive Jane Ng was concerned when her daughter Gisele was still not talking at the age of three.
Speech therapy unearthed the possibility that the little girl simply did not find talking necessary.
On the recommendation of a friend, Ms Ng, 38, took Gisele to a children's theatre production, The Magic Ocean (2009), part of the Esplanade's Playtime! series for two- to four-year-olds.
Gisele's transformation was astounding - she spoke her first words and later started singing songs from the show.
A delighted Ms Ng tells Life!: "After the play, when she saw those animals talking, I think she realised that she must talk in order to get people to understand her. I saw the improvement after the show when we came out and started to ask her questions."
Gisele, now six, attends theatre productions regularly through her kindergarten. Ms Ng also attended another Playtime! performance with her last year.
She says: "She will participate and say, 'I want to help' when the characters need help. It built her confidence." There is no doubt that well-crafted Singaporean children's theatre has found its footing here, with the help of longrunning companies such as ACT 3 International, ACT 3 Theatrics, I Theatre and the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT).
Brian Seward, 56, artistic director of I Theatre, says: "We want to challenge our audience to think. We don't want to give them the answers. That's always been the case and still is."
Local theatre productions often blend colourful set pieces and inventive costumes with variations on familiar stories from the Western and Eastern canons of fairy tales and folklore, and there has been a rise in all-new productions. Many local companies are also seeing huge leaps in attendances at their programmes tailored to the little ones.
Life! spoke to eight groups involved in children's theatre and many have seen attendances at least double and even triple in the past 10 years.
Some have witnessed even more spectacular growth.
The Esplanade, for instance, started its Playtime! series with a single production of five shows in 2007 and an audience of fewer than 500.
This has since swelled to four productions a year, with at least 15 shows a production. Last year, about 15,500 audience members watched Playtime! performances.
I Theatre struggled to get 2,000 people to its shows in 2000, but in 2011, 16,000 theatregoers showed up for The Rainbow Fish, which has had seven runs. The SRT sold about 40,000 tickets to its children's shows last year. In the early years of The Little Company, its children's theatre wing founded in 2001, shows ran for two weeks. It now has sold-out runs of six or seven weeks.
One of its recent shows, Three Little Pigs, has been accepted into the prestigious Annual Festival of New Musicals in New York and will be staged there in October.
SRT's artistic director Gaurav Kripalani, 42, says: "We wanted to make sure we treated children with the same respect we treat adults. Because that's our future audience. If we can hook them at the age of two, they'll be theatregoers for life.
It's a 20-year investment on our part." Theatre for children has also transcended the domain of the school assembly.
Practitioners are heartened to note that instead of having to take theatre to their audiences, they are now coming to the theatre.
R. Chandran, 57, founder-director of ACT 3 Theatrics, runs literary and drama workshops for children on a regular basis with his wife, actress Amy Cheng, 43. He was one of the co-founders of the ACT 3 group in 1984 before it split into two separate entities in 2003.
ACT 3 International, which runs a drama academy and brings in international productions, is headed by fellow founder Ruby Lim-Yang, 56.
Chandran says: "We started by doing birthday parties and we travelled to parks and shopping centres. It was about going out to gain that audience, and especially to win over the parents."
Ms Lim-Yang adds: "People were not ready to spend money on tickets. When we started, ticket prices were just $5, but even that was quite a challenge to attract people to come to the theatre.
"They were accustomed to watching movies and TV, so it took a changing of mindsets to understand that theatre was about watching a live performance. The characters are real and you can touch them. It's not a passive relationship between yourself and the performer."
Theatre companies have fought to keep the cost of tickets low. Most children's shows cost between $10 and $30 a ticket, with family packages and discounts for group bookings.
This means that companies have to struggle a lot harder to break even for a children's production, compared to a mainstage show for which they can charge $50 to more than $100 a ticket.
All the same, it seems that Singaporean parents still need some convincing.
When theatre director and puppeteer Benjamin Ho surveyed the parents attending his children's theatre shows, he found that there were some who were willing to part with only $5 to see a production that easily costs $40,000 to stage.
Ho is the founder of home-grown theatre group Paper Monkey, which has a focus on Asian traditions and puppetry.
