Curtain Calls: Ong Keng Sen Talks Stage and Screen


Iconoclast.
Rule breaker.
A d*mn good director.

Much has been said about Ong Keng Sen, the current festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) and its accompanying pre-festival, the O.P.E.N, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single person involved in the industry who won’t acknowledge his genius.

Here at the end of era as his tenure as festival director ends, we got down to an intimate chat with Keng Sen about his life, work, and naturally, the beautiful complex creature that was SIFA and the O.P.E.N.

Getting to the very root of things, when did you really decide to take the leap from conventional ideas of success and careers to theatre? What drew you to theatre in the beginning?

I did not come from a rich family, so it was never a matter of having much to lose. When one is so young and so passionate about what one is doing, one is just in it. For me, the decision to continue my work in theatre really came when I was graduating from law school. At that time, my father was very upset. Being an immigrant in Singapore, he felt that I was throwing away my law degree, and to be honest, I was a little bit shocked, because I thought that if he felt that way, he should have stopped me from pursuing theatre much, much earlier.

I had a deep passion for theatre—I was doing three or four plays a year, all through my university years. I told my father just as much, and so I kind of insisted on trying out theatre full time, and that's how it happened. I think one’s passion for things is just something that kept growing, and one rarely thinks that one is going to get a career out of it. As a teenager, one does not immediately think: 'Oh, I would now make a living from this love of mine.'

For me, theatre was basically this amalgamation of all the storytelling that I used to do. I never played so much with toys as I did with paper dolls and cutouts, and theatre being such a form as it is, allowed me to embody all the role-playing that I did with my cousins, nieces, and nephews. We used to play-act all sorts of crazy adventures.

How did you develop your tastes and storytelling practices? Was it a very conscious attempt, or did it happen more organically?

I have always made a conscious effort to tell my stories in a more abstract way; this was around maybe mid-eighties. I made a conscious effort to engage with more complex realities rather than your standard melodramatic serials as my central narratives. 
  
With regards to practices, I would like to raise an example in the form of Bertolt Brecht. He was a German playwright who looked at theatre as not so much the naturalistic emotion between the two characters but a chance of rational self-reflection.

Throughout his practice, he would suddenly insert some kind of fable or teaching halfway through the text, or he will break the drama and the actors would turn and speak to the audience directly, kind of like the experimental techniques that filmmakers such as Tarantino picked up much later. In certain ways he was much closer to the silent movies—sometimes you have images or cuts or text overs or speech overs—and these are things that Brecht was writing as a stylistic format in the Forties.

Of course, as you go deeper into theatre, you also have to reconcile a little bit with your culture, all the different elements and practices across cultures; what do you do in Chinese opera, for example, was to bridge the reality of jumping from scene to scene without any connections: suddenly the swordsman or swordswoman are on horses and then suddenly they are able to fly into the clouds…these are all epic mythic storytelling techniques that are not realistic, but widespread.

I would say that around the beginning of my professional career, I thought very hard about how I would tell a story in a less straightforward way, and I learnt that I had to let a story develop on its own terms. This was especially pertinent when I started to make documentary performances on stage, when your text might span a hundred years and you are not telling the story of just one rickshaw coolie, but as kind of a panorama of the people in this life, this time. In such a work, one can never really tell stories: they are only bubbles or snippets. You cannot spend one whole hour ruminating one point, because you are trying to tell a story about the lives of this group of people.

For example in 1997, I worked with Wu Wenguang, a documentary maker from Beijing, and we were looking at juxtaposing the foreign workers in Singapore in the time of rickshaw coolies against the foreign workers of ‘97: what was their longing, what was their desire, what were they doing in Singapore, how were they connecting with home. With something like that, you cannot tell the storyline in a very straightforward way at all.


How was the tension at home as it related to your professional and artistic development?

After the first year, there was less tension, and the way I saw it was that as a theatre maker, I never left the University of life. Everyday, I would be in T-shirt and jeans and going for rehearsals at odd times, so in a way I remained as a university student. I never grew up, never became an executive. I did not end up as this lawyer in this black suit, I didn't follow the precise path set up for me, so I guess my parents got rather used to me having my extended university days.

