The Esplanade to build new S$30m waterfront theatre

Fourteen years after it first opened, the Esplanade has announced plans to build an additional waterfront theatre to address the growing need to expand audiences and further develop local artists.

The building will include a 550-seat flexible theatre as well as an outdoor plaza. Construction is set to begin in 2019 and expected to be completed by 2021, when another iconic arts venue, the Singapore Art Museum, will likewise reopen after its own revamp.

Situated along the Esplanade Waterfront, the 3,000 sq m space will be integrated into the art centre’s Annexe area, which comprises existing F&B outlets as well as the Annexe Studio, the revamped former Queen club that opened last year and serves as a venue for live music, immersive performances and rehearsals.

The project is estimated to cost around S$30 million, with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) committing S$10 million to kickstart the effort. The Esplanade will be raising the remaining amount through various fundraising activities, which will include reaching out to the public.

“The Esplanade has created shared experiences for Singaporeans from all walks of life, and has played a pivotal role in growing our performing arts scene over the past 14 years. It is truly a national arts centre that belongs to all Singaporeans and is loved by all. This new waterfront theatre will meet the needs of our theatre companies and community arts groups that often require a smaller venue to showcase their works,” said MCCY Minister Grace Fu in a statement.

A 550-SEATER GAMECHANGER

Esplanade chief executive officer Benson Puah described the addition of a mid-sized theatre as a “gamechanger”, which will bridge the gap between the arts centre’s available performance venues.

Currently, it has the Concert Hall and Theatre, which seat 1,600 and 2,000 people, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum are the 240-seater Recital Hall and 220-seater Studio.

A 550-seater space, which can be configured for various types of performances, will serve as an alternative option for local groups who want to go beyond intimate black box performances but may shy away from the bigger – and costlier – venues.

“How much work can we bring to a 2,000-seat theatre? And how many local companies are interested to do work on that scale?” said Puah.

“For the artistic community, (the waterfront theatre) is a space that will give them opportunities to hone their craft. You can do four or five shows.”

Esplanade deputy CEO Yvonne Tham added that the new space will also allow them to programme more productions for young children and students, work more with community and traditional arts groups, and encourage collaborations between regional and Singapore artists, who often create shows more suitable for mid-sized theatres.

“We hope to be able to present a greater diversity of works, and in terms of audiences, develop a wider taste,” she said.

When asked why the Esplanade has not considered using existing mid-sized venues such as the Drama Centre and the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, which it is managing before the Arts House Limited takes over in August, Puah said: “The remit was we will not programme shows in those spaces.”

He added: “When we were first appointed (as place managers), the arts community were very concerned that if we did so, we would crowd them out.”

GETTING THE PUBLIC ON BOARD

The Esplanade will be putting out a call for design proposals later this year, but the idea is for the theatre space to be “casual, raw and porous”, said Tham.

“Lots of people walk by the waterfront everyday so it’s a great opportunity for any member of the public to connect with it.”

With the Esplanade’s spiked domes already a signature look, and the fact that the new theatre will face the architectural flamboyance of Marina Bay Sands and ArtScience Museum, should people expect an unusual structure?

“It will not be a designer building, we can’t afford that,” said Puah. “But being a performing arts centre, it will be tastefully done. It still has to fit in but it need not be expensively done.”

Budget is something that the Esplanade has had to compromise on since day one. In fact, the proposed waterfront theatre is actually a Plan B of sorts.

When the Esplanade was first mooted in the 1990s, the original plan was to build a larger complex that included venues and studios of various sizes. The lack of budget meant that it had to be built in phases, the first of which resulted in the current S$600 million arts centre, which opened in 2002.

A recent feasibility study revealed that it would be financially impossible to begin work at the moment on the second phase of development, which would cost around the same.

Said Puah: “We were meant to have all these spaces but the reality is, Phase 2 in today’s context will be tough. The government understands the needs of the arts community but the reality of today is there are other national priorities. Now is not the time to lobby for a large chunk of our national budget, so we looked at the waterfront theatre in lieu of a full Phase 2.”

With the need to raise S$20 million on the Esplanade’s part, Puah admitted the decision to build a waterfront theatre is a “calculated risk”.

“It will be challenging but not undoable. And this is important enough for us to really get it done.”

The Esplanade will be announcing several new fundraising initiatives in October, when it officially celebrates its 15th anniversary. Aside from wooing corporate sponsors, it will actively reach out to the public, possibly through crowdfunding.

Citing the enthusiastic public support for the defunct National Theatre, which included the “a-dollar-a-brick” campaign, Puah hopes people would also get behind the Esplanade’s new theatre.

After all, while it took a while for Singaporeans to warm up to the Durian at the start, it has since become a popular place, drawing to date 88 million visitors to thousands of performances.

“When we first started out, it wasn’t easy to go out to ask for donations without demonstrating where our heart lies and how relevant we are to the community. I think we’ve done enough to demonstrate that relationship to now go out and say, support us so we can do more,” he said.

Added Tham: “Because it’s a theatre that’s for everyone, we will explore ways in which members of the public can be part of it. We really want this theatre to be something where people can say ‘I helped build it’.”

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