In 1987, a hairstylist created a theatre company. It was called Asia-in-Theatre Research Circus (ATRC), and the hairstylist in question was William Teo, often cited as one of the pioneers of contemporary Singapore English-Language Theatre. He was also the man that late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun called a “true artist”, because Teo was a seeker of a more ancient, sacred form of theatre. For 15 years, his company created and produced some of Singapore’s most unique and visually-arresting English-language theatrical productions which celebrated Asia’s performing arts heritage.
“For the Easteners, they sit on the treasure, they don’t see it, they don’t see the beauty of it. But for me, I went out and came back, I see the beauty,” Teo once said in an interview. Teo spent a great deal of his youth in Europe, during which he attended hairdressing school. During one of his visits to Paris, he encountered the work of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, a theatre company whose productions were devised through extensive collaboration and improvisation. The company’s works were characteristically intercultural, combining Western and Eastern performing art forms. Theatre du Soleil was to become a blueprint for Teo’s own company.
Back in Singapore, two years after graduating from Practice Performing Arts School’s directing course, Teo set up ATRC. As its artistic director, he led the company on a mission to develop a new form of theatrical expression which combined traditional Eastern art forms with Western contemporary theatre. “We are not just merging the two. We are distilling the best of both,” Teo told the Straits Times. The company’s motto was “In Search of a Theatre”, grounding their search in Asia’s classic performing arts practices.
ATRC’s early productions attempted to tell European stories with various combinations of traditional Asian art forms. A Business Times report described the company’s staging of the Greek myth Medea (1988) as having “Noh masks, Balinese musical instruments, South Indian Kathali dances, Sanskrit chanting, Chinese musical instruments, and of course, the Greek play”. The company also staged William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth in 1993. Straits Times writer Joanne Lee noted that the production had a “multiple personality” – actors moved as if in a Chinese opera; some dressed in samurai costumes, others in Indian-inspired garb; performing to a backdrop of Korean drums and Chinese gongs. In its latter years, ATRC looked a little closer to home for stories, staging works such as The Dragon King (1994), a Yuan dynasty play by Li Hao Ku, and part of the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharata, in 1995.
Thanks to Teo’s aesthetic direction, ATRC productions became known for their highly-stylised visuals. For the company’s production of Siddharta (1997), Straits Times reviewer Susan Tsang described what she saw onstage: “The players are on a framed platform at the back of the set, visible through a gauze screen […] Rivers are realised in a stylised form, with a sheet or trays of water that recreate the dreamlike landscape of Hesse’s India.” In an interview with Teo, Hannah Pandian enthused about Teo’s penchant for creating theatrical visual spectacles: “In productions such as The House of Bernada Alba (1987), Medea (1988) and Mother Courage (1989), he bathed his playing area in rich light and drowned his characters in silks and brocades. Down to the last oil-lamp and sandal-thong, everything was perfect…”
ATRC experimented not only with intercultural theatre and aesthetics, but also with location. The company tended to shun conventional theatres, preferring to stage most productions in rather unusual spaces.
One of these was the outdoor environs of Fort Canning Park, where ATRC staged Medea in 1988. In the open space in front of the old fort gates, the company built a stage and lighting rigs, and tiered seating for several hundred people. Performers, audience and equipment were all exposed to the elements. “We had a very tight pact with [God] when we staged Medea. It rained every day after our first run but stopped at the beginning of our second series,” Teo said. Kuo, who reviewed the play for the Straits Times, was impressed with the production’s outdoor setting: “In the hands of these mad Circus people, the trees and grass of the hill, the mossy brick walls of the fort, the canopies and wooden rostrums and chairs, the gentle breeze between 6 and 11pm, somehow effected a relational transformation over those who had willingly subjected themselves to the evening’s magic.”
Another unconventional space which ATRC commandeered for several productions was a disused warehouse on Merbau Road, where the Singapore Repertory Theatre currently resides. After several failed attempts at trying to lease the space from the authorities, the company was finally given approval in 1991. On preparing the warehouse for performances, Teo said: “It was just a matter of getting the place cleaned of most of the cobwebs and pigeon droppings. I’ve kept the moss on the walls and some dust just for atmosphere.” ATRC staged The Conference of the Birds (1991) – a play based on a Persian poem – as well as The Tragedy of Macbeth (1993) in the Merbau Road warehouse. Pandian was enthralled by the location of Birds, remarking that the entire experience was “total theatre, of which there is simply not enough in Singapore.”
With ATRC’s use of unconventional performance spaces, T. Sasitharan emphatically declared that the company had “forcibly and finally shattered the stranglehold of the proscenium stage in Singapore English Theatre”.
Part of the reason for calling itself “circus” was because ATRC wanted to be seen as “a group of players that form a self-contained community – of actors, sets builders and others – in much the same way as circus people”. Sans a small group of repeat collaborators, and, of course, Teo himself, cast and creative teams would change almost completely from production to production. ATRC also had no qualms accepting first-time performers in productions, allowing complete amateurs to train, work and perform alongside seasoned practitioners. Many of today’s theatre industry veterans had worked with ATRC early in their careers; they include now-established practitioners such as Lok Meng Chue, Jean Ng, Nelson Chia, Mark Chan, Jeremiah Choy, and Nora Samosir, to name a few.
