The Finger Players



One of Singapore’s most successful local puppet troupes, The Finger Players (TFP) is a non-profit company founded in February 1996 by Tan Beng Tian and Ong Kian Sin as a unit of Kuo Pao Kun’s The Theatre Practice (formerly known as Practice Theatre Ensemble).1 Other founding members include Benjamin Ho Kah Wai and Lee Wai Ying.2 TFP started off as a children’s puppet theatre before venturing into theatre performances for adults. What sets it apart from other theatrical companies is its seamless combination of traditional theatre styles with human actors and contemporary puppetry techniques, its bilingual performances as well as active audience participation.3 TFP operates at the Cairnhill Arts Centre under the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Arts Housing Scheme.4

Personalities
Tan Beng Tian (Artistic Director)
Tan was inspired by the magic and fantasy spun from children’s imagination through watching puppet shows, such as the American children’s television series Sesame Street, to establish TFP. She began her foray into theatre with Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble in 1989 before embarking on a course in traditional hand puppetry by renowned Chinese puppet master Li Bofen in Fujian, China, in 1984.5 In 2005, Tan was honoured with the Singapore Foundation Culture Award from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in recognition of her contributions to the local puppetry community.6


Ong Kian Sin (Resident Director/Artist)
Prior to founding TFP, Ong was already active in theatre but the company was his first puppetry venture. He has since performed and toured extensively with TFP as a puppeteer, designer and director. His directorial pieces, Miss Mouse and Twisted, received much praise both locally and internationally. In 2007, he co-created and directed 0501, the winner of the 2007 President’s Design Award for design of the year.7


Chong Tze Chien (Company Director)
Chong majored in theatre studies and English at the National University of Singapore. In 1998, he rose to fame with his first play Pan Island Expressway, which clinched first prize in the amateur category of the Singapore Dramatist Award. Subsequently, he joined The Necessary Stage (TNS) as an associate playwright. In 1999, he had his first experience with puppetry when he attended the Mistelbach International Puppetry Festival in Vienna, Austria, as a freelance puppeteer with TFP. In 2004, he left TNS and was appointed company director of TFP.8


The early years: children’s theatre
Initially, TFP explored puppetry in children’s theatre through engaging the young in an interactive manner. The company sought to promote creativity in children and to nurture their interest in Asian culture and puppetry as an art form. Its four initial members learnt hand puppetry directly from renowned master Li Bofen, a sixth-generation hand puppeteer from Jinjiang, China, and recipient of a lifetime cultural award for his contribution to puppetry art in China.9


In 1999, Kuo encouraged TFP to go independent because The Theatre Practice could no longer support it financially. To do so, the founders borrowed money from their families and also relied on funding from the NAC SEED Grant, the Arts Fund and the Lien Foundation.10 The company continued with its mission of preserving the dying art of traditional puppetry by re-enacting Asian legends while also expanding its repertoire of Western puppetry styles. By 2003, TFP had honed its puppetry skills on the international stage through its performances at numerous puppetry festivals in more than 10 European and Asian cities.11

The puppetry group’s first major Mandarin production, Ne-zha, was staged in 2001 and involved nine crew members, eight China-made puppets as well as Singapore’s famed lighting designer Dorothy Png. It was a multimedia extravaganza combining high-tech special effects, computer animations and child-size puppets to present the classical Chinese folktale of the boy who became a god. The production cost amounted to S$35,000, which was co-funded by the NAC, the Arts Fund, the Lee Foundation and TPF. It received rave reviews and was re-staged in 2002 with a bigger cast, improved script and a brand-new set design.12

Turning point: engaging adults with puppetry
In 2004, TFP had a major artistic overhaul carried out in the belief that puppetry was not solely for children. That year, Tan invited Chong Tze Chien to be the company director of TFP after he left TNS. Chong successfully re-launched TFP to an adult audience by tackling more mature and complex social themes. Although Chong’s inaugural show with TFP, Furthest North, Deepest South, a dramatisation of Admiral Cheng Ho’s discovery of the new world, incurred a huge loss, it clinched Best Ensemble and Production of the Year titles at the 5th Life! Theatre Awards in 2005.13


