Arts & Culture

Nine Years Theatre Ensemble: To Work With a Common Language

Only company in Singapore with a long-term ensemble

Words by
b-side staff

Co-founded by local theatre practitioners Nelson Chia and Mia Chee, Nine Years Theatre (NYT) is a Singapore Mandarin theatre company that focuses on the re-imagination of classic works and the creation of new works. Its previous works include Cut Kafka! and Tartuffe. The difference in presentations and the nature of the works showcase NYT’s diverse range. Its Mandarin theatre productions always offer surtitles, a gesture of including audience members from all language backgrounds.

The one thing that sets NYT apart from other Singapore-based theatre companies is the fact that it is the only company to work with an ensemble of actors. Also known as the NYT Ensemble, this group of actors train regularly on a long-term basis via systematic methods, such as Viewpoints and Suzuki Method of Actor Training. With a firm belief in actor training, NYT also makes it a point to share these training philosophy and methods through classes and open-training platforms.

Its upcoming show, Lear Is Dead, is a play-within-a-play, inspired by and based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. It speaks about wisdom and power, and at the basis of it all, the human condition.

Nelson shares with B-Side the training philosophies that Nine Years Theatre lives by and why working with a core ensemble has its benefits.

In Singapore, working with an ensemble is a rarity. Is that the case internationally as well?

On the contrary, there are many examples of ensemble model in countries with mature theatre culture. This model, however, is less explored in Singapore.

We see examples of this model in companies such as Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret, Peter Brook’s Theatre Bouffes Du Nord and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, Theater Mandiri led by Indonesian director Putu Wijaya, Suzuki Company of Toga by Tadashi Suzuki, and SITI Company by Anne Bogart, to name a few. Furthermore, the essence of the ensemble model is cross-disciplinary. We have seen how major dance companies largely rely on a core group of dancers who have trained together over an extended period of time to produce quality works.

NYT believes that an ensemble model offers unique qualities, which are currently under-explored in our local theatre scene. These qualities will, in fact, propel us towards higher standards in our work. These are the reasons for the initiation of the NYT Ensemble Project.

What are some qualities that you look for when choosing your core members?

That they are, firstly, willing to make the commitment to always challenge themselves and improve. Secondly, their belief in long-term regular training.

What are some difficulties in maintaining an ensemble?

Having a system that can sustain an ensemble. This includes having a healthy programme where there are enough productions per year so that ensemble members can get the chance to perform and be challenged to improve, a training system that can build synergy, develop a common language and cultivate the actors, and a philosophy that binds the company towards a common goal.

Why were the Suzuki method and Viewpoints chosen among the other training systems?

We train for many reasons. But generally, it is to become a more capable and creative actor, to constantly return to a “zero” state, so that we may see, experience and feel with refreshed perspectives. By training together, we build a common language and synergy that will allow us to create works that are consistent, grounded and integral.

We adopted the Suzuki method created by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki as our Regular Training because it is systematic, adaptable, creative and disciplined. Its essence of structured freedom is closely related to real-life performance situation, making the method most suited for long-term, regular practice.

Although it uses a series of formal physical exercises, known as disciplines, in its practice, these exercises are a means to uncovering the inner creative potential of the actor. In other words, these exercises are essentially components of a “method” rather than rigid aesthetics, making the Suzuki Method a system of training that transcends gender, age and culture.

As for Viewpoints, it trains actors to work together as a group by providing a common language in performance. It heightens the actors’ awareness of their bodies in space and time, and their relationships with other bodies and structures on stage during creation and performance.

To add on, gathering from what we have gained in our practices in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints, we are now developing our own system of training, tentatively called the NYT Actors’ Work. It will be a system of approaches to rehearsal and performance for actors.

Do you think other theatre companies may follow suit?

Some companies have similar models, though NYT is the only one with a core group of actors who undergo long-term, regular and systematic training. NYT is also the only company where a stable ensemble creates together over an extended period of time the main programme of the company.

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