Gaurav Kripalani: a new festival director plots a different path

By Corrie Tan

(3,890 words, 20-minute read)

A few days after the launch of the 2018 edition of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), I had coffee with newly minted festival director Gaurav Kripalani to discuss the programme he’s unveiled for his inaugural festival, which includes hits from London’s West End such as Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 and Amer Hlehel’s Taha, which ran at the Young Vic. Kripalani made a name for himself as artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, known for its annual productions of Shakespeare in the Park, and for bringing in large-scale projects from Broadway and the West End, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear, starring Ian McKellen, and the Bridge Project’s Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey.

We spoke about what it means to inherit a festival with a strong identity, how to cultivate a larger audience base, and what sets Singapore’s national festival apart in its 41st year in an ever-evolving arts industry. He also explained what the term ‘mainstream’ means to him.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Corrie Tan (CT):
It’s not easy to inherit a festival that had its own strong identity before this, for four years. How do you see yourself making your mark on this festival while retaining its strengths and overall identity?

Gaurav Kripalani (GK): I’m very conscious that we’re doing the 41st edition of the arts festival. And it is our national arts festival – so it is in a position that I hold and trust. And I look at it as building blocks over the last 40 editions. So it’s not, in my head, a comparison between anybody. It is really looking at it in its totality, and what role the arts festival serves in growing the industry. I think if it’s looked at through that lens, then one gets a clearer sense of the arc.

CT: I think it’s inevitable that there will be some comparisons – I spoke to Keng Sen last week about the Curators Academy, and this is coming after the conversation I’ve had with him. You spoke a bit at the launch of the festival that you’d thought a lot about how it fit into this landscape and what it means to you. We’re in an increasingly crowded landscape, everyone’s jostling for a piece of the pie, for audience members – I think these were many of the same concerns that were brought up when SIFA was rebranded in 2012 and 2013. Over the next couple of years, how do you think this festival can jostle with all the other blockbusters that are also coming in, with the other festivals going on – how does it distinguish itself?

GK: One of the things that’s important to me is how SIFA positions itself. It is growing the landscape, and it’s growing the landscape in terms of growing audiences. Our audience is very diverse – how do we reach everyone? How can SIFA help grow the industry from full practitioners? I’ve been meeting various artists and the question that I’m posing to all of them is: how can SIFA be a facilitator to enable you to do something you’ve dreamt about doing, but have never been able to do before? If a theatre company or a dance company has a regular season, I don’t want to take one of those shows and put it in SIFA. They don’t need it. So the question that I ask is, if you could dream anything, how can we help make that dream come true?

CT: That looks like the commissions you’ve done, like the Monuments series, or Toy Factory’s large, sprawling work – but at the same time, these artists and arts groups are doing original work on a regular basis, there are other venues that can produce them like the Esplanade, and there are more venues now. So how is your commissioning curated? It can’t only be a new thing that they’re dreaming of – what kind of growth are you looking at?


One of the festival commissions from Singapore is Kamini Ramachandran’s The Hidden, where audience members will unearth ancient stories hidden in the Armenian Church. (Image: Karnan Balakrishnan)


GK: There are two specific areas that I think we’ll see develop over the next two years. If the artist is interested in collaborating with other artists in Singapore, I think that’s something SIFA can do. And if the artist is interested in collaborating with someone internationally, that’s what SIFA can do.

CT: So building bridges.

GK: I think building bridges is going to be one of the key things that shape the things that are curated in the festival. And I think that’s how it will stand out. We do have various festivals in town, but they’re very specific. And I think what’s good about SIFA being this national pinnacle, this national arts festival, is it is able to present work from Singapore and around the world that we don’t normally see here. And I think that’s one of the ways we can grow as artists, and as an audience – by exposure. That’s certainly how I grew up.

I think building bridges is going to be one of the key things that shape [what is] curated in the festival. And I think that’s how it will stand out. We do have various festivals in town, but they’re very specific. And I think what’s good about SIFA being […] this national arts festival, is it is able to present work from Singapore and around the world that we don’t normally see here. And I think that’s one of the ways we can grow as artists, and as an audience – by exposure. That’s certainly how I grew up.

In your opening message, you talked about productions like Ninagawa’s Macbeth, which of course was incredible [at the Singapore Arts Festival] in 1992. We’ve now seen three Ninagawa productions in the past five years. The market has changed.

GK: I don’t think the festival will produce another Ninagawa. The festival will look for the next Ninagawa. (laughs)

CT: I was looking at the arc of your programme, and many people have pointed out that you have quite a few cornerstone works that look at the individual versus the collective, the tyranny of the masses, looking at democratic practices in 1984 and Enemy of the People – that must have been deliberate on your part.

