One Small Voice: Ivan Heng

Published on 24 November 2015

Pantomime is a Western theatre tradition that’s been successfully localised by theatre company W!ld Rice. Artistic director Ivan Heng shares how.


A pantomime takes an age-old tale — typically the most well-known fairy tales — and puts a fresh, modern, irreverent spin on it. It’s a raucous blast of so many influences and genres: everything and anything from slapstick comedy to political satire, all wrapped up in some truly joyous song and dance.

Some other trademark elements of a pantomime include the Dame — a male actor who cross-dresses to camp comedy effect; although in Singapore, we’ve swung the other way too — and audience participation. In Singapore, the pantomime is a 15-year institution, a British holiday tradition that W!ld Rice has made our very own.

During my drama school days in Scotland, I had my first experience acting in a pantomime. I played one of the three rats in a production of Sleeping Beauty. I remember running down the aisles, with children pulling my tail and ears, and seeing such happy, excited faces in the audience. There were no walls between the performers and the audience. It was theatre at its most rambunctious!

At a performance of Animal Farm in 2002, an old school friend of mine came up to me after the show. He told me he’d enjoyed himself a great deal, but lamented the fact that he had to leave his children behind every time he went to the theatre. That’s when something clicked for me.

I was reminded of my own experience as a performer in a pantomime. Tony Trickett, W!ld Rice’s executive director, is British and grew up with pantomimes. That’s how the seed of inspiration was sown; we decided that the Singapore theatre scene could do with something as cheerful, life-affirming and family-friendly as a pantomime! I think it’s crucial to give kids their first experiences of live theatre from a very young age, allowing them to interact with the story and actors in a way that’s not always encouraged in most other public events.

As with all theatre, the pantomime works best when audiences can identify with the characters and the stories unfolding on stage. So, making a good Singaporean pantomime means telling a story everyone knows, in a setting that’s uniquely Singaporean. Our pantomimes bring these stories close to home. Cinderella lives in a flat in Sengkang, for instance. When our Monkey King makes his epic journey to the West, he’s going to Jurong West!

The pantomime is an incredibly elastic art form. For instance, just last year, we pushed the envelope by creating a pantomime that looked East for inspiration. Rather than adapt another European fairy tale, Monkey Goes West was Alfian Sa’at’s cheeky take on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. It was quite unlike anything that has been staged anywhere, ever. It was something that could be seen only in Singapore.

This year, all the actors will be playing instruments live on stage for our musical production The Emperor’s New Clothes. For a show about the Emperor being naked, there are 150 dazzling costumes. It’s going to be an amazing spectacle and an incredible show. Come prepared to have fun!

Ivan Heng is founder and artistic director of W!ld Rice, Singapore’s leading professional theatre company. He graduated with a law degree from the National University of Singapore and trained in theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In a pioneering career spanning almost three decades, Heng has directed and acted in many landmark Singapore theatre productions that have been performed in over 20 cities across Europe, America and Asia-Pacific. Heng was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 2013. W!ld Rice’s latest pantomime, The Emperor’s New Clothes, is on at the Drama Centre Theatre until 12 December.

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