She claims she has the best job in the world. But actually, she has two. Still in her thirties, Charlotte Nors daily juggles the demanding duties of being both Executive Director and Marketing Director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). She has to bring in the crowds, manage foreign actors with an attitude, and turn on the charm at fundraising events in order to keep the finances flowing into the non-profit theatre’s veins of artistic freedom.
As one of the pioneers of Singapore’s culture scene, SRT was the natural choice to produce the grand opening of Singapore’s Esplanade back in 2002, just as they are now part of the highly-anticipated H.C. Andersen celebrations in Singapore this year.
But how did a marketing major from Aarhus, Denmark end up running a theatre in Southeast Asia? When Charlotte Nors arrived in Singapore back in 2000 as a hopeful project manager to establish a daughter-company for the wireless internet company, InMobia, she had no idea of how significantly the script was about to change.
From Unemployed to Double Director
After just eight months, InMobia found out that the “.com”-wave wasn’t enough to support their ambitious Southeast Asian expansion. However, Charlotte Nors had fallen in love with life in Singapore, and she decided it was too early for her to leave. The only problem was that she needed to find another job quickly in order to keep her work permit.
“After having spent the last 4 years at Egmont Online and InMobia, I had found out that the IT business wasn’t exactly my thing, so instead I thought it would be interesting to once again combine my marketing background with my cultural experience,” she says, referring to her 2 years as Marketing Assistant at Aarhus Theatre and 3 years as Sales and Marketing Manager at Køge Bugt’s Culture House back in the mid-1990s.
“I was incredibly lucky to run into someone who knew about the theatre here in Singapore, and they happened to be looking for a marketing director and a theatre director. As it turned out, they ended up giving me both those positions,” she says, smiling.
At that time, SRT had already existed for 7 years, just renting various theatres from play to play. In 2001, they had finally gathered enough funds to build their own theatre – in a former warehouse – and it was at this crucial stage that Charlotte Nors was hired.
“When I started, we were only four people employed here and we were putting on 3 plays per year. Then we got our own building, and suddenly we had to hire a lot more people, and we became responsible for many more paychecks,” she says.
Today, SRT has 18 permanent employees and they put on about 8 shows per year. Each show normally runs for 3-4 weeks, and during the bigger productions Charlotte Nors’ staff temporarily expands to as many as 100 people.
“We often have actors flown in from Broadway and the London West End along with directors and designers,” Charlotte explains.
“That is what gives us the competitive edge. If you’ve seen a play in London, then we are the only theatre in the region, where you can get the same quality – with an added Asian touch. The rest of our cast is made up by local actors, so the audience gets a good mix of local talent and international quality – without having to see the same faces every time,” she explains.
Something for the Kids
Out of the 8 plays that SRT put on each year, about 2 or 3 of them are original, self-written productions. All shows are in English.
“Each year, we try to create a mix of original shows and famous classic plays – typically comedies, Shakespeare, or musicals, which Asians really love. But everything we do is pretty mainstream, because that’s the kind of theatre we love,” Charlotte explains.
In 2002, SRT realized that there was very limited theatre activity of a high quality for children in Singapore. This inspired them to launch a children’s theatre, called The Little Company. Ever since then, SRT have been producing 3 plays for kids each year. In addition, SRT has also started a Theatre School for young teenagers.
“It’s really fun to see the children’s theatre work so well. We are selling more and more tickets. People who have never been to our theatre before come up to me and tell me how their kids came home very excited and told their parents about the performance they had seen. That then made the parents interested in seeing a play,” she says, confirming that the intensions behind launching the children’s theatre are manifold.
“Every single thing we do is a part of our overall efforts to increase our audience and increase the amount of acting talent in Singapore,” she explains.
“Mr. and Mrs. Singapore didn’t grow up with a theatre tradition. The children’s theatre is really our investment in the future audience. Now they can grow up with the theatre as a natural part of their entertainment opportunities. Of course, by doing this we hope and believe that they will keep coming back even when they’re adults. It’s all a part of an effort to build a theatre culture which has not previously existed here,” says Charlotte who herself frequently went to see plays with her own family while growing up in Aarhus.
