Theatre company director and award-winning playwright Chong Tze Chien discovered his calling in life after signing up for the drama CCA at his secondary school. The 48-year-old takes a breather from giving feedback on this year’s Singapore Youth Festival school drama presentations to chat with Schoolbag, discussing the many roles available to those keen on theatre, and how drama could be “a vehicle of truth via make-believe”.
by Owen Tan
Mr Chong Tze Chien is a familiar face in Singapore’s theatre scene. He has been working as playwright, director, and arts educator for over 20 years. One of his career highlights was taking on the mantle of company director at The Finger Players, known for fusing drama and puppetry. This was in 2004. By then, he had chalked up a decade of experience at another theatre company, The Necessary Stage, where he volunteered during his junior college days and was later engaged as an associate playwright after graduating from National University of Singapore. He has also won awards by the National Arts Council and The Straits Times for his contributions to Singapore theatre.
In addition, Mr Chong teaches drama and theatre studies at tertiary institutions and schools and has served as an adjudicator for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Drama Arts Presentation since 2015.
The Arts Presentation component of the SYF offers students in performing arts CCAs the opportunity to perform at national level and receive feedback from industry professionals for continuous learning and improvement.
This year, Mr Chong is part of a panel of three theatre practitioners providing feedback to 27 drama performances from the pre-universities. We caught up with him to learn why he chose this life in theatre.
Schoolbag: How did you discover your passion for theatre?
Mr Chong: My Sec 1 Literature teacher, Ms Braema Mathi, who was also the teacher-in-charge of the ELDDS (English Literary, Drama and Debate Society) CCA, got me interested in drama when I was a student at St Andrew’s Secondary School. Learning to create characters and original stories made me love drama even more.
I immersed myself in ELDDS training sessions, attending acting workshops and participating in improvisation exercises. These opened my mind, stirred my imagination and expanded my horizons. Drama, I realised, could be a vehicle of truth via make-believe. It’s like holding a mirror to society and reflecting reality back to the world. People don’t necessarily confront truth because it is sometimes painful and ugly. Through theatre as an art form, I hope to get the audience to gain a deeper understanding of what goes on in our lives and the lives of others.
That’s Mr Chong in the cap, acting in an Anderson Junior College drama showcase in 1995.
Why did you choose a career in theatre?
Those early years made me realise that drama would be my lifelong pursuit, which informed my decision to switch from a “triple science” course to the arts and humanities in junior college, and subsequently to read Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Mr Chong (third from the left) explored various theatre genres, such as kabuki, when he read Theatre Studies at National University of Singapore.
Before I settled on being a director, playwright and arts educator, l dabbled in many roles, including backstage work as stage manager or part of the crew. I volunteered for theatre companies after school. I was curious about the work behind the scenes, keen to observe how each and everyone in the team contributed to a show, from production to administration.
I also worked at the National Arts Council during my holiday breaks as a part-time administrative assistant, just to be part of the arts community. No man is an island and I believe that is the case in theatre-making.
When I was working in The Necessary Stage, my official designation was company playwright. But I also assisted in administration and publicity matters for the plays that I wrote (and directed in some cases). It made me appreciate the inner workings in each department, and how any decision that I make as a playwright or director has consequences down the line for budgeting, production and logistics.
Working on a scene at theatre company The Finger Players.
You are also an arts educator. Why is this important to you?
We need everyone – audiences, theatre makers, patrons, artists – to make our theatre ecosystem thrive. So, we need to build a community of like-minded people who can support one another.
I can advocate for that as a practitioner and educator. Educating students in the various roles in theatre-making, and not just acting but also in the areas of directing, writing and producing, will help them see and appreciate the other roles in the ecosystem.
Even if they don’t end up as practitioners, they can support the arts via different ways, for instance being an audience or a patron or policy maker in the future.
Mr Chong (in the white T-shirt) with his acting students from Lasalle College of the Arts.
What do you tell students who ask whether a career in the arts will pay well?
I am fortunate that I earn a decent living from making theatre. But if financial reward was my only yardstick, the remuneration from working in the arts industry might not be commensurate with the amount of work and stress I put myself under.
“The work, like any other career, requires dedication, perseverance, and diligence.”
The real rewards of the job are intangible. I find purpose in what I do daily. I wake up every day knowing I am doing what I love – finding the right word or image to concretise what may be fleeting so that we can learn a lesson from it. That brings meaning to my endeavours. No amount of money will lure me away from what I consider a calling.
What are the toughest challenges you have faced?
Theatre-making can be energy-sapping, and mentally and physically exhausting. The line between work and play is not always clear. We don’t have normal working hours. Sometimes, we may not know when to stop working because we might enjoy it too much and we get burned out easily when we don’t set clear boundaries for work-life balance.
I have since learned the value of taking proper breaks in between projects to recharge without feeling guilty about it.
The work, like any other career, requires dedication, perseverance, and diligence. It can be soul-crushing and demoralising to deal with criticism, but it’s the best way to hone one’s craft. Audience feedback and peer reviews might trip us over, but that’s the process.
Ultimately, we need to respect the craft and let it show us the way.
Every child has different strengths and interests. Find out how the Direct School Admission scheme allows each child the opportunity to develop holistically and pursue their passion in this article: “Different pathways towards success”.
“It’s better to study than spend time on CCA.” “My child is in a CCA he doesn’t like and there’s nothing we can do about it. If these sound familiar, this article “Is CCA a waste of time?” looks at five myths about CCA.