GK: I think everyone knows I like shows with a strong narrative, and I want to walk out of a performance debating the issues in a show. Whether it’s theatre, music or dance, you want the work to ask questions, and I think you can see that in pretty much the entire programme. (laughs)

CT: Another thing I noticed as you were introducing the programme – I was thinking that this was quite the ‘superlative SIFA’ in the sense that performers like Shabana Azmi would be one of the ‘most major’ or ‘most recognisable’ actresses, Jacob Collier has millions of views, this person might be the ‘most recognised’ dancer in this area. And I was wondering – is that your approach, your curatorial choice, as opposed to [presenting] someone who isn’t as recognised, or discovering new artists.

GK: Over the three years, I think the reach, breadth, and scope of SIFA will grow. I would love that spectrum of work to broaden in both directions. I would love to do more family entertainment, I would love to do more avant-garde work. But given the tight timeline and wanting to position the festival to lay the building blocks for the next three years, there was a conscious decision this year to work with the best in the world.

CT: I think it’s not just about discovering new artists, it’s about artists who are unknown to us. It’s easy to present someone who has a brand name, or who is validated by the Grammys, Oscars, Tonys, etc. But how do you present someone who is very famous in Beirut, or –

GK: But I’ve done that, right? Nizar [Zuabi] is very famous, the director of Taha, he’s very well known.

CT: Taha was staged at the Young Vic [in London], wasn’t it?

GK: But I think most people here don’t know him. Toshi Reagon, I don’t think is a household name in Singapore at all. I think there are plenty of people in the festival that we are introducing to Singapore.

CT: I was reading one of the first interviews you did after you were appointed festival director last year, and one of the soundbites that was carved out was “I don’t think ‘mainstream’ is a dirty word”. I’m curious, what does ‘mainstream’ mean to you? I think it’s defined very differently by different people.

GK: I think mainstream for me is – with the festival, there’s a conscious decision to programme shows for people who’ve never been to the festival, and programme shows that your arts aficionados are going to love. It’s wonderful when those shows overlap, but they are very often different shows. (laughs) Another thing I said in that interview, was when I walk out of the theatre – using theatre as an example – the theatre that I love is when I can go for a drink and go meet my friends after the show, and debate the issues raised in the show. As opposed to walking out and being clueless about what the show was about.

CT: But wouldn’t one argue then, that if you’re clueless about a production, there is also room for you to discuss it and make sense of it with other people?

GK: Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. Just because I didn’t get it doesn’t mean – that’s not what I’m saying at all. Other people may have gotten it perfectly and may be explaining it to me, that happens a lot! That’s not unusual. (laughs) I think what I’m talking about is when you walk out of the theatre, and you talk about where you want to go for dinner, instead of talking about the show – I don’t want to present shows like that. And I would say – that goes some way to defining in my head what I make of the mainstream.

I think what I’m talking about is when you walk out of the theatre, and you talk about where you want to go for dinner, instead of talking about the show – I don’t want to present shows like that. […] That goes some way to defining in my head what I make of the mainstream.

So something that regardless of whether it’s a straightforward linear narrative, or something experimental, even if it’s something that baffled – it’s something you’d still want to talk about.

GK: Yes, thank you! You articulated that beautifully.

CT: I know it’s not easy to take on the mantle and to be in charge of the national festival. There will always be supporters and there will always be detractors. Since the launch I’ve been talking about the programme with various people, and of course there will be some who will go, “oh wow, this is something I recognise, I think I can understand this, I’m not a regular arts goer, but I recognise this and I want to go for it.” So there’s that excitement. With things like the Festival House and spectacular openings, it reminds me a bit of [Goh] Ching Lee’s big aerial openings or when [Low] Kee Hong had the festival village, referencing the arts festivals of the past. On the other hand, our arts scene has developed a lot over the span of the 41 years of the festival. So there are others who might think, for example, “What’s the curatorial thrust of the Singaporean programme? Has this been tacked on? What’s the arc driving the commissioning of these very specific artists? How do they work together thematically? Where’s the work that might frustrate and baffle, but that I am drawn to nonetheless, the forms that I don’t know anything about?” And you’ve said that yes, this year was intentional and you wanted to bring the big names in first and over the span of the next few years look at other work. But I was wondering how you might address those diverging points of view.

GK: It’s very important that SIFA commissions new Singaporean work. I have said that there will not be a lot of commissions in year one, because with the six-month time frame, I think we do a disservice to our industry. The conversations that I am engaging my peers on are: what can we achieve in three years? Very often, companies have to deliver a season. And to put together a season and deliver it takes huge amount of time and resources, and you’re worrying about your June show even when you’re producing your March show. And it is hard to carve out time to think three years out. Whereas I really think SIFA can help with that process. So, it’s not just a question of whether SIFA can provide commissioning money. SIFA can provide resources and time, and that’s almost more valuable. (laughs) I think in 2020, we are going to have a lot more commissions. I think the goal is that there will be some exciting new Singaporean work.

