‘After 15 years, we have a good track record’: Esplanade’s Benson Puah

‘After 15 years, we have a good track record’: Esplanade’s Benson Puah

As the Esplanade celebrates its 15th anniversary, longtime chief executive officer Benson Puah talks about a new generation of audiences, the arts centre’s relevance, and the opening night that almost did not happen.

Fireworks celebrations during The Esplanade's opening night on Oct 12, 2002. (Photo: The Esplanade)

SINGAPORE: On Oct 12, 2002, the Esplanade finally opened its doors to much hype and fanfare. But according to its long-serving chief executive Benson Puah, it almost didn’t happen.

The opening show that night was a Singapore Dance Theatre production that employed the use of water. And the day before, water had leaked and seeped through the new theatre space’s stage floor, consequently causing the entire complex to short circuit.

“This was the night before the opening and we were furiously troubleshooting, using towels and fans to dry the electrical circuit board, and praying for the best,” recalled Puah, 60.

"We’re not the newest, sexiest thing (now) but that hasn't diminished our reach and impact." Esplanade's chief executive officer Benson Puah. (Photo: Esplanade)

The crisis was eventually averted but everyone was still on high-alert. While the VIPs led by the late former president SR Nathan settled in their seats, Puah was at the control room in the back keeping tabs on everything.

“During the performance, in the control room and wearing the radio coms, I just cried,” he said, with a laugh.

FROM COOL KID TO AGEING UNCLE?

Since then, there have been no major glitches of that scale at the Esplanade. But 15 years later, Puah and his team are now tackling broader challenges in a landscape that has changed a lot.

When once, its Mosaic Music Festival and Baybeats were the biggest music gigs in town, other events such as Laneway have come in to stake their claim. The two integrated resorts are also now offering musical fare that were once only caught at the Esplanade. 

Clockwise from top left: The building of The Esplanade, from February 2000 to February 2002. (Photo: Esplanade)

Even non-performing arts venues such as the National Museum and National Gallery have been churning out big events popular with the masses. As for The Durian’s iconic spiky look? It doesn’t seem that unique anymore when you have the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum nearby.

Has the once-cool kid on the block, we joked, become the arts and entertainment scene’s hip-but-ageing uncle?

“We may not be the newest, sexiest thing now, but that hasn’t diminished our reach and impact,” said Puah. “Understandably, the public will always be excited by something new, right? But it doesn’t mean the old has lost its relevance.”

And staying relevant, he added, doesn’t mean meeting these newcomers head-on in a fierce competition but being nimble enough to change strategies and offer something else.

One of his favourite examples to illustrate this has been the popular Mosaic Music Festival. After other promoters began bringing in artists that had come to be synonymous with the festival, the centre scrapped Mosaic’s festival format and turned it into a series instead. It also created its residency and associate music programmes for local artists. 

One of the outdoor opening night events at the Esplanade on Oct 12, 2002. (Photo: The Esplanade)

“We started off being the top layer. Now we try to go deeper into seeing what other areas of engagement there are,” he said.

GROWING UP WITH A GENERATION

This shift has as much to do with competitors as it does with audiences.

“If you were to look back, one generation has grown up with us – teenagers who are now adults, young working adults who are now parents. And they’ve grown up very differently, engaging not just with the Esplanade but a very vibrant art scene that has grown exponentially in the last 15 years,” he said.

The recent infrastructure changes at the centre reveal how they plan to accommodate the needs of its changing audiences.

The arts centre's outdoor theatre venue draws crowds to the waterfront area. (Photo: The Esplanade)

The new Annexe area, which opened last year, serves as a venue for live music, immersive performances and rehearsals. And among the purposes of the new 550-seater, waterfront theatre it announced it was building was to have more space for productions for young children and students, community and traditional arts groups.

When the Esplanade began, these were only new and emerging markets for the arts. Not anymore.

“It is only during the last five, six years that we have gained sufficient momentum and reach that it’s now a lot more visible and a critical part of what we do. We’ve always said we’ll be a centre for everyone, not a centre only for arts goers.”

GOODBYE, WHITE ELEPHANT

Thanks to a skeptical media (and an apprehensive public fearing it was simply going to be a venue for the cultural elite), one issue that haunted the Esplanade prior to its opening was the possibility of being a “white elephant”.

But Puah pointed out how those fears were laid to rest relatively soon after it opened.

“I think the tone of the press about (the Esplanade) being a ‘white elephant’ before opening has changed remarkably three to five years after we opened, where it became supportive and positive,” he said.

And the numbers back it up. During its first full year after opening, between 2003 to 2004, the Esplanade drew 949,906 people (including 394,445 who went for ticketed events). Last year, two million people dropped by, of which nearly a quarter also bought tickets for their shows.

The annual Baybeats music festival has been one of The Esplanade's biggest success stories. (Photo: The Esplanade)

That said, Puah acknowledged that there will always be those for whom what the Esplanade does just isn’t enough – from those who have yet to even step foot inside to others who think the shows it presents aren’t on par with other similar performing arts venues around the world.

“Even with free events, it’s difficult for us to drag a person kicking and screaming, to invest their time with us,” he said, with a laugh.

“I think I’ve said before that it will always be a challenge for any cultural institution anywhere in the world to say that 100 per cent of the public embrace them. But I would like to think that we have built a relationship with a large enough segment of the public. We don’t take this for granted.”

GETTING THE PUBLIC ON BOARD

And this relationship with the public is what Puah is banking on for The Esplanade’s new stage of development – he wants Singaporeans to claim ownership of the arts centre by chipping in through its fundraising activities.

As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, which it has dubbed #mydurian, The Esplanade has announced a few initiatives. Among these are backstage tours led by artists such as Hossan Leong, Inch Chua and Esplanade staffers (including Puah himself). An online auction of 38 works by Singapore artists will also kick off on Oct 19. Next year, it is also planning to hold its very first fundraising gala dinner.

The Esplanade is keen on growing a new generation of audiences from young, who are seen here enjoying a performance at the Concourse. (Photo: The Esplanade)

Most of these are tied to plans for the waterfront theatre. Its construction is estimated to cost S$30 million, of which Puah hopes to raise S$20 million through corporate sponsorship and public fundraising. It’s a campaign that harkens to the support given to the defunct National Theatre, which had included the “a-dollar-a-brick” campaign.

“When we first opened, it would be difficult for anyone to conceive why they would want to support us. After 15 years, we have a good track record,” he said.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

With the Esplanade’s future still unfolding, there have also been questions about Puah’s future. Having helmed the arts centre for 19 years, he is arguably the longest-serving leader of a Singapore cultural institution today.

But while he has been coy about giving a definitive date when he plans to step down, he admitted it has been on his mind.

“I’m not entrenching myself here – far from it,” he said. “For the last five years, all I’ve been obsessed with is to ensure there is a succession. But my first motivation is to ensure that the foundation is set for the Esplanade and that it would endure. I have put this on record many times – that I’m happy to be forgotten and that the institution endures beyond an individual.”

The Esplanade staff in 2017. (Photo: The Esplanade)

For now, Puah says it’s about making sure the groundwork is there for the next generation – both at the Esplanade and the public that comes there.

And the bigger picture regarding the arts centre’s success is something that might take years.

“The measure of Esplanade’s success is likely to be beyond my lifetime.  For me, the success is not about activities, it’s really about how Esplanade as a cultural institution has influenced our social transformation. It’s about how we impact people.”

Source: CNA/mm

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