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SRT's boss bares his soul - and himself
GAURAV Kripalani is not eating carbs. For his lunch at the Montreux Jazz Café in Pan Pacific Orchard, he has specifically requested for the roast chicken without the potato wavers. For drinks, it's strictly water.
The long-time artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) is watching his diet. He's about to strip down to his underwear every night for the opening scene of Disgraced, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about race relations in the US. "So I'm dieting and hitting the gym," he says, carefully chewing his food.
For the next three weeks, he's facing an unlikely challenge: playing the lead role of a successful South Asian lawyer in New York whose career and marriage spiral out of control after 9/11.
Sure, Kripalani the artistic director has taken SRT to unprecedented heights. He's persuaded renowned actors like Ian McKellen, Ethan Hawke, Lea Salonga, Kevin Spacey and Shabana Azmi to perform in Singapore. He's helped SRT become one of the country's best-known theatre companies.
But Kripalani the actor? Who knew?
Big post-9/11 issues
"I trained as an actor and graduated from Santa Clara University in the United States," says Kripalani. "But I've been busy all these years building up SRT's reputation, so I've kept my love of acting on the back burner.
"But this role as a South Asian Muslim-born lawyer in New York felt right for me. The play tackles big post-9/11 issues like race, religion and identity. When I saw it, first in London and then New York, I was blown away. I felt it dealt with issues that were - and still are - pertinent to Singapore."
Kripalani hadn't imagined himself playing the lead role. But when an American actor they wanted had to back out, Kripalani suggested to the company and board members that he did the role instead.
"And they agreed," shares Kripalani, looking faintly surprised. "Now I'm actually in rehearsals, and I've been loving every minute of it ... When I was young, I could memorise scripts after reading them four times. I'm 45 now - things are different. But our director, Nate Silver, has done six versions of the show, including the one on Broadway. So he knows the play very well. I'm in good hands."
By chance, 2016 also marks his 20th year in the arts industry - 15 of which were spent at the helm of SRT. Reflecting on what the scene was like 20 years ago, he remembers: "There has been phenomenal growth, and Singapore is absolutely buzzing now. You've got every night an amazing array of shows to choose from. When SRT started out in the 1990s, we could produce a show and it would sell out because there was little else in town. But now we have to work harder to stand out among this myriad of choices."
One of the ways SRT does that is through collaborations with international venues and talents. Kripalani explains: "The whole point is to turn SRT into an internationally-known repertoire theatre, one that gains instant recognition among arts venues, one whose productions people would fly into Singapore for."
Persuading A-list stars to perform here involves hard work, connections and serendipity: "The question is: Why would an A-list star like Spacey come to Singapore to do Shakespeare? What's in it for him? It's finding the right project for the right talent - and so much is involves perseverance and timing. The truth is, for most people, it's still: 'You want me to go Singapore? Really? On the other side of the world?'"
But Spacey did come to Singapore to play Richard III in 2011 as part of the Bridge Project, as did Hawke for The Winter's Tale in 2009, and McKellen for King Lear and The Seagull in 2007.
Last year, Peter Brook's Battlefield, made its world debut in Singapore and subsequently travelled to various global venues with SRT's name listed as a co-commissioner. "That's important to us. Now we can pick up the phone and tell these venues about our shows, because they know us and they're interested," says Kripalani.
Mastering his role
The next strategy is to create original content that can travel the world: "We are working on a very big musical, which we will announce next year. It will premiere in Singapore in 2018. We've done three workshops in London for it and we're pitching the show to various venues - and they're interested ... After 10 years of putting SRT's name out there, we're seeing the dividends."
Meanwhile, there's still the small matter of having to master his role in time for next week's opening of Disgraced.
For anyone familiar with Kripalani as the cool, suave artistic director, it's a little hard to imagine him as an actor - especially when the role involves losing his cool, smashing things and hurting his co-characters.
Kripalani insists: "I've always been in the arts, so I don't think I've ever lost sight of my emotional side. I've worked hard all these years to be a left-brain right-brain person, and I think that has served the company well. But now I'm returning to my passion for acting. And if you can't imagine me as an actor, then you'd have to come to the show. Because I think you're in for a treat."
- Disgraced runs at the KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT from Nov 16 to Dec 4, 2016. Tickets from Sistic