Chong’s second production with TFP, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, was a huge success and played to sell-out performances. A story about three families whose Housing Development Board (HDB) flats were selected for upgrading, it won the Best Director, Best Actress and Best Lighting Design categories at the 6th Life! Theatre Awards in 2006. The production also received international acclaim when it took to the stage at Europe’s largest performing arts festival, Sziget,in Budapest, Hungary.14

Subsequent productions such as Twisted and I’m Just a Piano Teacher were also winners at the Life! Theatre Awards. Twisted, which was given a PG rating by TFP, was the first puppet performance for adults staged in Singapore. The production comprises two intertwined stories: the first about a boy and his relationship with a hole in the ground at different stages in his life, and the second a monologue about a woman in her quest for love. This production won the Best Sound Design award at the 6th Life! Theatre Awards and TFP was invited to perform it in Barcelona, Spain, in 2007.15

I’m Just a Piano Teacher won the Best Ensemble award at the 7th Life! Theatre Awards in 2007. It is the story of a 40-year old piano teacher who hates music, who still lives with his over-protective parents and who later conspires with his maid to kill his parents. A first for the company was the use of large body puppets three-quarters the size of a human, which were hung from the necks of the actors such that only the actors’ heads were seen during the performance.16

TFP has since earned a reputation as one of the best puppetry troupes in Singapore theatre, lauded for its bilingual plays that blend traditional puppetry with modern theatrical techniques. Thus far, TFP has delivered its powerful visuals and creative staging in countries such as Africa, Australia, China, Japan, Hungary, South Korea and Taiwan.17

Education and outreach efforts
TFP is active in local arts outreach and charity efforts. It started a Pay it Forward charity initiative in 2006 that uses puppetry as a means to reach out to people of different generations. Volunteers, who are trained in puppetry and drama, perform shows and conduct workshops in orphanages, elder care centres and other welfare organisations.18


The Finger Players' Community Festival held in 2010 took its play, Angels in Disguise, to HDB estates, hospices, orphanages and homes for the elderly. Relevant themes such as discrimination, depression and dementia were addressed in this production.19

The Reach Out! branch of the TFP hopes to promote puppetry to new audiences and to inculcate an appreciation of the arts through its arts education programmes such as workshops, consultancy services and tours. Students who attend the puppetry/playwriting workshops are exposed to various aspects of theatre taught by the company’s experienced instructors. Its series of assembly plays targeted at schools make use of music, masks and puppets to convey messages that resonate with the youth of today.20

TFP was awarded the Singapore Youth Award (Team) in 2008 in recognition of its efforts to engage the masses through drama and its pursuit of artistic excellence in theatre.21 It received a two-year grant of S$300,000 from the NAC’s Major Grant Scheme in 2012.22

Selected performances
1996:
Magic in Our Hands, debut performance.23

1997: Treasures from the Dragon Palace performed at the Thian Hock Keng Temple.24
2001: Ne-zha, first full-length Mandarin production.25
2005: Twisted, Singapore’s first puppet show for adults.26
2006: First Family, a kungfu parody.27
2007: Wong Kar Wai Dreams, about a woman who dreams of the film director.28
2008: Flare, a collaboration with CAKE Theatrical Productions.29
2009: Whispers staged in conjunction with Huayi Festival.30
2010: Angels in Disguise performed for The Finger Players' Community Festival.31
2011: Turn By Turn We Turn, which was inspired by a donation of 187 traditional Chinese hand puppets to TFP.32
2012: The Book of Living and Dying, a collaboration with Italy’s Teatri Sbagliati for the Singapore Arts Festival.33

Past awards
2005:
Furthest North, Deepest South, Best Ensemble and Best Production of the Year at the 5th Life Theatre Awards.34

2006: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Lighting Design at the 6th Life! Theatre Awards.35
2006: Twisted, Best Sound Design at the 6th Life! Theatre Awards.36
2007: I’m Just a Piano Teacher, Best Ensemble at the 7th Life! Theatre Awards.37
2007: FRONT Award (Theatre Company of the Year).38
2007: 0501, President’s Design Award.39
2008: Singapore Youth Award (Team).40
2008: 0501, Best Set Design and Best Sound Design at the 8th Life! Theatre Awards.41
2011: Charged, Best Original Script (Chong Tze Chien) at the 11th Life! Theatre Awards.42
2012: Turn By Turn We Turn, Production of the Year and Best Director (Chong Tze Chien) at the 12th Life! Theatre Awards.43



