In a new realm of possibilities
Singapore’s newest playhouse offers artists and audiences fresh perspectives and excitement.
Many of us know the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay for its strikingly spiky architecture that makes us refer to it simply and jovially as the “Durian”, frequently part of our touristic photos of the Marina Bay. For those who have stepped inside, we know there’s plenty more than what meets our eyes. Apart from the world-class and highly acclaimed Theatre and Concert Hall, there are Theatre Studio, Recital Hall, rehearsal studios, a performing arts library, galleries, a kids’ playground, shops, restaurants, cafes, a forecourt garden, etc. Much more important than hardware, of course, is the software, or a variety of international arts programs taking place all year round, either organized by the Esplanade itself or other organizers and either ticketed or free-admission.
All of a sudden, the Esplanade turned 20 years old last year and as part of this celebration was the opening of a new medium-sized venue namely Singtel Waterfront Theatre. As the name suggests, this spike-free standalone new building is right on the water just next to the outdoors food court Makan Sutra where the savory “carrot cakes” and a bottle of Sarsi have occasionally been affecting my Body Mass Index (BMI). In other words, it’s highly accessible and food-wise you can conveniently grab something from the food court before, after or at an intermission of any performance.
What looks like just another theatre from outside turns out to be a highly practical multi-format one inside. Some seats and certain parts of the floor can be either removed or added, with manpower and in the period of a few days, while the control room and a few rows of seats in front of it are fixed. As a result, it can accommodate up to 861 audiences when all the removable seats are taken out and most audiences stand, fittingly for a concert. Plus, it’s fit for traverse (with the audience on two sides of the performance area), in-the-round (the audience on all sides) or end-on (the more familiar, if not conventional, one with all audience members fronting the stage). With the concrete floor, it may not look as grand, or glamorous, as the Theatre and Concert Hall, but flexibility is a keyword here and I’m sure that any artists who choose to stage their works here will have fun experiment with different possibilities, and so do we the audience who seek new performance-going experience in this post-pandemic time.
For three months, the Esplanade commissioned new works of dance, music and theatre by local and regional artists to be staged at this venue. I was at the opening night of Yogyagarta-based Papermoon Puppet Theatre’s “Stream of Memory”. Because of the pandemic, it’s the company’s first work in almost three years. Just like its story of how humans connect with one another as well as the nature, the six Indonesian puppeteers, with different sizes of puppets, and four Singaporean dancers exuded sheer energy and bonded with the audience.
Director and playwright Maria Tri Sulistyani told the story of two young friends Sang and Jun’s encounter with the old giant Kali at a pace that’s both comprehensible and entertaining for everyone. The company’s co-artistic director and puppet designer Iwan Effendi gave life and soul to his puppets igniting our imagination. In the end, the work reminded us that for our better living we need to always keep a good balance between rapid urbanization and environmental conservation. Also, after having watched online performances for more than two years and realized too well that some stage performances simple cannot be fully enjoyed on the screen, we want to watch live performances on-site more than before.
In the end-on configuration, audience members, of various ages and nationalities, could choose to sit on the floor just in front of the stage or further away more comfortably in seats. Having just arrived in Singapore earlier that afternoon, I chose the latter and later realized it’s not the best choice. The former would have put me right into this magical and touching journey and connected me more with the puppets. Or was this because the director’s unfamiliarity with this new venue yet?
Next, the Esplanade’s new initiative TRIP, as part of The Studios season, is supporting two early-career directors. Sim Yan Yang’s staging of Joel Tan’s “No Particular Order” is on April 1 and 2 and in the following weekend Renee Yeong’s staging of Michelle Tan’s “I am trying to say something true”—both at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. For more details, www.esplanade.com
In addition, Singapore’s leading professional theatre company Pandemonium will present their entire 2023 season at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, in different stage configurations—Duncan MacMillan’s “People, Places and Things” in March, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable” in June, and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” in October. Additional info is at www.pangdemonium.com
Photo: (for “Stream of Memory”) Crispian Chan; (for Singtel Waterfront Theatre) Bryan van der Beek–courtesy of Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay