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An Interview with Adrian and Tracie Pang, on Pangdemonium’s 2023 season and beyond

Running a theatre company has never been easy task, but the pandemic made it about a million times harder. Beyond the fact that companies were completely unable to stage their usual live shows, even in the aftermath when the world began to open up again, people had other priorities on their mind, whether spending money on travel and shopping, or saving up after particularly tight financial years.

Pangdemonium happens to be a company that was hit hard. Going from nearly full-houses to more dismal audience numbers in 2022’s tail-end, Singapore’s “ass-kicking theatre company” somehow still managed to survive all these setbacks, and pull through to 2023. Husband and wife, co-founders and co-artistic directors Adrian and Tracie Pang have been through a lot, but they’re stronger than ever, and finally ready to present a full suite of three shows for the season, with hope that things get better.

“Things changed a lot during and after the pandemic,” says Tracie. “There was a sudden explosion of events to attend, people wanted to do revenge travelling, and there was so much choice as to what to do after so many months of having nothing. Even within our company, we’ve had people coming and going for various reasons, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next few months play out for the theatre scene, in terms of ticket sales and audience numbers. People not in the industry have no idea how much it costs to stage a production, and in many ways, it feels like starting from scratch again – there’s interest, but it’s time for us to remind people about our shows and why they should be supporting the company.”

All this follows after the first full-blown ‘Pangsgiving’ fundraiser the company has had in years, managing to hit their targets and helping lift some of the financial burden of overheads and productions costs. “I like to think of our 2023 season as ‘Into the Woods’; beyond actually staging the musical at the end of the year, the last few years have seen us metaphorically venturing into the wilderness, and now finding out way out of it,” says Adrian. “Tracie is right – there is a lot of work we need to do in influencing people’s consumption habits, and build up that interest in theatre again, especially now when it’s not on most people’s priority lists. This is our year to rediscover and reclaim our mojo, and I’m cautiously optimistic for what lies ahead.”

Pangdemonium isn’t the kind of company that puts on a big show for the sake of sales, and always believes in every work they do. That’s not to say they won’t put on a big show, with examples being big Broadway productions like Fun Home or Next to Normal. But both Tracie and Adrian also had their fair share of shows that’ve faced difficult production, or simply weren’t feasible, such as having to seek approval from Disney for their production of Peter and the Starcatcher, or simply giving up on the idea of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, as National Theatre had already secured the rights to producing a unique version of it, that had gotten so big, there was no room for alternative interpretations.

So if it’s one thing Pangdemonium has become known for, it’s that they’re always raring to go with a new production they put their heart and soul into, armed with a message that resonates with the audience. “We’ve always been producing work we want to create, and sticking to our guns, I do feel we’re back to a strong season where people want to come, and go yes, I want to put theatre back in my life,” says Adrian. “It took a couple years to find and claim our identity as a company, and the pandemic veered us away from that. But now, I feel we’re really producing work we believe in again, and we know people who have been loyal to our work will recognise and identify with our work we’ll be presenting.”

“That can be hard sometimes, but we’ve really found out own style of working and marketing. We look for and fight for shows we want to do, and make sure we add our own spin on it,” says Tracie. “Now, with People Places & Things, we’ve been holding on to the rights since pre-pandemic, and we’re ready to put it out. We’ve always wanted to stage it at the new Waterfront Theatre, and now that it’s open, we can bring that vision of a traverse stage to life, and feel it’s the right time.”

Starring Sharda Harrison, who leads an ensemble of ten other actors, namely, Shona Benson, Rebecca Ashley Dass, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Krissy Jesudason, Keagan Kang, Shane Mardjuki, Victoria Mintey, Adrian Pang, Jamil Schulze, and Tan Guo Lian Sutton, People, Places & Things follows Emma, a professional actor who is also a drug addict. As she enters rehab, the people around her begin to morph and change, and she wonders to herself: who is the real Emma?

