I don’t think mainstream is a dirty word: Singapore International Festival of Arts' new director

I don’t think mainstream is a dirty word: Singapore International Festival of Arts' new director

As Singapore Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Gaurav Kripalani is known for crowd-pleasing blockbusters and putting Shakespeare in the park. Will his new role as SIFA director mean a new direction for the edgy festival? Kripalani gives us a glimpse of his plans for 2018 and beyond.

Gaurav Kripalani

SINGAPORE: “I think it’s safe to say that I have a reputation of not doing weird s**t. I do love mainstream work. I don’t think it’s a dirty word. So I’m not shy, embarrassed or apologising for that at all,” said Gaurav Kripalani, with a laugh.

The 45-year-old artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) was gamely reacting to a Facebook post directed at him, after it was announced last week that he will take over as the new director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), in charge of three editions from 2018 to 2020.

After the news came out, a Singaporean poet-playwright, Ng Yi-Sheng, had cheekily posted on Facebook to urge him: “Don’t forget to program some weird s**t alongside the crowd-pleasers!”


Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Kripalani admitted he felt the pressure of his new high-profile gig, which officially begins on May 1.

“It’s a national festival. And there are a lot of people who have different expectations of what it should be. So of course there’s pressure to make sure I deliver a festival that is meaningful and impactful to Singaporeans, but that stays true to what I believe good art should be.”

Indeed, some wonder what SIFA’s new identity will be with him on board.

Under outgoing fest director Ong Keng Sen, the festival was seen as an event to catch often avant-garde, experimental, interdisciplinary productions. His fourth and final edition later this year is no different, with filmmakers and even a graphic novelist included in the line-up.

Meanwhile, Kripalani is known for producing and presenting shows that could be considered the exact opposite - popular, mainstream musicals and plays, with the occasional celebrity performer thrown in for good measure, such as Ian McKellen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear, Kevin Spacey in Richard III or Kit Chan in Forbidden City, which incidentally will be restaged later this year.

Shakespeare In The Park

Singapore Repertory Theatre's Shakespeare In The Park series was a popular crowd-drawer. (Photo: SRT)

Under his leadership, SRT has also made a name for itself with the crowd-drawing outdoor series Shakespeare In The Park and the ambitious international Shakespeare tour-fest collaboration The Bridge Project.


But Kripalani said it is too early at the moment to discuss in detail what his SIFA will be like, saying he plans to talk to various stakeholders first.

"I’m using the next few months to meet people - the arts community, audiences, international arts community - to find out what excites them about both SIFA in its current form and if it changed, and find out the things that link what artists and audiences both want. That should be the foundation for creating an exciting programme,” he said.

Kripalani added he plans to reach out to arts groups to explore possible collaborations. He will also continue his discussions with Sarah Martin, chief executive officer of Arts House Limited (AHL), which runs the festival, its board members, as well as a new programming team that will assist him.

“There’s no point in me going, ‘these are the six shows I want to do'. I think it’s very important that I speak to everyone first,” he said.

As for his commitments to SRT, Kripalani will continue to be involved from a strategic planning perspective, with executive director Charlotte Nors assuming the role of managing director and Juliet Chia taking on the role of deputy artistic director.

“My time will be allocated to both proportionally and there’s a hundred per cent transparency on what I will be doing for each company so there won’t be a situation of there being a conflict of interest,” he said.


One of the challenges he foresees is the very tight schedule the festival team will have, at least for the 2018 edition.

While AHL had sounded him out as a possible candidate for the position five to six months ago, it took a while for him to officially sign on, and eventually get the ball rolling.

“There’s a very tight timeframe for the next festival. We have to be realistic about what’s achievable, so in my head, it will be short but impactful. But a lot of time will be spent on the 2019 and, especially, the 2020 edition,” he said.

While he remains coy about the kind of shows he plans to present, there is one thing he is really keen on having.

“One of the things that Sarah and I were chatting about, that interests us both, is how we can do some things outdoors as well. There needs to be that component,” he said, pointing to how last year’s SIFA edition had put up a production at Gardens by the Bay.

“That brought in a lot of people and had a strong artistic merit. I would love to be doing things like that,” he said.

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015

Outgoing SIFA fest director Ong Keng Sen programmed experimental, edgy works, such as The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers in 2015. (Photo: Kevin Lee)

Kripalani said he has been fortunate to continue SIFA on the back of Ong’s efforts over the past four editions.

“I take my hat off to him. The festival had lost its way a bit, and then we didn’t have one for a year. I think Keng Sen’s done a terrific job of laying the foundation and building it up again.”


That said, he added that even though the programmes for future editions have yet to be finalised, it is safe to say that he will definitely be bringing a “very different aesthetic” to SIFA.

When asked if SRT shows such as the Shakespeare In The Park series or Peter Brook’s Battlefield could be seen as a definitive peg for the type of shows one could expect under his artistic leadership, he agreed.

“Yes, absolutely. I am sure I was hired for my aesthetic and that is definitely my aesthetic. That is definitely going to form the basis of a lot of the programming.”

He added: “But it can’t just be that. There has to be a broad spectrum. When we look at the international aspect of SIFA, that will absolutely shape the type of shows that I would look at. But it has to be married with the Singapore aspect of SIFA, which is what I plan to speak to my peers about, find out what they’re working on, what excites them, what they’d like to do.”

Source: CNA/mm