SINGAPORE: The comparisons are inevitable.
Gaurav Kripalani, director of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), speaks in placid tones about how censorship is a process of negotiation.
His predecessor, theatre doyen, Ong Keng Sen, in a 2015 interview, spoke emphatically about censorship impeding the country's growth as a nation and said that he is “embarrassed in front of international artists, when we talk about Singapore, because it sounds very draconian.”
The differences are not entirely surprising.
As artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), Mr Kripalani has been known for putting on shows considered popular and mainstream with big names to draw the crowds - Ian McKellen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear, Kevin Spacey in Richard III and Kit Chan in the Singapore-made musical, Forbidden City.
Also, in an interview with Channel NewsAsia last year, Mr Kripalani had said, “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.”
Mr Ong on the other hand is seen as a supporter of avant-garde and experimental productions.
They seem diametrically opposite in their aesthetic and demeanour.
Some might say Mr Kripalani’s lack of overt frustration over the perceived obstacles facing artists here or his indifference to the avant garde is indicative of a lack of passion for the arts.
But it is clearly not.
He proudly declares he has been running SRT for 22 years.
“Anyone in this industry will tell you it takes blood, sweat and tears. When I started with SRT, there were just three or four of us and we would decide which shows we’re going to do next and there was definitely a sense of: let’s just go for broke. Let’s just do the best show that we can do. Let’s just make sure it’s phenomenal and if we’re going to crash and burn, let’s do it in style.”
What does he consider phenomenal though?
He has talked often about making the arts accessible and not presenting work that is considered “weird”. “Mainstream” is not a dirty word to him, but is “avant-garde” necessarily so?
“I’m not sure that these labels actually have these clear definitions now,” he says circumspectly.
“The point is making sure that we’re taking audiences on a journey. You introduce artists who are making exciting, bold statements in the world and the following year, are you to present that artist again or do you actually look at what are the next boundaries we can push. You get a spectrum of work from that point of view and that’s where you would get this wonderful range to choose from.”
What about what some have described as the “weird” experimental work? Doesn’t that have a place? Could it be, in fact, even more evocative and make audiences truly think?
“There’s huge diversity in the landscape and you cannot program something that is going to cater absolutely to everyone. That isn’t the goal at all. More experimental work is certainly an objective over the next two to three years but making sure that there is work that caters for different audiences is very important to me.”
Hence, highlights of this year’s festival include productions such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People.
YouTube sensation and two-time Grammy winner Jacob Collier, and India’s arts power couple, poet Javed Akhtar and actress Shabana Azmi, will also be featured.
Local artists will definitely have a prominent role.
He mentions Toy Factory’s reinvention of the Ming opera epic A Dream Under The Southern Bough and a new Monuments series involving local artists presenting works on issues such as the death penalty at some national monuments.
MAKING THE ARTS ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
To address the issue of making the arts accessible to more people, he’s introduced S$10 front-row student tickets.
There is also a first-timer pass, which curates one music, one theatre and one dance work for those who don’t know where to begin.
The Arts House will be turned into a Festival House where there will be music, theatre, dance, talks, workshops and master classes.
To those who find the arts intimidating, Mr Kripalani says he’s got you covered.
“The beauty of having a place like Festival House goes a long way towards that because you can walk up to a counter and speak to someone and say, 'Hey, I don’t know where to begin.' We have people who will say, 'Don’t worry about it. You might enjoy this. If you’re worried about this play being too difficult or not sure what it’s going to be about, why don’t you come for the talk that we’ve arranged beforehand?'”
The timing of the festival was also carefully calibrated.
“One of the things with the previous schedule was when it was August-September, we had National Day and Formula 1. There were major national events competing with it.”
While he would choose attending an arts event over Formula 1, he knows many others wouldn’t.
He finds himself constantly making a case for the arts.
“Education, education, education. Once they have attended, I am convinced if the programming is good they will come back again and again. One of the things Singapore Repertory Theatre did is create the Little Company which produces shows by some of the best people in the world and from Singapore targeted at 2- to 12-year olds. We sell 30,000 to 40,000 tickets a year. Those kids in 20 years’ time will be avid Arts Festival-goers.”
But why should they?
“You can feed your belly, you can have a great job and make lots of money but you have to feed the soul. It’s critical. It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s the basis of everything. There’s a reason why works of playwrights like Shakespeare are still performed 400 to 500 years later. It’s because our great poets talk about human issues. They talk about things that remain relevant today. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar was assassinated in the support and belief of democracy and I think if you look at what’s happening in the world today, it’s relevant now.”
