One Small Voice: Kenny Wong

Published on 3 February 2015

See the set or lighting as another character on the stage, urges technical director Kenny Wong.

In a performance, everything apart from the actors is technical theatre — from costumes, makeup and hair to stage, set, lighting, video and sound. Most people have a misconception that technical theatre is ‘technical’. So when I teach, I always impress upon my students that they’re not technicians who fix lights. They’re part of the creative process. They are there to value-add by providing solutions to directors who have a vision but not the technical know-how to make it come alive.

I’m currently working with director Beatrice Chia-Richmond on the upcoming Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). As technical director of the opening and closing ceremonies, I tell her to go wild with her ideas and I will do my best to make them happen. For the event, Beatrice is drawing her inspiration from the London Olympics and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which makes my job more difficult but exciting!

When I first meet a director, I ask very little about the technical aspects. I’m more interested in the whole creative idea, the big picture. This is because there are always different ways to execute a concept based on a given budget, space and team. Collaboration with the team of writers, choreographers and designers is very important in technical theatre; I always tell my students this is a ‘people business’.

In terms of technical expertise and skills specialisation, Singapore can learn from cities like London and New York, but we shouldn’t strive to be exactly like them. Their whole eco-system is different from ours: they have big enough audiences to sustain many shows and hence, many specialised jobs. In Singapore, we don’t have that luxury.

Here, production costs are high and manpower is limited. Specialisation is good but not to the point of being impractical. We have to work within our own realities and find a Singapore way of working. The area I think Singapore is lagging behind is the crafts — crafts like prop- making and set-building. Perhaps it’s a cultural mindset? Singaporeans see these as ‘manual labour’ and don’t appreciate how much skill is required.

At Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts where I studied, Stage Carpentry is a degree programme. It’s craftsmanship and in the past, was taught only through apprenticeship. But theatre-making in Singapore is very expensive, and having expert set- and prop-builders will further drive up costs, which local theatre companies are not able to afford.

When I wrote the Technical Theatre course for LASALLE College of the Arts, I included topics like script analysis, perspective drawing, art history and music history. To be effective, you need to see the set or lighting as another character on stage, as part of the storytelling.

At the end of the day, success to me is this: If I watch a performance and get drawn into the storytelling — if I don’t even pay any attention to the technical — that’s a good show. Technical theatre, to me, is that invisible art.

Kenny Wong is a pioneer in Singapore’s technical theatre industry. He was the Esplanade’s first production manager and founding president of the Technical Theatre Association of Singapore. Wong was also responsible for developing Singapore’s first Bachelor’s degree programme in Technical Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts. Apart from working on productions by major companies like TheatreWorks and Toy Factory, he was also technical director for National Day Parade 2011 and production manager for Resorts World Sentosa’s opening show, Voyage de la Vie.

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