by Jeffrey Tan

Between the 7th and 19th of March 2009, I saw six out of the twelve theatre productions presented by Act 3 International as part of their annual Prudential Children First! – Singapore International Festival for children.

Quite a few friends have asked, why am I watching all these children’s shows? Is it because I am working for the arts council? Or do I miss my Act 3 days working with the company? Or am I interested to continue creating work for children?

My experience at the six productions brings home the point that good children’s theatre is not just child’s play. Although it is children centered, it has to be imaginative, playful, engaging, educational and complexly simple. A tough balance that is difficult to achieve.

The production that moved me the most was the world premiere of Mimika Theatre (UK)’s Small Worlds. Six inspiring stories, told through six characters living in one small world under a white tent. Yes all thirty of us audience members (made up of mostly children and a few adults like myself) were invited into the intimate white tent and a magical story unfolded through film, visual theatre and puppetry. The wordless production had both the children and adults totally engaged and mesmerized that speech became not important. I was struck by the intricate details on the small puppets and the very well structured dramaturgy, in linking the six stories into one world small world. I became a child again, playing and enjoying with the other children.

The second production that moved me was Slingsby Theatre Company (Australia)’s The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy. The journey of self discovery was shared mysteriously under a bigger white tent for a hundred audience members. Told through narration, shadow puppetry and the use of the old magic lantern – projecting colour images, the experience was as if we were transported into a time before the big screen cinema. The themes of separation and lost resonated with the audience so much that when there was a ninety second interval, the audience almost had a collective sign of relief for the character when he eventually finds earth!

The third show that impressed me was Richard Bradshaw’s – Brashaw’s Shadows. The one man shadow show was imaginative, clever and extremely funny! Through the simple use of cleverly designed shadow puppets, Richard told stories, created short scenes of human follies and sang familiar songs. He even had his own version of Old Macdonald. A bat transforming into a witch had the audience in stitches. Just when we thought his show was finished, the elderly gentleman appeared from behind the shadows and showed us how he created the shadows, an indeed imaginative performance that engaged from start to end.

The fourth show that I saw was Teapot Ensemble (Australia)’s The Magic Teapot. Two beautiful women told tea-riffic stories and shared poems, chants and music from different parts of the world through the charming world of teapots. From porcelain, silver, cast iron and glasses, they each created unique sounds transforming us to different parts of the world. The show ended with a musical parade around the auditorium with quite a few audience members.

The fifth show that I saw was Catherine Wheels Theatre Company (Canada)’s Martha. This moving tale of friendship could be better told in a more intimate space. Presenting the island bound, independent Mrs. Macdonald in an old wooden house by the sea at the prestigious Jubilee Hall was quite an ironic experience. I could not escape to her island with the beautiful and expensive glass chandeliers in the theatre space.

The sixth show that I saw was The Troll sons (Canada)’s The Storyteller. Told through full head mask, costume and live musical instruments including a flute, accordion, autoharp and cowbells! The story line revolved around a mama troll and child, telling stories to convince their bad tempted grampa to celebrate his birthday. The highly interactive show needed a more intimate space other than the bad acoustic Chamber theatre at the Old parliament House.

On the whole, the festival was very successful in presenting high quality work for children. Bringing home the point that good children’s theatre is hard to come by.

For me, the success of any festival is its ability to excite, include and inspire the local. In terms of the local children’s theatre scene, Singapore has withnessed the growth of Act 3 into Act 3 International focusing on their drama Academy and presenting Prudential’s Children’s First, Act 3 Theatrics, a very different company focusing on the school touring circuit, birthday parties and shopping mall shows, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Little Company presenting new plays for the very young, I Theatre presenting a repertory of established plays and musicals, Players Theatre presenting dramatized versions of famous children’s books, and the four active mandarin children’s theatre companies, Chinese Opera Institute’s children’s Chinese opera, Young People Performing Arts Ensemble, specializing in crosstalk, Arts Theatre holding the annual Chinese drama competitions.

I had shared with Act 3 International of my desire to see more local companies or artists being presented in their international festival. For without the local interaction, a possible collaboration opportunity is lost. Singapore will eventually become an empty shell relegated to presented works created by people from elsewhere in the world.

Secondly, a more educational programme booklet should be produced. Some groups had artists’ names while some groups had a little section for post show activities. I think a more educational approach can be taken to producing the programme booklet so that more schools and parents can have post show follow up activities around the themes and styles of presentation.

Finally, the constant challenge of having more Asian content in Asian festivals is an area that demands concentration and funding from different Asian partners. Unless we in Asia support and commission local or Asian works, many of our traditional arts will fade with time and good, innovative practitioners in children’s theatre will move to other forms of theatre which give greater recognition and space for innovation.

So in the words of theatre director Peter Brook, to play is hard work. In my experience, child’s play is not just child’s play. To create good children’s theatre, we need to be constantly aware of what is happening around us, imaginative, playful, engaging, educational and complexly simple. Context and space are as important features as the work itself.

So who can dare say child’s play is just play?



An experienced theatre director and educator, Jeffrey has worked full time as Resident Director with The Theatre Practice (1997), Drama Lecturer and Acting Head of Drama with LASALLE SIA (1999) and as Associate Artistic Director with TheatreWorks (S) Ltd (From 2002 – 2006). Jeffrey also taught part time for the English and Visual Performing Arts Department at the National Institute of Education and Arts Management at Temasek Polytechnic and LASALLE SIA. As Associate Director of TheatreWorks (S) Ltd, Education and Outreach, Jeffrey has conceptualized, produced, directed and taught the majority of the education and outreach programmes for both schools, private and public organizations. Jeffrey was the founder President of the Singapore Drama Educators Association. In 2006, Jeffrey won the NAC Arts Professional Scholarship to pursue his Masters in Drama and Theatre Education at University of Warwick. Currently, Jeffrey is the Assistant Director (Festival Programme) programming the outreach programmes for the annual Singapore Arts Festival with the National Arts Council.