Interview with Ong Keng Sen #4

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 16, 2015

Last week, our beloved Festival Director told me he wanted to do yet another installment of our interviews (See #1, #2, #3) - this time, specifically about the many alternative sites involved for performances.


NYS: How do you feel the festival’s gone so far?

OKS: It came to me while I was travelling around to all these diverse places, like Yio Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang, that it was a really different festival. That I seem to be spending my time travelling quite far-flung places and often to see ordinary folks participating, performing.

And I suppose it brought me to the central principle of the year, that it was about this politic of giving space to non-artists to participate. Making the festival available – I won’t say it’s accessible. but I want to talk about availability. Making it available to the residents of Singapore.

And it was available in two ways. One was that they performed, they took on a mentor, they directed themselves. Or that they participated in a different way, like in DramaBox’s The Lesson this availability came in two different ways: to a venue near you, like Kumar was going to Marsiling for example, or that you actually participated by performing, or through this interim body of Dramabox.


NYS: So all this was a surprise for you?

OKS: The extent of it came as a surprise to me. And the quality of it: I think with Open Homes I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the 25 homeowners, how they took ownership of the material, and how they transformed this idea of what theatre is. Through hosting a group of people they reframed theatre, and sometimes quite open stories about their lives: death of a loved one, paths not taken… a sense of a laying bare themselves. Like Nicholas Tee, an actor who’s graduating from SOTA and his father Charles… There were two pieces talking about a father-son relationship, or lack thereof.

And it was surprising for me how radical that was, that they were not objectified. Because with another project like the Open House by Alan Oei, it’s more like artists making homes into a gallery, and the home is objectified, and it is the work of the artist. But here the homeowners in a sense became the centre. And what they wrote to speak about was sometimes quite telling lah. Because when you tell stories, you kind of not just put your personality out there but also your social-political concerns.


OKS: And in the same way it was quite telling that in a choice of public space, the Mandarin speakers for The Lesson could not give up the columbarium, whereas the English-speakers could. [Ed: They sacrificed the columbarium at both English-speaking performances!!!] It’s almost like ancestral worship seen to be quite a natural part of being Chinese. The first day I was there, no-one even talked about letting go of the columbarium.

What I’m trying to say is it’s quite telling in these moments of the real selves coming forward, be it in Open Homes or in The Lesson. It revealed a lot about our society and where it stood, as well as the individuals who were suddenly almost transparent.

And that was something I insisted on for Open Homes. There were two projects I saw in rehearsal which took place in the Residents’ Committee office, and I said no, it’s about your home, it’s about transparency. And I think the audience embraced that. So I think the festival suddenly revealed a very strong politic to us, even to myself, in the last two weeks. There was a political spine about ownership, which I talked about in 2014 [in the preview].


NYS: I’m surprised you haven’t talked about the other alternative sites we’re using, like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station or Bukit Brown.

OKS: I think the 2015 festival also showed a pathway for 2016 and 2017, that maybe that the festival should always try to find an “abandoned” site, like Tanjong Pagar, and propose a performative direction for it: that this be made into an arts centre and theatre or dance house.

Pathways have become clearer after this year’s festival. We should continue the Humour in the Heartland series. Whether or not we can actually do it will depend on whether we can find the right stand-up comics who can both present an artistic perspective that the festival stands for, as well as a sociopolitical perspective, as well as some kind of radicality for the heartlands. My desire is to continue this series, but can we find such an artist to take on?

And another pathway that revealed itself was making  [ourselves] available to the public: the arts of Open Homes.…


OKS: [Cabanons at] Bugis Junction was also very interesting for me. That continues from the legacy of other festivals, the concept of festivals, which is to transform sites around the city into exciting event sites.

In Avignon, when there was a lot of discussion about whether [the Avignon Festival] had lost its relevance because it was just touring in shows that were showing in other parts of Europe. In other words, is the festival a special time of the year when you can be transgressive and rewrite the rules, like a carnival. which is not like the rest of the year?

I feel the entertainment sites of Singapore have become fairly formulaic. The new site of Singapore is Marina Bay Sands: you go out to the museum there, the restaurants are there, the theatre is there, everyone wants to go to an iconic site.

But what happens to an older site like Bugis Junction? It’s a very organic, very real site where you have a cross-junction of locals and tourists, old people and young people. It’s an old space. It has quite a real demographic, where there were houses there with old people living like the Guanyin temple, Middle Road. And yet you have lots of students there, you have NAFA and LaSalle, it’s close to museums, it’s close to Haji Lane, Sultan Mosque… So the whole area is open to me. It has a real organic town square feel. It’s not just a glorified shopping street. So this idea of finding event sites in Singapore continues to be the responsibility for the festival.

NYS: So this sense of renewing old sites wasn’t part of your original vision?

OKS: We had two aims for SIFA, which were both related to ownership. One was The OPEN, which was a Pre-Festival of Ideas, and the other was bringing the arts to your doorstep. Becca would say, “I’m going to see Kumar ‘cos he’s in my hood.”; I heard people saying, “It’s just around the corner, so I’ll see the performance.” So this kind of spreading it across the island, which was very different from last year when we were concentrating on the civic centre.

So this festival was a trek around the island. I enjoyed that very much. And if you ask me how do I use the success of the failure of the festival, I don’t want to talk about the number of people – although I must say I’m amazed that Kumar was able to amass 12,000 people When I went to see Kumar at Tampines, I was quite bowled over by how people came and came and came: maybe that night was just 5000 people. It was like a rally. And although I don’t have the numbers for Toa Payoh, they were able to engage many people: from five o’clock onwards, people were entering the Goli to look at the exhibit, so in terms of people we engaged with, it approached 3,000 a night.


OKS: If we look at the festival’s unconventional unusual site-specific venues, I think it breaks down into three tracks:

#1 There is one that is almost like developing like a politic or a voice with the public, which is Open Homes, [It Won’t Be Long: The Lesson at] Toa Payoh, [It Won’t Be Long: The Cemetery at] Bukit Brown. Toa Payoh because of the process, because of the action in the work; Bukit Brown kind of also bringing us to the site, which is threatened.

#2 And the second cluster is transforming national monuments into centres of art. With Tanjong Pagar we are trying to revitalise and reappropriate national monuments for art. And I think this is a very political statement for Singapore.

#3 And the last is that the festival cannot just cater to some [limited] sectors of the public. And this is something quite interesting to me: for the first time, audience members told me, “We have to ration, we can’t see something every week.” And this is a very different approach from a few years ago. Which means that SIFA has to diversify, whether we like it or not. It has to be a more diversified palate.

When I first took on the mantle of Festival Director, I was thinking about more specialised audiences, but with this rationing, I realised that my specialised audience also has kind of a limit. They can’t go for shows all the time. I need to have several specialised audiences that I am working for.

And I found quite energizing that we have, up to the sixth week, ten shows at Tanjong Pagar that were sold out. All the dance shows at Tanjong Pagar were sold out and I found it quite energizing that there is quite an audience in Singapore that likes site-specific work. They like to sweat in the heat, they like to sit on grass and stones on used tracks and platforms, they were excited to be there. So these things most average Singaporeans thought was not attractive was quite attractive to this group.


He then went on to talk about a whole other set of SIFA topics. Which means this won't be the last installment of interviews with our Dear Leader!

Stay tuned!

  • 2015