How arts and heritage groups have turned to technology to adapt and reach new audiences during the Circuit Breaker.

Despite the challenge transposing a “live” experience to alternative channels, arts groups have persisted in their missions, turning to alternative ways to make a living while theatres and performance spaces remain silent. 

Yet even in staging digital shows, arts groups jostle for eyeballs against international groups staging free virtual shows and, of course, Netflix.

Undaunted, The Theatre Practice regrouped to maintain its reach. Established in 1955, it is Singapore’s longest-standing professional bilingual theatre institution, with a mission to be an arts space that consciously nurtures and empowers people who care about humanity. 

Despite incurring “huge financial losses” after having to cancel its production, Four Horse Road, it turned its attention to engaging students through home-based learning. 

“We have not been sitting idle,” it said in a reply to WhatAreYouDoing’s questionnaire. “Within a week, our tenacious Practice team conceptualised and created a Four Horse Road Online Learning package for teachers to continue conducting classes that engage students meaningfully. 

“We believe that anchoring the study of history in theatre and storytelling opens one’s mind to multiple perspectives, in turn developing his or her sense of the world, and contributing to his or her intellectual and character development.”

Things We Lose In The Pandemic

That tenacity is shared by the 52-year-old Singapore Book Council, which has kept up the work of promoting Singapore authors. It too, has shifted training and engagement activities online, and frozen staff wages. Even then, COVID-19 “has drained most of our revenue sources”. 

Where the pandemic necessitates isolation, and has led to anxiety about the future, health, livelihoods and loved ones, said its executive Mr William Phuan, “the literary arts provide an accessible means and a window for us to enjoy a sense of freedom”. 

“Readers are exposed to new cultures and adventures, as well as ways of perceiving the world. They can find much comfort and solace among books in the safety of their homes. Online literary events, like festivals and authors’ talks, keep communities alive and give people a sense of bonding and connection. This sense of community is particularly important now.”

The council now needs donations to fund its continued promotion of a multicultural literary arts sector, and without sufficient funding and support, Mr Phuan added, “we would not be able to organise training programmes and workshops to help writers improve their craft and be published”. 

“We would not be able to award the country’s top literary prize, the Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), that showcases the most excellent books that our writers have produced and promote them to an international audience. In addition, we would not be able to organise festivals like the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC), which is an important platform for children’s book writers and illustrators to continue writing books for our children.”

Meanwhile, Playeum, which helps children develop life skills through arts and play, has been cut off from its young beneficiaries. 

Above: (L-R) Sign of the Times: Mr Imran Mohamad, director of operations; Ms Melissa Tan, intern; and Ms Charlotte Goh, executive director, with the rest of the team from Playeum seen on laptop screens. Playeum is an independent charity that develops life skills in children through play, creativity and the arts.

The group works with vulnerable and marginalised groups in addition to paid customers, and its executive director Ms Charlotte Goh points out: “We carry out the mission with our interventions online, but the impact is not the same. The income we get from working with paid customers (children and adults) has stopped. Our work with the marginalised communities through grants has stopped.”

With Playeum’s assistance, one boy with dyslexia at a family service centre was able to gain enough confidence to emcee at its event. “We trained him on many weekends. Despite his lack of command of English and dyslexia, he became so confident standing next to his co-emcee for the most amazing contribution,” Ms Goh said. 

To help more like him, Playeum’s crew is changing its strategy, and plans to take its work directly to children in need, because they can no longer gather at their facility.

Above: (L-R) Ms N. Arasakumari, Mr Kalamandalam Biju, Madam Santha Bhaskar, and Mrs Ampili Pillai, are some of the teaching staff from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy who, like many educators, have turned to home-based learning to teach their craft.

“We Are Not Giving Up”

Among the brighter notes that have emerged during the global pandemic — and arts and heritage groups will be the first to point these out — are that traditional artforms with niche audiences have been able to garner more attention because of digitalisation. 

Their leaders maintain an elegant resilience believing that continued practice will pay off, and say their troupes are doing all they can while awaiting their return to the “live” staged shows. 