The 45-year-old says: "The mindsets of parents are changing, but the need for education is still there. We need to educate parents about the value of children's theatre. Many of them still think that foreign productions have more value than local children's theatre."
School bookings still form the bulk of ticket sales for children's shows. For Chineselanguage theatre company The Theatre Practice, about 70 per cent of its tickets for children's shows are snapped up by schools. For I Theatre, that figure hovers between 50 and 60 per cent. The Esplanade's Feed Your Imagination series is geared specifically for primary and secondary school students, with interactive segments and resource kits for teachers and students.
The amount of funding poured into children's arts programmes has gone up. The National Arts Council works with the Singapore Tote Board to disburse the Tote Board Arts Grant, which was set up in 1995 to encourage the development of a vibrant arts culture in schools.
The amount given out has almost doubled from $2.7 million in 2006 to $5.3 million last year.
There have been increased efforts to embrace special education institutions as well. The board's arts grant for these schools was established in 2007, and the arts council has partnered with the Social Services Training Institute to provide training programmes for arts instructors so that they can engage students with special needs more effectively.
Several practitioners that Life! spoke to are hoping that there will, eventually, be a purpose-built venue for children's theatre in Singapore, where practitioners without a permanent home do not have to fight the rising cost of rent to stage shows accessible to the family.
A theatre built especially for children could, perhaps, have a playground or reading room in the lobby where parents can entertain their children before a performance, toilets adjusted to suit children's needs and a theatre with a variety of seating options for children of all ages. Financial sponsors and partners for children's theatre are also in demand, particularly when it comes to festivals catering especially to children.
Ms Lim-Yang is hoping to bring back the Children First! Festival, which ran for 10 years before pausing in 2009 when its main sponsor, Prudential, "decided to take a different path with its funding".
I Theatre is also looking for sponsorship for its ACE! Festival, which started in 2009 and which it hopes will become an annual affair. Seward estimates that the budget of next year's festival will be about $500,000.
Practitioners also stress the need to cultivate their audience of parents to be more proactive in taking families to shows, rather than viewing these performances as "babysitting", as Ho puts it.
The Theatre Practice's artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, 46, says: "Having grown up going to the theatre, I remember seeing shows and talking about them with my parents. I remember experiencing that fascination and magic with my parents... Those are fond memories for me, and I think for a lot of children too."
Kuo is the daughter of the late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun and dancer Goh Lay Kuan. She adds: "The theatre is a lifechanging experience, and what's more special than to share it with your parents or to experience it with your kids?
"As a mother, I wish that I could be at every show my daughter watches because I want to share that process."
Ms Ng shares this sentiment: "Watching movies is okay, but I think plays are better. While watching movies in the cinema, you don't really communicate with your kids. With shows, you can enjoy, relax, sit on the floor and start to explain things to them."
Children's theatre has often been regarded, by both practitioners and the public, as the lesser cousin of theatre for adults. Those deeply involved in the art form have long fought to reverse this misconception, and they have made steady progress over the years.
Playwright-director Chong Tze Chien, 37, company director of home-grown puppet theatre group The Finger Players, emphasises that the company uses the same cast and creative team for its adult and children's shows, and it views both demographics as equals.
"We weren't taken seriously when we were solely a children's theatre company. It was only after we expanded to include plays for adults that, suddenly, we were seen as a key player."
He adds: "The best people should be doing children's theatre because that's where you groom future audiences and practitioners. And children can be very judgmental. If they see something they don't like - that's it. They never return." The Esplanade associate producer Luanne Poh, 34, who has a background in early childhood education and is one of the key programmers of children's productions, knows that her audiences can be difficult to please.
Her team has got the timing down pat: A 40-minute show needs something exciting to happen at the three-quarter mark.
If not, it risks losing its audience.
Dave Brown, 62, the long-time artistic director of Australia's Patch Theatre Company, was recently in Singapore for a sixweek arts residency at the Esplanade, where he worked with Singapore practitioners to create mOOn ballOOn.
The children's theatre veteran, who has been in the industry for more than 25 years, says: "It's not just about developing audiences for the future. It's about developing children for the sake of their own development and where they are in their lives."
Poh adds: "The children's experiences are not any less than that of an adult's. It's not about creating less of an experience because they're less of a person. And understanding that, I think, really informs the work that we do."
