By Ke Weiliang
(2,470 words, 10-minute read)
In March 2017, Gaurav Kripalani was officially unveiled as the Festival Director for Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2018 – 2020. I was over the moon, but only because a rare opportunity to stop indiscriminately splurging my money on arts events seemed to have finally presented itself.
My money-saving inclination felt vindicated as I came across a slew of reactions to Kripalani’s appointment on my Facebook feed. The responses – ranging from a cheeky reminder to “[not] forget to program some weird s**t alongside the crowdpleasers” to a satirical parody of Sumiko Tan’s gushy interview with Kripalani – alluded to the arts community’s skepticism towards Kripalani’s suitability as Festival Director, most likely stemming from his “mainstream” programming as Artistic Director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) for 15 years.
While the snark directed towards Kripalani was funny, the rational part of me questioned how fair it was for us to judge the new SIFA based on published feature articles and hearsay alone. After all, most of my impressions of Kripalani came from my own personal distaste for SRT’s previous programming, which I deem as ‘commercial’ theatre. Some biases die hard.
The ghost of SIFA Director past
Intense ambivalence creeped in as I flipped through the SIFA 2018 festival program in February 2018, and discovered that blockbuster likes of 1984 and An Enemy of the People were to be staged at the Esplanade Theatre. On the one hand, I was euphoric because of the (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catch these critically acclaimed productions without travelling overseas, especially with the generous introduction of the $10 front row student tickets. On the other hand, the return to a centralised festival structure – most shows and activities took place at The Arts House, which was temporarily converted into the SIFA Festival House – made me recall Founding Festival Director Ong Keng Sen’s reason for spreading out the footprint of the festival:
“The context of Singapore where there is often a centripetal force to centralize monolithic institutions at the expense of independent energies required us to broaden the options for our audiences and to diversify tastes, choices, horizons. SIFA promised to expand worlds rather than flatten the scene…”
Aside from the stark transition from the Keng Sen’s ‘edgy’ aesthetics to Kripalani’s preference for the ‘polished’, the marked return to centralisation after being so accustomed to four editions of a ‘decentralised’ festival came as a culture shock for me.
I sympathise with the amount of pressure that Kripalani is under to build on the success established by Keng Sen, and the perhaps inevitable comparisons that the arts community would draw between the two Festival Directors. If the whole point of rotating Festival Directors is to consistently give festival-goers something new to look forward to, then it is even more important for us to give the incumbent regime a clean slate to start off from.
After much deliberation, I decided to cast aside my hopeless romanticism towards SIFA 2014 – 2017 attend SIFA 2018. Thanks to the generosity of the SIFA-supported Points of View (POV) programme, this struggling college student managed to attend the majority of the festival without burning a big hole in his pocket[i]. During the POV programme, my fellow participants and I had the privilege to not only watch several SIFA shows, but also partake in workshops and artist dialogue sessions that provided us with safe spaces to critically reflect on our experience attending the Festival.
Big bang theory (Starting the Festival with a ‘bang’ – literally?)
At 10PM on the opening night of SIFA 2018, I emerged from the Esplanade Theatre uncomfortably shaken by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation of 1984. My beef with this production is how overly literal it was with its portrayal of surveillance. The combination of strobe lights and gunshot sounds during scene transitions made me jump from my seat so many times that I could not help but wonder – was I really apprehensive of the supposedly dystopian world that was being presented onstage? Or was I merely reeling from the brute shock of the intensity and suddenness of these technical effects?
Considering the relatively short lead time between Kripalani’s appointment as Festival Director and the actual SIFA 2018 run, I understand Kripalani’s inclination towards presenting more internationally renowned and ready-to-tour works for this year’s festival. In an interview with Corrie Tan on ArtsEquator, Kripalani revealed his reason for opening SIFA 2018 with 1984:
“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 […] Without that bang, in this crowded market, you don’t even know the festival is going on.”
That being said, Kripalani has also made it clear that he is not solely interested in only bringing in blockbuster names. In fact, he has repeatedly declared his intention to programme a variety of works that will appeal to both first-time arts lovers and aficionados. The real issue, then, is whether his ‘mainstream’ brand of programming would be accessible yet thought-provoking enough to get audiences talking about the issues presented in the performance(s), rather than only being concerned about where to have dinner after leaving the theatre.
