Four Questions with Director Tracie Pang on Rent

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Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Pangdemonium

To close its 2016 season, Pangdemonium has gathered a star-studded cast to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the hit musical, Rent. I conducted an email interview with director Tracie Pang to find out more about Pangdemonium’s take on the show.

Rent is the final show of Pangdemonium’s “Season of Love.” Why was the theme of love chosen for this year and why Rent?

Coming out of 2015 where the refugee crisis really started to make the news, the pieces we were drawn to had love centrally and squarely in their themes in one way or another. Rent ended up just being a natural end to the season plus with it being the 20th anniversary of Rent the timing was fitting. It was a seminal piece of theatre and a game changer when it opened. There is also a whole generation of people here who haven’t seen it as they were too young given that it has always been given a R18 rating in Singapore.

Caroline Framke from Vox.com thinks that Rent feels outdated because it “leans so heavily on grunge and generic alt-rock.”  Do you agree? Apart from the message, is there anything in particular about this staging that would appeal to today’s audience?

You could say that about any musical over 20 years old, should we not produce West Side Story or Singing in the Rain because it is dated? I would beg to offer a different perspective. This musical cannot be transported out of the time and place that it was set; it is indicative of the time and struggles of what was happening in ’89/90. It is in the music, the instrumentation and the story line. What is important is to look at how it had an influence on musicals that came after it with small bands, scaled down sets and gritty storylines.

Without Rent, musicals would not have progressed to the likes of Next to Normal where the rock edge in the music helps to connect to our emotions, our modern stories, and today’s generation in a more immediate and instinctual way. The story line in Rent is still very important and so its relevance is still key — diverse communities coming together in love through adversity. Accepting others who are different from ourselves and offering help and love. HIV may not be the death sentence that it was 20 years ago. We have treatments that work now, but it has not been eradicated and once you have it—you will live with it and have to medicate for the rest of your life.

Pangdemonium is known for engaging with community partners as part of its research and advocacy efforts. What are some surprising facts about AIDS that you learnt in the course of preparing for the show? 

Many of today’s youth are not aware of AIDS and HIV, the awareness of the virus has died down and we hope that this musical will go some way to reminding us that our new generations need to be kept aware. In the last 35 years, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, and about 35 million people have died of HIV-related illnesses. Globally, approximately 36.7 million people are still living with HIV today. Singapore is not immune to this disease and we have met young people living with the disease on our journey with Rent. With this in mind,  we will be having a post-show dialogue with a representative from Action for Aids and Oogachaga for two shows on Wednesday nights (they have been given an advisory 16 rating so that teens and families can attend the show).

If you could change one aspect of our society in an instant, what would it be?

Fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of strangers, fear of people who are from a different ethnic or religious group. To be more accepting, welcoming and loving. As the good book says, love thy neighbour!

RENT runs from 7-23 October 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets from Sistic.

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Bidding a Home Farewell: On Space, Gratitude, and Spirit

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Stamford Arts Centre, April 2016

To many, the Stamford Arts Centre is a quaint building where art happens. But for Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), it is more than a sum of the things that happen within it; it is home.

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

It is home not simply because she spent half her artistic career there, or that she feels a surge of sentimentality with the centre’s impending closure. Rather, it is home because the space is sustained by a community and, in turn, the space allows for art to grow and evolve.  She explains:

“It was in 1988 that we moved here, and we were the first tenant. The National Arts Council (NAC) did not give us a grant to renovate the place, but we needed to convert some of the bigger rooms into smaller rooms on the third level for music classes. What my late husband, Mr K.P. Bhaskar, did was to borrow money from our students’ parents, wrote IOUs, and we returned the money when we made some profit,”

Another significance of the space is that it marked a new phase of development and growth for BAA and its training arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (NAS).

“Our group is in this place. When we were at the National Theatre and Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, it was Mr Bhaskar and I who taught dance. We didn’t have any teachers. I taught most of the classes, and Mr Bhaskar handled all the administrative tasks. We only taught and performed Bharatanatyam, that is all. Coming here, we really grew and we brought teachers from India to help with the music classes. So all that happened here. The school has become big now.”

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According to an earlier interview, NAS  has around 2000 students learning a plethora of Indian art forms. Courses in dance (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi), music (various instruments and Carnatic singing techniques), and visual art are offered. More importantly, NAS has its own syllabus for Bharatanatyam and students who complete it are awarded a diploma, and offered teaching and performing opportunities at BAA. “We are self-sustaining in the sense that we have our own pool of dancers and are not dependent on India. We have Singaporean dancers, that’s our specialty,” says Mrs Bhaskar as she beams with pride.

Courses offered by NAS.

Courses offered by NAS

But space and community are not limited to the boundaries within Stamford Arts Centre. “We are opposite two temples and there’s a lot of good energy for the space. So whatever we do, we offer it to the deities, the people, and the space around us.” She adds, “We have very good neighbours. Although we are near to a food court and HDB blocks, no one has complained that we make a lot of noise. We stay here with a lot of harmony.”

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Nearby HDB Blocks

Nearby HDB Blocks

It is with this sense of gratitude that led Mrs Bhaskar to conceive of Na Mah as the first production of the year for BAA. “We will be saying goodbye to this building. It is my way of thanking the space, and the dancers who have learnt from me. While some of them have stopped, their presence and support have sustained the company.”

In fact, gratitude lies at the heart of her practice. “For me, it’s very important. I’m grateful to a lot of things which surrounds me. Even the dancers, they pass energy to me when they perform. I consider this to be my philosophy of performing and teaching.”

