After a one-year hiatus, the former Singapore Arts Festival is back with a new name, a new team and a new public engagement initiative that begins this month. Gwen Pew learns more.
23 Jun 2014: It was 2012, and after spending 35 years on the scene, the Singapore Arts Festival went through something akin to a mid-life crisis. It was still putting out good works, but things felt mundane and it was making an increasingly worrying financial loss, so the sensible decision was to take a one-year sabbatical to consider its next step.
Now it’s back, rebranded as the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) and promising to be bigger and better than ever. Aside from the name change (making it ‘International’), the reins were also handed over by the National Arts Council to the newly-founded independent company, Arts Festival Limited. As part of the new line-up, the former director of the National Museum of Singapore, Lee Chor Lin, and Cultural Medallion winner and TheatreWorks’ artistic director, Ong Keng Sen, are in charge as CEO of Arts Festival Limited and festival director respectively.
Of course, since the festival’s humble start in 1977, Singapore’s arts scene has come a long way, which the relaunched SIFA hopes to reflect. ‘The vision is to build a strong artisic foundation for audiences in Singapore,’ says Ong. ‘I know many young professionals who are craving for this, and also many others who are not sure what art is about, so my hope is to bring both of these audiences together – I don’t think that being “arty farty” is incompatible with [works being] entertaining.’
True to its new name, this year’s edition, which will commence on 12 August, consists entirely of shows that are brought in from around the world – with highlights including Martha@… The 1963 Interview by Martha Graham impersonator Richard Move, The Chorus; Oedipus written by Korea’s Han Areum and a highly stylised version of Peter Pan by the late German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s acclaimed Berliner Ensemble.
However, in order to draw in new crowds and stand out from other major theatre festivals that have since sprung up (such as the M1 Fringe Festival by The Necessary Stage and The Studios by the Esplanade), Ong recognises that SIFA must bring more to the table. And that’s where The OPEN comes in: a 17-day pre-festival starting this month that aims to help prospective audiences understand the key themes that will be tackled in the plays.
‘I believe that the festival should nurture and share a framwork for discovering performing arts,’ says Ong. ‘This is what The OPEN promises to be – [a place] where you discover the issues of the festival through a multitude of ways: films, exhibitions, performances, brunch talks and beginners’ guides.’ While everything in The OPEN is meant to supplement the 13 main SIFA performances starting in August, there are plenty of major draws on their own, including two performances by Richard Move (who will dance and explain four notable Martha Graham solos) and several Brecht-influenced performance groups, such as Theatre Seongbukdong Beedoolkee, who present an interpretation of the Greek tragedy Medea.
‘Think of it like a spa package, like getting a body scrub or wrap before the massage itself,’ suggests respected local actress Noorlinah Mohammed, who is part of The OPEN team with fellow performer Tan Kheng Hua and Benedict Tan. ‘Too often festivals just come and go like a UFO, but we want to be more than just that. The OPEN is not just an outreach programme; it is an engagement programme, and I hope people will be open and ready to learn and expose themselves to different people and cultures.’
All that sounds good so far – and of course, this is just the beginning. Ong will be helming SIFA for four years, and he already has the themes worked out: this year’s programme is centred on the past, while 2015 will focus on the present (‘the theme is “post-empire” – I see it as the “now” edition. Singapore and the world are in a “post”-era: post-globalisation, post-colonial, postnuclear…’), and 2016’s theme is entitled ‘New Trajectories/New Traditions’ with an eye towards the future.
And for the fourth year? ‘It will be the wildcard, or the joker!’ he laughs. Stay tuned to find out what’s in store, but for now, expect great things coming your way.