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Singapore has never had a true repertory theatre before.

Hot Chocolate Theatre, Singapore’s First Repertory Theatre, to Open with ‘The Arsonists’

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It’s definitely a first for Singapore: a repertory theatre which employs and trains 25 Singaporean amateur actors, then puts on Singaporean plays three times during the yearly season.

That’s the dream Singaporean actor Prem John, 35, has had for some time.

So, in 2014 this year, along with actress-director Susan Penrice Tyrie, 50, John co-founded Hot Chocolate Theatre, which will be Singapore’s first genuine repertory theatre.

“We don’t have a true repertory theatre here yet, and if you look at the great actors that have come out of the UK, most of them have a repertory background,” John is quick to point out.

Prem John
Prem John

And he isn’t wrong.

Oscar winner Judi Dench was at two repertories, Nottingham’s Playhouse and Oxford’s Playhouse Company, whilst Laurence Olivier was part of the Birmingham Repertory Company and Michael Caine came from the Westminster Repertory Theatre where he started out under the name Michael Scott.

A repertory theatre is an acting company with a collective membership of actors and actresses who together train and put on plays each season. In some places, like the United Kingdom, a repertory company is attached to one particular theatre, in which the company is housed and its plays performed.

Having portrayed husband and wife in Open Stage’s Arabian Nights in 2012 (please see my review of this play under the archives section), John and Tyrie felt it was about time Singapore had a repertory theatre where like-minded passionate actors can meet, train and work together. “We talked a lot about theatre then realised that we might as well stop talking and start doing,” explains Tyrie.

Susan Penrice Tyrie
Susan Penrice Tyrie

Tyrie goes on to say that Hot Chocolate’s purpose is to “provide a core acting group who work, train and explore together using a common theatre vocabulary.”

Hot Chocolate’s debut play will be The Arsonists, which will play at Goodman Arts Centre from September 18 – 21 2014, and has both evening and matinee shows over the weekend.

According to John, The Arsonists is a funny comedy that examines questions of class, indifference, apathy and judgement here in Singapore.

Tyrie adds that the play also has “quirky touches such as the actors breaking away from the story to address the audience directly. It also employs that staple of classical Greek drama, a chorus. Except this is not a pompous, staid and stationary chorus. Ours are a bunch of lively and cheeky firefighters who not only comment on the play, but provide another view through which the audience can reflect on their own actions away from the immediate story unfolding on the stage.”

When asked why should theatre-goers watch this local play, John explains, “People should watch this to be greatly entertained by the sheer mad situation of it all but also [to] be left thinking about the ramification for all societies but particularly ours when there is rampant inequality.”

John with The Arsonists' actors
John with The Arsonists’ actors

For those of you wondering about the other ‘repertory’ local theatre, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), a check with the company’s Managing Director Gaurav Kripalani confirms that the SRT is not a true repertory theatre at all, despite its name.

Kripalani explains, “Given the diverse variety of productions we do, our company couldn’t cater to a repertory nature.”

When told about Hot Chocolate’s vision of being Singapore’s first repertory theatre, Kripalani was thrilled and said that this is “wonderful news indeed.”

The current Hot Chocolate collective of 15 actors train twice a week, for about three hours each time, at either John’s condo’s function room or at the condos of other members.

John and Tyrie auditioned most of the current members, save for some whom they knew from working with them before.

John points out though that the whole idea is to have about 25 actors and actresses form the Hot Chocolate ensemble and company, a company he places above community theatre but below professional theatre companies.

These 25 actors will train and put up plays, with the possible bonus of getting work as successful, working, and paid actors in other well-oiled companies.

“I want my actors to be employed by Wild Rice, by Pangdemonium, by Mediacorp. That’s the hope”, John enthuses.

And what happens when they are?

“They will then have achieved the objective of Hot Chocolate, and probably will leave the company. After which, another actor on the waiting list will have a chance to take their place.”

Hot Chocolate expects to put up three plays each year, and their slate for 2015 has been prepared already. The main season will be February, July and November, with the company taking a two-month break in December and January.

“Wait a second, so an actor who has immense talent might get cast as the lead over and over again, through the season?” I ask.

“Ah no! Because we have some rules. If you’re in a leading role for this production, you cannot be in a leading role for the next two productions. We want to give everyone a chance.”

John also emphasizes that he and Tyrie don’t choose only talented people. They choose people who are passionate about the craft of acting.

“Okay, but what if you get a guy who’s completely untalented?” I wonder.

“Oh I don’t believe in ‘talent’, that word doesn’t make sense in my mind. Acting is something you get better at, when you work harder at it, and train more”, John offers.

“Okay, but what if this person really is completely useless at acting?” I go on.

“You know I’ve never come across anyone like that. Because at the very least, a person can be himself, he can play himself, so that’s like the very basic of acting already.”

I try pushing the question. What if this chap can’t even play himself properly?

“Then you know, I’ll have to sit the guy down and say you’re most welcome to stay with us and train if that’s what you want. But it’s been X number of years, and there’s no improvement, so maybe you might just want to consider that acting might not be for you.” John says measuredly.

“You see, I don’t just see these actors as who they are now – I see them as what they can be, in three years, five years, 10 years down the line.”

Prem John
Prem John

The most pertinent thing right now though is Hot Chocolate’s debut play The Arsonists, written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch and lightly adapted by John and Tyrie to suit a Singapore audience.

“Why not just choose a Singapore play?” I ask, since Hot Chocolate’s motto is to put on Singapore-based plays.

John explains it was a matter of circumstances.

“We couldn’t find the right Singapore play for our debut. There simply wasn’t one we could do as an ensemble piece. Or do confidently.

“But the next few productions will be local writing,” he assures me.

“We feel that there’s not enough of a focus on local theatre and that there’s a very Singaporean need to look beyond our shores for meaning and entertainment. I’m not taking a side on this but rather committing myself to balancing this out.”

And what about there being so many theatrical companies as it is, all vying for the same niche theatre-going audience?

“Isn’t it wonderful that Singapore’s theatre scene is blossoming at long last? We’re not just about putting up plays – that’s only part of it. We aim to grow a company of committed, created and trained actors”, Tyrie insists.

“That’s like saying there’s too much love in Singapore!” chimes in John.

He goes on, “The love of stories is a universal human longing and everything that we do, be it movies, watching television, hanging out with friends and goofing off all revolves around the power of good stories.

“There can never be too many stories being told.”

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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