Shell Players – Employees of Shell Singapore Formed a Drama Group in 1985

This article is dedicated to all Shell Players for their abiding love for drama and theatre which resulted in their forming this group and performing the plays mentioned in it in public with commendable results.

As mentioned in my March 2017 post (The popularity of the long-running Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme), a small group of theatre loving Shell staff, both executive and non-executive, were so inspired that they decided to form an in-house drama group in August 1985 to perform at the Shell Theatrette. They discussed this plan with me and whether I would support them in this venture and, if so, could I help them find a suitable young and energetic director to hone their acting skills for these in-house public performances. As I was Shell’s Public Affairs Manager and as Shell was an active supporter of drama and the arts, I did come into regular contacts with the theatre people in Singapore. I enthusiastically endorsed their plan and undertook immediately to scout for a suitable young drama director to undertake this challenging task and to guide and shape them into a credible drama group for public performances.

My efforts led to a recommendation in favour of Lucilla Teoh, an arts graduate of National University of Singapore (NUS) and a teacher of a local junior college, who had directed a university  drama group and others in several productions and who had shown promise as a drama director. I was urged to personally attend a drama performance she was directing before deciding whether or not she would be the right choice. I did and was impressed by her directing skills and youthful energy. I discussed my choice with the core members of Shell Players and they agreed to meet up with Lucilla. I then approached her and she was thrilled by the prospects of directing the newly formed Shell Players, who were all employees of a world-renowned oil group. Our meeting  with Lucilla went off well and we offered her the appointment which she gladly accepted.

Lucilla Teoh

Lucilla took on her role almost immediately. She met members of Shell Players a couple of times after work to get to know them and their personalities and suitability for the kind of roles that would be a good fit for them to take on. She then spent a number of sessions in imparting the basic attributes required of them to embark on the journey towards becoming a competent theatre player.

After much thought, Lucilla then picked two short plays and a skit for Shell Players’ debut performance with a catchy title “Something local, something borrowed”. The two short plays were “After the dazzle of the day” by Singaporean playwright Yeo Soh Choo; and an adapted foreign play “Call me Mei Li” plus a skit “The interview”, based on a short story by Dorothy Parker. The casts for these three plays were respectively, Azlin, Maria Koh, Munir Shah, Lily Tan, S. Sintha, Angie Gan, Mary Tan, Rose Teo and Jenny Lim. Wong Hong Sze took charge of the sound and lighting systems.

Numerous long rehearsals were held after work at the Shell Theatrette and all cast members turned up without fail despite intensive months of practices, Lucilla was finally satisfied that these fledgling amateur dramatists were ready to perform in end November of that year. They played to a full house and their performances were well-received by the audience. In order not to disappoint their Shell colleagues at Bukom Refinery across the sea, a repeat performance was also staged at the Bukom Theatrette for a full house audience too.

In 1986, encouraged by the progress made by Shell players, Lucilla decided to stage another adaptation of a well-known Chinese play “Sunrise” by the celebrated playwright Tsao Yu. It was centred around the decadent and depraved lifestyle of the rich in Shanghai in 1930s. The director selected only certain acts from this serious and demanding play best suited to the acting capabilities of the cast to undertake, as the whole play would take two hours to perform. The audience enjoyed it but the newspaper theatre critics felt that this brand new drama group lacked the professional experience and stage presence to bring forth the subtleties and turns and twists of this celebrated work to full effect. Nonetheless, it was a worthy attempt and a credible effort by Shell Players to do it not long after its formation.

Within one year of its founding, the number of Shell Players had shot up from the core of 10 to 20. It was not easy for the director to find suitable plays to give all of them an opportunity to perform. So, they had to take turns to manage the sound and lighting systems and to take charge of other on and back stage roles. Karen Lim, a Cambridge English graduate with dramatic training and daughter of a Shell Player core member Jenny Lim, who had acting experience, also joined the group to work alongside the director Lucilla. The newer Shell Players also included Chong Khoon Loon, Beth Lee, Serene Tan, Amos Wu, Monica Choon , Sharon Chong and William Morton.

As the Shell lunchtime show gained popularity with the various performing groups and a wider audience base, the Ministry of community Development invited Shell to sponsor the Festival of Arts Lunchtime Fringe Theatre to be held at its theatrette and Shell Players were also invited to fill one slot in the week-long event in June 1986. Shell repeated “Sunrise” by Chinese playwright Tsao Yu and Lucilla Teoh again directed it. Among the established drama groups participating were Practice Theatre with a monologue performed by Lim Kay Tong and directed by Kuo Pao Kun, and Varsity Play House with its adaptation of a foreign play “A man for all seasons” and it was directed and acted by Ong Keng Sen and a cast of others.

