Stepping Down: Ellison Tan and Myra Loke

by fingerplayers

Photo by Jai Rafferty

4 January 2023

Ellison Tan

It’s the first day of work back at The Finger Players, also the first day of work for the next Artistic Director, Oliver Chong. This is the second cycle of a rotating artistic director system that we have put in place since 2019. Oliver’s onboarding overlaps with Myra’s and my exit, and we wanted to document our journey since 2019.

Before we begin, we would like to state that we are highly aware of the anomaly of our predicament.

In 2019, we became in Singapore theatre history, the youngest Co-Artistic Directors of a theatre company with a much bigger reputation, operating budget and legacy that the two of us can shoulder. On the financial end, we were in the red. On the personnel end, full-time salaried members of the company (both artistic and managerial) were off the payroll, with some coming together to form what would become the core team.

The announcement of us taking on artistic leadership was very kindly featured in some long form articles here:

This is what succession looks like: The Finger Players
Arts Equator, Corrie Tan

Interview with Ellison Tan & Myra Loke – New Phases, New Faces for The Finger Players
Arts Republic, Sam Kee

It has been four years since we were presented with this role in 2019, and while four years isn’t very long, we still wanted to document this exit on our own terms.

This exit feature will include: a conversation between Myra and myself over the duration of three months, from today until the end of our term – 30 March 2023, and a series of 10 images that we feel are indicative of all the trials, tribulations and traumas of our time as Co-Artistic Directors of The Finger Players. 

My first question to Myra would be, what were some of the memorable advice you got from mentors and friends when you told them about the possibility of you taking on this job, and do you think that advice has served you till now? 

18 January 2023

Myra Loke

This is a really tough question because lots has happened and to be honest, sometimes it is a blur, and I’m amazed that we are here now at this point. So disclaimer that this is going to be a patchy reflection haha. 

I do remember at the beginning, before we accepted the offer as co-AD, I spoke to Heng Leun (Founder and former Artistic Director of Drama Box).

And he said, “If I ask you to not take this up, would you?” and we laughed for a really long time. The both of us knew that my answer would be “No”. No, I would still say yes to the offer. 

I think the underlying thought is the very fact that I love the company, I love the puppets that we create, and I love bringing them to meet our audiences. And so I would think the very core advice is “always remember why you want to do this”. 

M // January 2020: We started our term building tables for the team (thank you mer for the extra pair of hands, and lots of love and laughter) 
E // 2020: The puppets that Myra and myself built when we were apprentices in 2014, taken out of storage to film a publicity announce the end of Circuit Breaker.

When I was the apprentice of TFP, I was the ASM for Tze Chien’s Rant and Rave and I was deeply moved by a part of the script where he quoted Kuo Pao Kun – 

“You can’t explain passion. Sometimes, people carry on because they got into the habit. Sometimes it is because there is no great need to change a lifestyle. Very often, it’s not for lofty ideals, not really. But I suppose every moment of your life there must be something that basically satisfies your expectations.” 

Our late Chinese hand puppet shifu, Li Yi Hsien, kept reminding me about how I need to take care of my hands, because we need our hands to work.” 阿诗,你要继续用功,照顾你的手,要有力。“ (Translation: Ah Shi––how he addresses Myra, an endearing substitute for her Chinese name, Li Shi––you have to continue to work hard, and take care of your hands, they need to be strong.) He was referring to me in training, because my hands are too small for the hand puppets but while its small, as long as there is strength.

I think it applies to what we are doing, very much. 

There are also a lot of friends and loved ones who would reply me earnestly when I ask them questions about policies, programmes market research, and advice in general, while I gradually became a “bad texter” to them because I don’t reply them about meeting up etc. (Sorry, this response has became not about advice but what keeps me going haha) 

And of course, on 29 April 2019, we officially accepted the offer as co-AD. And on 30 May 2019, you texted me “You know I will always be with you on this. You can screengrab evidence”, and so I did 🙂

E // January 2019: The meeting where we were invited to consider becoming Co-Artistic Directors of TFP 
M // Ended the year 2020 with Ellison’s and my hand-fie, while we 
prepared for Turn By Turn We Turn Audio Theatre. 

So… what advice has served you till now? And what would you miss after you end your tenure as Co-AD at TFP?

27 January 2023

Ellison Tan

M // October 2020: TFP was struggling to keep up with the pandemic. 
Everyone was overwhelmed. I am forever grateful for everyone who has worked with us and given us so much patience and kindness during this time. 

