In the world of dating, finding your other half is often easier done from within the same industry. And for Nelson Chia and Mia Chee, who’ve known each other for over 20 years now, love came naturally for the two of them over their shared experiences in theatre.
“We were actually both in NUS Theatre Studies at the same time, but in different batches, so we knew of each other but never really talked,” says Mia. “The first time we actually did meet was in 1999, for Goh Boon Teck’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Theatre Practice. Nelson was playing Puck, and I joined halfway during the rehearsals after replacing another cast member as a fairy. I remember being just out of university, and not being very familiar with the team, and Nelson and I didn’t actually talk much, just danced onstage with each other.”
“Thereafter, we met on another production – an Indonesian version of Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole which featured quite a large ensemble,” says Nelson. “From there, we started going out on group dates, and eventually, just with each other. She was always the quieter one in the beginning, and kept to herself a lot. But that was what drew me to her – her own quiet attitude amidst all the noise.”
While there are times their memories of how their first dates went, one thing’s for sure – theirs is a strong enough bond that it’s seen them through all these years, to the point they’ve gotten married, have two 18-year old children, and continue to run Nine Years Theatre (NYT), Singapore’s one and only remaining fully Mandarin theatre company, which celebrates its milestone 10 year anniversary this year.
“NYT began because Kok Heng Leun (of Drama Box) once told Nelson – you should start a company. Nelson thought he was just joking, but Heng Leun kept insisting on it, to the point where we gave it some serious thought,” says Mia, musing on the company’s origins.
“At the time, we already had our marriage and our children, and sure, that’s our life’s project, but at that point, Mia had already taken a few years out of her career to look after the girls while I was the one who had to bring back the money, mostly from teaching,” says Nelson. “We’d gone our separate paths, and our daily focus and work were no longer the same. Starting the company then, brought us back together again, and it felt like we were on this new project together.”
Since their inception in 2012, NYT has gone on to produce hit after hit, initially known for their Mandarin translations of classic and contemporary works in the Western canon, before eventually expanding their scope to include original works and experimental collaborations. Beyond that, NYT also remains one of the few companies offering classes on the immensely difficult Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints. To date, they continue to be well-regarded, and have just come off a series of successful commissions with the Esplanade and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, and continue to receive support from both the National Arts Council and members of the public.
“Our focus has always been on keeping Mandarin theatre going, and I do hope that while we’ve changed quite a bit over the years, we remain unchanged in that goal,” says Nelson. “Still, we do want the audience to see that we are a versatile company, and can do popular shows and classic works, small scale pieces or big Esplanade Theatre shows, or even collaborate with dance companies, which I think no other theatre company has done, and we continue to helm one of the most difficult trainings within the industry.”
“Looking ahead, we’re still always thinking about how new things could be introduced to the company, whether it’s exploring social media of even NFTs. We have to start thinking about this new order, and to keep up with it, or risk being left behind,” Nelson adds. “The thing about being good is to keep doing and improving on how you do it, and by now, 10 years on, we know our strengths – both Mia and I are bilingual, and we’ve become very good at conducting both Suzuki and Viewpoints classes, probably the only company in the region who do this consistently, and we fully intend to continue in this vein.”
2022 in particular marks the first year NYT leaves behind their NYT Ensemble, a project that ran from 2014-2021 where a group of actors trained regularly on a long-term basis via systematic methods such as Viewpoints and Suzuki Method of Actor Training. These led to NYT working almost exclusively with these actors for their past productions, but with that project having come to an end, now allows for NYT to explore even more new possibilities to come.
“I do miss the synergy we had as an ensemble, when we embarked on research and training together. But at the same time, it was refreshing to move away from that and discover new ways of working and new people to work with,” says Mia. “But under the new model, we’ve been exploring a lot more collaborative work with people we’ve never worked with before, like new actors in Between You and Me, or SAtheCollective with Windward Side of the Mountain. We also have actors like Wendi Wee Hian and Sabrina Sng who were trained under our system, and we’ve been revising our classes, adding new elements like acting and voice work.”