I think this stemmed from the fact that I came from an immigrant family, and my parents were not educated in English, and for them, I lived in a different reality of my own, and they just trusted me. I think this idea of trust is very important; I feel that in Singapore there is a lack of trust everywhere, between the people and the government, between people and people, so it becomes a culture that is beginning to breakdown because of all this distrust.

Do you feel that there is currently a gap in the public vernacular with regards to theatrical practices? As most consider theatrical forms in predominantly two modes: literary or cinematic, do you feel that there is a lack of knowledge or understanding in the mode of the theatre itself?

I think it goes in cycles. When you are running a festival in Singapore, it is part of your responsibility and your role to see a lot of works and meet a lot of different ideas that are not yours, so I was a little surprised when I went to watch local productions and found a lot of Singaporean plays set in flats, living rooms… and it would all be in one set. Nobody moved out—it was two hours in the same set!

Throughout my three decades doing theatre in Singapore, the scene has gone through many phases. The Nineties was the decade when we were telling our stories in a very experimental way. By the new millennium, the writers came about in a way that focused more on the text, but it was still a mix of forms, because the playwrights and the filmmakers were still experimenting. And now, I would say, for maybe the last ten years, the scene has crystallized into something maybe slightly conventional.

Maybe what is happening now is that people are worried about alienating the audience, because they need the ticket sales, so they are basically churning out TV drama as theatre.

I think that this is a big dampener to the creative spirit of a city such as Singapore, where the arts is still struggling to be sustainable. When everyone just end up telling TV stories, the experimental writing really disappears, and no one is left to ask the big questions that concern the form: What is live? What is live-ness? What is this intensity?  What is theatrical? What is the nature of this compression of space and time?

This is the special quality of theatre:  we are all in one theatre with no cuts, no edits, and we don't have all these cinematic techniques that brings us to different places. This compression of space and time is in real time—you cannot manipulate it as you do in cinematic forms; you are really sitting there for two hours, you cannot move out of your seat, and changing the set requires very complex, very fast machinery, or else you are there watching ten people haul off the scenery for a reset.

All these mean that if you are a theatre maker in a live performance, you really need to hone your skills about how you tell your stories in a dynamic way even though your real space and your real time is constant, inside this theatre.  I personally don't feel that you are maximizing the theatre experience if you are in a sitting room set; that's not theatre, that's a TV box.

This is where I feel that some theatre-makers today are quite lazy because they are not really honing their skills as to the most dynamic way to tell the stories; they are just taking the easy TV route out as a way to tell the story. Sometimes, I feel that some artists are perhaps working in the wrong medium, because theatre is a live form that demands certain skills and attitudes. In the same way that sometime sculptors should be more architects than sculptors, there are special skills which the art form or genre demands, and theatre-practitioners need to understand that too.



It is interesting to note that theatre actors who cross over to screen traditionally received greater acclaim than the screen natives, why do you think that's the case?

Lav Diaz, whom we invited for the festival this year, always said that he prefers to work with theatre actors because they know what to do when he switches his camera on and leaves them to improvise around or create spaces around his fixed texts. Theatre actors are very aware of how to stand, where the camera is, and all that, because by training they need to be aware of the stage and how the audience perceives their motions.

Lav is in direct contrast with other filmmakers who wants this freshness from someone right off the street, unschooled, untrained, and I think that Lav's approach is because he makes long films, some of which can be up to ten hours long. When he shoots, what happens is that he lets his camera find the enchanted moment. He does not force the camera into Take One, Angle Two, etc. He doesn't cover every single direction; instead he just sets the camera down in real time and let it runs. This is where I think that the theatre actors are in their element, because they do have very strong intensities, and they are able to keep a reality going on for a long time.

Similarly, sometimes when I work with film actors, they tell me that they do not know whether they can do stage because they need to cut all the time; they can get the intensity, they just cannot sustain it. It is always a great three minutes take, and then cut! Then, they would rearrange and go at it again, so this is one thing that I know for a fact that many screen actors are not quite sure of whether they can sustain the same intensity for 90 minutes.

Theatre actors can do that, but they also face the criticism that they are too mannered, too restrained, they lack the freshness of these people off the street. I do like well-trained actors, but the same time I can also appreciate cinéma vérité and that kind of realism, just-letting-things-happen cinema.

Going back to what you mentioned about Nineties theatre, would you mind giving us an example of what you did in your aforementioned experimental drama? What about the pragmatics of doing theatre before there is a scene, before there is an industry?