I went to look back at our WhatsApp chats from 2019, and marvelled at how our relationship has evolved, in a way that makes me more sad than happy at the inevitability of it all. In 2019 I was texting you with emojis and smiley faces, and a lot of check-ins. Our messages now are mostly about work, about updating each other on deadlines / budgets. 

I don’t have a memory like yours in that I am hardwired to remember unpleasant things (i.e the ones that affect me negatively) much better than the ones that move me, especially pertaining to this. I vaguely remember a few people saying something along the lines of this opportunity being a great experience, and that I will learn a lot.

I have learnt a lot, but I don’t know if what I’ve learnt are things that I necessarily want to learn. I’ll give an example – a friend wanted to produce her own show at the end of this year, and came to me for advice. I voiced my concerns from a producer’s POV, and offered various ways of staging the show in a way that would appeal to funders / sponsors / commissioners. One day she met a venue to request for a venue sponsorship, and over dinner that same night she told me she was very moved by how the venue’s Director was asking questions about her artistic intention, because to him, the motivation to embark on an artistic work supersedes everything else. And I realise I might have lost that – the empathy and curiosity to understand a fellow artist’s artistic desire.

But back to what you’re asking, I had to go back to my WhatsApp chats to look for advice from my mentors.

I know some were appalled that I had taken this on, some still feel guilty that I’ve had to shoulder this, and some said “Fuck them. Be kind to everyone.” I don’t have the gumption to “fuck them”, so I’ve only taken half of this advice on, and tried my utmost best to be kind to everyone, but it also became a vicious cycle because kindness is a currency that diminishes, and oftentimes I felt the need to reduce myself so as not to take it out on other people. 

There is a feeling that I know I will miss, but it can still be replicated even after our co-tenure, which is this cloud-like softness that descends upon us when some of us are at TFP together late at night, working and dreaming. There is a rhythm and ease, a sense of quiet content and acknowledgement that deep down in our hearts, we know we all believe in the same thing.

What do you think you’ve lost in these few years? And what do you think you’ve gained?

13 March 2023

Myra Loke

What I have lost… lost is a word that I have never dared to consider or wallow for too long in the past few years. I see our mentors – Beng Tian, Kian Sin, Tze Chien, Oliver, Hui Bin, Darren, Woan Wen, and other mentors outside of TFP. How they have been with the company for so many years. And me now feeling tired, and disillusioned in some ways, almost makes me feel guilty.

Like I should not even feel this way because they have devoted so much of their youth and years to this company, to this art form, they would have lost so many more things than me. And yet they are still smiling, still so nurturing, still so open to embracing the mistakes and sometimes silly decisions that I made. 

And so, I think I did not lose anything (hahahah don’t box me, I really mean it)

I set aside things, yes. 

I overlooked certain aspects of my life, yes. 

I miss The Wanderlings. 

I miss working without considering how that would impact the company or fear that every decision will cause major unemployment (haha). 

I miss sitting down and staring into space, and not feeling guilty that I have not used that time for something else. 

But I think I wouldn’t consider all these as loss, because I see these few years as teaching me to be less selfish. How to be a better person, how to be a better player in the industry. The only thing that I can’t do is to be a better daughter to my mother, to be a better granddaughter to my grandmother, to be a better supporter to my friends, family and loved ones. And so I’m ever so thankful for their patience with me, while I discover my own journey as an artist, as a director, as an artistic director.  

I can’t put what I have gained into words (hahahaha once again don’t box me). 

I don’t know how to. 

It’s like something so huge and so grand, that I don’t know how to dissect and carry it with me. 

(super abrupt change of topic because that’s how I think hahahaha)

If on 29 April 2019, you did not accept the offer to be Co-AD, what do you think you would be doing now? Who would you have become now? 

14 March 2023

Ellison Tan

I don’t know what  * I * would have became, but I think we’d have continued building The Wanderlings (for the uninitiated, Myra and myself formed a collective called The Wanderlings, and we shamelessly branded ourselves as the first collective in Singapore to do baby theatre. It’s not untrue, but it is still quite shameless). 

But going back to the “could-haves and would-haves”, I have come to realise that it is essentially, a manifestation of the ego, or a manifestation of my ego. It is truly such an unhealthy belief in my self-importance. When I first stepped into this role, I mourned the acting roles that I assumed I would have to miss out on. I mourned all these opportunities that frankly might never have been, when in fact, being on payroll during the pandemic helped me achieve financial stability. I don’t remember when I stopped being a victim of my ego, but I stopped mourning these could-haves and would-haves.