Mrs Bhaskar giving instructions to the dancers

Mrs Bhaskar instructing the dancers

The show mostly consists of Mrs Bhaskar’s favourite pieces that were performed by the company. “I can sit and watch those items for any number of times. Some people might get bored and say, ‘I’ve seen this already. Why are you watching it again?’ For me, it’s not like that.”

However, there are other pieces in the show that hold a deeper significance. Two pieces in the line up are from a previous production, Xpressions, which was performed three years ago. This was the last production that Mr Bhaskar watched before he passed away. “We had two nights, and he couldn’t watch the performance on the second night as he was unable to walk up to Esplanade. Three days later, he passed away,” recalls Mrs Bhaskar. “As these two pieces have not been performed since, I am putting them in this show to pay homage to him.”

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Mr TK Arun on the veena

Yet, long-time fans of BAA have something new to look forward to. Apart from the opening number, there is an item that is based on a contemporary Tamil poem. Mrs Bhaskar elaborates: “It is about love and anger between two people. Who is getting angry with whom? I am in love with this space, the clouds love the sky, and the flowers are also spreading their scent. But who is angry with whom?”

She also points out that the pieces are not connected together and audience need not be intimidated, if they are unfamiliar with the Indian epics, as they can be appreciated on their own. Thus, Na Mah is a tribute to those who have come before, and a celebration of the artistic trajectory that BAA has taken.

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Dancers in rehearsal

Despite the understandable sadness of bidding the centre farewell, Mrs Bhaskar is accepting of NAC’s decision. “Singapore is changing, and we have to change accordingly. The building is very old and its stability is a big concern for all of us. If it has to be changed, it has to be changed.”  To the best of her knowledge, the centre will be converted into a space for traditional arts.

While NAC has yet to announce any concrete plans, she hopes that the NAC and other government agencies are mindful of the centre’s surroundings. “I told them that we are opposite two temples, and a lot of devotees go there. I believe that there are a lot of energies around, both positive and negative. It is important that they consult both temples before going ahead with any plans. Personally, I believe that there shouldn’t be any tall buildings in front of the temples.”

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Looking forward, BAA and NAS will be relocated to the fourth floor of Bras Basah Complex. The new space will host rehearsals for their next production which will be choreographed by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, in collaboration with Balinese dancers.

Apart from new productions, Mrs Bhaskar is also looking at starting a research programme in the near future. It will introduce a systematic way of archiving, researching, and analysing the artistic practices of BAA. For a start, Dr Wong Chee Meng, post-doctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, will research on BAA’s upcoming performance of Ramayana in Thailand.

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Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam (flute), Mr TV Sajith (violin), and Ms Ampili Pillai (vocalist)

When asked for her hopes for the future, she has this to say:

“I hope the younger generation will take it seriously. Apart from dance, they should learn music, literature, and visual arts because these elements are interconnected with any traditional Indian dance form.

But the present situation is that they do not have time to learn other things because they are busy with their studies or work. They can only do that if they are a full-timer, but somebody has to pay them a decent salary. I don’t think Singapore is ready for that. So they have to resort to teaching, but the body will become lazy. You’ll think that it is enough and say, ‘I’m making a living already, so why should I do other things?’

If you really want to be an artist, you need a lot of willpower. I don’t know how the next generation is going to be as they are quite pampered. But maybe, someone will come forward.”

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

While the future may be uncertain, there is still a lot to be thankful for. “Mr Bhaskar used to say, ‘Although we didn’t make much money from practising art, we have a lot of good karma.’ We are able to give our students a little bit of knowledge about dance and music, and that itself is a big thing.”

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Directory of Stamford Arts Centre

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Catch Na Mah at Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 April, 2pm and 8pm. Please contact Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at 6336 6537 to book your tickets.

The Mad Chinaman Returns!

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Having been involved with The LKY Musical and this year’s National Day Parade, Dick Lee decides to take a trip down memory lane by reviving a concert which charts his musical journey from his childhood in the 1960s to the release of his album, The Mad Chinaman, in 1989. This revival promises all of Lee’s well-known songs with an extended storyline and a bigger band.

In the midst of his preparations, Lee generously granted this email interview (his responses have been lightly edited).

For those who are unfamiliar with your earlier work, why present yourself as The Mad Chinaman?

The concert is based on my autobiography which traces my musical journey and explains how I ended up with that nickname. This also happens to be the title of my 1989 album that introduced me to the Asian market.

Will you be writing new songs for this upsized version?

I will be performing songs from my career, including a few cover versions of songs that inspired me.

Your career in Singapore really took off after your success in Japan. Do you think it’s easier for local musicians to gain recognition now without first making a name abroad?

I think being accepted abroad is a kind of validation, but it depends on the genre. For example, a Chinese pop act would not be popular amongst the non-Chinese in Singapore. It is still important to establish yourself in your home country, I think, before other countries can accept you.

What are some aspects of the local music industry that need improvement?

We always complain about lack of exposure and local media support, but to be fair, I think they give all they can give. Finally, it all boils down to the quality of the music. When that improves, the support grows naturally.

If you are given three words to describe the Singapore sound. What would they be?

Tropical. Asian. Bright.

What is one advice you would give to your younger self?

Be Fearless (I guess I was anyway). Then, be MORE fearless!

Are you working on any exciting projects that your fans can look forward to?

For the first time, I’ll be directing the fifth production of my 1988 musical, Beauty World (written with Michael Chiang), the second play in my family trilogy, and my first movie.

 

Catch Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman Upsized on 3 September, 7:30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall. For ticketing information, visit Sistic.