Sunday, 20 April, 2014

Published December 27, 2013
A preoccupation with breaking even
Industry leaders share their insights into what 2014 will bring for Singapore’s arts, leisure and entertainment scenes
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Mr Ong: 'I've been doing theatre since the 1980s . . . and the audiences numbers have stayed the same over the decades. I want to bring back the people who have stopped coming to the theatre.'

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Festival director of the newly-revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts. The six-week festival will debut in August with Facing Goya, an opera by British composer Michael Nyman that will be directed by Ong himself, and close with the New York experimental theatre company The Wooster Group's version of Shakespeare's Troilus And Cressida.

"WHAT I see in the arts scene right now is that there is quite a lot of fear among companies of trying to break even. Previously, there was a fear of politics and censorship, but now the fear has turned into a financial one. (I must add, though, that censorship is still practised through the granting or withdrawing of government funding.)

Because of this fear, arts companies are trying not to overspend. They're making edgy, smaller-scale shows that deal with topical issues. I also see a lot of youth-oriented works.

Now with the Singapore International Festival of Arts, we want to go a different direction. We want to bring shows of a certain scale. We won't shy away from putting a large cast of 50 people on stage, or bringing something like Warhorse to the stage.

As a given statement, it's not possible for us to break even with shows of that scale, but we're a festival that receives public funding even though we are independent, so we want to do it.

This year's Three Titans of Theatre series created such excitement among arts lovers. To have Ninagawa, Peter Brook and Simon McBurney present these plays was a big thing. But I say, why can't we have shows like these every year?

I've been doing theatre since the 1980s with plays like Army Daze and Beauty World, and the audiences numbers have stayed the same over the decades. Audience come and go; the scene has expanded, but the audience numbers have stayed pretty much the same.

I want to bring back the people who have stopped coming to the theatre. I used to watch theatre with people I knew in law school. But most of them got married, had kids and stopped going to the theatre. Where are they? Why have they stopped coming?

If we staged classic plays by theatre greats the likes of Brecht or Pinter - as one finds in places like West End and Broadway - would these adult audiences return to watch sophisticated grown-up theatre? If we staged Waiting for Godot, would they come?

One issue that worries me still is the lack of suitable theatre venues. When I was looking for shows to come to Singapore for the arts festival, I was quite shocked by the number of arts companies that rejected us on the grounds that our theatre venues are too small.

The newly renovated Victoria Theatre has a proscenium opening of 10 metres when most theatre companies require a minimum of 12 to 14m. When the Esplanade Theatre goes under renovation from May to October next year, there's no longer a large theatre in Singapore. So finding suitable venues will be a problem we'll face for some time."