“It’s honestly one of the best plays i’ve read in recent years, and it knocked my socks off. Duncan Macmillan writes a lot of work that resonates with me, maybe it’s his style of writing, but I was so excited by how he’s cunningly crafted something beyond just a story about addiction, something that I believe is relatable to every one of us,” says Adrian. “It’s about how all of us are trying to live with ourselves, living and dealing with all this baggage and history and family. After the first reading during rehearsals, I had to excuse myself because I started sobbing. So just imagine, if that was my experience as a spectator listening to it, imagine what happens when these actors take to the stage and bring these characters to life.”

“It’s a huge ensemble piece, where everyone is on most of the time, and it’s so important to address an issue like this in Singapore, where it becomes so easy to imagine drug addiction doesn’t exist because it’s not talked about,” says Tracie. “It’s actually so difficult for people to seek help precisely because it’s illegal, compared to say alcohol or gambling, and it’s an exercise in getting audiences to know empathy and how to look at addicts without judgment.”

“I hope people take a leap of faith and come see it, and see that for addicts, drugs are just something they latch onto to keep going. It’s a very difficult piece, in terms of how heavy the subject matter is and how we’re stretching ourselves artistically,” says Adrian. “There are so many unknowns about the Waterfront Theatre yet to be explored, and we have to do things like build a new stage, prepare projections and tech, and prepare for the seating as well. It’s like jumping out of a plane – exhilarating but scary.”

In recent years, Pangdemonium has also been introducing new programmes and initiative that further enrich and enhance their company’s mission, from bringing on Timothy Koh as a director of the youth wing, the Very Youthful Company, to introducing the Triple Threats musical theatre programme. “The country isn’t very big, and neither is the scene, but believe me when I say we have talents,” says Tracie. “The kids who come in for these programme may not be ready for the stage yet, but our goal is to at least give them an understanding of how much passion and effort it takes to succeed in theatre, before going on to professional training. Some of them end up going to drama school, and even return to the industry after – I know one girl who’s on the UK Tour of Six: The Musical. That’s what we can do to help push new talents into the industry, slowly but surely, just like how Tim went from assistant director, to directing Muswell Hill, and later this year, Doubt.”

No doubt though, that this period of recovery won’t be an easy one, constantly thinking of what’s next and the future of the company. “Most people don’t understand why theatre companies can’t make money, and that ticket sales alone might pay for the production, but not things like overheads,” says Tracie. “Yes, we do have amazing support from corporations like DBS, who have supported us for years. And the same goes for the National Arts Council, who have plenty of people who try to help us in any way they can. But the bottom line is still the finances, which are just not enough to support the dream of a thriving arts scene. It’s a long journey, not just for us but even developing audiences to support the scene, and we’ve been thinking a lot about issues like sustainability and the future of the company.”

“Ultimately, the pandemic has taught me that I can’t define myself by my work, and having done that for years, I’m finally able to redefine what’s really important for me,” says Adrian. “We choose to do this and continue to do this because we’re lucky enough to do what we do, and I believe the company will go on for as long as we feel is right.”

What then, are both Tracie and Adrian thinking about now, in terms of the audience and taste for theatre? “There’s still a large proportion of people who are ambivalent to the arts,” muses Tracie. “Singapore is a community of mall-goers, with many who are happy with Netflix and don’t want to explore much else. But we also recognise that there are people who appreciate classical music and ballet, visual art and theatre, and they will go out of their way, against the norm to watch, and get involved in the industry. Maybe they won’t become artists, but at least, become audiences, and I like to believe that’s a community that’s growing as time goes by, recognising that they do need art in their life.”

“People tend to prefer the entertainment value of a circus, rather than something that nourishes the soul. In a way, it’s like the instant high of a drug rather than regular multivitamins that keep you healthy,” says Adrian. “What we’re trying to do with Pangdemonium then is to develop a regular appetite and diet to want to consume more theatre, food for the soul, through an entire season of work on an annual basis, to make them want more, and develop a theatre-consuming habit through their lifetime.”

Photo Credit: Pangdemonium!

People, Places & Things plays from 25th March to 9th April 2023 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, Esplanade. Tickets available here

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