The fame of Shell’s weekly lunchtime show spread to our neighbouring Peninsula Malaysia, and the Kuala Lumpur-based Five Arts Centre performed an abridged version of KS Manium’s “The cord”, which was directed by the famed Malaysian author and playwright K. Jit, at the Shell Theatrette. Mr Jit and his group’s show was very well received by the Singapore audience and had a good press review. The Malaysian group was accompanied by Shell Malaysia’s Public Affairs Manager, Mr Jack Chan, on this visit. Mr Jit told me that he was very impressed by Shell Singapore’s lunchtime theatre and his group enjoyed performing here.

Jack too was favourably impressed by what he saw and experienced in Singapore, and it occurred to him that Shell Malaysia should embark upon its own lunchtime cultural programmes by initiating, as a start, a series of monthly talks by well-known cultural personalities. This was started soon after his return from Singapore and two such talks went down well with Shell staff. This encouraged him to plan for more other cultural programmes to add to the variety as well as the possible formation of its own in-house employee drama group like its Singapore counterpart had done.

Jack sometime later contacted me and formally extended an invitation for Shell Players to travel to the Malaysian capital to put up a couple of performances at its own theatrette. I discussed this invitation with Shell Players and Lucilla Teoh and all of us felt happy and honoured by the prospects of performing in Kuala Lumpur. Our Chairman, Mr Dick van Hilten, was thrilled about this invitation and urged us to accept it with his blessings.

Lucilla Teoh decided that Shell Players would perform two short plays from “Something local, something borrowed” together with “Sunrise” by Tsao Yu, two of which were first performed by Shell Players in their debut efforts at the Shell Theatrette in November of the preceding year. Eleven members of Shell Players , accompanied by director Lucilla and me flew to Kuala Lumpur on 24 August of 1986.  Our group was warmly and hospitably welcomed by our Malaysian colleagues. After a couple of rehearsals at the Shell Theatrette there, which had about the same seating capacity as ours back home, they were all set to present an evening and a lunchtime performances there.

The evening’s performance was attended by Shell staff and the press representatives. Both “Sunrise” and two other short plays “Call me Mei Li” and “The interview” were entertaining and very well received by the Shell attendees. Despite the cast’s lack of professional experience as noted by the press. The Star theatre critic summed it up “The plays were compact, fast-moving and any attempt to find serious fault with their performances would have come to nought”. The next day’s performance was attended by both Shell employees and the public, including several government officials, and it also went down very well with the full audience.

Back in Singapore, for the second time, the Ministry of Community Development designated the Shell Theatrette as the Fringe Theatre for the Drama Festival to be sponsored by Shell. Shell Players were again invited to perform two plays in separate slots. The other participating groups included Theatreworks, ST*ARS and Institute of Education Drama Group. All groups would perform winners of the Short Play Competition, which was co-sponsored by Shell and NUS Arts Faculty. Shell Players staged Amah, written by Su-Chen Christine Chen and Opelia, which was directed by Lucilla Teoh. The other play “Dubiously Yours”, written by Basil Pereira was directed by Karen Lim, daughter of a core member of Shell Players. All these performances attracted full houses and standing room audiences. They met with audience approvals and received quite favourable press reviews.

After having trained and directed Shell Players for about 30 months, Lucilla decided to reduce her involvement with Shell Players in order to devote more time to Theatreworks, a leading drama group, for her own professional development. We were most reluctant to be seeing less of her and were very grateful for her sustained hard work in building up Shell Players to be a reasonably competent drama group. She then recommended an up-and coming law undergraduate theatre director, Ong Keng Sen, whom she had previously worked together to produce a play and who was an active member of Theatreworks, a leading theatre company in Singapore. She believed that Ong could develop our group further.

I had already heard about the promising and talented Keng Sen and had also watched two plays directed and one also acted by him at the Shell Theatrette for the Varsity Play House and Theatreworks and came away much impressed by his directing ability and versatility. The choice of him was discussed with Shell Players and they supported it. I then met up with him and he was quite amenable to help the Shell Players but would like to meet up with them before making up his mind. A lengthy meeting followed and he then decided  to accept my offer on the understanding that the plays must be chosen by him and he must have the full cooperation of Shell Players and me in the discharge of his directorial responsibilities. We agreed to his prior stipulations.

The serious-minded Ong wasted no time by arranging to meet the Shell Players as a group after work three times in order to assess their relative acting capabilities and suitability for the selection of roles that he could assign to them. Following that he decided on two entirely different categories of plays, a Devised Play and a serious  memory play by the famed British playwright Harold Pinter called “A kind of Alaska”, which was first staged in London in 1982. A devised work is defined by Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance as “An approach to making performance and theatre that depends on the participation of all producing group in all or most stages of the creative process, from conception to presentation”. Simply put, a devised work may begin with an idea and the creative director and players start to investigate the best form to bring that idea to performance.

