New theatre groups debut plays this week

 Cast of CommuniTEH's original musical, In Time For Tea.

SINGAPORE - Most theatre groups would leap at the words, "I'll sponsor the whole thing", but not CommuniTEH, an amateur youth theatre group working on its first musical.

A parent of a team member had offered to cover the costs of its production, which work out to about $27,000. But the group decided against it.

Says 21-year-old Lee De Yi, the group's production manager: "We thought, if we do that, we're just taking the easy way out. We want to show people that we can start from scratch."

Their original musical, In Time For Tea, will run at the University Cultural Centre Theatre on Aug 2 and 3. It is a contemporary exploration of life changes and happy-ever-afters.

Lee, who is starting school at the National University of Singapore's faculty of arts and social sciences next month, is part of a new wave of young people who have decided to take the plunge and set up their own theatre groups, despite the challenges ranging from a funding drought to lack of rehearsal space.

He is one of the co-founders of CommuniTEH, a loose collection of young people and theatre lovers who have decided to throw all their spare time into what he calls "a serious hobby".

And he is not the only one. Two other groups, Our Company and Couch Theatre, will stage plays later this week for the first time.

Couch Theatre was formed by a group of theatre hopefuls from Raffles Institution who had been part of a drama club there. They decided on Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl's offbeat Melancholy Play (2002) for their inaugural production, which opens at the Drama Centre Black Box on Thursday.

Director Jasdeep Singh Gill, 20, had been recommended the play by a friend. He says: "I read it and fell in love with it... I really got the message of what she was saying about melancholy."

The earnest, twee feel of Melancholy Play also ties into how the group is trying to position itself, as a fresh, quirky road into the theatre. It perceives the local theatre scene as "too safe", one that focuses on social commentary or importing well-known scripts from overseas.

"I think Singapore theatre gets a bit predictable after a while," says Gill, who will read law at Oxford later this year.

On the other hand, Our Company has decided to put Singapore squarely in its focus. Its first production, Three Children & Hokkien Me, is a double bill of works by Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin and Singapore playwright Ovidia Yu, both of which were staged in Singapore in the 1990s.

Our Company's artistic director Luke Kwek, 32, who has a full-time job as a legal counsel, says of this choice: "We want to acknowledge that although we're new, we come from a certain theatre tradition. The instinctive response for me was to look back and revisit plays as sort of a tribute to the past and examining our roots before we create original works."

The other members of Our Company also hold full-time positions outside the theatre, including a graduate student and a lawyer, and they take leave whenever a show looms on the horizon.

But Kwek, who is also a part of Cake Theatrical Productions' development programme In A Decade, does not see their multiple commitments as an obstacle.

He says: "We can't keep up with professional companies in terms of what we can offer in a season. But we can take a longer time to develop the work... Because of the demands placed on professional companies these days, I think it's a luxury and we're actually excited to see what this type of time frame can do for us."

One thing the groups have in common is that they are trying to make financial headway in an industry where funding is tight and often goes to those who have proved their artistic worth with a solid track record.

CommuniTEH contacted almost every organisation on the National Arts Council's Distinguished Patron of the Arts list. They did not get a single "yes".

Members of Couch Theatre reached into their pockets to contribute to their group's capital, despite the fact that they are mostly students. For instance, general manager Jasmine Liu, 19, forked out about $1,200 for their collective fund.

Couch Theatre and Our Company have been working around the shortage of rehearsal space by practising in places such as dance studios and their own homes. In the end, each of the groups managed to get grants from the National Arts Council, in particular, the Pocket Rocket initiative that supports creative arts projects by young people.

Kwek says that in addition to covering financial costs, a huge burden could be lifted in terms of non-monetary contributions: "If people are willing to open up spaces we can use or to loan props... that would be advantageous. It would be great if there was a community where people can exchange ideas on non-monetary sources of support."

A greater question that hangs over their heads is whether the new groups will keep going or fizzle out over time.

For Couch Theatre and CommuniTEH, many members of their core teams will be going to university over the next year.

Only time will tell if these new groups are sustainable, but Kwek is hopeful. Our Company is looking ahead, and its ideas and plans include a devised work about Singapore's "love affairs", an adaptation of a classic play that might be site-specific, as well as an epic based on Singapore's history and legends - and how they sometimes contradict each other.

He says of Our Company's entry to the scene: "I think it was just a deep yearning to want to get involved in theatre. We all have full-time commitments outside the theatre, but we really wanted to do something."

"The theatre scene, being so developed today, has a lot of opportunities available for full-time practitioners, but for people like us - it's difficult to find chances to get involved. So we wanted to create something for people like us."

corriet@sph.com.sg

BOOK IT

MELANCHOLY PLAY

Where: Drama Centre Black Box, National Library Building Level 5

When: Friday, 8pm, and Saturday, 2.30pm. Tickets for Thursday, 8pm, and Saturday, 8pm, shows are sold out

Admission: $25 from Ticket Mash (www.ticketmash.sg/melancholyplay)

Info: Some mature content

THREE CHILDREN & HOKKIEN ME: A DOUBLE-BILL

Where: The Arts House Play Den

When: Tickets for all shows on Thursday and Friday, 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 3 and 8pm, are sold out

Admission: $28 from The Arts House box office (go to www.bytes.sg or call 6332-6919)

IN TIME FOR TEA

Where: University Cultural Centre Theatre, National University of Singapore

When: Aug 2, 7pm, and Aug 3, 2 and 7pm

Admission: $24 and $27 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)


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