In 1994, I made a production called LONGING, and it was a big production. It was an experimental tour with three variations that had live performances at many different sites. Nine hundred people would come every night and they would be divided into three tours, the green tour, the yellow tour, and the red tour, and they would move around the whole of Fort Canning Park.

You can probably tell that that world has disappeared, when nine hundred people were willing to pay to take an experiment at night, willing to get hot, willing to walk around and experience the pockets of reality just like one would in a large film studio with scenes being shot in many different sites.

They would go to different spots, such as into the underground bunker to witness an emotional drama set during World War Two of a woman who fell in love with the enemy, and had her tongue ripped out (She was a famous singer!) by vengeful villagers after the war… we would do something very intense like this in the underground, then have the audience come up and experience something very avant garde, with the intervention of cameras and film, live filming and close-ups. There were around thirty small plays during this production and people came in droves every night!

Moneywise, I think that if you actually think about the fact you have twenty thousand people watching an experimental play, and each having to play twenty five dollars...I think there was a bigger box office then than today, ironically.

It is not just theatre alone that is in a rut, Singapore as a whole has changed. People want to spend their fifty dollars on going out, on two glasses of wine, on many other things, for example. Singapore has also become very expensive as opposed to the past, and at the same time, there are also more options now to spend your money.  And ironically in the midst of all this, audiences now start to expect the arts to be free between the Night Festival and free entrances to museums etc.

I would say that today's audiences are quite dilettantish as they try something then they drop it. I recall that there is a news piece recently about introducing more art to first timers because only then can art become sustainable but actually art has been introduced to first timers since the late Eighties, and none of that audience stayed on.

Sustainability definitely does not come through introducing art to first timers, sustainability comes when you create commitment and depth of engagement rather than just tourism of the arts.  When you think back to the Nineties with the twenty thousand turnouts committing to an experimental work, we earned half a million dollars at the box office actually.  So its actually about investing in audiences developing commitment rather than simply coming whenever there is a free event.

I don't think that government funding is doing much today, because while you may get three hundred thousand a year, what does that mean in today's economics? It is like 10-20% of your annual budget, so it is tantamount to an illusion to call it more funding, because we made a lot more through the box office two decades ago, because people were willing to commit.  True, there were less competition for their money; but the price was also closer to a cinema too. It was not so outrageously expensive. Live theatre is so expensive now because it is hard to sustain a company of fifty people who need salaries through ticketed performances.


How do you feel about the art scene now?

There are two points I would like to make here:

First of all, I see that the artist is really the ombudsman in the social system, because there is very little critique possible in Singapore. Artists become, somewhat, an oppositional voice, they ask certain provocative questions which need to be asked, because otherwise there would be no checks-and-balances in the system.

Of course, there are also a lot of arts group that shy away from this route of being a socio-political commentator—maybe they are making entertainment or art for its own sake; they are not interested in whatever is beyond this scope. In the art scene, there are very many different kinds of players, though I do believe that artists do play the role of a watchman.  There is a need for checks and balances, any artist who feels that they are involved in civil society can step up to become this socio-political check and balance.  

Secondly, I do feel that there are some very palpable questions about whether we need that much money out there from the government for average art. I believe that our duty if we take public funds is to innovate. In a sense, I am less interested in an industry and more interested in the provocation of ideas, which remains lacking. 

There are indeed a lot of people taking the government’s money and using it in a way that is neither social political commentary, ie public service, nor making innovative art, and that is when I think there’s a problem.

Do see the lack of critical discourse of culture as an issue that may affect how an art culture might be fostered or do you think it will come about naturally?

I think that it will never come about, because there is too much self-censorship going on. Even though we have some of the most intelligent young people, who are hardworking, intelligent, able to write well and think well, everyone is censoring themselves because everyone is scared of being sued for defamation.

I think this is a very big threat in this country. In other countries, the definition of law is such that public officials have the burden of proof, which is rather heavy  because the nature of their positions mandate that there would be public critique; but in Singapore, this is reversed.

Here, the burden of proof lies on the accuser to prove that what was said was not libelous, but a fair assessment. I think that this self-censorship comes about because people are afraid of speaking too much because we have seen many defamation suits. I think this is a major issue that is also contributing to why young people are leaving the country because if they have the opportunity to leave, why stay?

