Substation Powers On

Published on 31 August 2015

It’s undoubtedly the grand-daddy of arts centres in Singapore, having been an incubator and haven for artists from varied disciplines to explore, experiment, collaborate and create. We recount its inspiring 25-year journey.

TEXT BY DAPHNE ONG

Pick a day, any day of the week. Take a walk in the Civic District in the afternoon. Turn onto Armenian Street — you will see a three-storey colonial-era building with shuttered windows and a large doorway framing a high-ceilinged entrance hallway. This is The Substation.

Listen. You might hear music and footfalls from dancers in the studios upstairs. Look to the small gallery to your right — you might spy photographers hanging up their works for an exhibition. They spot you, smile and say, “Come back this evening. We open tonight, and it’s free.”

You go back in the evening as suggested. An actor rushes past you and through the door of the black-box theatre. You pass through the gallery, admiring the exhibits on its walls, and then emerge into a riot of sound as you find yourself in Timbre, the resident bar and bistro, where a local band plays the genre of the day while patrons sip wine and beer under the canopy of trees.

STANDING TALL  The Substation has housed and hosted an eclectic range of art forms through the years.

THE EARLY YEARS

Founded by Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun, arguably the father of Singapore theatre, The Substation is Singapore’s first contemporary independent arts centre. The building itself, a former power sub-station, dates back to 1926, and after it ceased operations in 1970, it sat vacant for more than a decade before Kuo proposed converting it into an arts centre. It opened its doors in 1990 to a new era in the arts.

The late Kuo, a pioneer playwright, director and arts activist, helmed The Substation’s first five years as its artistic director. There were few spaces for the arts during that time, so The Substation was a welcome site for experimentation for visual arts, theatre, dance, film and everything in between.

It nurtured and supported new things that were emerging in the arts community. Numerous theatre companies like The Necessary Stage and independent artists like Zai Kuning cut their teeth in its spaces during their early days, and emerging collectives continue to do so today.

In 1995, prominent theatre practitioner Thirunalan Sasitharan, affectionately known as Sasi, took over as artistic director, bringing The Substation into a more mature phase as an institution as the arts scene itself developed. More programmes and platforms started; one of its prominent programmes was the Associate Artist scheme, which flourished through the years Audrey Wong and Lee Weng Choy took over co-artistic direction of the centre, from 2000 to 2009.

“I had wanted a space where I could just freely explore and experiment and have people come in and have discourse, or simply to jam — not just performing artists but artists from various disciplines,” says theatre performer and director Elizabeth de Roza, an associate artist from 2001 to 2010. “I was encouraged and felt empowered that I could take risks. It was a privilege and something I am very proud of even till today. I was given the permission to experiment, make mistakes, and try and try again.”

Above all, it was the strong sense of community that brought the artists here. “I also met other like-minded artists who were also researching, exploring and experimenting, exchanging ideas,” says de Roza. “It was because spaces like The Substation existed that we all could collaborate and meet.”

Another alumnus of the Associate Artist scheme is film-maker Royston Tan, who started going to The Substation in 1998. “As a young film-maker, I was given a lot of help with resources, like being lent space to launch short films. The many festivals and screenings helped me network with sale-makers and meet more established film-makers.” He adds with a laugh, “When I was a student, I had no money, so they didn’t charge me to attend screenings!”

ARTS ADVOCATE It was pioneer playwright Kuo Pao Kun who proposed turning a disused power sub-station into an arts centre.
FREE REIN Theatre performer and director Elizabeth de Roza was empowered to take creative risks, thanks to The Substation.
PLATFORM FOR GROWTH The Substation was instrumental in helping film-maker Royston Tan launch his career.

History, Music & Ice-cream

Highlights of this year’s Septfest.

The Substation’s annual Septfest will be a momentous one, celebrating its 25th birthday. From now until 27 September, you can immerse yourself in the spirit of art and community of The Substation.

Discover the building inside-out with a nocturnal audio tour that takes you through its nooks and crannies, including areas that have never been open to the public. You can also look forward to an installation a year in the making (created with trees felled behind The Substation), a short film screening by Victric Thng, and two arts conferences.

Check out the visual history of The Substation at an exhibition held at the National Library Building. If performance is your thing, don’t miss a physical spectacle inspired by nightclub culture and Japanese rope art, and a concert by stalwarts of the Singapore band scene. You can even enjoy an ice-cream flavour specially created for The Substation!

For more information, visit www.substation.org/septfest.

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