Traditional Indian dance and music performing arts company Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, founded in 1952, stages several shows each year featuring Indian (South Asian) dance, music and theatre performances. The charity also takes the arts to schools and the community through various channels, and regularly performs for the elderly, foreign workers and domestic helpers.

Even if they are staying at home, its artists are not stuck there. They gamely experiment and innovate ideas for digital presentations, produce short pieces, and continuously develop online programmes for supporters and followers of traditional Indian arts. 

Their income has been wiped out along with cancelled shows and the suspension of Arts Elective Programs (AEP) and masterclasses at schools, but its artistic director, Ms Santha Bhaskar stated: “It is tough, but we are not giving up.”

“I think donors will continue to support us if we are able to reach them digitally. We are looking for ways to cut costs and continue as an entity so that we will be ready to move on once the crisis is over.”

Already planning its next production, People Get Connected, which it hopes to stage later this year or next year, Ms Santha added: “Definitely money is the most helpful form of support to keep us going through the crisis. The support given to our events on social media is also very much cherished as it shows that our audience appreciates our work.”

It’s a forward-looking determination echoed by Tang Renaissance, whose mission is to promote Shanghai Yue Opera. 

Without missing a beat, the troupe adapted by taking its rehearsal sessions and recordings online. 

“The people who have to bear the brunt of this are the professional musicians who would not get paid for the show commissioned in June which has been postponed to November 2020,” said Ms Foo Kok Wan, its executive director. 

“To help our musicians grapple with lost income in the pandemic, we will produce a music video featuring a curation of Shanghai Yue Opera music. It will be uploaded onto our social media platform for the public to enjoy.”

Tang aims to produce more online digital programmes to reach a broader community base, and remain upbeat. 

Ms Foo points out that the pandemic accelerated the troupe’s digitalisation, opening up new opportunities. Musicians hunkered down during the lockdown, learning and growing, and acquiring new skills such as recording themselves in isolation to music synchronised in a studio by their creative editor.

“This technique may be useful in future when we have collaboration across the borders, and it may help us to save cost engaging overseas experts such as composers and master musicians to work with us virtually without physical contact,” she said.

Ms Foo herself had been a banker until she became Tang’s ambassador, and has for 20 years watched its work reach audiences in Singapore and even Penang. Its lean team comprises one full-time staff, one part-timer and a few freelancers, and it has been operating as a registered arts charity for the past four years.

Funding will support its core activities of producing shows and training performers.  

What keeps them going is the dedication of its members, which is more akin to devotion. 

One, who is 67, gives up her time and income driving a taxi just to rehearse with the rest, such is her passion and need for the creative outlet. Another, Madam Maria Yao, 59, practices in her living room to keep, well, on her toes. She is the female protagonist in The Haunted Temple.

Above: Madam Maria Yao was due to perform in Tang Renaissance’s Shanghai Yue Opera Appreciation Night at the end of June, but the show has now been rescheduled to November. With the current restrictions on gatherings, Madam Yao has had to practise opera movements and singing alone at home, instead of rehearsing with the troupe

Besides feeling disconnected from each other, and their audiences in homes and hospices, she is more concerned that the drop in support will mean that new works will be slower to create, and reaching younger audiences will become harder.

Graciously correcting this writer’s broken reference to a chinese saying about the arts, she pointed out in Mandarin: “It takes 10 years off stage to prepare for one minute on it.”

Watch The City of Good Show: Saving Our Charities, premiering 24 June, every Wednesday at City of Good’s Facebook page. This live stream variety show supports charities from various sectors including arts and heritage, children and youth, disability, and social service. These groups have suffered up to an 80% drop in donations because of the postponement or cancellation of physical fund-raising events. Support the charities here. Expect appearances from Singapore’s top talents, Selena Tan, Pam Oei, Siti Khalijah, and Ghafir Akbar entertain, with guests Hossan Leong, Rishi Budhrani, Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu, Koh Chieng Mun, Chua En Lai, Suhaimi Yusof, and Kumar.

Photos by: Caroline Chia | Words by: Serene Goh
In partnership with What Are You Doing SG, a platform capturing the stories of people in Singapore, their challenges, collaborative nature and problem-solving spirit