The Great Outdoors

Published on 31 March 2015

What’s with the increasing popularity of watching shows outside a theatre?

TEXT BY EUGENE TAN

Despite the heat and humidity, the threat of mosquitoes and sudden downpours, outdoor shows have risen in number and popularity in recent years.

Today, Singapore’s arts and events calendar is dotted with outdoor shows — from old chestnuts like Shakespeare in the Park, Ballet Under the Stars and Concerts in the Park to newer, more indie-spirited gigs like St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. Even performing spaces have spilled beyond the grassy slopes of Botanic Gardens and Fort Canning Park. Spring Wave Music and Art Festival brought Mandopop acts to Gardens by the Bay, while Lepark’s recent indie-music gig, Getai Electronica, unfurled on the rooftop deck of People’s Park Complex in January.

Taking the performances outdoors is not exactly a new idea. Many of our traditional art forms have always taken place in the streets. Think of Chinese opera — recently depicted in Toy Factory’s revival of Titoudao — and you’ll be reminded that it was traditionally performed on temporary stages by the roadside, in open fields or on temple grounds. Consider wayang kulit (shadow theatre), which used to be performed by the light of fire in the old days.

Then of course, there’s the getai road show which ‘tours’ the island during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The raucous song-and-dance shows are presented as much for the live audiences as they are for the departed souls making their annual month-long visitations.

While getai might traditionally have showcased Chinese opera troupes, they now feature energetic singers and dancers in glitzy costumes, performing synthesised pop and sugary oldies. The form is specific enough to have created stars within the getai circuit. Getai has also received that ultimate stamp of cultural approval ­— it was the subject of a loving homage by Royston Tan, in his much-loved film feature 881.

In the more contemporary context, arts companies and promoters have also been inspired to hold outdoor shows, some even being quite site-specific. In 1992, TheatreWorks presented Theatre Carnival on the Hill, which took place all over Fort Canning Hill, with audiences roaming from one space to another to catch various performance pieces created by different directors. TheatreWorks would return to this concept in 1994 with Longing, which was directed entirely by Cultural Medallion recipient Ong Keng Sen, and incidentally, included a performance of archival scripts of comedic getai skits. Their ‘theatre carnival’ concept was revisited again in 1998 with Got to Go — Play Till Dawn, an ambitious project that ran overnight, ending with breakfast at sunrise, overlooking Fort Canning.

At about the same time, the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) embarked on a new programme idea, Ballet Under the Stars. Presented on a stage at the base of the huge slope in front of Fort Canning Centre, the event invited audiences to come early to save their spots, lay out picnic blankets, then eat and drink before the show began.

PHOTO  Singapore Repertory Theatre
STAR PERFORMERS Spread out a picnic basket and take in a mixed bill of works at Ballet Under the Stars, an annual Singapore Dance Theatre extravaganza. PHOTO  Singapore Repertory Theatre

By the time the skies dimmed, the hilly slope would be covered with a mass of happy eager people, ready for the dance company to present a mixed bill of works. Ballet Under the Stars celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and remains as popular as ever.

“When our studios were located in the park as well (from 1991 to 2012), it seemed a logical extension of our activities. Now, with two back-to-back weekends presenting sophisticated world-class ballet in an outdoor setting, that’s something we always look forward to,” says SDT artistic director, Janek Schergen. For two weekends in June, two diverse programmes will be presented, promising to delight old fans and newcomers.

Fort Canning has also become the playground for The Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), which has been staging Shakespeare in the Park for eight years running. This year, SRT presents its version of The Tempest, helmed by Braham Murray, one of the founding artistic directors of the acclaimed Royal Theatre Exchange in Manchester.

Staging Shakespeare outdoors is not a new idea, as many companies around the world do it as a summer tradition. What sets the SRT production apart might be the cultural context.