Of course I’m not blameless, there are times when I clench my fists and stuff my rage inwards. 

I do remember 2019 starting off really well for me as a freelancer, I had regular teaching gigs, a few exciting productions lined up where I was a performer, and a project under The Wanderlings that we really believed in. It’s a dream for a freelancer to have this at the start of the year, because so many of us start off the year with anxiety. But then came the time of having to step into a leadership role, and I remember so many sleepless nights that came with it, that mostly had to do with how it was no longer the self that was being put up for judgment, but the company. I remember rehearsing so many pitches / meetings with you / in my head, and went through so many seemingly casual conversations that I had with stakeholders that may/may not have went south because I wasn’t exacting / strategic enough with my words. It was very humbling to realise that years of being an actor taught me little about communicating.

M // February 2023: Kena caught massaging my face after smiling too 
E // 2022: Back in Singapore after a year in the UK for my Masters, eerily similar scene of Myra and myself in office listening to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong make covid-related announcements that would either make or break our plans for the company 

I remember a lesson from one of my favourite theatre actors, Karen Tan, where she told me something along the lines of “If you can’t be honest, be kind.”

And then I remember the absolute clarity that Natalie Hennedige had when I was in the room with her as a young and truly fledgling actor, and how much I wanted that for myself, too. So my very long answer to your question would be, I hope I have became kinder, and more clear, haha. 

What are some of your core memories of 2019? 

20 March 2023

Myra Loke

E // 2023: Design meeting for The Puppets are Alright. All in the same space again

I had to flip through my 2019 schedule book to recall. 

While reading through it, I thought to myself “Did I / we do so many things in that year?” 

In that year, on top of TFP matters, I had done 4 black box shows, 2 TYA shows, I went to Norway for a conference, and I was doing a creative residency at a local bookstore.

Two of the shows I had done with you haha. This is the proof that humans are indeed more resilient than we think we are, in times of crisis. But that may also be the main reason why that year is quite a blur for me haha. 

Now going through the list, it sounds a bit trivial haha but they were not back then, and still aren’t now too. 

While hazy, 2019 did taught me a lot of practical lessons needed to understand and manage the operations of a company. Here are the few core ones that I still constantly remind myself about –

  • became my really really good friend to understand financial statements, terms and concepts 
  • Study Excel Pro Tips to make your time more efficient, and helps in navigating multiple sheets of numbers 
  • Past meeting minutes are crucial to understanding the brain of the company, and at the same time, current meeting minutes help you to remember when things get too hectic (so yes take meeting minutes!!)
  • Time really needs to be set aside to speak to the people working in and with the company because when things get busy, we sometimes forget that they are not machines. 
  • It is important to set “brain breaks” 

What advice would you give to a young arts practitioner / arts leader? 

30 March 2023

Ellison Tan

E // 2020: Curtain call of Peepbird, our first Main Season as Co-ADs 

You need to love the art, or find a way to love the art, so that you can sustain yourself. A lot of the work is meeting KPIs, balancing budgets, writing proposals and reports and having a “strategic overview”. Don’t think about it as “How do I put bums on seats?”, but instead think about “How can I show people why I love this so much and why do I want to share it with them?”.

M // November 2022: Last night of Puppet Origin Stories @ ONE-TWO-
SIX, the night when The Puppets Are Alright production is named. 
Also, using this photo to remember and celebrate the wonderful 
team of TFP. Thank you for always standing by Ellison and I. 

31 March 2023

Myra Loke

I remembered before accepting the role, one of our mentors asked us “What is the reason you get out of bed every morning?”. And we were stumped by the question.

I’m still thinking of my answer every other day and I thought on the official last day of our term, I would know the answer but I still dont. Haha but perhaps the idea is to constantly be searching, to always be curious about what every day will give. 

Thank you Ellison, for being on this journey of searching and wandering (see what i did there haha). (Ellison: Thank you Myra <3)

30 April 2023

Ellison Tan & Myra Loke

It is only now that we truly realise the multi-layered meaning of ‘handover’. 

When we first joined The Finger Players as apprentices, our hands were trained to become puppeteers. Then our hands took over the reins of leadership, and we spent much of our time with our hands on the keyboard, drafting proposals and reports.

And now, in some strange cyclical way, these same hands that were handed to us, are now back to us again. 

Whatever route our hands may take, we know that these hands were not forged by us alone, and we will always carry on with eternal gratitude. 

Thank you for reading.