February 19, 2009 / 8:01 AM / 10 years ago

Asia theater faces slowing funding, free tickets

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Deteriorating economies and the threat of job losses are putting many Asians off the arts, forcing actors to work longer hours and theater companies to get more creative for the show to go on.

Dancers perform during the opening of "ORIGIN", part of the Asia On The Edge festival, in Singapore November 28, 2008. REUTERS/Tan Shung Sin

With theater companies expressing increasing difficulties in garnering corporate sponsorship and facing a drop in ticket sales, performers say their budgets are shrinking.

“The arts are always first to go,” said Robin Loon of the National University of Singapore’s Theater Studies.

“The performing arts are always seen as a leisure activity — seen to be disposable and expendable.”

In Singapore, which is in its deepest-ever recession, theater company Stages gave away 300 tickets to fill seats at a play this month, after recent ticket sales fell 15 percent and it was forced to produce a show with practically no sponsors.

As part of efforts to boost the turnout for an arts festival in May this year, the city-state is also reducing ticket prices by up to 30 percent.

Singaporean non-profit Theatreworks expects less support from foundations and aims to “cut the fat” by 20 percent, through reducing expenses, while being more selective about shows and looking for different revenues such as developing training programs for artists and fundings from online donations.

“If an old folks home or a charity for the disabled and an arts company were to go for the same pot of money, more likely it will be given to the old folks and disabled,” said Tay Tong, managing director of Theatreworks.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the region.

In South Korea, Kim Joung-soun of the National Theater Association of Korea expects weaker industry players to fail.

“I expect the theater industry to continue down this difficult path for at least the rest of the year. Those lagging behind will disappear during the first half of this year,” he said.

For the industry to survive, experts said theater companies would have to adapt by producing shows that could give people a lift during the economic downturn.

“Theatre’s moving back to the cottage industry mode — you spend less money, make smaller profits and can be more creative,” said Jonathan Lim, artistic director of Stages.

Theatreworks’ Tay said art companies should continue to be provocative to offer a different perspective on the economic situation, which has spawned plenty of criticism and jokes over public figures from bankers in New York to politicians in Japan.

“Sometimes art can help people lighten up — sometimes a simple and sincere act will bring a smile to people’s face and I think that’s priceless,” said Singaporean puppeteer Benjamin Ho.

Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun in Seoul; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Miral Fahmy

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