“The challenge, or rather, the excitement, is to use the spiritual and ethnic Asian cultures and religions to make the play visually, directly pertinent to the audience,” explains Murray. With an expected turnout of 30,000 people, The Tempest will run over multiple nights from 29 April, and is what SRT dubs the “largest picnic”!

Open season TheatreWorks has been a long-time advocate of outdoor shows such as 2013’s The Happiness Event and 2004’s Ma: Moment 

It would appear that outdoor performances offer an ideal setting for socialising while enjoying the arts. Whether you are packing a picnic basket or opting for takeaway, the combination of food and drink in a convivial natural setting with friends seems a good formula for a fun time.

This formula is even more attractive when it comes to music festivals. One of the most high-profile festivals on the calendar is probably St Jerome’s Laneway, which started in Melbourne in 2004.

“Singapore is a cultured, forward-thinking country with an abundance of globally-minded young people shaping its aesthetic, and many have amazing tastes,” says Danny Rogers, co-founder of the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. “Their sensibility, the cool expat community and Singapore’s close proximity to other culturally savvy hubs around Asia have enabled Laneway to grow into the event it is today.

“The 2015 edition of Laneway in Singapore was the fifth, with a veritable carnival of food, drinks and other side activities. Certainly, people attend for the music, but a quick look on Instagram will also tell you that a lot of thought and planning goes into what festival-goers wear there. While some might dismiss this as frivolous, there’s no mistaking that a day out at Gardens by the Bay for Laneway is a surefire way to have your finger on the pulse of what is going on in fashion and culture among young adults in Singapore and the region.” Rocking the crowds in January, the event sold out its 13,000 tickets.

Catching music performances in the outdoors is not a novel idea here. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has always held free concerts at the Botanic Gardens. Since 2008, the Singapore Lyric Opera has organised its annual free-admission Opera in the Park, also at the Botanic Gardens, with the aim of extending the opera experience to a wider audience. The Singapore Chinese Orchestra has also brought free concerts to parks and outdoor neighbourhood locations. Music fans and nature lovers can look forward to a series of outdoor concerts — part of the SG50 celebrations — organised by the National Parks Board (NParks). Meanwhile, the Esplanade has been holding regular gigs for free every weekend at its Outdoor Theatre, which throws in a stunning view of Marina Bay for good measure.

Large-scale outdoor performances come with their own challenges. Rain can mar the best-made plans, as the 15,000-strong crowd (including many well-heeled women) who showed up for J Lo’s 2012 outdoor concert at Gardens by the Bay will attest. Or it can liven up proceedings, too, as screaming fans at the SM Town K-pop extravaganza held at The Float @ Marina Bay that same year will vouch for. Acoustics at an outdoor venue may also not live up to expectations, but the ambience and setting usually compensate for the sound.

Perhaps it is this element of unpredictability that makes outdoor arts and events even more dynamic and exciting. With many more such open-sky events filling up the arts calendar, there’s ample opportunity for everyone young and old to spread out a mat, get comfortable and enjoy the show!

OUT-RAGEOUSLY FUN Music events like St Jerome’s Laneway Festival and Getai Electronica bring the beat — and crowds — to locations like Gardens by the Bay and the rooftop car park of People’s Park Complex.

Come out, come out, wherever you are

There are lots of opportunities to take in an outdoor performance!

Shakespeare in the Park —The Tempest
WHEN From 29 April
WHERE Fort Canning Park
PRICE From $40 to $108 at Sistic

Ballet Under the Stars
WHEN 12-14, 19-21 June
WHERE Fort Canning Green
PRICE From $22 to $44 at Sistic

SSO Classics in the Park — Mother’s Day Concert
WHEN 10 May
WHERE Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage, Singapore Botanic Gardens
PRICE Free

NParks SG50 Concert Series
WHEN 9 May
WHERE Admiralty Park
PRICE Free

More concerts in parks
– Singapore Botanic Gardens 7 & 8 Aug
– Bedok Reservoir Park 26 Sep
– Jurong Central Park 31 Oct
– Gardens by the Bay 19 Dec

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