“Circus” also hinted at the nomadic nature of the company. In its early years, the company made their home in Teo’s living room. Like a wandering circus, exercises and rehearsals were conducted in various open spaces like parks, beaches and fields. In the ’90s, ATRC was hoping to make the Merbau Road warehouse their base of operations. However, in 1995, the company was headquartered at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts. This was also when the company changed the “circus” in its name to “centre”, to reflect its new status as a registered non-profit organisation, and, perhaps, signal that it had found a home. In 1999, ATRC was allocated a space in Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre by the National Arts Council’s Arts Housing Scheme, a studio theatre which it called “The Wooden Box”.
More importantly, ATRC’s eponymous circus referred to Teo’s wish to capture the “raw feeling of street theatre”. Like in Chinese street opera where the audience can easily see backstage, ATRC always kept the inner workings of theatre-making transparent. Before a show begins, audience members were allowed to wander around backstage areas, talk to cast and crew, and watch actors put on their makeup and costumes. After it ends, audience members were invited to tea and snacks with the company to talk about the performance. Kuo was especially moved by these behind-the-scenes experiences at Medea: “[ATRC] have initiated a new form of theatre-making and theatre-going, which has at once reminded us of our rich heritage and shown us a few sparks of a new emerging organic theatre relationship.”
Kuo also noted that ATRC was foremost about exploring the spirituality of theatre: “William’s theatre was a descendant of the most ancient of theatres. A theatre where performers and audience alike bare their souls, turning the theatre place into an energy field which enables humans to communicate with the gods and each other”.
To that end, ATRC focused a great deal on training. Teo believed that “control and discipline of mind and body” was key to being an artist. Juraimy Abu Bakar, who played the character Bhisma in The Mahabharata Part 1: Game of Dice (1995), said: “We are constantly reminded by William that we are artistes not actors, we play not act and manifest our emotions on the sacred stage and not merely recite lines. It is difficult but we will keep trying.” For The Tragedy of Macbeth (1993), the performers went through two weeks of actor training with George Bigot – Teo’s friend and a lauded stage actor formerly with Theatre du Soleil – as well as several months of improvisation exercises in Fort Canning Park. They were only informed of their roles three months before they play opened. Jean Ng recalls the long hours of training: “Overwhelming exhaustion, strain and pain. But its [sic] all a very good beginning.”
Teo also believed that sacred theatre should be “poor theatre”. This belief flew in the face of developments in Singapore theatre in the ’90s, when the rest of the industry was moving towards commercial viability. Teo once proclaimed that he did not want ATRC to be a company that churned out plays regularly and receive large sponsorships. Bigot echoed Teo’s sentiments: “Theatre is like a temple – a Chinese temple – an Indian temple – a mosque. They don’t make money […] There is a difference between the art of theatre and showbusiness.” Pandian reported that ATRC would assume a $20,000 loss for each production, most of which would be absorbed by Teo’s hair salon business. ATRC would mount an average of one production annually, sometimes even letting up to a year go by in-between public performances. With its emphasis on exploration and research, creating a new work could take up to eight months or even longer.
Teo once described ATRC as a “study group”. He and other company members would take overseas research trips to immerse themselves in another culture and its daily rituals, touring countries such as Thailand, India, Nepal and Israel, and staying with locals for extended periods of time to learn and participate in their daily rituals. After one such trip through several North Indian states, long-time ATRC collaborator Caroline Smith-Laing wrote: “We left India in awe of the high artistic standard and commitment of these brave people, determined against all odds to keep their traditional theatre alive.”
ATRC also conducted a series of cultural exchange workshops in various countries, all in the hopes of building a “global theatre”. These cross-cultural exchanges were often with universities – Project Apsara with Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine Arts, Project Kasturdesh with Bangladesh’s Jahangirnagar University, and Project Thepanoms with Thailand’s Thammasat University. ATRC worked with the region’s theatre practitioners and students, collectively creating productions such as The Mahabharata Part 1: Game of Dice (1995), Year Zero: The Historical Tragedy of Cambodia (1996), and the Gateless Gate (1999).
A one-man theatre
Teo unexpectedly died from tuberculosis in 2001 at the age of 43. His passing also sounded the death knell for ATRC. After Teo’s death, the company put on one final production, Ramayana, in 2002, as a tribute to Teo and his legacy. Following in their late artistic director’s footsteps, the company staged Ramayana outdoors in The Substation Garden. The battle scenes in the play were depicted using Gatka, a South Asian martial art form using wooden sticks to spar. Flying inkpot reviewer Kenneth Kwok found ATRC’s Ramayana “not exactly flawless”, but was also impressed with its “flair and flavour”. Noting the underlying motivation behind the company’s swansong production, he wrote: “…it was particularly powerful to see the coming together of these various artists, all performing their hearts out with such love and fervour in tribute to their fallen comrade and leader, the late William Teo.”
After Ramayana, ATRC ceased operations. “After William died, we weren’t sure if the group would survive,” company dramaturg Sonny Lim said. “It was a one-man show, held together by the mesmerising quality of one human being. When was gone, there was this big hole – people didn’t work for Asia-in-Theatre; they worked for him.”
By Daniel Teo
Published on 14 July 2017
Update (15 July 2017): Name of the university in Cambodia was corrected from “University of Phnom Penh” to “Royal University of Fine Arts”.
In the next edition of the Living Room, a panel of past ATRC collaborators will discuss their experiences working with this extraordinary company and its founder. In the Living Room: William Teo’s Asia-in-Theatre Research Circus is happening at Centre 42 on 29 July 2017. To register, please head to http://bit.ly/lratrc.