He goes on to explain how some of the productions at the upcoming festival are similarly relevant.
“The issues in 1984 – Big Brother’s watching, fake news, excessive government supervision, rewriting history. In Enemy of the People, you’re dealing with an entire town whose economy is based on tourism for its spas but somebody discovers the spa water is contaminated. If he blows the whistle, it will destroy the economy. If he doesn’t say anything, people are going to get sick. What do you do? It’s raising these questions in a manner that will challenge the audience. That’s why I think the arts is important.”
TAKING AWAY THE “EXAM PRESSURE” MENTALITY
The obstacles to getting people on board remain daunting, but he’s optimistic.
“I think things are changing. In the education system today, there are a lot of discussions to take away that exam pressure mentality. Once you take that away, it will automatically give way to time for more creative thinking and an appreciation for the arts. We’re a young country. We’re growing, we’re learning. It will take time but I think the right steps are being made.”
He also concurs with others in the arts world when it comes to exposing kids to literature.
“We had what could be described as ‘the lost years’ for a while where subjects like literature became optional because they brought down grades and ranking. It’s still not compulsory, but I think the importance of exposure to literature is now slowly coming back as a key component of the curriculum and I think that’s really going to make a difference.”
Indeed, the number of schools offering upper secondary literature increased from 85 per cent in 2015 to 90 per cent in 2017.
He Mr Kripalani believes the reluctance to take literature as a subject might have its roots in the way it was taught, but he says his observations show things have been improving.
“One of the big reasons I created Shakespeare in the Park was to expose kids to great literature. I myself found literature boring in school. We forget that things like Shakespeare are plays and not a textbook. You have to see it performed and we lost money every year doing that but it was so important to plough ahead with it because getting those kids in and getting them exposed was changing lives.”
He was fortunate in that his parents were arts-loving people. His father was an actor in community theatre. But others may not be.
“The only way to do that is to get them in the door in the first place and create epiphanies for them.”
MONEY FOR THE ARTS
Last year, it was announced that SRT was among the arts companies for whom state funding would be cut “in light of budget reduction across the Government and the growth in the number of deserving recipients over the years.”
As a result of this, the company said it wouldn’t be able to keep the annual Shakespeare in the Park going.
However, since embarking on a crowdfunding effort, they’ve managed to raise their target of S$100,000 to stage it this year.
One could argue that the fact they were losing money would indicate a lack of audience support. In which case, why bother continuing?
“We are always sold out, but we still lose money because mounting anything outdoors is a huge undertaking. You’re building fencing, security, portable toilets, catering. You’re building a little city in a town for the duration of a month.”
They couldn’t raise ticket prices to cover the costs because, “How much more would a person spend to picnic on a lawn?” he says. With Shakespeare in the air, ardent arts lovers might, but there is little elasticity in ticket pricing for arts events in general.
This year they are going to try tiered pricing.
“I think the ticket price is usually flat at about S$40, but with discounts and concessions, it comes down. So this year, if you want the option of sitting in a chair under a fan, the tickets will cost more; if you want a backrest and a cushion and a picnic mat, it’ll be a different price. We also want to make sure we’re accessible to everybody. We’re experimenting with that. We’ll see.”
This year’s edition will run from May 4 to May 27 and they will be staging Julius Caesar with the titular character played by a woman.
SHOUD THE STATE BE FUNDING ART?
SRT has generally been known to raise funds from private sponsors successfully. Their fund-raising events are usually attended by the who’s who of Singapore society.
When I remark that it must require a lot of schmoozing, Mr Kripalani seems offended.
“I take issue with that expression only because I don’t think that’s how we’ve been successful at fundraising. We have been successful by not 'selling'. If you’re passionate, believe in something wholeheartedly and convey that with sincerity, people will support you. It’s about convincing people that the arts is important, doing work that’s relevant and exciting and taking them on a journey to where they can see that it’s going to benefit everyone. I don’t do a tap and dance routine to get people in.”
How then does he persuade corporates who must want some type of return on their investment?
“Twenty years ago, it was very much about how big their logo would be and how many free tickets they got. But I think that’s changed over time. I think it’s about staff engagement. It could be customer acquisition. The experience of taking your guests to a performance and if that performance is good, your customer and staff will remember that experience for life. That’s why it’s important to support.”
How much of a part should the state play in funding the arts though?
“I feel in a country as affluent as ours, healthcare and education should be the priority of the state. Individuals and corporates should support the arts. The government will support looking after mind and body, and the private sector can look after the soul.”
