Having been in performing arts groups for a good part of my life, I have a special appreciation for music and theatre — and the combination of the two — but I also know that the arts scene is (to say the least) a tad tougher in the context of pragmatist Singapore.
In 2018, I stepped into my first musical theatre performance experience, Void Deck, with The Runaway Company (TRC), a non-profit society organised by youths that produces music and theatre. Some of my fondest memories were created in rehearsing and performing with friends, but most of all I was amazed at the sheer passion, dedication and skill of every person involved in the production.
Of course, that was pre-covid. The pandemic and its restrictions crushed many plans of artistic production and performance; but even so, TRC has continued to release quality music and digital projects. With a shift to smaller, online productions, they’re constantly on the lookout for young people who are interested in the arts and want to try something new with their skills.
I sat down with TRC committee members, Sofie Buligis (Creative Director), Jesse Tan (Music Director), and Adlina Binti Mohd Anis (Publicity Head), to talk about what it’s like to be music- and theatre-loving youths in Singapore, in times when it seems difficult to do so.
HCNTU: What is TRC, and who are you?
Sofie: We are an arts collective run by youths, for youths, producing both theatre and music. We create “incubation” spaces for youths to make art, when they’re out of school and no longer in arts groups, and also for those who don’t necessarily have a job in the field or access to big companies in the industry. I’m the Creative Director, and I plan the creative calendar as well as the culture and community we have here. I’m currently studying Musical Theatre at Laselle.
Jesse: I’m the Music Director, and together with Sofie we decide the creative direction that TRC is taking. To ensure there’s a music component in TRC’s productions — because it’s not only a theatre company — I’m here to engage the musicians community too. Right now I’m in Yale-NUS college.
Adlina: I’m the Publicity Head, in charge of shaping our brand image and managing the various campaigns we have. I think about what to put up on our website, Instagram and YouTube channel. I’m taking a gap year at the moment.
HCNTU: Can people join TRC if they don’t want to act or sing?
Adlina: Yes! Feel free to join if you’re a musician, or just want to be part of the crew, to do lights and sounds, costumes and props, and so on. We’re also recruiting a variety of talents for our smaller projects, including videographers, video editors, graphic designers (always needed!)… Of course, to keep the company running, we also have administrative roles such as website maintenance and even auditors.
We’re flexible about roles across departments — there are people who go on from being singer-actors to crew positions. You can always learn and pick up new skills along the way.
However, there is an age limit of 16-30 for our members. This is the age range defined as “youth” and we are a youths’ company.
HCNTU: What distinguishes TRC from other theatre groups?
Sofie: There are companies that do only theatre, only musicals or operas, but TRC does… everything. We do straight theatre, music theatre, musicals, make songs, animations, radio plays… We don’t limit ourselves and try to cover all the ground of music and theatre.
In addition, we exist “by youths, for youths”. There are many works targeted at young people but created by people who aren’t youths. They have good intentions, but often they don’t fully understand what it’s like to be a youth right now. So we’re here to create the stories that we, as youths, want to see and hear.
In music, too, we usually look for voice type rather than gender; for example we would look for a tenor who can play this person, and they don’t have to have male, testosterone-influenced vocal chords.
Adlina: Our community is also very diverse, whether in terms of skill level, ethnicity, or gender and sexuality. When we are casting, instead of people having to “blend in” the role, we try to make sure the role is gender- and race-neutral, because we want to include as many people as possible.
To build an inclusive community among our artists, there are also initiatives like TRC talks, where we organise forums and invite panelists to talk about social issues like race and sexuality, and put together a document to let everyone know what we discussed and what our conclusion is.
HCNTU: What are the challenges of doing music and/or theatre as youths?
Jesse: Definitely the scheduling. We’re all students, or working in places with inconvenient hours. But we try to cater to everyone as much as possible. And with our recent shift to digital media, because of covid, we’ve actually managed to cater to people’s schedules more, because it’s easier to meet up online. We even have a member in Canada right now!
HCNTU: What can music and theatre do for us in present times?
Adlina: This is a really funky time to be an arts practitioner… Although there are grants and stuff, many people think we don’t need the arts now, and it’s not an “essential service”. But actually, every other month you will hear a song or see an artistic piece, like National Day Parade songs and government advertisements, so clearly the arts have a place here, even now, because they unite us.
Jesse: For me, one important thing that the arts can do — especially in these more depressing times — is to help us focus on the things that matter. For example, our original musical Weren’t You Young Before? (which has been postponed) is about exploring familial relationships — how we shouldn’t take the people around us for granted and how we should continuously make the effort to maintain the connection with those we love and care about. And this is really applicable to covid, when people are forced to stay at home and spend more time with family. The arts are a way to bring up topics that we might not always talk about in our daily lives.
HCNTU: What is TRC working on now?
Sofie: Usually, TRC does two productions each year: a revue-style show around February, and one original musical in August. For example, in March 2020, we performed The Story Of Tonight, which was a revue, and it was sold out immediately.
But covid had other plans for us… So for now, we plan on doing one live production a year (hopefully), and meanwhile we’re engaged in “Bit-By-Bit” projects, which are smaller digital productions, ranging from creative writing, music videos to digital skits.
HCNTU: Describe TRC in one word.
Adlina: “Resilient”, because of how we’ve managed to come this far despite having to pivot quickly around covid with little to no resources, but also because everyone in TRC is resilient. I think we’re in a society where we can’t just dive into the arts if we want to; and for some of us, we have to get over the initial paiseh-ness of sending in an audition tape or singing a solo part, for instance. We’re resilient that way.
Sofie: “Escape”. When people say they “run away with The Runaway Company”, it’s actually true! When I first joined Runaway, a lot was going on in my life and TRC became a safe space I could escape to, for people I love and for doing the things I love. This is true even now — no matter what’s going on in my life, TRC is my “escape”. It’s not the same as work, because I’m making art, and I’m making art for a very pure reason; I’m making art for the sake of it.
Jesse: “Vibrant”. TRC is such an interesting community, and everyone is so unique in terms of their talents and passion. I think it’s very inspiring to see these different people come together and work towards something they love. TRC is also vibrant in the sense that it’s like a light to young people and to the art scene. Lots of good vibes here.
I have to say that it’s not very easy being a youth. It’s also not very easy to do music and theatre in Singapore in current times. TRC encompasses all these difficulties, but also all the fulfillment you can get if you love the arts for their own sake. This vibrant and resilient community is a truly inspiring and comforting presence, especially for young people who are eager to create, but haven’t yet figured out how to start.
If you wish to join The Runaway Company, look out for their recruitment posts on Instagram, where they also update their new activities, such as digital projects and workshops.