Cruising along the free way

Published on 28 October 2014

Theatre-land may be full of big-budget shows, but there are still amateur groups happily slogging for free.

TEXT BY JO TAN

We have about four main productions a year, not counting fringe performances, like readings and workshops,” says Mohamad Shaifulbahri (Shai), artistic director of 10-year-old Yellow Chair Productions. “That’s pretty standard.”

Except it’s not. Unlike commercial theatre companies like W!ld Rice and Dream Academy, Yellow Chair Productions is an amateur group.

While people sometimes use the word ‘amateur’ to diss someone’s lack of skill, it really just means a person who does something on an unpaid basis. “We are purely voluntary,” Shai stresses. “Producers, crew, designers, actors and the director – no one gets paid. Our funding from the Community Club, where we are an interest group, mainly covers theatre rental, which is expensive! I feed myself by being a student development consultant at a polytechnic.”

Yet, ‘non-professional’ doesn’t equal ‘unprofessional’. With Shai meticulously planning seasons and researching scripts, Yellow Chair Productions premiered stellar shows like The Last Five Years and Fat Pig in Singapore, attracting stage stars like Jonathan Lum and Ethel Yap to participate pay-free, before Dream Academy and Pangdemonium presented big-budget versions.

Likewise, Hatch Theatrics, a three-year-old, five-person collective of experienced but part-time young thespians, has been getting rave reviews for its original Malay works, even catching the eye of, and collaborating with, Japan’s famed Theatre Gumbo.

“We’re always trying to learn from veterans, so we pay the professionals we need to hire, but we members don’t get paid,” says a good-natured

CAN’T BUY ME LOVE Young actors at Yellow Chair Productions display a range of passionate feelings, and not because they’re not getting paid.

Raimi Safari. The Hatch member is writer/director of new production Lockdown, about revelations resulting after a teacher is locked in school with students following a fire. “We haven’t yet had to pay much from our own pockets because we’ve successfully applied for National Arts Council grants. The important thing is, we’re learning and building our craft. Monetary issues are secondary. Anyway, we all have sources of income: One of us is a civil servant, and I’m a teacher at Commonwealth Secondary School.”

After-hours rehearsals, meetings, and the administrative grind of running an organisation: Not one of these is an issue to the young enthusiasts. “What we do is important – many of us grew up telling stories and singing songs, and we love performing. The professional theatre industry is hard to get started in,” says Shai. “We’re entry-level; an environment for non-professionals to perform, that’s not so daunting or scary. If they later go professional, great. If not, we’re here.”

Raimi agrees. “Singapore theatre can be so commercial. If everything’s about money, you can’t take chances on newer people or less-popular topics. Hatch lets us act, crew, direct and write, about issues facing young Malays today. This drives me to go to that meeting, send out that marketing email, even after working at school from 6am to 6pm.”

All this sounds wonderful for youngsters trying out their talents, but what about the people watching?

Andy Pang, an Associate Artist at predominantly Tamil theatre company Ravindran Drama Group (RDG), believes a team formed solely out of newbies may not be the best recipe for a watchable show. Says the part-time director, who holds a Masters degree and juggles theatre with teaching and helping out at his father’s construction company: “Audiences make lots of sacrifices to come to the theatre. I feel each show should at least have one or two seasoned people holding it. Newer ones can support and learn.”

Shai agrees, to some extent. “While we have shows purely to showcase newbies, our main-season cast and crew always features a mix of professionals and non-professionals. It’s exciting to see the newer ones learn and up their game, while the older ones are reminded by the humility and excitement that newbies bring.”

PROS BEFORE SHOWS Young director Andy Pang (right) prefers to have at least a few experienced actors in every show, like the tried and tested thespians in his production Pazhi (above).

NAH, GIVE YOU The production Lockdown is presented by professionals who are paid by Hatch Theatrics, as well as Hatch members themselves who work fee-free.

Pang concedes, “RDG was founded in 1988, but after its relaunch, the team managing it is relatively green. We have a formal understanding that we’re all learning and are very open to working with non-professional actors.

“They may have less experience and discipline, but cherish their roles more and – because they don’t have techniques to help them – use very personal experiences and feelings in the show,” he muses, “Sometimes that makes for really riveting and fulfilling work.”

Lockdown by Hatch Theatrics plays at The Substation on 28 & 29 Nov. (Mono)play by Yellow Chair Productions and Pazhi by Ravindran Drama Group are playing now at the Aliwal Arts Centre Multi-Purpose Hall and the Drama Centre Black Box respectively.

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