But even with all its other priorities, if the arts are as essential as he says they are, shouldn’t the state actually be made to understand that and invest more in the soul of its people, rather than leave it to the private sector?
“I’ve done this for over 20 years and the pendulum always shifts in terms of what is the priority for state funding and there are different arguments made at different times. There's going to be a time when state funding will increase because it’s part of that process of realising arts isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity."
How does he feel about his own company’s funding being cut by the National Arts Council last year?
“Sometimes we go through this period where people say, 'This arts organisation is doing really well, so let’s graduate them from state funding and give the money to the newer players.' Then the pendulum will shift to, 'Well, if these few companies are doing really well with this level of funding, imagine if we gave them 10 times as much, what they could achieve.' So, I certainly advocate in that camp."
ARE ARTISTS OVERSTATING THE PROBLEMS WITH FUNDING AND CENSORSHIP?
While he claims that his private sponsors have never tried to influence the content of the shows SRT puts up, I wonder if he’s had a similar experience with the state.
The fact that if the state doesn’t agree with the message in a piece of art, it could very well withhold or withdraw its funding has been a bugbear of some artists in Singapore.
He speaks about this calmly, not in the fiery manner in which some others on the scene do.
“We’re a young country and it’s a process of negotiation. A valid argument is it needs to fund the work, whether there are challenges or not because it’s vital to the growth of the arts scene but the way to make that happen is to engage in a dialogue and to negotiate that and realise that we’re all in this together."
Why is he so careful about not being confrontational?
“I think it’s not about not being confrontational. It’s just I’ve noticed, for example, we did Disgraced a couple of years ago. I’m not sure if it would have been allowed a few years ago.”
Disgraced examined issues of religion and race in post 9/11 New York.
“I’m happy to say that not a single word was censored or changed and that’s because of dialogue and discussion (with the authorities) which I’m not sure that could’ve been achieved a decade ago.”
Could his experiences with the authorities be less unpleasant only because he’s played it safe? He disagrees.
"When we did Rent, we changed the rating laws. We did Avenue Q. I think there's plenty of shows that we’ve done that have grown the landscape, pushed where those boundaries are, challenged the audience."
So are other artists over-stating the problem?
“I’m not saying I haven’t had challenges. There have been times I have been turned down. There are times I got ratings when I didn’t want ratings. It’s a negotiation. You go on this journey together.”
It’s a process that includes the audience which he says is becoming more and more arts literate.
“We have a very savvy audience and I think it’s about everybody being exposed to different things, and growing. Nobody walked out of “Disgraced” in protest. Everybody had a great dialogue after it.”
He feels the same way about the authorities responding to even a small number of audience complaints by shutting down a work – it’s a process of growing up.
THE STARVING ARTIST
Towards the end of our interview we begin discussing what’s needed to make the arts a part of Singapore’s cultural DNA.
Aside from appreciating the arts, there’s undoubtedly also a need to encourage people to enter the space as professionals so that good work can be created for audiences. Is a career in the arts viable today?
Before he answers, I remark that with his polished suits, he hardly looks like a starving artist.
“But I was a starving artist. If you knew my starting salary, you would laugh.”
“I had the advantage of living with my parents when I started so I had a roof over my head. I was fed. So it gave me the luxury to make art because I didn’t have to worry about those necessities. I think this is true too for a lot of people today.”
So can we count largely only on those from rich families?
He insists today, there is a bright future – monetarily and otherwise - for those considering it.
“SRT probably provides employment to almost 300 people a year obviously contract basis per show. Our resident directors get to work with six or seven different directors from around the world over a 12 to 18-month period. In my head, that’s the opportunity of a lifetime. We always need good production managers too. They are in great demand and people will pay a lot of money for them.”
Over 20 years in the arts has taught him many lessons.
“I think one of the most important things is don’t compromise. If the show is phenomenal, they’re going to buy tickets even for other arts events. The flipside to that is if you don’t do your best and you produce something that’s second rate, that audience member is never going to come back and that affects us all.”
What sorts of compromises has he been faced with?
“It could be a number of things. Sometimes, you have to change something because of the budget. Or your first choice artist suddenly becoming unwell and you have to choose somebody else who’s great but that wasn’t your first choice. The beauty of having a three-year lead time in planning is that we will push some productions because we just can’t afford it now or it’s not what we envisioned.
“Never, never compromise.”
Mr Kripalani may not have the fiery disposition of many artists, but his devotion to the arts and determination to get things right can be considered indisputable.
*Listen to the On the Record podcast with Gaurav Kripalani.