Ongoing and upcoming children's theatre productions
What: Esplanade's popular Playtime! series invites you into Ling's colourful garden, with a focus on the concept of light. Together with your young ones, discover how plants grow and the colours of the rainbow. Directed by Chow Keat Yeng.
Recommended for: Two- to four-year-olds
Where: Esplanade Recital Studio
When: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9.30 and 11am, Saturday and Sunday, 11am, 2 and 4pm
Duration: 40 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $15 for a single child/adult, $50 for a package of four, $10 a ticket for schools from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)
What: Taiwan's Flying Group Theatre tackles the concept of birth and beginnings through inventive puppetry. A little girl finds an egg in a whale's mouth and the odd couple set out to find the egg's mother, meeting other enchanting creatures along the way. Part of The Theatre Practice's Chinese Theatre Festival.
Recommended for: Ages five and up
Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre
When: Aug 29 to Sept 1, various times
Duration: 50 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $28 from Sistic. Discounts are available for school and corporate bookings (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6337-2525)
The Tale Of The Frog Prince
What: The Singapore Repertory Theatre's Little Company is bringing a familiar tale to the stage, directed by Daniel Jenkins. The story of a handsome prince turned into a frog by a wicked witch will teach children not to judge a book by its cover and to treat everyone with kindness and respect.
Recommended for: Two- to six-year-olds
Where: DBS Arts Centre, 20 Merbau Road When: Aug 29 to Sept 29, various times
Duration: 45 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $18 to $29 from Sistic
Info: Discounts and additional show times are available for school/group bookings. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call 6733-8166
What: This family-friendly show with a modern twist at The Theatre Practice's Chinese Theatre Festival introduces children to the legendary ancient Chinese heroine, Mulan, who disguised herself as a boy to join the army in place of her elderly father.
Recommended for: Ages five and up
Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre
When: Aug 30 to Sept 8, various times
Duration: 60 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $28 from Sistic. Discounts are available for school and corporate bookings (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6337-2525) Info: en.practice.org.sg/ctf2013/
24 Tales Of Filial Piety
What: Through hand puppets and shadow puppetry, The Finger Players presents 24 heartwarming examples of filial children - selected by the Heavenly King himself - that celebrate the love between parent and child.
Recommended for: Five- to eight-year-olds Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: Sept 13, 10.30am and 2pm, Sept 14 and 15, 2 and 6pm
Duration: 60 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $18 from Sistic (15 per cent off for two or more tickets)
What: This whimsical production, part of the Esplanade's Octoburst! festival for children, makes creative use of the balloon - it can be anything you want it to be, including the moon. Adapted from Australian Patch Theatre Company's The Moon's A Balloon, this version is directed by Ian Loy and features local actors Seong Hui Xuan and Bright Ong.
Recommended for: Four- to seven-year-olds
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: Oct 4, 3.30pm, Oct 5 and 6, 11.30am and 4pm
Duration: 50 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $18 for a single child/adult, $64 for a package of four, $12 a ticket for schools from Sistic
Grimm's Fairy Tales
What: I Theatre has put together a colourful compendium of beloved fairy tales and adapted them for the stage, including the stories of Hansel And Gretel, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. Director and playwright Brian Seward will blend physical theatre, music, song and storytelling in a show fit for a family outing.
Recommended for: Four- to 16-year-olds
Where: Drama Centre Theatre When: Nov 1 to 17, various times
Duration: 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Admission: Prices from $27 for a single child/adult, and $102 for family packages from Sistic
Info: A free resource and stimulus pack is available for teachers who make a group booking. Call 6341-5960 for a Special Educational Establishment offer, with free tickets for teachers
A Christmas Carol
What: Canada's Dufflebag Theatre Company is putting a twist on the classic story of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and the lessons he learns from the three ghosts of Christmas. Presented by ACT 3 International.
Recommended for: Two-to 12-year-olds
Where: ACT 3 Theatre, Cairnhill Arts Centre, 126 Cairnhill Road When: Nov 2 to 17, 10am and 2.30pm (weekdays), 11am and 4pm (weekends) Duration: 60 minutes, no intermission
Admission: $25 to $28 from Sistic
Info: Call ACT 3 International on 6735-9986 or go to www.act3international.com.sg
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