(World-in-Theatre members rehearsing at their former home, the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre in Cecil St)
World-in-Theatre grew out of the theatre company called Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre which was founded by the late William Teo in the late 1980s.
Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre had carved out a niche for itself on the Singapore theatre scene from the late 1980s to the 1990s. According to the late Kuo Pao Kun (formerly Artistic Director of The Theatre Practice and acknowledged doyen of the Singapore theatre scene), the reason for this was that in terms of performance style, it was the only theatre group in Singapore which blended “..two cultural sources : the Southeast Asianised classical Chinese theatre and the European hybrid of contemporary theatre represented by Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook.” The result was that its productions had a visual simplicity that had been described as “stunning” (through its emphasis on the use of colours and textures in sets and costuming) and by an overall performance quality that had been likened to a “rhythmic ritual” (Heike Gaessler, Artistic Director, Tacheles Arts Festival, 1999, Berlin).
It was possibly the first theatre group to stage productions outdoors, producing Medea in front of the Fort Gates at Fort Canning Park in 1988, long before the Park became a venue for theatre. It was also possibly the first group to use unusual spaces, staging The Conference of the Birds (1991) and Macbeth (1993) in a disused warehouse by the Singapore River.
Led by William Teo, the group initially gained renown for its productions of Western classics, but in later years branched out into staging works that had been group-researched and written, such as Year Zero: The Historical Tragedy of Cambodia (1996).
Regardless of subject matter, Asia-in-Theatre rarely wavered from its two-fold focus in its productions : first, on the need for strong narratives (rather than abstractions) in all its works, and secondly, on melding together the most relevant and effective stylistic devices from Asian performing traditions in order to do so. Both of these were the hallmarks of the group. If audience response was anything to go by, the performance style of the group contributed much to its impact by serving to intensify the human passions that lay at the core of each story that it chose to tell in the years when it was active. It was partly for this reason that Kuo Pao Kun had remarked that Asia-in-Theatre’s remarkably small output belied its impact, and that “..although Asia-in-Theatre has not been very productive (only 17 productions in 13 years), nor has it had a huge audience, the quality of the group’s presence in the Singapore theatre scene outweighs that of companies doing many more shows and commanding bigger audiences.”
Among many theatre-goers, the annual productions of Asia-in-Theatre were eagerly-anticipated events.