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Theatre

William Teo

Pioneer of English-language theatre in Singapore.

Calendar

Published: 12 Oct 2016


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[As an artist], all I’m saying is “How can I help you to understand our own life, our own existence?” That for me is why art is very important, whether you’re a dancer, painter or musician […] Art and theatre are really celebrations of your own life.

– Searching For Theatre: An Interview, published in William Teo: His Work in Theatre, 2003.

William Teo, a pioneer of English language theatre in Singapore, is best known for his visual style of production. As founder and director of Asia In Theatre Research Circus (later Asia In Theatre Research Centre), Teo's pan-Asian works with the company that drew from both Eastern and Western theatre traditions would distinguish Asia In Theatre Research Centre—and Teo—from the emergent wave of Singapore theatre practitioners. Teo passed away at age 43, but his in-depth research methodology had already touched many, and would go on to influence those who came to embrace his view of “total theatre” as an experience comprising both audience and performers.

Born in 1957, William Teo was the first student in Singapore to take cookery as a subject in his O levels. He went on to work as a cook in Singapore, Indonesia—where he encountered traditional Balinese music and dance—and France, where he met Eugene Miloslavsky, a friend and mentor who introduced Teo to the arts in Paris.

In 1977, Teo took hairstyling courses while working part-time as a hairdresser in London, UK, graduating the next year from the World Federation of Supreme Hairdressing School with a diploma (honours). Thereafter, for the next two years, he worked as a hairdresser in a small town near Barcelona, Spain—commuting between Barcelona and London—before returning to Singapore in 1980 where he eventually opened his own hair salon, Boticelli. Teo also became an artistic director of the Singapore Section at Intercoiffure, organising fashion shows where he would incorporate Western opera and Asian performance elements into his fashion parades.

Teo travelled to Europe in 1982 and became acquainted with the work of renowned theatre directors and Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine. The latter’s avant-garde theatre ensemble Le Théâtre du Soleil would become a major influence on Teo’s own theatre work in Singapore in the years to come.

In 1985, Teo enrolled in the directing course at Practice Performing Arts School, honing his theatre skills as a student of Kuo Pao Kun. During the course, Teo began his involvement with Singapore theatre as an advisor to St. Andrew’s Junior College for their Singapore Drama Festival play Rhinoceros and as an actor in TheatreWorks’ production Fanshen.

Graduating from the directing course in 1986, Teo dove into theatre, making his directorial debut with Jean Genet’s The Maids, which featured Lim Kay Tong, Lim Kay Siu, and Ong Keng Sen, who was a fellow student in the directing course. The next year, Teo founded Asia In Theatre Research Circus (later renamed Asia In Theatre Research Centre), whose members would rehearse in Teo’s living room for the next seven years, often enjoying Teo’s cooking afterwards.

With Asia In Theatre Research Circus, Teo sought to create a new theatrical paradigm for contemporary Singaporean practitioners. This approach married regional visual and narrative traditions with a hybridised, part-Western derived approach towards dramaturgy. Notable productions Teo helmed include the inaugural The House of Bernarda Alba (1987), Medea (1988), The Conference of The Birds (1991), The Mahabharata Part 1: The Game of Dice (1995), Siddhartha (1997), If They Should Come In the Night (1999) and The Painted House (2000).

Teo’s work is marked by its pared down but no-less stunning visual and experiential elements. These integrate textures, atmospheres and music evocative of Southeast Asian storytelling and dance-dramas, and have been variously described as magical rhythmic rituals. Frequently staged in unusual venues—from old forts to disused warehouses—Teo’s theatre aesthetic was more than for mere visual shock-and-awe; rather, the detailed attention to a highly visual focus served to bring the audience into the same world as the characters and actors from the beginning of the play.

Teo is also well known as an “open director” who often did not cast roles to specific actors until later on when the production is well into rehearsals. His distinct form of storytelling, stunning costumes, commitment to in-depth research and actors’ preparation and training, are what made Asia In Theatre’s relatively small output long remembered after the curtains have come down.

In 1994, Teo received the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council, Singapore.

In 2001, Teo passed away from complications arising from tuberculosis. He left behind a legacy of critically acclaimed cross-cultural artistic research and exploration, which lives on in the work of theatre practitioners in Singapore.

Timeline

30 May 1957

Born in Singapore.

1964 to 1970

Attended Jervois East Primary School.

1970 to 1974

Attended Tiong Bahru Secondary School.

1974

Commis, King’s Hotel.

1975

Travelled to Bali, Indonesia. Encountered traditional Balinese music and dance.

1977

Travelled to Paris, France. Encountered Parisian art scene.

Attended Petit Cordon Bleu culinary course.

1978

Moved to London, UK.

Attended World Federation of Supreme Hairdressing School, London. Graduated with Diploma (Hons.).

