For R. Chandran, the growing theatre scene these days is a heartening sight. When he first co-founded Act 3 Theatrics in 1984 to create performances for children, there was no other professional theatre company around. Now, after over 30 years in the theatre industry, he continues to contribute to the drama scene by reaching out to special-needs kids.
Seasoned theatre maker R. Chandran has had an illustrious career in the Singapore theatre scene, with an array of experiences, from acting, to writing and producing. Some may recognise him from his performance at the 2016 National Day Parade. Others may know the company he co-founded, Act 3 Theatrics, Singapore’s first professional theatre company.
Since it first started in 1 July 1984, Act 3 Theatrics has been producing performances for children all over Singapore.
But how did Act 3 Theatrics start? It came from humble beginnings.
For R. Chandran, it all began in Primary school. “My one interest in school was writing compositions, essays. One thing was consistent for my primary school, secondary, all the way to my A-levels, was that my compositions were regularly read by the teachers in front of the class, as an example of a good work. So that built my confidence. I enjoy the writing, the creating process,” he shared.
In 1979, Radio Television Singapore, now known as Mediacorp, held workshops as they wanted to launch English dramas on TV. “They had a couple of workshops, one for writing, one for acting – I was a participant in both. And then we did some children’s programmes,” he said.
Even though his foray into television didn’t last long, R. Chandran and his fellow television workshop mates decided to continue creating shows, eventually becoming co-founders of Act 3 years later.
“Then there were three of us – Jasmin Samat Simon, Ruby Lim and myself – we decided not to let this go to waste. And for me, somehow, I’m comfortable with children, not adults – even now. So we decided to do children’s theatre because at the time there was no such thing also, lah,” he explained.
The three co-founders, from left to right, R. Chandran, Jasmin Samat Simon and Ruby Lim, in their first promotional shot. Photo courtesy of R. Chandran
As children’s theatre was relatively new at the time, one key challenge they faced was in gathering an audience.
“We initiated this idea of the living room theatre, which means taking theatre to wherever people are. So our first shows were in a bookstore at MPH, it’s in Stamford Road, where it used to be. We did shows in bookstores, shopping centres, then we also went into homes, to birthday party shows,” said R. Chandran.
At the time, they still had fulltime jobs, and performing was something they did in their free time.
“After a while we realised it was actually quite interesting, and it worked. So on 1 July 1984, we decided to do this fulltime. And it was the first professional theatre company in Singapore in the sense that we actually worked on it fulltime,” he said as he explained how Act 3 Theatrics came about.
What propelled them was not profitability, but “the idea of taking stories around.”
Chandran during Act 3’s second public performance at MPH Bookstore, Stamford Road, in January 1982. Photo courtesy of R. Chandran
The importance in bringing theatre to children is not just about exposure to different art forms. It’s about engaging with their imagination and interacting with them.
“It’s about creating stories. What we do in children’s theater is not just telling them a story, but the idea of sharing a story. There’s a lot of interaction. So that’s for them to share ideas. To me, that is the basic thing. With children or with anybody else, it is to listen to them. Not just adults always, telling how things would be, and how things would be done. So in theater, because it’s real time and it’s happening in an environment when children engage with you, I believe it opens them up and their imagination comes to life.”
During birthday parties, the children were so intrigued that they would be sitting very close to Chandran and his partners during the performances.
“It was a wonderful learning experience, because when children are [so close], you can see in their eyes the joy, the fear, and know what they’re yearning. You can almost sense them.”
Being in such close proximity with the children can sometimes lead to hilarious circumstances.
“Because I’m the biggest one of the three of us, I always end up playing the villain, the wolf, the giant and all that. When we were doing little red riding hood, the wolf had to run into [the] audience with the wood cutter chasing after him, a child at that time grabbed me and he had a fork because it was a birthday party. He almost wanted to stab me. So the woodcutter had to save me,” Chandran recounted.
Funny as it seems, this made them realise that children were actually keen to participate. It was not long before they started incorporating such a means to educate the children.
“The children learn to participate in the storytelling instead of being bystanders. For some of the stories we keep it open ended for them to suggest the ending.”
As their act gained traction and popularity, they started to produce larger shows in theatres and travelling shows as well as school performances, which continued for many years.
After over 30 years, Chandran was continually always thinking of ways to evolve the Act 3 Theatrics brand.