“The hard part wasn’t deciding if we should continue or dissolve the ensemble, because it started out as a project, and we all knew it would eventually take on a life of its own and move on from its original form,” says Nelson. “What was hard is figuring out what next. COVID-19 was a catalyst that sped up the dissolution of the ensemble, and as NYT, we came out of this learning how to be more fluid as a company. I’ve never thought of myself as ‘parents’ to the ensemble – they’re still freelance actors at the end of the day, and I’m just happy that they keeps working. Whatever they achieve can and should be on their own credit, and I’m just grateful we had a chance to work and learn from each other.”
With 2022 being their milestone anniversary year, NYT naturally, would continue to pilot more firsts and celebrations, including their upcoming production – See You, Anniversary, a brand new, original play written and directed by Nelson, and co-starring both Nelson and Mia, playing a couple onstage.
“We worked with so many people from the start of this year that coming into this second half of the year, we thought it might be nice to just go back to basics and do a production with just the two of us,” says Mia.
“It’s always a bit scary when we do an independent show, because it’s on our own investment, and in this post-pandemic period, there’s still a lot of volatility and risk involved,” says Nelson. “In 2020, we mostly pivoted to online work and training, but now that things are coming back, we do want to return to live, and readjust slowly while seeing how things change.”
The last time Nelson and Mia acted together was in 2019, when they performed during the Esplanade’s Huayi Festival on two-hander play Love Letters, also following the ups and downs of a couple in love. But with See You, Anniversary, things are a little different, as they take on a more reflective role, as an older couple looking back on their years together, and thinking back to the most important parts of their lives they want to celebrate.
“The two of us have actually never performed in an NYT show together, and it makes sense that we would be playing this couple who’ve been together a long time, celebrating their anniversary every year,” explains Nelson. “The play is structured around how there are so many things to commemorate in their lives, and how these all begin to change from year to year, from one’s career to the idea of birthdays and who and how to celebrate them.”
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t partially informed by our own experiences of raising kids and deciding to get married, but a large part of it remains fictional,” he adds. “I do think the emotions in the play are quite universal – it’s about people falling in love, and people deciding to come together after all, and to reflect on all those years and seeing how things change becomes a necessary experience.”
Work life and personal life almost never make good bedfellows, yet Nelson and Mia have developed their own system, or rather, approach towards keeping things in order both on the homefront and onstage. “It’s been 10 years since we started the company, and initially, we kept trying to figure out how we could navigate and balance both work and our personal life with each other,” says Mia. “We did try to completely separate talking about work during specific hours, but we couldn’t keep that up, and learnt to accept this was the new normal. For us, it was about learning to swap between the two with a snap, and it’s become a lot more manageable now.”
“As an actor, I am always vulnerable onstage, regardless of which show it is. And in this play, while I’m working with Nelson as a co-actor, I also see him as my director, and we constantly engage in discussions on the creation process, and we don’t worry too much about mixing the personal and professional,” she adds.
“In a way, it was also about learning to accept that disagreements are part and parcel of the process, and it’s less about ‘winning’ than it is about the discourse,” says Nelson. “I started to learn how to appreciate our differing points of view, and it’s all about going into the relationship with a better mindset, where we both got to a stage where we treasure the relationship more than anything else. More than deciding who is right, it’s about cherishing the relationship that brings us more joy, whether it’s in going on holiday or enjoying a meal together.”
Looking ahead into the future, NYT is in good hands, with both Nelson and Mia clear about their vision, and more than enough love and passion to drive the company forward. “When theatre first came back to live, there was this huge rush to get back to it. I think the general sentiment is that the theatre fever is coming back, but we’re still unsure how the box office will be affected,” says Mia. “Some people have been lost because there’s no longer a habit of attending shows, but I think that no matter what, with or without COVID, audience members are never permanent, and always come and go, be it because they become parents or other life events that make it hard to commit.”
And as for the succession plan? Nelson admits that there isn’t one, and never will be, where NYT will forever be his and Mia’s project. “I don’t think we ever had the idea of someone else taking over, because it is and will always be ours, and represent our own ideas and vision,” concludes Nelson. “Maybe when our kids grow up, we’ll reach a point in life where NYT stops doing productions, and we go let’s move on, let’s relax, and we take on more of a mentor role, like starting an academy. We do want to continue teaching classes and collaborate more with international artists. But if anyone comes along and asks if they could take over NYT, I’d instead tell them to start their own company, form their own vision and values, and start from there instead. “
Photo Credit: Nine Years Theatre
See You, Anniversary plays from 15th to 25th September 2022 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available from SISTIC