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‘We survived a war!’: 70 years of The Stage Club

You can't have a club without a makeshift bar. Even if it's really more of a prop inside an industrial estate. The Stage Club's artistic director Nick Perry (left) and president Elena Scherer. Photo: Jason Ho.
1946: A (signed) programme for Gerald Savory's George And Margaret. Photo: The Stage Club.
1948: Poster of Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest. Photo: The Stage Club.
1961: A cartoon for Dial "M" For Murder, a play made famous Alfred Hitchcock's film version. Photo: The Stage Club.
1962: A telex from Agatha Christie wishing the group well before they stage The Mouse Trap. Photo: The Stage Club.
1968: A flyer of Arnold Weskers' Roots. Photo: The Stage Club.
1974: A scene from Ibsen's An Enemy Of The People. Photo: The Stage Club.
1980: A scene from Agatha Christie's Witness For The Prosecution. Photo: The Stage Club.
1990: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Photo: The Stage Club.
2013: The Stage Club stages Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. They previously staged it in 1948 and 1976. Photo: The Stage Club.

‘We survived a war!’: 70 years of The Stage Club

They may be a bunch of amateurs, but it’s going to take a lot to knock down Singapore’s oldest theatre group

It might seem unusual to get a crash course on Singapore theatre in an industrial estate, but there it was — a visual feast of photographs and posters from past productions by The Stage Club hanging on the walls of its current home somewhere in the bowels of Henderson Industrial Park.

The place is bursting with history. We spot a poster announcing Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit circa 1948 at Victoria Theatre; another for JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus (date unknown, but with the most expensive ticket at S$3); and one for Snow White In Singapore from 1982 (with tickets available from Cold Storage). Elsewhere, there is a plaque commemorating the opening of its first club house in Malcolm Road back in 1965 — with Singapore’s first President, Yusof Ishak, as the guest of honour. Another plaque lists down all of the theatre group’s past presidents, beginning with the very first one — a certain Captain V Margrave — from all the way back to 1945.

Impressed? We were, too. Being around and making theatre for 70 years is no small feat, and The Stage Club is celebrating this landmark with Seventy Shades Of Play, a show that will feature a selection of scenes from seven plays the group has performed over the years, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. (And in case you needed convincing about the weight of the occasion, a mini-exhibition of their posters and photographs will also be set up.)

‘WE SURVIVED A WAR’

“It’s so cool to be part of something that’s 20 years older than the country that I love and live in,” shared recently-appointed president Elena Scherer. The Australian, a 25-year resident of Singapore, has been a member since 1998 and is one of the four directors for Seventy Shades Of Play. “What this show is going to be is a celebration of the fact that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. The club survived through war, literally. So it’s gonna take a lot to knock this puppy down.”

From its roots as a theatre-based social club set up mainly by British troops back in 1945, The Stage Club has soldiered on as Singapore’s longest-running theatre group. And it does so while still keeping to its amateur roots — everyone’s a volunteer and no one gets paid, and all ticket sales, as well as funding and sponsorship it receives from its five annual productions, goes back to the club.

There are about 100 current members and they come from all walks of life. Scherer, for instance, runs a food importer and production company called Red Gum with her chef husband. They have had architects, lawyers, bankers, an oil broker, public relations folks, housewives, students and teachers within their ranks too, such as long-time artistic director Nick Perry, who teaches at Hwa Chong Institution and joined the group in 1985.

“That’s one of the nice things about Stage Club. You get a cross-section of all sorts of people,” said the 60-year-old Perry, who’s also one of the directors for the anniversary show. And while the “expat theatre group” label may have dogged The Stage Club for years, the Briton insisted that’s not the case any more.

Members past and present include Canadians, Americans, English, Indians, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Japanese and New Zealanders, but these would include long-time residents, and Singaporeans are just as well-represented. “I guess it had a reputation of being ‘expat’ and it might have been more like that 30 years ago, but it really has changed,” Perry said.

GOING THROUGH CHANGES

Other things have changed over the years, too. Its homebase, for instance, used to be a colonial black-and-white at Malcolm Road for 40 years. (Before 1965, its weekly meetings would be held at the Singapore Cricket Club’s bar.)

