Practice Makes Perfect

Published on 16 March 2015

It’s business as usual for The Theatre Practice on its 50th anniversary, as it continues its focus on developing new theatre and talents.

TEXT BY JO TAN

In celebration of SG50, there’s going to be a frenzy of loud noises, and loud celebrations. Well, we’re not a loud company and we’d like to spend our 50th birthday reflecting,” says Kuo Jian Hong, Artistic Director of The Theatre Practice (TTP), a company founded about a month before our nation’s independence. “The fact that at 50, we can still continue with our work, that’s enough of a celebration.”

Indeed, ‘business as usual’ could well be the TTP motto. The company has been known to eschew award receptions in favour of rehearsals, and has stoically kept its nose to the grindstone even in the stormiest episodes of its half-century existence.

TTP began as the Singapore Performing Arts School, founded by late theatre luminary, playwright/director Kuo Pao Kun (KPK) and his wife, dance doyenne Goh Lay Kuan. Throughout the tumultuous ’60s, the school managed to continuously expand its repertoire of classes, which included dance, drama, music and stage design. It created sensational performances and launched the company’s Experience Life campaign that sent students and alumni immersing themselves among the working masses to create art of greater relevance and reality.

 Just Another Day of Epic Adventure. TTP’s annual Chinese Theatre Festival returns in July with programmes like Into the Flood by Taiwan’s Sun Son Theatre, based on an aborginal Bunun Tribe legend.

In 1976, the co-founders were detained for alleged communist activities. KPK was locked up for almost five years. Yet classes continued under Goh, and subsequently, a performance arm was formed. Through the years, the company spawned leaders in the local scene, including puppet theatre company The Finger Players; bilingual theatre company Toy Factory; and talents such as Yeo Yann Yann, named 2013’s Golden Horse Awards Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ilo Ilo. Then there’s Kuo Jian Hong herself, the daughter of the company’s founders, who took over creative reins when KPK passed away in 2002.

With such an illustrious history, it’s no surprise that Kuo would want to carry on the TTP vision and legacy. “We’ve aimed to never stop taking on new challenges,” she says. “Our history includes arts education, text-based plays, children’s work, experimental works and more recently, even musicals. This year, I’m directing a wuxia (Chinese period epic featuring martial-art heroes) play, Legends of the Southern Arch.

Wuxia is rarely done onstage for various reasons. First of all, the genre is not easy to write for, since wuxia plots are often complex with many twists and turns. You also need a large cast. How do you get so many people with that old-school Mandarin language capability, plus the physical ability to execute martial-arts moves and not kill their co-actors with their weapons?” says Kuo. “Throw in stunts involving wires, choreography and sound requirements of balancing the clashing of weapons with lines being heard, and it’s really a monumental task.” Still, she’s managed to gather a 14-strong cast that includes local Mandarin theatre legends Li Xie, Nelson Chia and Johnny Ng. She also has a room rigged with wires for “flying practice”.

“We want to take new risks, because if at 50, you don’t take risks, very soon you will cease to be adventurous and just be very safe, get really dull and be gone.” Speaking of risks, TTP will be working with fresh faces in Legends of the Southern Arch. Playing the female lead is relative newcomer Jodi Chan, who takes on her first non-ensemble role after returning from acting studies in England barely two years ago.

Meanwhile, budding director Isabella Chiam will assist Kuo in directorial duties for the show. Both Chiam and Chan are alumni of the recently-established TTP Actors Lab and Directors Lab, training and exploration platforms for theatre-makers.

“We began as an arts school after all, so we’ve always been about developing people. In fact, the motto we’ve developed for TTP this year is, ‘Putting people first, embracing diversity’. You always have to bring in new people to the scene, it can’t be closed-up. So many of our local talents were once new faces in TTP. Singapore-born, internationally-based artist Ang Gey Pin started with us when she was 18 or 19. Even when my parents started, they were very young — my father was 26. But people helped them, people believed in them.

“And that’s an important thing to note: it took a village, a giant village, to keep us around and growing for 50 years. My parents may have birthed this company, but so many people have counted in so many ways.”

Accordingly, TTP’s concession to commemorating its half-century mark is to publish a collection of plays performed by the company in the post-KPK era, by writers such as Liu Xiaoyi and Wu Xi. As for the future, Kuo remains philosophical.

“If I can tell you what’s coming up, I’m limiting my own journey. Who would have known that in these decades, we would have developed some of the works that we have done? I’m sure when my parents started in 1965, they weren’t thinking 50 years ahead,” muses Kuo. “Let’s just take it one step at a time.”

Legends of the Southern Arch is on from 27 March to 12 April at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Heroic roles. TTP’s wuxia extravaganza, Legends of the Southern Arch, casts celebrated local actors as heroes and heroines of the martial-arts world embarking on the biggest battle of their lives.
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