Monday, 27 July 2020

Opinion: Will Singapore’s theatre scene survive the pandemic?

Adrian Pang

We launched Pangdemonium 10 years ago, during a global financial crisis, which seemed silly at the time: Why would anyone go to the theatre when it was time to tighten the purse strings?

A decade on, I’m glad to see that Singaporeans’ perceptions of theatre have changed. Watching a play has become less a means of escape and more a way for people to face up to the harsh realities of life. The stereotype is that Singaporeans are an apathetic bunch, but I don’t think that’s true at all. They have a real hunger for stories that confront hard truths, provoke dialogue and demand change.

While we were able to stage our production of The Son, which examines mental health in youths and the fragility of family dynamics, before the start of the circuit breaker period, we’ve had to cancel the other two productions that were originally part of our 2020 season – a spin on The Glass Menagerie, the classic Tennessee Williams memory play that made its debut way back in 1944 but is still so resonant today; and a bigger and bolder restaging of The Full Monty, which was our debut production in 2010 and intended to mark our 10th year.

That means having to take care of 3,500 season ticket holders who had pre-booked the whole season last October. With the uncertain outlook, we’ve also decided to not launch a 2021 season. It means no income for the past four months and for the rest of the year. We have a staff of 15 and office rental to continue paying. It’s been an anxious and nerve-wracking time, but it has also forced us to learn to be creative in ways that are out of our comfort zone.

Adrian Pang (left) in a production of The Son by Pangdemonium. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

I’m not so idealistic as to think that theatre is able to cure society’s ills, but the hope is that it will at least stir constructive dialogue, help people admit to their own follies and inspire them to consider differing viewpoints. If, for instance, parents are inspired to check in on their children after watching The Son, I’d say we have done our jobs.

It’s fantastic that the theatre scene is so diverse these days. In Singapore, you can see how the various companies are carving out niches for themselves. What I find particularly exciting is how the theatre-going crowd seems to be getting younger – we get people in their late teens to late 30s coming to our shows – which is great because watching plays was for the longest time an activity associated with mature folk. If anything, it’s proof that millennials do care about what’s going on around them. Who says they’re all selfish and entitled?

We are now having to re-invent ourselves and mutate into something else – it’s like evolution on steroids

When it comes to the recovery of the theatre industry, I think it’s going to be slow. Very slow. This pandemic is unlike anything that any of us could have ever dreamed of and it has caught everyone off guard, with so many factors out of our control. We find ourselves not being able to plan short-term or long-term, because the rules keep on changing. The whole game itself has changed. We are now having to re-invent ourselves and mutate into something else – it’s like evolution on steroids, a 21st century definition of survival of the fittest. It’s scary, but we can’t let this beat us.

We want to keep producing work. Over the past few months, we streamed a few of our past productions online for free, produced a music video and have been conducting online theatre workshops and webinars. We are also in the process of creating a series of new projects, all of which involve navigating the ever-changing landscape that unfolds with this pandemic.

Theatre has given me comfort, inspiration, exhilaration, epiphany, healing and hope

From my own mental and emotional rollercoaster over the past four months, I can say that I value theatre now more than ever. It has always been my salvation, and having had it taken away for the past four months plunged me into some very dark places. It may just be entertainment for some, but for me – and I know for a fact for many others – especially in times of adversity, theatre has given me comfort, inspiration, exhilaration, epiphany, healing and hope. And as we fight our way through this crisis, we all could do with a bit of that.

When we are allowed to reopen, we will absolutely be ready to do so, but we are also at the mercy of the people and their readiness to come back. We’ll be waiting.

SEE ALSO: Opinion: Audiences have developed an appetite for Singaporean productions

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