Outgoing SIFA director Ong Keng Sen on why the public should be paying for the arts

It is the end of an era for founding festival director Ong Keng Sen, whose four-year tenure at Arts House Limited’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and its adjoined pre-opening festival The Open, will conclude with this year’s run. The 2003 Cultural Medallion winner and artistic director of TheatreWorks is an iconic character in the local arts scene, known for pushing the boundaries and not allowing standard conventions to tie him down.

This year’s festival marks his swan song and it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t catch up with the man himself for an honest chat. Here, he tells us what’s in store at this year’s SIFA and The Open, shares his thoughts about the arts in Singapore and reveals whether he’s happy with the way the festival has turned out.

Among other things, Ong, who believes the arts festival needs to remain focused on art itself and not just cultural and social issues alone, tells us why the public must monetarily support the arts here in order for the scene to thrive.

One of the biggest changes to the festival this year is the lack of a gap between The Open and SIFA.

There was a gap before because the festivals are very, very hectic for us. It’s a very small team so for practical reasons, we are completely into The Open then we pack everything up then we start the next show. SIFA was always the second festival and it was easier for us to have that one month to catch our breath. But because this is our last year, we decided to speed all the way to the end. We’re trying out a format where it’s joined in-between with quite light programming that allows some kind of continuity.

The Open has always been about accessibility and SIFA less so. Is there still that difference this year?

The Open this year is about access and excess. The crowd for The Open is usually younger, about 20,000 solid supporters who will clock in like ten out of the around 60 events at The Open each. So these 20,000 are very committed and they are mostly younger audiences because they are more game and they are forming a landscape of all the different works.

So we feel our Open program is always more dynamic and hence we keep the ticket price low at $25 for students and $45 for the normal tickets. If you go for the early bird discount it’s really worth it. We also feel like Open has to be different from SIFA, which has more singular productions where people can just engage in one thing.

Ticketing has always been an issue for you over the years. You mentioned at the press conference that it’s time Singaporeans pay for the arts.

You see this whole conversation with Art Stage, where people go there to buy art but treat it like a mobile museum show. I think many audiences still think that the money is coming from the state so it’s free for us. But what is happening right now is that a lot of government funding is coming with a lot of ties; ties like you can’t talk about this or you can’t talk about that. So it becomes a situation where they are basically saying, “Hey we are paying for this, you cannot write about us.”

So in the end you can’t say anything. In a way, in order for the arts to remain in a place where we can still speak in relevant ways, we have to fund it ourselves. And it doesn’t cost very much. Even in the US where I studied and worked, it’s very clear that if you liked a company, at the end of the year you just wrote a cheque for $200 to them, or something like that, to show that you care and that you’re committed to the survival of this small group. That is something that Singaporeans are not used to because they think of giving a lot of money like hundreds of thousands of dollars, but don’t think of giving something smaller. But every small action counts.

It’s not just about money but also the small politics. We are looking at an individual’s relationship with the world, including supporting the causes he or she believes in, and I do think that art in Singapore today is becoming more and more unfree in many ways. It’s becoming unfree economically in the sense that it’s becoming more and more expensive to make it. Many people don’t realise that with their $60 ticket they are making it possible for a group that’s paying $600,000. So they are paying for only a very small fraction of it, but if everybody pays that small amount, this small politics will mean that we can continue to make shows with a certain deep relevance that can critique what is happening in our city.

Maybe there’s a bigger discussion here about how they’re controlling the arts here using economics, but let’s not go into that.

Haha. Really? (Hints that he really wants to share more)

Back to the festival itself. This year’s theme is Enchantment, which you defined as being the opposite of cynicism. Cynicism is rampant in today’s world. Do you feel that this last festival of yours is trying to combat that?

Yes, very much so because I find plenty of cynicism in Singapore. “It’s never going to change, not in my lifetime,” everybody says things like that. But if we all say that then there will really be no change. I really think that there is apathy in Singapore and there is more apathy than there was before. In the past, we weren’t living with such privilege so the apathy was also in a way not too extreme. We were apathetic but we were also trying to survive. Now most people have gone past the survival level but are still apathetic. That then, is problematic.

