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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Letter from Esplanade: A reflection on the arts, lessons from SARS, and COVID-19

By Yvonne Tham
(1,700 words, 7-minute read)

In the performing arts, timing is everything. In music, rhythm is a dance among units of time. While dance is the body in time and space. And we all know in theatre, timing is everything: it makes for comedy, and when characters say or do the wrong thing at just the wrong time (as with life), we see tragedy unfold.

To reflect on the COVID-19 situation while we are in the midst of it does seem a little presumptuous. Because it feels like we are still standing on shifting sands. Time makes a fool of all our careful plans and deliberations. A month ago, performances were allowed if some basic measures like temperature-taking took place. Three weeks ago, they were restricted to smaller audience sizes, of 250 and further safe distancing measures. Two weeks ago, all live performances were cancelled, but we could – with precautionary measures – facilitate performances for recording. And now, with Esplanade closed from 7 April to 4 May for the first time in its history as part of a nationwide shutdown of all attractions and most physical workplaces, it would be foolish to gather cast and crew for an extended period of recording. Productions, presentations and tours in the performing arts can take months, often years, to plan and realise. And in this period, what happens in just days or even hours can throw a production’s fate into disarray.

Then there is the gift of history: time past. Esplanade opened to the public in October 2002, a month before Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out in China, and five months before the disease appeared in Singapore. An arts centre that already had to combat sceptics now had to respond to two questions. One is the practical question of whether people would still come out for performances, and how do we make sure it is safe. The second is the more ideological question of how should a national arts centre “behave” in such a climate of fear and rightful caution to ensure we make a positive contribution to society, or even help shape something positive and lasting for the future.

These are the same two questions those of us who work at Esplanade today ask ourselves.

On the first question, the experience with SARS meant that Esplanade’s “business continuity” and “pandemic” provisions have always been kept in place, maintained and ready: thermal scanners, surgical masks, thermometers and even a batch of bright blue “I’m cool today!” stickers (17 years old and still usable, though not quite as sticky) that staff wear once their temperatures have been taken.

But COVID-19 is more infectious. It is not the same virus. And scientists are still grappling to fully understand the virus’ behaviour. Beautiful Sunday, a series of free monthly concerts featuring community orchestras in Esplanade’s Concert Hall, was inaugurated to bring people together and cheer society on during SARS. However, having a large gathering of people at a concert, notwithstanding all the precautions taken, is now impossible if the spread of COVID-19 cannot be contained. With Singapore today in ‘circuit-breaker’ mode, Esplanade too is closed, except for some of the eateries still operating takeaway and delivery services, and a skeletal operations team keeping the durian going so that we can, at any point deemed safe, return immediately to being “Open”. For the rest of us working from home, as one colleague lamented, “I miss the smell of our theatre!”

What remains the same, though, is the strong sense of responsibility and teamwork my Esplanade colleagues have shown in stepping up to make the centre as safe as possible for everyone. In the earlier weeks we set up thermal scanners, introduced digital forms for health declarations and contact details, marked out spaces for safe distancing all across our venues and mall, and ensured the centre’s cleaning regime was rigorous. These values of teamwork and public service are what Benson Puah (the CEO of Esplanade from 1998 to August 2018) and my Esplanade colleagues have instilled across the organisation, and continue to be upheld today.

In the same way, such attention to detail, the willingness to step up and make things happen, and the almost army-like precision of teamwork are not alien to the performing arts. While the public has romantic notions that artists sit around in coffeeshops or bars waiting for “inspiration” to take hold of them, those of us who plan concerts, organise productions and events, give cues by the stage, budget and fundraise, know that the performing arts is very much about teamwork, precision, and loads of planning and practice to get things (close to) perfect.

The world that COVID-19 has come into is also unlike SARS at the turn of the millennium. We are in a digital or digitalised 2020. And although human nature has not changed, globalisation has intensified over the last two decades and inequalities in many societies have become even more pronounced.

