High (twenty) Five

Published on 28 February 2018

How the Singapore Repertory Theatre continues to survive and thrive after an exciting 25 years in show business.

By Jo Tan

THIS IS HOME SRT is one of the few theatre companies in Singapore to have its own performance space in the form of KC Arts Centre, also known as the Home of SRT. (Photos: Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Despite being one of our island’s most established theatre companies, the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) didn’t have the smoothest start. Company founder, American director/playwright Tony Petito (below), recalls, “People were asking, ‘Is the Singapore Repertory Theatre even Singaporean? It’s headed by a foreigner (me). It’s not a repertory because there isn’t a group of resident actors. And do they even have a theatre?’ Really, I chose this name based on my vision for SRT’s future.”

Petito founded SRT in 1993 after seeing many theatre talents here being paid a pittance, if at all, and wanted to set up something where they would receive living wages. However, few Singapore actors would work with SRT then, despite its range of successful offerings from M. Butterfly to Western classics and original scripts like A Singapore Carol, and he often had to cast actors from overseas. In 1996, Petito decided to bow out and let Singaporean Gaurav Kripalani take the reins instead. Even then, things weren’t easy. Says Kripalani, “In the first six years, I thought every day could be SRT’s last day of existence. As with many theatre companies, we were severely in debt, using revenue from one production to pay off bills from previous ones. But it was hugely rewarding to see that the shows we produced were contributing to the [then] young theatre scene, and somehow we carried on.”


LONDON CALLING SRT has been forging connections with international art-makers, including London’s National Theatre, whose award-winning production The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is co-presented by SRT and the Esplanade this month. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

Twenty-five years after its inception, SRT still isn’t a repertory, but it has its own 380-seat theatre, and balances hiring mainly Singaporeans for most of its productions with drawing on numerous international contacts. This balance is possibly why SRT remains uniquely positioned amidst the sea of theatre companies in Singapore, and the reason for its survival and success.

Says SRT’s managing director Charlotte Nors, “Our company’s DNA has always been international. Because our mission is producing and presenting the best theatre there is, we might have directors and designers for Shakespeare in the Park from the United Kingdom — where theatremakers have more experience staging the Bard’s work on this scale — working with the Singaporean team. But we always look to facilitate skills transfer from the talents we invite to those based here.”

Explains Petito, “When we first started, almost everybody was an amateur here. But when we flew in people like Lea Salonga from Broadway, the whole performance standard rose because everybody would do their best to meet her level.”

SRT has organised various talks and training workshops with the luminaries it invites to Singapore, including renowned physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, and Kim Pearce, resident director of award-sweeping show The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which SRT is co-presenting with Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay this month.

In the past few years, SRT has also launched various residency programmes, including hiring resident assistant directors, employing young people to work on the company’s shows and closely with the visiting artists, culminating in a transfer of skills. This year for instance, alumna Cherilyn Woo will direct a restaging of hit children’s musical The Nightingale. SRT is also rolling out residencies for production management and will soon welcome its first resident in learning and engagement. He or she will work on taking SRT performances to schools and the community and, as a result, develop theatre audiences.


SHARING OF SKILLS Lea Salonga helped inspire her less-experienced co-actors in They’re Playing Our Song, while physical theatre company Frantic Assembly led a workshop for theatre practitioners here.

Nors also believes that SRT wouldn’t have survived without its own constant self-improvement and adaptation. Since its inception, it’s opened a youth training arm (The Young Company); a children’s theatre division that now presents plays in both English and Mandarin to over half a million audience members to date (The Little Company); and a theatre division that periodically develops and stages original Singapore work (Stage Two).

Says Kripalani, “The scene here has really grown. There are a lot more theatre companies now who are all doing very good work. There are also countless other events competing for the time dollar. Because of that, we constantly push ourselves to evolve and take on different types of projects.”

Nors and Kripalani themselves likewise try to keep learning: Nors previously left for a three-year course on arts management in New York, while Kripalani, who is SRT’s artistic director, will take on the festival director role for the Singapore International Festival of Arts from 2018-2020. “There is an incredible group of people working on the festival at The Arts House. Learning new styles of working from them, as well as the exposure to the diverse festival offerings, will shape and expand my future choices for SRT. But I’m keenly aware that I couldn’t have double-hatted like this 10 years ago. Today, I know SRT is in great shape and would be absolutely fine with me only taking a strategic role over this three-year period.”

EYES ON THE EAST SRT maintains an Asian focus, with Mandarin productions of its children’s shows, including The Nightingale, which receives a restaging this year. Managing director Charlotte Nors and artistic director Gaurav Kripalani have also revealed the company is currently developing Mulan as an original musical.
CROWD FAVOURITE Indoor or outdoor, many SRT productions continue to boast impressive attendance rates, with its Shakespeare in the Park series attracting audiences from around the region.

Petito agrees. Having returned in 2015 to write the script for The LKY Musical, he was impressed by how much his company and indeed, the Singapore scene, have grown. “From an amateur scene, Singapore theatre is now full of people who deserve and earn professional fees and treatment. SRT itself would not have survived except for the incredibly talented Singaporeans who took on the work — designers, sound operators, actors and more — who can compete with people from anywhere in the world.”

In fact, SRT is working on not just bringing in overseas acts and talents, but taking its locally developed works overseas. Says Kripalani, “One of my proudest moments with SRT was being associate producer on David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child that went on to Broadway, and earned three Tony nominations. Since then, we’ve produced many of our works with the aim of touring the world. Three Little Pigs was a script developed and premiered in Singapore, which went on to be performed in Australia and the UK, with a run on the West End. We’re developing the work Mulan now, potentially as a touring production with a Singapore cast.”

This feeds into Kripalani’s own vision for the future. “In another 25 years, I would love SRT to be a household name around the world, as a company that produces great theatre.”

The Nightingale plays from 7 March–20 April at KC Arts Centre. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays from 29 March–8 April at the Esplanade Theatre.

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