CT: I was thinking about audience development as well, because in our ecosystem we can’t have people ‘cannibalising’ each other’s audiences. I think there’s a general consensus that we need to develop our audience base. So one way to do that is lowering the economic barrier, like your $10 seats for students, it’s something we see that’s similar to rush tickets in London and New York where students also get very good prices for tickets. But beyond lowering the economic barrier, how are we looking at making the arts part of our cultural DNA? It can’t just be an economic incentive.

GK: Yes of course. You can’t drag a horse to water. One of the things we’ve done is launched the Festival Starter Pass. And the starter pass is basically a bundle of one theatre performance, one music performance, one dance performance. It’s for people who don’t normally go – to take a chance. And the reason for doing that is, I do this for a living, but I go to a festival – and especially the bigger festivals, you look at the festival guide, where do you begin? It doesn’t matter how much you know, where do you begin? Just think, for Edinburgh Fringe, if there was this thing that said, ‘we recommend these three shows’, I would buy that in a heartbeat. (laughs)

CT: So like a sampler platter for audiences.

GK: We’ll develop it over time. You’d have your festival starter pass, or your ‘blow you away’ pass, you’ll have your pass for people who are really willing to take a chance on the ‘out there’ stuff. The shows that we’ve chosen for the festival starter pass are also challenging shows. But the point is, in our crowded landscape, how do we come up with ways to make it easy for people to choose the arts?

CT: It’s also a question of what can the festival do for people, the consumer, the audience, the arts goer – and what does the festival do for artists?

GK: For the artist, as I said, it provides time and resources, financial and otherwise, to help them dream and collaborate. For the audience, in the curation, it wasn’t like I brought in ten blockbusters – that was never the goal or the direction. You need a couple. 1984 as the opening show was a very, very conscious decision. I knew I wanted that to be the opening of the festival. It asks all the right questions in the world today, it is a blockbuster title, it is a strong, hard-hitting show, it is by no means light entertainment. You want the festival to open with a bang. In a crowded landscape, how do you get that share of voice? I think opening with a bang tells the country – the festival’s started. Once people knows the festival’s started, they pay attention to what’s happening in the rest of the three weeks. Without that bang, in this crowded market, you don’t even know the festival is going on. Think about it, for all of us, the number of things that you’re like, “Really, it’s on? I missed that. I didn’t even know it was happening, and we’re in the industry!” (laughs)


A scene from Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage production of 1984, which will open the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2018. (Image: courtesy of Shane Reid)


CT: You mentioned providing time, resources and the space to dream. Do you think it’s also then the role of the festival not just to do give a platform, but to also push to look at the latest developments in the art world, what is urgent in curatorial practice and artistic practice, what is at the edge? And not just give time and space, but to curate the festival towards pushing these boundaries? Our audience is not the same audience that was given the arts festival in the 1970s. This is now a much more discerning audience. People may very well have seen 1984; it opened in 2014, four years ago. What then is the curatorial thrust, the knowledge of the artistic trajectories of each artist and what’s going on in the world, that can push the festival a bit further?

GK: I think this is very much year one, and I fully take your point that 1984 is not a brand new production. But I’m sure a vast majority of our population haven’t seen it. And for those who have, they should come and watch Parable of the Sower. They should come and see Taha. There are plenty of shows that I know they would not have seen. The festival cannot just be about the hottest, newest work. The festival has to be about asking the right questions. And if that means reviving a 20-year-old production to ask that question, let’s revive it. I think there are some Singaporean plays that were done 20 years ago that would be very interesting to see restaged now in the current climate. I think some of them would be very relevant today. The festival is about asking questions, and I hope that comes across clearly in the programming.

CT: I think there were definitely parallels to be drawn between the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People, 1984 and Parable of the Sower.

GK: And Taha. I mean it’s very simple, it’s a one-man show, no set, he just tells a story. And what I loved about it was – I don’t know how to describe it, it was just very real, it’s not like it’s acting. I didn’t know anything about it, someone told me to just go see it – I went to the box office at the Young Vic and I said, “Is there any way I can meet a representative of the company?” I said I’m with SIFA, and Amer [Hlehel, the playwright] and Nizar [Zuabi, the director] both came out, and we sat and we had a drink and we chatted for an hour. And I was like, “Come to Singapore.” And they were like, “Okay!” And that was done.


