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The Banter: It takes a village, as Wild Rice prepares to reopen

It’s been about seven months since performing arts came to a grinding halt, thanks to the safety restrictions implemented for the pandemic. But this November, following several rounds of live performance pilots, companies are more than ready to return to theatres, with several live shows slated in the weeks to come.

And if it’s one company that anyone should be looking forward to seeing again, it’s Wild Rice, who returns with one woman show An Actress Prepares. Having unveiled their new theatre just last year, the local theatre company was ready to celebrate their milestone 20th anniversary throughout the year with a slew of productions, only to have those planes indefinitely postponed. Still, with the advent of An Actress Prepares, the team are staying positive, with new plans in place and fists full of optimism.

Wild Rice’s last live show was The Importance of Being Earnest back in February

“I count my blessings every day that we still have a job, a company and a reason for being,” says Ivan Heng, Wild Rice Founding Artistic Director. “It’s been a rollercoaster 2020, but we just learn to roll with the punches. We always said we’d never share our work online for free, but these are unprecedented times, and looking at how there was so much anxiety and darkness in the world, it was important to us to just share. And look at how we’ve garnered over 550,000 views in over 31 countries now!”

Ivan is referring to Wild@Home, where the company launched during the circuit breaker initiative, where they released archival footage of past work, such as Emily of Emerald Hill and year-end pantomimes on video streaming services such as YouTube. “Earlier in the year, when I was visiting my radiographer, she got really excited, and told me that she was actually very thankful to Wild Rice for having brought her and her family so much comfort and joy during the circuit breaker,” Ivan adds.

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Things have certainly been down, but as a company, Wild Rice has been determined to thrive and stay strong during these tough times, and that means taking care of each other like a family would. “Theatre is one of the most collaborative of art forms, and you can see how everyone in the team is working hard, from marketing and comms to raise money and get the word out, to the artistic side managing our production schedules,” says Ivan. “Over the lockdown period, the company has been staying motivated by having weekly game sessions together online and even awarding ourselves little prizes. It’s been tough, but it’s all about keeping everyone’s spirits up and staying together, and always encouraging each other to press on as a company.”

“It’s really been about keeping morale up, and everyone has taken the trouble and effort to check on each other more, including the bosses,” adds Marketing Manager Linda Tan. “We’re still in constant contact with each other, and we still feel very connected with each other. Certainly, there’s some extra energy gained from not having to commute, and we expend that energy in work instead, so we aren’t as tired at night.”

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While not always a subject that’s pleasant to talk about, all theatre companies are reliant on some form of funding, be it public or private, to sustain themselves and keep producing new art. That’s been an especially tough prospect during this time, when they can no longer rely on their art to bring in money, and tackling the almost entirely alien world of online presentations. Wild Rice’s annual Rice Ball fundraiser was forced to go digital this year, but thankfully, garnered good funds to help sustain the company, and even saw audiences from Leeds, Northamptonshire and even Qatar tuning in.

“Besides the Rice Ball, the Wild Rice Angels programme is still ongoing, and it’s quite well supported, along with the plant a seat initiative,” says Executive Director Tony Trickett. “The question is, how much can we keep going back to the same people? They’re all incredibly generous, but we must make sure that we’re not taking it for granted and continually move forward, and the most important thing now is to get back into the theatre and get things back on track.”

Wild Rice isn’t just about maintaining their own rice bowl however, and since building their new theatre, they’ve wanted to elevate themselves from simply a theatre company, to becoming an institution and bigger supporter of local theatre and the arts scene than ever. Even beyond theatre, Wild Rice has been hosting events such as the Concordia Quartet’s debut concert and The Opera People. “With a space, we’re no longer just a theatre company, but also a venue manager. It’s our home, and when we re-open, we intend it to be a nice, clean, welcoming space. We have so much pride, and when you come to the theatre, it’s so beautiful, and I want people to see how we’ve built it with so much love and passion,” says Ivan.

“Our goal has always been about building an audience, but over the years, our efforts have expanded to also become more about building the community. The Singapore Theatre Festival for example, is us stepping up to the plate and telling everyone ‘we want to share this platform with you’,” he continues. “In the same vein, when the theatre was built, we wanted it to become this beacon of positivity, and welcome all the other groups to come here and perform as well. We had so much planned for 2020, with show after show, but now everything has been thrown up into the air. It’s always been our dream to have a theatre for Singapore, and for others to enjoy and share it, and continue to encourage others to come.”