“A lot of young people are doing theatre and a few other groups are doing children’s theatre and thriving away. Perhaps it’s time to think of something different,” he had deliberated.
In 2012, they decided to shift their focus. “We don’t do big shows anymore. It’s mostly myself and my wife (actress Amy Cheng), so we run the company and we are focused on special needs firstly. We do programmes in schools like St Andrew’s Autism School and Pathlight,” he shared.
While conducting programmes like co-curricular activities and curriculum planning for special-needs children for the past five years, “We realised the sad thing is a lot of special-needs folks, when they’re in school, they do have something to do, and when they’re 18 sometimes they go for vocational trainings, but after that they spend their time at home. There is no outlet for them.”
So early in 2017 they started Very Special Theatrics (VST) in conjunction with Very Special Arts (VSA) Singapore to create an outlet for special-needs kids to learn and express themselves.
“The idea was to start a vocation for people with special needs, but this is not just for special needs, this is an inclusive company where there are people from the mainstream who also perform. The idea was to work together,” said Chandran.
So far, VST has had three performances. Their very first performance was at the Singapore Management Univeristy, at a pre-dinner reception. The performance was called Birds and Butterfly.
“The audience was very close. I thought that the [children] would freak out, but they didn’t. But some of the people were moved to tears, too. We don’t say in the beginning that they are [special needs children], because [the audience] might feel sorry for them. But later when they realised that they have special needs, it’s touching,” he recounted.
“People don’t see the journey of special-needs people. Some children with autism are nonverbal, and for them to utter a sound is already an achievement,” he shared.
Other than exposure through drama, they hope that it would be an avenue for special-needs kids to earn money from their performances.
“Hopefully, in two to three years [VST] would be a semi-professional company. During their vocation they can earn some money from it. Then it broadens to not just people who act, but also music composers and artists,” he said.
As with any young, budding organisation, VST encountered its own set of challenges. It’s not just about public acceptance, but also about the feasibility of the performances.
“For special-needs performances, you can’t have an audience of hundreds. [For example], in the UK there’s this show for autistic children. There are only six people in the audience but they are really interactive. Some of [the children might even] walk around and then come back,” he said.
“But in a Singapore context, who’s going to pay for it? How do you pay for an audience of six?” He asked.
Despite these concerns, Chandran remains positive about the outlook for special needs theatre in Singapore and cites awareness as the key to overcoming these challenges.
“I think it’s shifting, there’s a lot of opportunities for special needs like the Purple Parade, and there are other occasions where special needs folks perform. Not just shows, but also fashion modelling. Once people are aware, I think it is possible to work around these challenges.”
Chandran manages the administration of the company and develops its programmes. One of the programmes is working with teachers to use drama in the classroom.
“What I also do is that I mentor teachers in primary schools and pre-schools to use drama as a tool [for teaching],” he added.
He has been working with primary and preschool teachers for the past four years. The National Arts Council provides funding for these schools to employ companies like Act 3 Theatrics to mentor and train their teachers.
After all his years of writing, performing and directing, Chandran listed his three most memorable performances. The first is Makanplace. “It’s Singapore’s first-ever musical, staged in March 1988. There were so many people and elements involved.”
Makanplace, Singapore’s first original musical written and created by Act 3. Photo courtesy of R. Chandran
The other two were “National Day Parade [in 2016] with my son, in front of 50,000 people, and the first VST performance [which] was quite magical,” he recalled vividly.
Since co-founding Act 3, Chandran has witnessed some changes in the theatre landscape as well.
“Before, I think only a few brave souls did theater, but now it’s blossoming. There is the School of the Arts, Lasalle and almost every day there’s a new show coming up. People are experimenting, doing different things [like] puppetry and mimes,” he said.
“It shows vibrancy, and it’s definitely going in the right direction. I’m optimistic. I guess people are finding their voices.”
As for his outlook on the future of the drama scene in Singapore, it’s all about teaching the younger generation.
“Young people should be given a larger voice. We should not always keep telling them what to do, like providing them with answers and making them think that there’s only one way to see something, one way to behave. We should be more open,” he shared.
“Education is about learning, even as a teacher. When I was conducting a programme in preschool, I see that young children really do have ideas, but if we have already given them the answers then there’s nothing else for them to do.”
“What I try to do when I mentor teachers is [tell them] to take a step back and not give the answers. Sometimes you just have to believe, and to believe that they’ll be able to follow you,” Chandran said.
Written by: Catherine Nicholas
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