We sat down with the co-founder of Nine Years Theatre, Nelson Chia, 45, to gain insight into Singapore’s Chinese theatre scene, and Nelson’s journey in finding his space and niche in the industry, in tandem with the changing arts landscape of Singapore.

Established in 2012, Nine Years Theatre (NYT) is a Mandarin theatre company that focuses on actor-centered productions, actor training and audience education. It is the labour of love of Nelson Chia and his wife, Mia Chee. Speaking to Nelson about the theatre company and his career, the passion that he feels for Chinese theatre is readily apparent.

Nelson shared that he was more interested in outdoor activities such as canoeing and hiking in his younger days as a student, and that his foray into the arts was in fact by chance.

“Around 1992 or 1993, my sister spotted an audition notice by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble. She wanted to go for the audition just for fun, and she dragged me along.” At that time, Nelson was still serving his National Service. While his sister didn’t make it through the audition, he did.

“I started doing my first production with Toy Factory, and then after that, a second, then a third…”

A raw publicity shot of Nelson in a Hokkien opera called Titoudao – A Fallen Angel, staged by the Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble in 1994. For this production, Nelson had to cross-dress for his role as Teng Swee Lian. Photo courtesy of Nelson Chia

Perhaps it was fate that Nelson stumbled upon the wonderful world of theatre, as his subsequent performing experiences inspired him to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Reflecting on his decision to study theatre, Nelson said that people back then were not as open about pursuing theatre as a career as they are now.

“It was more of a hobby,” said Nelson. “When I started acting, most of the rehearsals were at night, [and] people came from their day jobs. We’d rehearse from 7pm to 11pm, go back, sleep, work in the day, and repeat. Day after day, it was like that.”

Nelson credited their collective love for acting in keeping his peers and him going despite the exhaustive nature of their craft.

“The whole ecology was quite different,” shared Nelson. “You can really sense that people were doing it because of passion – who would want to work the whole day, knock off, and then rush for rehearsals?”

Nelson (foreground, with the bow) in the role of Arjuna in The Mahabharata, a French play by Jean-Claude Carrière based on the Sanskrit epic. The play was directed by the late William Teo, and staged at Asia-in-Theatre Research in 1995. Photo courtesy of Nelson Chia

After graduating from university, Nelson enrolled in Goldsmiths College at the University of London for his master’s degree in theatre arts (directing). When he returned to Singapore, he joined The Theatre Practice as a resident artist for two years before leaving to work as a freelance theatre practitioner.

It was during this period as a freelance practitioner that he conceived the idea of starting his own theatre company. Nelson shared that while he has performed in English, Chinese and Malay, he has always been inclined towards Mandarin theatre. And that laid the foundation for Nine Years Theatre. But the road leading to the formation of the company was not always smooth-sailing.

“It took me around nine years to figure out what the company should be,” said Nelson, revealing the inspiration behind his company’s name. “I’ve always wanted to have my own company, but I couldn’t be sure what it should be and could be in the beginning.” Identifying that there were many theatre companies that staged local writing in their productions but few that provided people with the opportunity to encounter classic stories, Nelson set up NYT to fill that particular gap in the industry. The aim was to reintroduce these classics to a new audience.

One could say that Nelson was there to witness the slow and steady shift of the society’s stance on pursuing theatre. He recounted the 1990s to 2000s as a period of significant change for theatre in Singapore.

“In a way, it coincides with the [Singapore government’s] Renaissance Report,” said Nelson, referring to the Renaissance City Report, which was published in 2000.

This artistic blueprint aimed to promote and nurture arts and culture in Singapore with two key objectives in mind: to establish Singapore as a global arts hub, and to foster greater appreciation for our shared heritage, strengthening our identity on a national level.

“The Esplanade was set up, there was the Straits Times Theatre Awards, the NAC [National Arts Council] was pumping in more money, more infrastructure,” recounted Nelson. “There were actual opportunities.”

Today, Nelson translates these opportunities into even more accessible possibilities for future generations by conducting free classes for budding actors, providing both the space and people to facilitate the training. “You just have to turn up!” Nelson quipped.

Publicity shot of Nelson (middle), with Beatrice Chia (left) and the late Emma Yong (right), for Mad Phoenix in 2003. Photo courtesy of Nelson Chia

Through NYT, Nelson has been working hard to contribute to a characteristically local Mandarin theatre in Singapore – one that we can proudly show overseas and say this is what the Singapore Mandarin theatre scene is all about.

Written by: FJ Sai

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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