Authors

Lee Xin Ying, Veronica Chee




References
1. Phua, M. P. (1996, June 12). The hands that handle puppets deal out a winner. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Oon, C. (2001, July 18). Give the fingers a hand. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
2. Cheah, U. (2001, July 7). A modern touch to traditional puppetry. The Business Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
5. Phua, M. P. (1996, June 12). The hands that handle puppets deal out a winner. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. The Finger Players. (2008). Company and Staff Profile. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
7. Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Company and Staff Profile. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
8. The Finger Players. (2008). Company and Staff Profile. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html; Tan, C. (2011, August 29). The Monday interview with Chong Tze Chien; story whirl. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
9. Chin, S. F. (1997, February 3). Puppets on a string go to temple to tell a tale of tradition. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Cheah, U. (2011, April 8). Propping up a dying art. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
10. Oon, C. (2001, July 18). Give the fingers a hand. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
12. Cheah, U. (2001, July 7). A modern touch to traditional puppetry. The Business Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Oon, C. (2001, July 18). Give the fingers a hand. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Foo, S. (2002, May 24). Fingers at work. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
13. Chow, C. (2005, October 8). Twisted puppets. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hong, X.Y. (2006, March 8). New frontiers. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Kok, T. W. (2005, March 18). Life after Life! Theatre Awards. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
14. Hong, X.Y. (2006, March 8). New frontiers. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
15. Chow, C. (2005, October 8). Twisted puppets. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, L. (2005, October 13). Puppeteering comes of age. Today, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
16. Madhavan, S. (2006, September 29). With humans as actors, it's more than a puppet show. The Business Times, p. 37. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008).Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
17. Chua, S. P. (2005, February 18). Puppet theatre's many faces. The Business Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
18. Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Cheah, U. (2010, December 10). Angels reach out to street audiences. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
20. Hong, X.Y., & Chow, C. (2005, April 6). Show and sell. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html; The Finger Players. (2008). Reach Out. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
21. Tan, S. E. (2008, July 1). Three individuals, two teams to receive Singapore Youth Award. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva; Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
22. Tan, C. (2012, March 30). Arts groups get more funding. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; National Arts Council. (2012, March 29). NAC Announces Recipients of Major Grants & Traditional Arts Seed Grants for FY2012. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://nac.gov.sg/docs/resources/annex-a---major-grants-recipients-for-2012.pdf
23. Chin, S. F. (1997, February 3). Puppets on a string go to temple to tell a tale of tradition. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Chin, S. F. (1997, February 3). Puppets on a string go to temple to tell a tale of tradition. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Cheah, U. (2001, July 7). A modern touch to traditional puppetry. The Business Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Oon, C. (2001, July 18). Give the fingers a hand. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). About us. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
26. Chow, C. (2005, October 8). Twisted puppets. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, L. (2005, October 13). Puppeteering comes of age. Today, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Past productions. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
28. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Past productions. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
29. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Past productions. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
30. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Past productions. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
31. Cheah, U. (2010, December 10). Angels reach out to street audiences. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
32. Cheah, U. (2011, April 8). Propping up a dying art. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, C. (2011, April 12). Puppets’ turn to shine. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, C. (2012, March 20). Puppet play turns out to be the big winner. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
33. Tan, C. (2012, May 22). Singapore Arts Festival; death and the transvestite. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
34. Chow, C. (2005, October 8). Twisted puppets. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hong, X.Y. (2006, March 8). New frontiers. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Kok, T. W. (2005, March 18). Life after Life! Theatre Awards. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
35. Hong, X.Y. (2006, March 8). New frontiers. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008).Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
36. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
37. The Finger Players. (2008).Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
38. The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
39. Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
40. Tan, S. E. (2008, July 1). Three individuals, two teams to receive Singapore Youth Award. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva; Gan, E. (2009, January 6). The heart of puppetry. Today, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Finger Players. (2008). Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
41. The Finger Players. (2008).Main season: Accolades and Awards. Retrieved from The Finger Players website: http://www.fingerplayers.com/tfp.html
42. Tan, C. (2011, April 12). Puppets’ turn to shine. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
43. Tan, C. (2012, March 20). Puppet play turns out to be the big winner. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.



The information in this article is valid as at 22 April 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Puppet theater--Singapore
Theatre
Puppet theater companies--Singapore
Puppet theatre (Art)
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Theatre
Puppeteers

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