Many have spoken to me that they just want to be free, that freedom is a very important value in life to them.  We are all hoping for more and more freedom in what we can do. As I have told another journalist before, if I am a child today, I want to be able to think that I can be the first Singaporean to land on the moon, I do not want my teacher to tell me: “No, you can't think that.”

I want to dream in a big way; I don't need someone to say that we don't have the ability or the knowledge.  I think this freedom to dream is really something lacking in Singapore. People work for decades and they feel trapped because there are no hinterlands, no other towns that one can go to.

Revisiting that comment about Singaporeans wanting to go overseas in pursuit of freedom, was this the same sentiment that accompanied you when you went to New York? Would you say that your time there were the formative years of your artistry to come?

I would think so, though I didn't think of it as constraint per se—when you are twenty-nine and you have done a lot in Singapore, and you have reached the limit of what you can do without repeating yourself, you know you cannot stay any longer. I left because I felt that there is nothing in Singapore left for me to do anymore; I have done everything at that point in time, so I have to opt out to go somewhere else. I had a mid-life crisis at twenty-nine.

Artistically, New York honed my interest in documentary, be it in theatre or film; just the general idea of nonfiction. I would say that the road bent for me then, I started driving in a different direction than what I anticipated. In New York, one works and studies with people who are all struggling. I was lucky enough to be a Fulbright Scholar, but many of my classmates had to pay their own fees on top of living expenses. I had my fees covered by the scholarship, and my savings covered my living expenses; I had already worked for five years as a professional director by the time I left.

I could see the struggles of my classmates and this somehow made them more passionate about life. I genuinely think that many Singaporeans do not have passion in life, because either they have a lot or they are struggling so hard to keep afloat.

In New York, all your senses are alive, and there is never a day when you can say, "I am so bored," because if you are, you can just go to the Met. And if you are really so bored, you can just walk up and down the whole of Manhattan, see people on the grid of streets without ever having to take the subway.

In Singapore, you can't do that. It has become like Los Angeles: just expressways and more expressways.

How did the Fulbright Scholarship come about? Was it something you sought out or was it more serendipitous?

At certain points in your life, you begin to look for alternate ways of seeing something.  I actively searched for different ways of rethinking my life, so I started to go deeper into political and cultural studies and I started to move away from making theatre per se.  I did not want to go to New York just to repeat what I was doing here: do four plays a year in an MFA course.

I was very lucky to have two mentors, Krishen Jit and Kuo Pao Kun, who helped me with my decision. Krishen had spent a part of his life in New York, and he would tell about how it was like at the time. He and his partner, Marilyn Cruz, both of them from KL, a director and a choreographer respectively, were very important for me to have a different way of finding myself.

I have never asked myself this, but I probably would not have been able to go without the Fulbright—it would have meant a huge, huge hole in my bank account. The Fulbright was something that I had sought as a next step: professionally, I followed quite a conventional pathway actually: I did my Bachelors and then worked for five years, and by time I was twenty-nine, I was ready to do my Masters, and I had to search for a way to fund it internationally.

Did Singapore feel different after your return, or did it feel the same?

Singapore always interested me—it is inevitable when one is born here—but at some point it just stopped holding that same sense of wonderment for me as a standalone entity. I had to see more.

I always found it interesting to return to Singapore however, and after I got my Masters, I came back with a new energy and was interested in turning my eye for live performance to documentary on stage, because it has never been done before in Singapore.

It was a very fresh arena, and there were a lot of people who misunderstood and/or felt confused, and some people resisted the newness while others were embracing it. For myself though, I felt that this could do a lot more for Singapore.

Today, Singapore is a combination of provincialism and polish. On a certain level, Singapore is much more exposed and open then before; it is really a global city even though our leaders tell us we are not ready, but at the same time, there is also the provinciality of the safe.

I will not say that Singaporeans are provincial per se, but they want to be safe, and that train of thought can lead to the provincial. A lot of the highly-educated—the elites—are the most conservative in Singapore ironically. Some people think otherwise, but that is often because we are indoctrinated that the heartland is not ready, when it is actually more open in a certain sense.

