As puppetry theatre troupe The Finger Players celebrates its 15th anniversary with two beloved plays, Gwen Pew takes a walk down memory lane with company director Chong Tze Chien.
3 Oct 2014:
They say you’ll never have to work a day in your life if you love your job. Local director and playwright Chong Tze Chien is one such lucky individual. A decade after he first joined The Finger Players (TFP), he’s hardly been busier – and happier. ‘It’s more like a lifestyle than a job. We operate more like a collective, or even a family business!’ he chuckles. ‘Everyone does everything here. Back when I first joined we didn’t have a lot of staff, so we’d all perform, conduct and plan the syllabus for workshops.’
TFP was first founded by Tan Beng Tian in 1999 as the children’s division of The Theatre Practice, but has since broken away to become its own entity as Singapore’s leading bilingual puppetry theatre company. Although Tze Chien didn’t join them until 2004, he was instrumental in shaping it into what it is today and his name is now synonymous with the troupe. According to Tze Chien, puppetry used to be associated with only three things: Shows you see on the street, shows you see at the temples and children’s theatre.
‘I wanted to challenge that notion by catering to adult audiences as well, but it was an uphill task,’ he recalls. ‘At that time, it had never been done before, so it was all talk. Even after we told them everything, they’d still ask, “Are you sure the kids will understand this?” We were prepared to fail.’
Tze Chien’s first play with TFP was Furthest North, Deepest South. It didn’t do very well in the box office when it was first shown in 2004, but went on to win Best Production of the Year at the Life! Theatre Awards and was restaged at the Esplanade two years later. From then on, the director has maintained his initial vision of bringing theatre to the masses, impressing audiences with the diversity of his writing style, representing Singapore internationally, and winning a slew of awards to boot. Despite his success, his head has remained firmly on his shoulders and he – and the rest of the crew at TFP – has stayed as down-to-earth as ever.
When we asked Tze Chien to describe the company in three words, he decided on ‘multi-faceted’, ‘imaginative’ and ‘grounded’. And indeed, those are the assets that have carried them forward all these years. ‘I don’t think we’ve really changed that much. Even now, I’ll still see Beng Tian cleaning up and carrying props back to the storerooms,’ he muses. ‘Although we do have a photocopier now! I took that for granted when I was at The Necessary Stage, and remember going into TFP’s office on my first day and thinking, “What? How do they not have a Xerox machine?”’
This month, TFP is celebrating their 15th anniversary by bringing back two of their most critically acclaimed shows. The first, Turn By Turn We Turn (2011), was written and directed by Tze Chien, and inspired by a collection of traditional puppets that were gifted to them by an old master. ‘There must’ve been about 180 of them, all stacked beautifully in these big plastic boxes,’ he remembers. ‘But the thing that struck me was how much the boxes looked like coffins. Without actors, these puppets are just wood and paper. I wanted to write a work that would tell the story of – and therefore resurrect – a dying art form.’
The second play to be restaged is Roots (2012). It was written, directed and performed by Oliver Chong who, along with Tze Chien and Ong Kian Sin, is one of the company’s resident artists. It tells the story of Oliver’s attempt to trace his ancestral roots in China, with his only clue being the name of a distant relative who may not be alive. ‘One of the things we try to do at TFP is to express what local theatre is about, to find out who we are as Singaporeans,’ says Tze Chien.
Nostalgia for the Future
Aside from refining these two performances, TFP is busy preparing for its next steps, which include starting a school for emerging practitioners to hone their craft without the pressure of having to perform publicly, as well as scheduling its calendar for the years to come. Yet, Tze Chien emphasises that for all their forward planning, it’s also important not to forget the past.
‘The reason we’re choosing to restage old works rather than commission a new one to commemorate our 15th anniversary is that Singapore seems to have this fetish for new works,’ he explains. ‘But memories are important. People need to remember what happened in the past, especially since theatre is such a transient art.’
But those of you interested in catching the two shows had better act fast – tickets for both had previously been snapped up very quickly. And if past success is any indication for the troupe’s future, we suspect that there will be a lot more great things to come from these visionary and multi-talented puppeteers.