The artistic director shares how the performing arts community kept the show going

By Hana Chen

Saturdays are for sleeping late, at least the ever-popular Pinterest quote.

This is however not the case for TJ Taylor.

It’s 8:30 a.m., and I’ve just walked into the Sing’Theatre premises, cloudy-eyed and armed with caffeine. The theater company is on the second floor of a shophouse on Tan Quee Lan Street, a quiet thoroughfare just off North Bridge Road.

Despite the early hour, the 29-year-old director and associate artistic director of local performing arts company Sing’Theatre is cheerful and upbeat. He greets me warmly even as he bustles around the studio, getting ready for his first class of the day.

But that wasn’t always the case.

When the pandemic first hit two years ago, it hit the performing arts industry hard. TJ recalls that the news of the first Breaker (in April 2020) didn’t really hit him until later.

“We were doing shows. Our students were so excited, we were halfway through these amazing shows that were going to be really awesome,” he recalled.

Image source: Hana Chen

As part of Portraits of The Pandemic, The Pride’s latest series of videos about Singaporeans who have weathered the impact of Covid-19 on their livelihoods, TJ tells us how, as an arts practitioner, he felt the effects of the pandemic more keenly than most, especially as it resulted in a shortage of work in his field.

Initially, he and his fellow teachers thought it would be a short break from work – a week or two before they could carry on as normal. However, they belatedly realized that this was not a temporary thing: it was the start of an extremely difficult period for the performing arts.

Suddenly they couldn’t hold live performances and had to scramble to find ways to rotate their shows online.

“Is this the end of my job? »

Portraits of the pandemic: the artistic director explains how the performing arts community has kept the show going
Image source: Singapore Kindness Movement

The future looked bleak – and it didn’t help that there was no clear end in sight for the pandemic. The first month-long circuit breaker measures were extended for a few more weeks and live shows were banned even after Singapore began easing restrictions.

“I checked with all my performer friends, and people just lost their jobs overnight. (There were) no jobs at all in the performing arts industry,” says TJ.

According to the Straits Times, as of April 2020, the performing arts industry had lost over $2.6 million in box office sales alone. Over the next two years, practitioners of the arts struggled to keep their fields going, and some had to find other forms of income to stay afloat.

In 2021, bandleader Chiya Amos’ story of how he had to work as a food delivery boy to make ends meet sparked a conversation about supporting independent musicians in Singapore. Although his story has a happy ending, it reflects the dire straits TJ and many others in the performing arts industry have found themselves in.

Some of TJ’s friends had to drop out of the performing arts altogether; their absence is a loss to the industry, he said sadly.
TJ considers himself one of the lucky ones – unlike freelancers, he had the assurance of a job with his full-time position at the Sing’Theatre.

Even so, this safety net depended on the survival of the company itself.

“I remember the first meeting (during the breaker) was just between us – what do we do? How do we do that?”

Take the step online

Portraits of the pandemic: the artistic director explains how the performing arts community has kept the show going
Image source: Singapore Kindness Movement

TJ talks to me as he prepares for his 9am class – a rehearsal for a live production of Into The Woods. Between songs, the young students chatter among themselves, bursting into nervous laughter when they see the cameras filming.

They only recently resumed in-person classes at the Sing’Theatre.

With current restrictions, they are allowed to be unmasked while singing in small socially distanced groups. It’s not quite the carefree mix of pre-pandemic times – but it’s still a big improvement on what TJ had to work with when Covid-19 first hit.

At that time, due to circuit breaker guidelines, Sing’Theatre suspended all physical classes.

That’s why, TJ explains, the first order of survival was to pivot in line.

The company hasn’t just moved its regular classes online, it’s also found ways to adapt productions for an online format.
“Never, ever would I have thought that I would be streaming live theater because obviously people go to theaters to experience theater,” TJ laughs.

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It was a steep learning curve. Theater is intended to be performed in front of a live audience, and so everything from prop placement to actor positioning is designed with a physical audience in mind.

TJ and his team had to learn how to incorporate camera work to make the production successful. On top of that, they were limited to five people per scene and no mixing between cast members – adaptations imposed by restrictions.

Although it was a tough time, TJ still found positives in the process.

“It was a chance for the students (and teachers) to try something new.”

Despite the challenges, Sing’Theatre students, parents, and teachers have stepped up during the pandemic, hosting online workshops and even hosting a hugely popular open-mic night of musical theater.

They have even managed to unite to do good to those around them. In 2020 and 2021, Sing’Theatre hosted Singathon, a 12-hour online fundraising concert to help members of the performing arts community.

Not 100% out of the pandemic

Portraits of the pandemic: the artistic director explains how the performing arts community has kept the show going
Image source: Singapore Kindness Movement

Things are looking up for the performing arts industry.

As of March 29, there are no longer any restrictions on the number of artists or teams in a performance. Audience size can exceed 1,000 people, provided certain conditions are met, and there is no longer a class size limit for training and performance workshops.

The relaxation of safe management measures means that performers can now return to their normal work activities – back on stage, giving more lessons and returning to regular work.

For TJ, that means he’s finally starring in a full-length musical — in this case, an April 15-24 production of Quasimodo.

This is his first stage performance since arriving in Singapore from the UK in 2013. For the past nine years, the musical arts graduate has focused primarily on teaching musical theatre, not teaching his performance.

“For a lot of artists, this is their first time in two or three years since Covid,” TJ shares, “so we’re all really excited to get back to it.”

Everyone must participate

Portraits of the pandemic: the artistic director explains how the performing arts community has kept the show going
Image source: Singapore Kindness Movement

Even in his eagerness to return to the stage, TJ knows that community support is essential to the recovery of the performing arts.

“We need everyone to take the plunge and come back to see the events live. Support live music, support live theater because that’s the only way for these theater companies and musicians to keep going.

This support is necessary for the survival of the local performing arts industry — without an audience, the show cannot go on, so to speak.

The industry has suffered the loss of many talented artists during the pandemic, and constant work is needed for them to make a comeback.

Nonetheless, TJ remains optimistic about the future of the performing arts in Singapore.

“My feeling towards the pandemic now is of hope, that we are able to move on and continue to make art.”

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