“There was no air-con, but we had open fans, rehearsal areas. We had social nights every Thursday and people would come in and we’d do theatre games such as charades. It was more of a social evening without necessarily putting on a play,” recalled Perry.

In 2005, the group relocated to Whitchurch Road before moving to their current (and arguably grungier) industrial environs in 2013. “It’s the least pretty, but it’s the most practical — we’ve got a very good storage space, a good props area, and our rehearsal space is decent.”

The club’s identity itself has undergone some changes. At some point, the socialising died down and it became more “Stage” than “Club” and people turned up only when there was a show to do. Part of the reason was that, for a few years, they did not have a clubhouse during the mid-2000s.

“That was a real downer. We’ve always had somewhere to go, but for several years, we could not find any place, so we rented spaces,” said Scherer, adding that only people who were involved in a show would turn up and “that has sort of become the norm now”. “It didn’t used to be like that. There were always things going on and somebody was always down at the club. We would hang out and would talk about shows and everything,” she added.

Perhaps the biggest change The Stage Club had to contend with was the theatre landscape itself. “In the late ’80s, there were hardly any theatre groups,” recalled Perry, barring the likes of TheatreWorks, The Necessary Stage and the now-defunct STARS Theater. When other companies such as W!ld Rice (with its highly popular, localised pantomimes) and Pangdemonium (with its top-notch productions of Western works) came in, The Stage Club faced competition and had to adapt. Pantos, for instance, had been The Stage Club’s consistent annual moneymaker. But “we cannot compete with W!ld Rice’s budget, which is massive in comparison to us”, said Perry. “We went into clubs such as the British Club and Tanglin Club with small-scale pantos. You just find a niche somewhere else if you can’t compete with them.”

‘WE’RE THE OUTLET’

Is The Stage Club in danger of being obsolete? Not at all, insomuch as it fills a gap, said the two. At a time of increasing professionalisation in the theatre scene, its amateur ideals offer an alternative.

“I think we fill a need,” said Scherer. “You might have day jobs that maybe aren’t quite satisfying. This is the place you come and leave that behind and learn your lines and have a great time. I think that’s the reason that it works and we have people turning up all the time. We’ve had people who come, leave for a couple of years, then come back again.”

(For this anniversary show, for example, 60 people auditioned to take part.)

And The Stage Club is not only for those who want to get their acting fix. There are those who do not really want to be onstage, but help behind-the-scenes: One member was creating props while we were doing the interview, while Scherer’s friend, a housewife, volunteered to help do up the group’s website.

The group’s current publicity person, author and consultant Ken Hickson, only got involved because his wife got involved last year, helping with the costumes (she now is the group’s wardrobe mistress). But it was the 70-year-old New Zealander who broached the idea to do an all-in-one anniversary show after one of the club’s meetings earlier this year. “I was inspired by all the posters and photos around the club house walls, like a museum,” Hickson said.

But even if it has a come-one, come-all vibe, they hastily reminded us that everyone in The Stage Club takes what they do seriously. There is no quarrel there, considering the number of prominent theatre folks who have had links with The Stage Club at one point or other, such as Lim Kay Tong, Ong Keng Sen, Adrian Pang, Daisy Irani, Subin Subaiah and Nathalie Ribette, among others. Perry also pointed out that performing for The Stage Club can be a less threatening way for young actors to ease themselves into the profession. “It’s a chance for those who think they might be quite good to come, have a go, and bang, things can take off. It can be a launching pad for a lot of actors.”

Given the shaky situation in recent years, Scherer is hoping to bring back the whole “social” vibe of The Stage Club. At the same time, she is planning for more consistency in terms of productions — they have got a couple more coming up this year. There have also been more people interested in directing, noted Scherer, so they are planning for the coming years as well. “We’ve had times when we didn’t have directors.”

So, yes, it is 70 years and counting. “If The Stage Club were to go, we would be letting so many people down. Because we’re the outlet. We’re the way people get their kicks,” she said.

Seventy Shades Of Play runs from May 27 to 30, 8pm, at DBS Arts Centre — Home Of SRT, 20 Merbau Road. Tickets at S$37 and S$42 from SISTIC.