The Big Spectacle

Published on 26 May 2015

Besides helming stage shows, theatre practitioners have become increasingly involved in mega-productions that require drama and creativity on a grand scale.

TEXT BY JO TAN

This year sees a slew of spectacular mega-events taking place in Singapore, what with the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and celebration concert Sing50 expected to pack stadiums and fill up screen time with television coverage. Then in August, Singaporeans will witness the biggest National Day Parade (NDP) ever staged, a fitting tribute to mark the nation’s Golden Jubilee.

What does it take to create the fireworks and fanfare for these eye-popping extravaganzas? As such mega-productions involve huge manpower resources, massive technical support and complicated logistics, they need to be planned at least a year in advance. While government agencies like the Singapore Armed Forces typically provide all the necessary infrastructure, the show itself is usually the brainchild of creative talents from the arts scene.

We talk to the movers and shakers involved in a few upcoming big events to give you an idea of what it takes.

The SEA Games

National Stadium  |  5 June (Opening Ceremony) +  16 June (Closing Ceremony)

Beatrice Chia-Richmond (right), actress, director and now creative director of the SEA Games 2015’s opening and closing ceremonies, describes her life in the months leading up to the Games, which take place from 5 to 16 June in Singapore.

“Last Saturday, a typical SEA Games Saturday, I woke up at 6am. I left the house at 6.30am to get to Khatib Camp by 7am and set up by 8.15am, when our performers arrive. The team starts briefing them at 8.30am about the agenda and also safety issues. Then we rehearse the different acts, each act involving 700 to 800 people. During what’s supposed to be our lunchtime, we usually work with the choreographer to polish bits that are not quite right. At 1.30pm, the next batch of performers arrive. We repeat the process till the next group arrives at 6.30pm,” she says, taking a breath.

“At 10.30pm, we have an after-action report to discuss what and how to improve. We get home close to midnight, dehydrated and sunburnt and fall into bed in a coma. At 6.30am the next day, we go back to rehearse for the closing ceremony. The days we’re not rehearsing, there are meetings with the various people involved lasting as long as 9am to 9pm, to report the problems and what needs to be solved before the next rehearsal. These range from medical incidents to missing costumes, to broken props… I barely see my son, I feel I’m failing as a mother.”

Luckily, Chia-Richmond has her amply qualified creative team to help her, including chief choreographer, the award-winning dancer/choreographer Jeffrey Tan.
“The magnitude of helping to create a performance representing 11 countries is astounding,” says Tan, who is also associate artist of T.H.E Dance Company. “I work with choreographers assisting me to rehearse the thousands of performers, brainstorm with the other creatives and work with the multimedia department. I don’t rest. Even when I’m lying in bed, I will go through formations in my head to think of ways to improve them.”

Handling the high-tech machinery is technical director Kenny Wong. “We’re struggling with things that have never been done in the stadium, or ever been seen in Singapore before, actually! But that’s what makes it exciting. The projection system we’re using is going to be in the Guinness Book of Records!”

Pitching in as production designer is Goh Boon Teck, chief artistic director of Toy Factory and National Arts Council Young Artist Award recipient. “It’s just ultra-difficult, technically. We’re very proud of the results. Expect flying metal and five giant auspicious creatures — that’s just two out of over 300 spectacles you’ll see!” he shares. Others in the creative team include celebrated playwright and Young Artist Award recipient Haresh Sharma (who served as writer and co-conceptualiser), costume and puppet designers Phisit Jongnarasin and Saksit Pisalasupongs, sound designer Shah Tahir, lighting designer Mac Chan and multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan, another Young Artist Award recipient.

NOW YOU SEA ME  The SEA Games creative team includes theatre veterans
Goh Boon Teck,  Kenny Wong and  Jeffrey Tan.

Wong stresses it’s not just glitz and technology on the cards. “For all the shows I do, whether a small black-box theatre show, or something like this, the thing we really aim for is this: when the audience leaves, they can bring something back with them, they are moved and inspired in some way.”

Chia agrees, “Our state-of-the-art aerial system, our LED medallions — all that is just technology, tools to help you tell a story. And the SEA Games’ story, its theme, is ‘Celebrate the Extraordinary’, highlighting how ordinary people drive themselves to achieve extraordinary things. I believe in that story, so does my team, and what’s more, we believe we can create those extraordinary moments for the audience. That’s why everyone, including the volunteers, work so hard. We want to look back and feel we’ve done something great.”