If 1984 was meant as an appetiser for SIFA 2018, then I daresay that back then, I did not look forward to the main course. But then again, I speak as an arts practitioner who has irreversibly acquired preferences for certain types of performances. Perhaps Kripalani was primarily targeting festival-goers who might have a different palate?
The potentialities of the Festival House
While I thoroughly enjoyed shuttling from place to place to visit oft-ignored parts of Singapore for The O.P.E.N. during SIFA 2014 – 2017, the overly diasporic nature of that festival-going experience did not always provide the most conducive and time-sensitive platforms for audiences to reflect on the shows that they have attended.
Despite my reservations about centralising SIFA, I am – on a very practical level – grateful for the convenience that the Festival House brought to my experience as a festival-goer. Knowing that the performances and the complementary engagement sessions were all happening in one venue made me more compelled to attend the different talks and ancillary events organised under SIFA. It was lovely to hang out at House Pour – a pop-up bar run by Oriole Coffee + Bar specially for SIFA 2018 – and mingle with old and new friends. It was also nice to see Kripalani interacting with festival-goers and honouring the Festival’s promise to try to bridge the divide between the Festival and audiences.
‘Singapore’ versus the ‘international’ in SIFA
In 2012, National Arts Council appointed an Arts Festival Review Committee in 2012 to review the role of the Singapore Arts Festival (Arts Fest) in the local arts and cultural ecosystem, in the light of dwindling attendance for the festival, which has been around since 1977. According to the Arts Festival Review Committee Report, the Committee proposed for the Arts Fest’ objective to be simplified to “inspir[ing] diverse audiences with great artistic experiences” (Page 6). The committee also recommended that the Festival must “strike a balance between international and local works that audiences may not otherwise have the chance to experience” (Page 8), resulting in the inclusion of the ‘international’ element in what we know as SIFA today.
I do not doubt Kripalani’s commitment towards commissioning Singapore works, and I look forward to catching these shows in 2019 and 2020. I do, however, hope that more care will be taken in gauging how ready such new works are for a major festival like SIFA. While the delightfully edgy Anticipation of One was a fresh breath of air in an otherwise ‘polished’ line-up, underdeveloped works like Ground Z-0’s 0600 and Toy Factory Production’s A Dream Under The Southern Bough – The Beginning felt like major misfits when lined-up alongside the extensively developed international productions that were programmed this year. 0600, a mixed-media presentation about capital punishment in Singapore, felt like a rushed inclusion into the Monuments series given how literal it was with incorporating elements of site-specificity into the production. A Dream Under The Southern Bough – The Beginning, on the other hand, was dramaturgically problematic, given the disjointed attempt to adapt Tang Xianzu’s Kun opera play for contemporary audiences.
Rushing to commission too many Singapore works within that tight timeframe for the mere sake of it would have been “a disservice to our industry”, a pitfall that Kripalani himself was aware of. Regrettably, both 0600 and Southern Bough fell into the very same trap that he had identified. He may not have intended it, but for the time being, it almost feels as if Kripalani’s notion of “inspir[ing] diverse audiences with great artistic experiences” is primarily geared towards setting benchmarks (as to what he considers as “game-changers“) for Singapore arts practitioners to emulate.
Does SIFA really have an identity of its own?
Over the last seven days of the Festival, I managed to watch OCD Love, The Blues Project, An Enemy of the People and Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes. While all of them were competent shows on their own, I felt most let down by there being no discernible pattern or intention behind the curation of programmes.
I am not suggesting that the presence of central curatorial themes are a must for every festival. Georgetown Festival (GTF), for one, has a strong identity even without a central curatorial theme. This is because GTF uses its geographical heritage to transform the social and cultural interactions that happen in the city during the festival run. In a different vein, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival functions well without a central curatorial theme because the ethos of the festival clearly revolves around programming “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”
In the case of SIFA, however, the festival directorship is rotated once every three to four years, meaning that the ethos of SIFA is highly malleable and very dependent on what the incumbent honcho wants to achieve during their tenure. Given the inevitably transient nature of SIFA’s identity, the onus is then on the Festival Director and his or her team to create their own identity for the Festival primarily through programming efforts.