And so the second question: as “an arts centre for everyone” — a commitment we have always strove to keep –  what must we do to ensure we make a positive contribution to society, or even help shape something positive and lasting for the future? Most of us in the arts will see answers in these two areas. One, we must make sure the arts can flourish and reach people in the digital space. Two, there is even greater urgency for us to ensure the arts persist to navigate, broker and heal relationships within communities and society, not just in the midst of COVID-19, but in its aftermath and lessons we take on.

ASPIDISTRAFLY

 

Esplanade has been exploring for some time how digital can extend the live performance experience and engage people beyond our four walls. In October 2019, we launched Esplanade Offstage, our online, all-access insider’s guide and repository of Singapore and Asian arts and culture. Offstage and our social channels are platforms where people can stay connected to the arts through specially curated videos, podcasts and stories.

Digital archival for the arts has also taken on greater significance. Even if we could not record and broadcast new performances, we were able to launch on Offstage, The Show Goes On…line, a weekly series of concert highlights from our archives by such diverse Singapore and Asian artists as noted ambient musicians Haruka Nakamura and Aspidistrafly, Mandopop duo StellaVee, and DJ Koflow in collaboration with the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra. During this time, other Singapore arts groups have leveraged on their digital archives to offer free public access to performance recordings. They include the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and The Necessary Stage, joining others overseas like London’s National Theatre and Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

The challenge is, in fact, to think beyond archives, beyond recorded performances. As artists and programmers, we need to examine the experience of communities and relationships formed online. How do we not only bring ideas and inspiration to people, but also “bring people together”? What are the new ways of conceiving interaction between performer and audience when what simultaneously separates and connects us is not the stage but a screen? And because not everyone has equal access to digital tools, and physical interaction is part of being human, the arts and cultural sector must continue to critically examine our digital engagement.

In the coming weeks and months, my colleagues and I will introduce platforms for communities of audiences to connect with the artists, the arts and each other online. We have planned for The Studios series of Singapore theatre to go online; an online companion to A Tapestry of Sacred Music (our April festival that was cancelled); music programmes featuring Singapore musicians, and programmes specially for our seniors and children or students at home. The old and the young must be our priority in a time of need. These are just some of our initial steps.

Part of the social responsibility of a national arts centre is also ensuring our wider circle of artists, technicians and ushers on casual employment, contractors and mall tenants have access to assistance at a time like this. We continue to work with and extend a fee to artists if we call on them during this time. In fact, together with the National Arts Council, we are asking how we can extend meaningful work to people in the arts whose livelihoods have been affected. We are working with the council to see if we can provide relevant training programmes that independent workers in the arts can tap into and gainfully spend their time, while receiving some financial assistance from our government. The economic impact of COVID-19 on the arts and cultural sector will last beyond this immediate season of physical distancing and border controls. We will see sponsors and donors grappling with other financial priorities, and, as with businesses in other sectors, we may also see arts companies forced to stop work. But we will recover. Those of us still standing must do so with a greater sense of responsibility for one another.

As an international arts centre and an active member of networks like the International Society of Performing Arts (ISPA) and Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres (AAPPAC), Esplanade must also contribute to the global conversation and sharing of experiences amongst other arts centres, artists, presenters and producers. There is a need to re-visit the priorities and relationship between the local and international. There is a need to review the contractual and financial contingencies for emergencies that impact the performing arts. And even as tours are disrupted, we must ask if there are indeed more environmentally sustainable ways to make and share our work. COVID-19 has shown us that we are all connected. And it is likely that the best answers and solutions are those we create together.

The year has been a difficult and very strange one for everybody. But it need not be “wasted” time. While healthcare workers and public policy makers are on overdrive, and many businesses struggle, the rest of us can continue our “service” to each other and to our future. Some may need to hit the “Pause” button! I am hopeful that those of us who work in the arts will overcome the trials of time, even as we appreciate the gift of time – be it 4:33 minutes of silence, lifetimes lived in two hours of theatre, or years of single-minded practice.


Yvonne Tham is the CEO of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

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