I’m not an artist. So programs in the lineup like Open Homes and Open Kitchens are appealing for me because they are more relatable. At the same time, do you feel that these productions need to be dumbed down for appreciation or do you feel there is also room for more high art.

We are a city festival so we cater to many different groups. But I think it is also important for me to curate works with no dumbing down. So I have to frame works in such a way that is politically empowering for people to tell their stories while making sure the performers are not judged as professional actors, because they are not. So we create that kind of frame where we can make works that are very close to the people without having to dumb down art because it’s about that moment of speaking about yourself, your family and your home. In that sense, everybody can be an artist.

In fact, we find very eloquent people who are telling life stories, or if they can’t tell it, they can cook it, and that tells us a story about their grandmother or something like that. We have to find projects that are accessible to everybody but it’s not about dumbing down and keeps the bar high. You just have to find the right project and right intersection.

How do you wish to be remembered as the founding festival director of The Open and SIFA?

Last year, we reached 155,000 people, and this year, we want to get deeper and more immersive so that you can have an experience of a lifetime. Maybe watching Lav Diaz making a film with his actress in a small room and you watch this very intimate scene between them. It’s a moment you cannot have again. So that’s very important for us this year. It’s immersive, it’s deep and you encounter in a brief, fleeting moment, enchantment. Just for a fleeting moment because this is the power of live art, where you’re affected so much by something happening right before your eyes and not just watching it on a computer. It’s a kind of denuding of art itself where you’re in that raw moment of being with them live. We want special encounters this year that become an album of special moments.

You have shaped SIFA and The Open the last few years. Has the festival also shaped you in any way?

It has very strongly shaped me in terms of how I’ve become cynical about life here, and about politics and art here. I do feel, for example, that the space we are given to move in the arts is very, very limited. That’s one realisation because I am doing very large scale works about the city and the country in a way and no longer doing my own personal works. At the same time, I’ve also discovered that the audiences are really unexpected. You think that it won’t happen, but it does happen. The audience suddenly catches it and they start to snowball on each other. I feel like the audiences still surprise me and in a good way; a positive way. So from the bottom up, the people who are watching shows, I feel their energy. But from the top down, I feel the control and the limitation.

Your successor is Gaurav Kripalani. How is your relationship with him and how do you think he will take the festival forward?

He’s a very good friend of mine, and a good colleague in the sense that we have seen each other’s works for a long time. But of course, I am very different from him and I think he will have a very different approach. But I hope the festival won’t be changed for change’s sake. People see the continuities also. It cannot be that you reinvent anew every time. So that’s why I think some of the founding foundations must be there, one of which is about education. Not about teaching, but a dialogue that Open provides. It need not be The Open that continues, but I think it is very important that the dialogue is still there and that people don’t go just to consume. I hope these big things continue because you can’t have a festival ding-donging from left to right every year.

Do you think he will take away the Open portion of the festival?

I’m not sure. But let’s put it this way. He works in a very different way. It’s more like doing finished plays. He does educational theater a lot in the Singapore Repertory Theatre for example, but they are finished works, so they show a work where you buy a ticket and you watch it. But this kind of immersion and risk and danger, he’s not in that way made. That’s something which is very different.

What will you be up to after SIFA?

I’ll go back to my life which I interrupted. I was doing my PhD in New York so I’ll go and finish that first because it’s an unfinished project.

Will you come back to Singapore?

Of course. My company TheatreWorks is still here so I will continue to work on projects.

If I only have time to catch one thing at SIFA and one thing at The Open, what should they be?

At The Open, for me, it will be Art as Res Publicae, mainly because I think that for too long, art has been decided for us: That is good for you to watch; this is not good for you to consume; that is too mature for you; you’re not ready for it. So I think what’s really amazing, and this is what I discovered when running SIFA, is that audiences are ready. Very often, it’s the leadership that is not ready.

And at SIFA, the one that got me excited is Becoming Graphic by Sonny Liew and Edith Podesta because you don’t know how the chips will fall.

The Open and SIFA take place from 28 Jun-9 Sep. Tickets are now on sale with early bird discounts on until May 20. Student concession tickets are available. For more information, head over to their website.