As a testimony to Ong’s tireless creative energy and efforts to prepare the players for these two chosen plays, he held numerous discussions and rehearsals with the cast members after work and often well into the night, and sometimes on weekends too. He would even devote his time to coach certain individual cast members separately in the same way as well. Ong is a perfectionist who always aims to achieve the best result possible for the task entrusted to him. He told me after several months of such rigorous training that his charge would soon be ready to do a public performance, either at the Shell Theatrette or even at a larger public performing venue.

The idea of holding Keng Sen’s two plays at the Drama Centre, with a seating capacity of more than 300, came into my mind. This must be for a worthy cause, such as to raise fund for the non-profit charitable organisation National Kidney Foundation (NKF), which was in constant need of public charitable support as more and more Singaporeans were suffering from kidney ailments which were costly to treat but much cheaper at the subsidised NKF dialysis centres. The Shell Players were thrilled with the prospects of performing at the prestigious Drama Centre and for a worthy cause too. When I raised this possibility with Shell Chairman, Mr Dick van Hilten, he immediately supported this idea and gave his full blessings. The target was to raise $30,000 for NKF, which was quite a substantial amount then.

More intensive rehearsals ensued by director Ong to prepare the Shell Players for their big day at the Drama centre in around mid 1987, after Shell decided to stage two nightly performances there. Almost all Shell Players were involved, both in the casts of the two plays and others helping in other roles both on and behind the stage.

The Shell management agreed with my suggestion that to reach out to a wider group of people, there should be special donation seats priced at not less than $100 and these would be sold to firms with shell connections, its own top executives and other well wishers, and the rest of the seats would be made available to other Shell staff and the theatre-going public so as to ensure a good turnout for both evenings’ performances. Further more, a distinguished public personage with cultural responsibilities should be invited as the guest of honour for the opening night in order to add prestige to the occasion. Shell was honoured that the Senior Minister of State for Community Development, Mr Chng Jit Koon, and a couple of top Ministry officials, graciously accepted our Chairman’s invitation to grace this occasion.

A final rehearsal for the casts was held at Drama Centre on the day before the opening show. There was a near full house turnout for the opening night. The Devised Play had an all-female cast and its theme is centred around the social lifestyles of a small group of affluent high society ladies, both the old rich and the nouveau rich, with each trying to out dazzle the other and to score on their more prestigious social activities and connections. The play was intended to be a satire on their decadent ways of life which seem so far removed from the mundane living of their less affluent fellow citizens.

The second play written by the famous British playwright Harold Pinter is a serious and thought-provoking memory play. To paraphrase Wikipedia, it is about a middle-aged woman who has been in coma for some 30 years because she suffers from a “sleepy sickness”, and her sister’s doctor husband, who was her most dedicated caregiver and who may have fallen in love with his charge, tries his utmost to gently prepare her to face her new-found reality but avoided telling her the more jarring details. So the victim awakens to an entirely different world and does her best to cope with the new life confronting her with a totally confused and vividly imaginative mind in which her own sister is a widow and their long deceased parents are on a world cruise.

The final night saw a good turnout too, with even more Shell staff and members of public attending.

The press gave these two performances prominent coverage. The Straits Times drama critic, Christine Khor, wrote a column, under the caption “Devised delights, Pinter puzzles”, with a mixed performance review but an overall favourable verdict. While she lavished high praise for the Devised Play, she concluded that, because of Shell Players’ inadequate professional exposure and lack of stage craft, it failed to bring out fully the emotional ups and downs of Pinter’s memory play to its ultimate climax. That notwithstanding, she commended the director and players for their effort to stage this very demanding play which even more established drama groups would hesitate to do it.

From the audience opinion surveys for both nights, the attendees gave, overall, quite favourable comments on the performances but some among them did find the Pinter play heavy-going and too intense in contrast with the wholly entertaining and very easy to digest Devised Play. These findings together with the prolonged applauses from the audiences on both nights seemed to indicate that the performances had been well received by them, a tribute to the players and director Ong indeed.

The targeted $30,000 to be donated to NKF by Shell was successfully reached through both tickets sales with the shortfall topped up by my Company. The cheque was ceremoniously presented to the Chairman of this Foundation by my Chairman with Director Ong, Lucilla Teoh, Shell Players among others present. This was followed by a relaxed and enjoyable reception on the company premises.

As mentioned in my March post, I left Shell a few months later to embark on the third and final lap of my working  career as a partner of a law firm founded by my good old friend, Charles Mendis, who was my law school mate in London a long time ago.

The Shell Players gave me a farewell dinner and presented me with a memento to remind me of our times together. It was indeed sad to say farewell to them after more than three years together to help promote the love of drama with the much needed support of directors Lucilla Teoh and Ong Keng Sen. I would also gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Shell Players Angie Gan and Wong Hong Sze in helping me to recall and to ensure that these important events mentioned in this piece are factually correct to the best of our knowledge. Nonetheless, there could be some gaps and omissions in the event and date sequence because these took place more than three decades ago.

Lam Pin Foo

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