Moved to Spain.

Hairdresser, Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain.

1980

Returned to Singapore.

Hairdresser, Rever, Lucky Plaza, Singapore.

1981

Opens his own hair salon Botticelli, Lucky Plaza, Singapore.

Artistic Director, Intercoiffure.

1982

Travelled to Europe.

Jul 1983 to 1986

Board member, Trade Advisory Committee for the Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore.

1984

Volunteer teacher, Raffles Girls’ School.

1985 to 1986

Attended directing course at Practice Performing Arts School.

Jul 1985

Advisor, St Andrew’s Junior College for production Rhinoceros, performed at Singapore Drama Festival.

Dec 1985

Actor, Fanshen, staged by TheatreWorks.

1986

Directorial debut, The Maids, Drama Centre, Singapore.

Co-director, Rashomon, staged by TheatreWorks.

Sep 1986

Co-director, double bill The Maids and The Diary of a Madman, staged by TheatreWorks.

1987

Director, Wayang in Motion.

Founder and director, Asia-in-Theatre Research Circus (later renamed Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre).

Mar 1987

Director, The Gypsies, Drama Centre, Singapore.

May 1987

Director, Kantan, staged by TheatreWorks.

Director, Hanjo, staged by TheatreWorks.

Oct 1987

Director, The House of Bernarda Alba, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus, Drama Centre, Singapore. This is Asia-in-Theatre’s inaugural production.

Feb 1988

Director, Medea, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus, Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

Aug 1988

Actor, Mama Looking for her Cat, staged by Practice Theatre Ensemble.

Nov 1988

Conducted improv workshop Manasaa at Goethe-Institut, Singapore.

Dec 1988

Set and costume designer, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, staged by Practice Theatre Ensemble and Goethe-Institut, Victoria Theatre, Singapore.

1989

Director, Mother Courage and Her Children, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus, Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

1990

Actor, M Butterfly, staged by TheatreWorks, Singapore Arts Festival 1990.

Nov 1990

Director, The Sword Has Two Edges, Drama Centre, Singapore.

Sep 1991

Director, The Conference of the Birds, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus. Presented at an abandoned warehouse on Merbau Road, Singapore.

Dec 1991

Director, Listen to the Color of Dolores, presented as part of the Guinness Raw Theatre series, The Substation.

Apr 1992

Director, Lest the Demons Get to Me, staged by TheatreWorks, Black Box, Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

Mar 1993

Director, The Tragedy of Macbeth, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus. Presented at an abandoned warehouse on Merbau Road, Singapore.

Nov 1993

Director, set and costume designer, Hang Li Bao, a Chinese opera produced by the Sing Sheng Philharmonic Society, 1st Festival of Asian Performing Arts, National Arts Council, Singapore.

1994 to 1996

Lecturer (drama), LASALLE College of the Arts.

1994

Received Young Artist Award.

Jul 1994

Director, The Dragon King, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Circus. Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

1995

Asia-in-Theatre Circus moves to LASALLE College of the Arts, renamed Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre.

Jul 1995

Director, The Mahabharata Part I: The Game of Dice, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre. Presented at LASALLE College of the Arts Cultural Hall, The Substation Garden and Victoria Theatre, Singapore.

Feb 1996

Director, Year Zero: The Historical Tragedy of Cambodia, Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre. Presented at The Substation and PUB Auditorium, Singapore.

Nov 1996

Director, Harold & Maude, Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre, Drama Centre, Singapore.

Feb 1997 to Mar 1997

Director, Siddhartha, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre. Presented at LASALLE College of the Arts Studio Theatre and The Substation, Singapore.

Jun 1997

Artistic Director, Festival Village, the first outdoor theatre festival focusing on Asian performing arts, organised by National Arts Council, Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

Nov 1997

Director, The Sunflower, Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre. Presented at Drama Centre and Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

1997

Conducted a theatre workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which resulted in Project Kasturdesh.

1999

Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre moved to Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre.

Jun 1999

Artistic Consultant, Festival Village, Singapore Arts Festival 1998.

Sep 1999

Director and actor, If They Should Come in the Night, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre, Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, Singapore.

Nov 1999

Director and actor, To See, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre.

Feb 2000

Director, The Painted House: Collection 1, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre.

Mar 2000 to Apr 2000

Director, The Painted House: Collection 2, staged by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre, Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, Singapore.

Jun 2000

Artistic Consultant, Festival Village, Singapore Arts Festival 2000.

11 Feb 2001

Passed away at age 43 from disseminated tuberculosis.

2003

William Teo: His Work in Theatre, Kuo Pao Kun, published by Archipelago Press.

Feb 2011

A View of Total Theatre: Remembering William, The Substation, Singapore.

3 Jun 2011 to 4 Jun 2011

The Conference of the Birds staged by Jeremiah Choy, Singapore Arts Festival 2011.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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