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Education feature: Theatre Training and Research Program

Singapore's chimerical school

Bruce Keller

Singapore is known as the Lion City. But in our new-millennial, post-colonial, post-postmodern world, perhaps it is more of a chimera: the head may be that of a lion, but the rest of the beast is a composite of opposites.

Singapore is an island, a city and a country; an ever-changing landscape of new skylines and landfill-expanding coastline; a Chinese/Indian/Malay multiculture with a strong identity in the Sino-world; an international centre that strongly promotes its “Asian Values”; a vigorous arts/performance scene that draws extensively on its traditional cultural forms while embracing exposure to contemporary practice and influence. And since 2001, it has been the home of the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP)—a 3-year actor training course drawing students from around the world and offering a chimerical blend of contemporary practice and traditional Asian performance styles.

TTRP’s premises are a warren of labyrinthal corridors and brutal modernist rooms in the midst of an international business park renowned for its advances in computer technology, most famously the invention of the Soundblaster. Its establishment was the logical next step for Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS), founded in 1965 by choreographer/dancer Goh Lay Kuan and Kuo Pao Kun. Poignantly it has become the culmination of Kun’s vision and also his memorial, following his tragic death from cancer in 2002. The shock and mourning for his passing is still deeply felt within the Singaporean arts community, by staff and students at TTRP, and also in its ramifications for the school’s future directions.

Playwright, director and theatremaker, Kun is respectfully and warmly acknowledged as the “father of Singaporean theatre.” There is scarcely a theatre company or organisation with which he did not have a direct association, whether in its foundation—as with The Substation, or through his nurturing and support of young artists—such as Theatreworks director Ong Keng Sen and the late director William Teo. He also enjoyed a close association with Australia, beginning when he was a NIDA student in the early 1960s.

Over the past 38 years, PPAS has introduced many new ideas and methodologies to Singaporean theatre and dance, has generated and inspired significant groups and venues, and been the training ground for many of Singapore’s leading directors, choreographers, playwrights, actors and dancers.

TTRP was the logical next step for PPAS—a training school for professional actors, where an international staff nurtures students from around the world through contemporary methodologies and traditional techniques. Why in Singapore? Because the contemporary methodologies reference global influences, and the traditional techniques are grounded in significant Asian theatre forms.

Thus, in their first 2 years of study, students receive training in the standard foundations for the global actor (Western-influenced movement, voice, acting technique, improvisation etc) as well as concentrated physical and vocal training in 4 Asian classical theatre systems—Chinese Beijing Opera, Indonesian Wayang Wong, Indian Bharatanatyam and Japanese Noh theatre (one form per semester).

Concurrently, in classes such as Improvisation and self-devised Individual Projects, the students draw on their training from the traditional classes, applying them as their creative vocabulary for contemporary performance practices. In their third year, students further apply this training through public performances of established Western or Asian texts, as well as devised work.

This is the vision—and the experiment which is currently being rigorously analysed and assessed as the first intake of students undertake their third and final year. Of course, after one intensive semester in each form, TTRP is not training pure classical performers. Rather, the aim is to embed in the body/mind/spirit of each student a vocabulary of aesthetic sensibilities, techniques, philosophies and performance repertoires experienced within the selected classical Asian theatre systems, which the performer then draws on to create new and dynamic means of expression throughout their own creative life.

TTRP’s distinguished international consultants include Ong Keng Sen, Rustom Bharucha and Richard Schechner—all of whom through their own work remind us that cross/multi/inter-cultural training and creative product are well-established within contemporary performance. It is not unusual for the West to draw upon Asian traditions for its training methods—whether it’s Indian yoga or Suzuki stomping. Indeed, in the supposed equal weighting of the sharing of such techniques in the exploration of hybrid forms, questions of appropriation and Eurocentricity have often arisen. Intrinsic to the TTRP experiment, therefore, is the strategy to celebrate the traditional forms by positioning the training back in an Asian geographical context.

And as with all attempts at cultural hybridity, while the vision may be exciting, the practicalities throw up interesting challenges.

Any time allocated for actor training will always seem too short, because of the many differences between individual students. With TTRP, this is intensified because of the differences in spoken language and cultural variations in body language and expression. So too, each teacher must be constantly aware of his or her own cultural assumptions and subjectivities, and how these may impact upon a class.

Performance is intrinsically concerned with communication, and a core challenge for TTRP is language—teacher to student, student to student and teacher to teacher. Though predominantly Asian (but not from a single linguistic group) the teaching staff is drawn from around the world—including Australia’s Robert Draffin. The current student body is predominantly from the Sino-world, but also includes Japanese, Philippino and Polish (the 2003 intake is yet to be announced, but auditionees included several Australians).

The need for the student to work in his or her own language is acknowledged and encouraged, but English is the official medium for instruction and administration (or Chinese where the linguistic profile of the class allows it). Students, however, have varied fluency in English.

Robert Draffin has changing strategies for dealing with this linguistic difference. In his first teaching semester he spoke English very-slow-ly-and-care-full-y...only to find the rhythm and momentum of the studio learning was suffering. Next, he experimented with speaking passionate gibberish supported by expressive and precise body language, to very positive effect with the students. Now, he teaches in English with expressive body language, but within his classes the students are encouraged to train, improvise and explore in the language with which they are most comfortable. However, it is undeniable that when the eventual public performance is in English, there are further challenges to overcome for those students for whom English is not their first language.

But at this early stage of its development there is a far greater challenge facing the school—how to manifest the original grand vision within the pragmatic compromises of budget, time and personnel.

The boldness of Kuo Pao Kun’s vision for the school, coupled with his ability to inspire those around him, means that while TTRP is in more than capable hands, his absence has come at a crucial moment in the school’s development. There are interesting times ahead as the world watches how the grand vision is realised and the cultural, linguistic and creative challenges of that vision are resolved. TTRP is, in all aspects, a chimera. Its experiment is still in its early stages, and providing its own synergies and dilemmas. Time will tell if it is indeed a “fabulous beast.”

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 11

© Bruce Keller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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