In light of this, the four editions of SIFA preceding Kripalani’s tenure have been strongly grounded in themes that have influenced and refracted each other, creating an orientation for the festival goer that helped us to navigate the Festival as a terrain to be journeyed upon. I was let down by the ostensibly deliberate absence of a festival theme this time round. If anything, the allusion to being “a festival of multiple themes and layers” (e.g. the individual and society, and the power of the human spirit to love and hope) felt more like a PR-speak, leading to the impression that Kripalani’s programming for this year prioritised works of audience-worthy reputation above everything else.
On the whole, while I empathise with the Arts House Limited’s expectation of SIFA being Singapore’s pinnacle arts festival for a myriad of audiences, I still think that SIFA 2018 operated on an overly broad-based programming model that failed to enable a festival-goer like me to draw the dots between each performance.
The honeymoon is over
17 days after the conclusion of SIFA 2018, I come across Ong Sor Fern’s Straits Times Life! article about the Festival’s lack of identity. While I am not convinced by most of the didactic recommendations that Sor Fern made based off attending only three SIFA 2018 performances, she nevertheless brings forth a salient observation:
“Overall, however, SIFA left me vaguely discontented. Each of those three productions were great as standalone fare. But I could have watched 1984, Parable of the Sower and The Blues Project in any other city in the world. These shows, good as they are, could have been brought in by any commercial promoter or arts venue. There is nothing about them that screams SIFA, other than the accidental fact that it was brought in by the festival.”
On an artistic level, SIFA 2018 leaves much to be desired. I daresay this has little to do with whether ‘mainstream’ is a ‘dirty’ word, for there were stellar and thought-provoking works (my favourite this time round being An Enemy of the People) presented during this year’s Festival. The problem lies in how the sum of all these works failed to contribute to a larger conversation that we expect a festival to be able to facilitate. Whereas SIFA 2014 – 2017 enabled us to critically examine rest of the world through Singapore-inspired lenses, it felt as if SIFA 2018 was primarily motivated by a desire to merely expose Singaporeans to works of high production quality.
In all fairness, however, the Festival did not turn out as badly as some armchair skeptics prophesised. On a logistical level, I would argue that the centralised structure help achieve Kripalani’s vision of “break[ing] down that invisible divide between ‘stage’ and ‘audience’”. The compact 17-day festival enabled me to attend more engagement events than I initially planned to. This enhanced my festival-going experience, as I became more attuned to the diverse contexts that influenced the creation of the performances that I had watched. I also appreciate the effort made to provide new audiences with as many accessible entry points into the festival as possible, which manifested itself in the multi-tiered ticketing system that the SIFA team came out with.
Overall, I think Kripalani deserves a Get Out Of Jail card this time round, considering that he and his team had less than a year to put the Festival together after taking over from the previous regime. But the honeymoon is over, and the two new babies in the making had better be good.
In the meantime, I remain conscious of the importance of attending a wide spectrum of performances and events outside my artistic tastes. Whatever the outcome of SIFA 2019 and 2020, I hope that my fellow friends in the arts community will keep an open mind and continue to support the Festival in whatever ways they can. At the end of the day, events like these belong to us as much as they do to whoever is in charge. Like it or not, we must continue to remain plugged into what is happening on the ground if we want to improve the state of our beloved arts scene that we have painstakingly raised over the past few decades.
[i] Aside from all the programmes listed under the Performance Writing Track of the Points of View programme, I also attended these SIFA programmes in my own time:
- Tuesday, 1 May 2018: A Dream Under the Southern Bough – The Beginning
- Wednesday, 2 May 2018: Four Decades Exhibition
- Wednesday, 2 May 2018: In Conversation with Wang Meiyin
- Friday, 5 May 2018: Anticipation of One
- Thursday, 10 May 2018: The Lapse Project
The Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2018 ran from 26th April to 12th May 2018.
Guest Contributor Ke Weiliang is a saikang warrior in the Singapore arts scene. He is particularly fascinated by things that challenge the authority of binaries, including (but not limited to) ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ and ‘male’ versus ‘female’.
Weiliang is currently reading Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management at LASALLE College of the Arts. When he is not expected to be in class, he can be found sitting behind the Esplanade Box Office selling tickets with an inimitable poker face.
Weiliang believes that sharing is not just caring, but also empowering. He is the administrator of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that delivers weekly updates on upcoming Singapore theatre shows.