Amer Hlehel wrote and performs in Taha, a solo performance that recalls the work of thePalestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. (Image: courtesy of Saheer Oubaid)


CT: I guess that’s what you’re going to be doing over the next few weeks, going for things like TPAM [formerly the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, now the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama] – is that your plan, going to see as much as possible around the world? How about within Southeast Asia, for example?

GK: There’s a lot that I need to see in Southeast Asia. And I think places like Korea, Tokyo, APAM [Australian Performing Arts Market], that’s where you’ll see the Southeast Asian work. Now that 2018 is announced, I can now start working on 2019 and 2020. It’s not like we haven’t already been working on them. I actually know the opening shows for 2019 and 2020, we’ve already decided that. (laughs)

CT: What are some of the things you’ve already learnt in shifting from the artistic director of a specific company with a specific audience demographic that you’re very familiar with – to something of this scale?

GK: Countless, countless things. You know, I present a show every year at the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). So we did eight shows, we produced seven, but I presented one of them. I think with Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, with the Bridge Project, with Ian McKellen as Lear, with Ninagawa – it was as if I was unconsciously prepping for this role?

CT: Unbeknownst to yourself, you were already preparing for this?

GK: Yes, and I think what it takes to present a season of shows was there. What’s been great and very educational for me – and fun – has been doing music and dance and multidisciplinary work in addition to theatre. That’s been challenging and rewarding.

CT: Apart from what I pointed out earlier, what people have observed of those three specific productions, I’m sure there was a coherence or through-line you were looking at in selecting all these productions for the first year. For you, what was that guiding principle?

GK: There were thematic strands, obviously the individual versus society is one. But love and hope was a big one. I think there’s so much cynicism and pessimism in the world at the moment, and I want the festival to be asking probing, difficult, challenging questions. But I want it also to be somewhere people can go to be inspired and happy and experience something joyous. And I think that was absolutely part of the planning as well. I think you find that in a lot of shows too.

Javed Akthar’s poems – he has a huge body of work. It was very conscious to say, let’s do the love poems. They might be sad poems, they might be heartbroken love poems, but let’s make that the theme. OCD Love – it’s stunning. Even Parable of the Sower – I think what appealed to me about it was this history of black music arose through the triumph of the human spirit over oppression. And she [Toshi Reagon] uses that music to mirror the themes of the novel.

I think those are going to be thematic strands that you will find over the three years. They will broaden. I don’t want to pigeonhole the festival into one thing. And if you look at all the major national festivals in the world, they don’t have a single theme.


Gaurav Kripalani at the launch of the programme for the 2018 Singapore International Festival of Arts on 5 February 2018. (Image: Arts House Limited)


CT: That’s the question, I guess – should Singapore be different or should Singapore emulate these other national festivals?

GK: It’s not a question of emulating, I think it’s a question of not pigeonholing. We have to find our own voice – in part determined by our geographical location, which I think allows us to do the best of the east and the west. But I think we also have to appreciate that we’re only 53 years old, and our arts scene is much younger than that. We should learn lessons from those who’ve been doing it a lot longer.

CT: The arts scene does extend beyond those 50 years of course. I mean, from the 1910s you’ll see very socially-engaged Chinese-language work for example – you’ve referred to how our arts scene is young, and it is young in a sense, but it does stretch beyond those 50 years.

GK: By that definition, it’s 700 years old. (laughs)

CT: But it is, we’ve grown out of a Southeast Asian tradition that’s very old.

GK: Next year is Singapore’s bicentennial, but it’s not just celebrating 200 years, it’s celebrating 700 years. And I think that should be reflected in the work we do. I think the key thing is, I’m learning. I’m excited by the challenge. I’m very fortunate to have a phenomenal team. And to be able to bounce ideas off of one another, and tap into the collective resources and network is – what a thrill. This is our festival, and it belongs to the art, and it belongs to the artist community, it belongs to the public. And for it to succeed, for the next 41 years, we have to work together to make it succeed. You can’t please everyone, but I have to say that after the launch, I felt the people who were there were rooting for it to succeed, which was a great feeling.

For further information and ticketing for the SIFA 2018, click here.

About the author(s)

Corrie Tan 陳霖靈 is an arts practitioner and researcher from Singapore. She is interested in and works at the intersection of care ethics, collaborative performance practices, and new articulations of arts criticism and writing in Southeast Asia. Her roles shapeshift depending on the context, but she is often an archivist, facilitator and companion to the artists and projects she works with and on. Corrie is completing her Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies on the joint degree programme between King’s College London and the National University of Singapore on a President’s Graduate Fellowship. She is associate editor and resident critic with ArtsEquator, assistant editor with independent academic collective AcademiaSG, and is serving on the Future Advisory Board (FAB) of Performance Studies international (PSi).

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