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Which is precisely why it’s such a relief for the company to finally put on a live show again this November with An Actress Prepares, even with a limited audience. “An Actress Prepares was initially a small play Alfian (Sa’at) wrote for Siti (Khalijah) for the 2016 Singapore Writers Festival, and was intended to be a reflection of what it means to dedicate one’s life to the acting profession, while doubling as a homage to Singapore theatre,” says Ivan, on the choice to stage this particular show. “In the arts scene, no man or woman is an island, and for that reason, we originally scheduled it as a curtain raiser for the new theatre. Although that was cancelled due to delays in construction, it’s almost poetic how we’re bringing it back again as a milestone for what has been an incredible journey through a very tough year, and it really captures the show’s raison d’être, now that we’re performing it in front of a live audience.”

“The artistic team has been thinking a lot about the audience experience during the new normal, and how we can somehow still let everyone feel warm and communal despite the safety distancing measures in the theatre,” he continues. “We’re not saying no to hybrid digital and physical shows, but really, the act of congregation is integrated into our art. We have bridged our distance in certain ways online, but you can sense that there’s a growing amount of fatigue happening, especially with how people already spend all day staring at a screen for work. And now that we’re no longer fully in lockdown, there’s so many other options out there. We can continue digitally, but the number of people willing to watch that is a whole other matter.”

“Look at the vOilah! France Singapore Festival opener The Veil of Happiness, for example, and how it’s such a different experience putting five cameras to livestream it, as opposed to how I was sitting there in the theatre. There was something very moving simply by virtue of being in the space. It felt like an event, where we were considering the significance of the play, Clemenceau’s anniversary of arriving in Singapore, and reflecting on the play’s lingering question on whether we face the hard truths or turn to blissful ignorance.”

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Wild Rice has gone through plenty of change and adaptation during these times, such as the recent unprecedented three-way collaboration with Singapore Repertory Theatre and Pandemonium on short film The Pitch. In a way, it seems to mark a change in attitudes in the arts scene, and a stronger sense of unity in future. “I think with regards to the other arts companies and ourselves, we certainly won’t be going back to the old ways of not talking to each other. There’s a lot more openness now, and we’re all sharing seasons and discussing ongoing issues and learning from each other,” says Tony.

“As for when we re-open, we’re really going to miss that social interaction we had in the past, with how there won’t be any mingling before or after the show in the lobby,” he adds. “It’s going to be tough, and we’re not sure how long it’ll last, but for now, it’s so important to get it going and get it started. If we have to spend more money bringing in crew to film, it’s firstly, not our forte and secondly, likely that the efforts won’t have as much reach or impact as we’d like now that people are so tired of digital.”

“Because of the restrictions, we’ve been focusing more on the incubation process rather than the presentation, and we’ll soon be launching our directors’ residency presentations right after An Actress Prepares, from Young & Wild to the newly formed Singapore Youth Theatre, comprising 13-17 year olds. There’s been a lot of unseen work, from auditions to script development workshops,” says Ivan.

“For our director’s residency, we’re working with four women, including Sim Yan Ying on the Singaporean edition of her project Where Are You?, and all of them have so much talent and potential,” he adds. “I think that naturally, the cream rises to the top, and we’ve got so many programmes in place to share what we have and reach out as widely as possible, from the Wild Rice Academy, to First Stage, to Young and Wild and now the Singapore Youth Theatre. It’s always been our plan for Wild Rice to represent a lifelong journey of learning and inspiration.”

Ivan Heng in Emily of Emerald Hill (2019)

With An Actress Prepares starting the ball rolling, what then does that spell for 2021 and beyond? “Planning ahead is really like gazing into a crystal ball at this point, and a very cloudy one at that. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air, and we’re really relying on how fast we can adapt and find creative solutions. It’s about remaining resilient and innovative even during these times, like doing a smaller shows, but are by no means less powerful,” says Ivan. “I think about how when I first did Emily of Emerald Hill in 2000, and that was in a 150 seat theatre. But look where we are today. It’s important to strategise and be a little cautious, but we also have to take certain risks, or else there’s nothing to be gained. With the directors’ residency, we’ve got about 4 or so shows lined up for the coming weeks, and planing for 21 shows in 2021. It’s going to be back to back and a tricky juggling act, with so much still to be fully firmed up, especially when it comes to how many audience members we can seat.”

“Back in 1990, I was the first recipient of an arts scholarship, and going overseas, what blew my mind was the role the theatre played in public life over there, with so much conversation generated around the industry, artistry, and profession,” he concludes. “I think about how over the years, our own arts scene has grown so much, to become a real community, and for us to be a part of that community, it’s such a privilege to be there, and constantly push the envelope. It really takes a village to make all these dreams come true, and we’re very lucky to have brought everyone on board with our theatre, be it theatre or music or more. There’s still so much to do in future, so much support to give and so many artists to grow. The possibilities are endless.”

Photo Credit: Wild Rice

An Actress Prepares plays from 4th to 22nd November 2020 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets available from SISTIC

Read our review of An Actress Prepares (2018) here

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