For more on the 28th SEA Games, visit www.seagames2015.com. Catch the SEA Games coverage on okto, MediaCorp’s dedicated channel for the Games.

Sing50

National Stadium  |  7 August

Theatre director Jeremiah Choy, creative director of Sing50 — a concert celebrating 50 years of Singapore music — agrees with the SEA Games team that big shows shouldn’t just be about extravagance. “I love big-scale events where I can dream of big creative ways of fleshing out the dare-to-dream concepts, but as a theatre director, I also love the intimate black-box performances where I can voice my inner thoughts. I think the challenges in creating all shows, big and small, are the same: what do you ‘say’ in the short span of time?

“For Sing50, I’m hoping to trigger curiosity, memory or even interest, to look up these songs and their genres, and perhaps inspire us to continue making music in Singapore. We want to showcase the incredible talent in the local music scene over the past 50 years, because contrary to popular belief, Singapore has had a huge treasure trove of songs and music since independence. The more we researched, the more we discovered.”

Choy says that much of the joy in putting up a mega-event comes from the people working on it. “While there were many difficult issues to face everyday, the thing I appreciate most about helming the Sing50 concert is the group of wonderful creative collaborators and the very supportive production team, not to mention the talents we’re discovering along the way.

“Perhaps with the advent of the Internet, or parents encouraging their children to pursue performing arts, those coming for auditions are confident and prepared. We had people from all ages and all walks of life coming forward — they were truly amazing.”

For more on Sing50 and ticketing details, visit www.sing50concert.sg

National Day Parade 2015

The Padang  | 9 August

Weaved into the military pomp of the NDP is the creative side of the national celebration — with the NDP Show and NDP theme song being integral elements. In the past decade or so, the Who’s Who of the arts community have been the engine powering the shows. Through the years, NDP’s creative directors have included Cultural Medallion recipients like Dick Lee and Ivan Heng, as well as the cream of local talents like Glen Goei, Goh Boon Teck, Beatrice Chia-Richmond and Selena Tan.

This year, all SG50 celebrations will invariably culminate in NDP 2015. Themed ‘Majulah Singapura’, it’s touted as the grandest show to date. The scale of the show, the number of participants and spectators will likely break all previous records.

Helmed by creative director Dick Lee, performers will include The Sam Willows singing their rendition of Lee’s ‘Home’ and JJ Lin performing the NDP 2015 theme song, ‘Our Singapore’.

The NDP Show, which will narrate our nation’s journey since independence, sees a record number of participants this year. Chairman of the NDP 2015 Executive Committee, Brigadier-General Melvyn Ong, reveals, “For the show, we have 7,000 participants this year. On a normal year, it’s about 5,000 to 5,500. It’s a good thing, we welcome it, and we look forward to putting up a good show with their participation.”

NDP 2015 will be held at the Padang, but celebration areas have been extended to sites around Marina Bay, including the Floating Platform and Marina Barrage. There will be two ticketed sites — the Padang and Floating Platform — and between 200,000 and 300,000 people are expected in the Marina Bay area enjoying NDP’s aerial displays and fireworks!

For more on NDP 2015 and ticketing details, visit www.ndp.org.sg

Making Music for the Masses

Meet The musical director straddling this year’s two biggest shows.

While everybody is stressed out over the tasks in their respective super-scaled productions, intrepid medical doctor/musician/composer  Dr Sydney Tan is involved in not just one, but two of them: he’s the musical director of the SEA Games and the NDP.

“NDP and SEA Games present different challenges,” Dr Tan explains. “NDP is a national event and the icons, events, melodies and words that resonate are well-known. The challenge is how to keep things fresh and genuine, and make every year like the ‘first time’. The SEA Games is against an international setting, so the references, imagery and so on, need to be much more universal. The big challenge at the end of the day is finding the right resonant frequency. Every situation requires a different strategy.

“But I love doing both, working with the various music-makers and using my music to support the visual spectacles and the moods. And of course, nothing beats the collective gasp of 25,000 people in a stadium becoming as one, when sharing a moment and resonating with a thought.

“Of course, the time demands are pretty incredible, especially as work on SEA Games began in 2013, followed by NDP 2014 and NDP 2015, so it’s been something of a two-and-a-half-year marathon, probably the longest stretch of such intensity I have gone through in my 35-year journey in professional music. Balancing that with a medical practice, a seven-year-old daughter and diminishing energy levels as I hit the CPF-collection age, and it just got really crazy. But it was not possible to say “no” when friends call and when it’s 50 years of my country.”

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