On working with puppets in a pandemic
Benjamin Ho interviewed by Wong Yunjie, 15 February 2021
Wong Yunjie: How were things for you last year?
Benjamin Ho: I think I fared better than most people. At first, I was a bit worried for our financial health, because each year about 30 to 40% of our running expenses are taken care of by government grants. We need to raise about 60% ourselves. Last year, there was no business; no school tours, and we could not do shows. So I was a bit worried. But the government’s intervention helped. The support on salary (from the Jobs Support Scheme) was a huge help to us. I have a foreign worker so they also gave us a waiver of foreign worker levy for certain months.

The Government also gave us the Digital Grant (Digitalisation Fund administered by the National Arts Council, hereafter NAC) assisting us to put up our work online. Now we are in the process of finishing the second digitalised production, and this money came early. Last time they would usually give a portion first, then you must complete everything before they give you the rest. Now, once we sign, they give us the bulk of the money. That helped. We were also one of the companies selected to receive the stART Fund, so we are now busy trying to convert our company to IPC status. We also got the Resilience Grant (Arts and Culture Resilience Package Operating Grant). The money is coming in. Mainly because of all these government grants, together with money from jobs with one or two schools, we were able to scrape through last year. I don't know how this coming financial year 2021-2022 will go.
We will start selling digital shows to schools. It is too bad. We are making an effort with live theatre, but I don’t think schools will bring students to the theatre any sooner. Live theatre audiences will also be limited at 50 audience members per cluster.  The government will give us an 80% discount on rental, but the income still will not cover the production costs. The cost is not worth it. 
For this coming financial year I already have grants for one show, Ducky Can’t Swim, a children’s production. Now we are in discussion with them about how we can convert it from live to digital. Another production will be a small festival. But I doubt artists will be able to travel to Singapore. So we will also need to change it to online. How are we going to do it? I’m not sure. We're still living day by day, waiting for the government’s instructions. COVID news around the world changes every day. It’s scary that there are now different variants of COVID. I don't know how Singapore will be affected.

We are already talking to some groups. But most groups don’t dare to commit because there is money involved, and if the government steps in with new restrictions, everything will go to zero. We could plan this month, but by next month we might have to dismantle our plan and re-plan. So how do you plan in such a pandemic? A diligent thinker must have plan A, plan B, plan C. But at some point I just feel you cannot plan anymore because there are so many variables. People ask you about your future and you see that all these variables are affected by small changes to the virus, government policy, or society. I heard that some schools are not back to full CCA, while some schools are. It’s so weird. Different people have different interpretations of things. Even the rules of performing: I heard some people say can take off mask, some say cannot take off mask during a performance. Then NAC steps in and insists, “no, these are the rules.” It gets so confusing.
Wong: How do you cope with all this unpredictability?
Ho: The best I can. I try to beat them by thinking out of the box. I still prefer that puppeteers speak for the puppets live, but now I have to get the puppeteers who are not in the scene to speak for the puppets. They sit about two meters away, look at the puppets and speak for them.