Creating a Culture Scene in Singapore
But the 4 productions each year for children or teenagers is the not the only investment that SRT are committing to at the moment. In a theatrically post-infant place like Singapore, being the biggest and the best theatre has its share of responsibility, but also its creative benefits.
“It’s fun because you know that if you run fast enough and do a good job, then you will take part in changing and developing the entire theatre scene here, and you will see a whole new cultural industry blossom,” Charlotte Nors explains.
“This is the most exciting time to be the director of a theatre in Singapore. When I started here, our offices were down in a backyard next to the toilets, and it wasn’t very glamorous. From that point on, I’ve seen it grow into what we have today, where we have our own building and I am the director of a place that has the freedom to influence an industry in the making. Things are slowly beginning to mature on the culture front. Singapore is very determined to become a “culture city” – both to satisfy Singaporeans, tourists, and expatriates, and also to attract more foreign talent,” she says.
SRT’s position as cultural pioneers was manifested in 2002, when they were asked to produce the musical, which was to open Singapore’s brand new culture magnet, the Esplanade. Working closely with writers in London, SRT created the musical “Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress”. When they decided to run it again in 2003 it sold an incredible 55,000 tickets, which is extraordinary for a play in Singapore.
On a normal year, the ticket sales will reach 60-70,000 tickets in total for an entire season of eight shows. Charlotte Nors estimates that about 70 per cent of the crowd in her theatre are locals, and 30 per cent are expatriates. Approximately 70 per cent of the theatre’s income is delivered by the ticket sales, and the rest is derived from private funding and sponsorships, and a couple of fundraising events each year. Since the opening of the Esplanade, there has been a noticeable increase in cultural events in Singapore.
“The amount of cultural offers here has grown drastically, but the demand from especially the local audience is growing at a much slower pace. That’s another reason why we make such a big deal out of having a high quality. It captures those who come and it makes them come back. That way, our audience grows slowly, but surely,” she says.
The Whole World’s a Stage
As passionate as she is about developing Singapore’s young culture scene, Charlotte Nors has even bigger dreams lined up behind the curtains.
“What I am really working on now is for us to begin touring with our original plays – primarily in Asia. If this works out, it will be a completely new step for us – and a big break-through, too. Within 5 years, my dream and my goal is for us to run a show here in Singapore, then in Kuala Lumpur, then in Dubai, in Melbourne and so on. That would increase our income in the region and establish our name, which will lead to partnerships with other international theatres,” she says.
“It’s still hard for us to attract the really big, internationally acclaimed names. I would love to get someone like Susan Sarandon or other great actors who are also known from the big screen, since people out here are frequent movie-goers,” she says.
She adds that SRT has already been approached by some of the world’s largest theatrical producers regarding a potential collaboration in Asia.
With all of these activities going on, Charlotte Nors has had to set some social priorities.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in the Danish social circles here. It’s great to have some Danish friends, but for me coming to Asia is all about meeting other people and about traveling as much as possible. To work in the cultural industry isn’t an eight-to-five job either, and there’s a lot of weekend work. Of course, it’s a lifestyle you choose, but I don’t think I will ever leave the culture business, because it is just too exciting. It’s so alive! All of a sudden, some crazy actor can come storming into my office and then I have to put out a fire,” she says and laughs.
“I don’t really miss the four seasons in Denmark, the gloves, and the snow. I go back at least once a year – mostly around Christmas – and that’s enough for me right now. I feel at home in Singapore, yet I’m still very conscious about this being a foreign country. I can still be hit by a spontaneous joy when I am walking home from the theatre at night – just because it’s still warm outside and I don’t have to worry about riding a bike home in the snow about not being safe on my own at night,” she says.
“As long as I think what I do is fun, then I’ll keep doing it. The day I feel there is nothing left to learn here, I will move on. But right now, I think I have the best job in the world.”