The ones who are rich, the ones who are educated abroad, they can be the provincial ones because they are the ones who want to be safe, keep the status quo - perhaps they have too much to lose. So Singapore, as it becomes more global, also becomes more provincial, as a culture of fear thrives to keep everybody in check.

I don’t buy the elites’ attempt to pin conservativeness on the heartlanders.  My parents themselves were part of that heartland community, and they still allowed me to go into theatre. They had conservative fears, yes, but they didn't force me into that lawyer's straitjacket. This is my proof that the heartlanders are actually not the conservatives. It is the elites that try to duplicate themselves, their sons and daughters needing to be like them, and that is where the fears reside, because the richer we are, the more there is to lose too.

There are always new challenges, at a certain point, these challenges become closed down because of fear of the unknown.

Singapore has a lot of potential, and it is this potentiality that is being snuffed out because of fear. A country like Taiwan that is very progressive, I go there and I see that it has no hang-up at all about the provincial and the international: you can see that in the Taiwan dramas, always a couple of hundred episodes and counting, always very provincial, but at the same time people are not ashamed to admit that it is a part of their lives.

While Singapore tries to censor away everything that is slightly Third World, this is where we are losing out to cities like Taipei, cultures like Taiwan’s, which is actually very enlightened about cultural practices. Singapore is losing some of that grit for me and with that some of its organic cosmopolitanism while Taiwan ironically, is still naturally cosmopolitan, even though it is very insular, given a variety of geopolitical factors, such as its colonial past with Japan, historical tension with Mainland China, and ambivalent posturing with the US.

In spite of these very locked positions, Taiwan is very open, as opposed to our island in the Sun, which has become increasingly closed down.  And all because of FEAR.


How did your involvement with SIFA come about, and what were the caveats that you had to settle with?

It was actually very strange, because during that period I was actually in Singapore for only six months: I was in the midst of doing my PhD but I came back to direct three productions in a row.  In that six months that the festival closed down, an  industry review responding to this happened from June to December of 2012.   Everyone of us who were in the industry dreamt of what an independent festival would be like.

So I was back doing the productions and I just thought that I will sit in on the industry review, give my two cents worth and move on.  I was in New York when they called and asked me whether I would like to participate in their search and I said no, I can talk to your search committee if you want, but I don't really want to apply for this job.

And that was how it begun. As I said before, since my time in the Nineties, I really loved my relationship with Singapore—I was both inside and outside, I was only spending four months in Singapore every year for about a decade, even before I became Festival Director. For eight months a year I was abroad doing exchange works, teaching, directing, but in a way where I could feel cosmopolitan and also Singaporean, so I never really felt the need to do the Festival.

I know what making a Festival entails, because from 2001 to 2003 I created a new festival in Berlin that needed big machinery behind it; you can't make a festival without one. You need twenty-five people working as a team, for maybe the last three months before the festival, you cannot be alone and you cannot be mobile. You cannot be flexible, and in those years after I came back from New York in 1995, I was very mobile, and I really valued that. So, to run a festival was to become less mobile and tied to a Singaporean identity. I dealt with this in my own way when I came aboard: the first thing I did, almost instantly, was to change the name to Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA).

This also reduces the censorship in a way, because when you are just Singapore Arts Festival, you think that everything has to be about Singapore, but then when you are SIFA, you can bring in ideas from beyond Singapore, because the name mandates that you have to look at international perspectives.

Were there any major differences between the mantles of a festival director as opposed to a theatre director? Were there any unexpected issues that popped up out of nowhere that wasn't in the terms and conditions such as the lack of mobility?

When I took over a festival that was not censored, I expected that to continue, but in 2015, the powers that be said that now we have to go through a censorship board, and that was the change.

In 2014, when we did the first edition of the revamped festival, there was this sense of ‘Oh, you are still the old Singapore Arts Festival, you are all bureaucrats, so there is no need to censor you because you belong to the government.’ By the next edition, however, that was not true anymore.

Now that we are independent, they told us we have to go through the process of censorship, but for me, it was really not part of the agreement in a way because I had asked before coming on about whether there would be censorship in the festival, and they said no. But the fesetival was not the same as before; of course MCCY caught it and told us that now that the festival was no longer operated by the government, so we have to go through the same processes as anyone else, in preparation for the year of 2015.

There were three new organizations, SIFA, the SAM, and the National Gallery, that all had to go through censorship that year, and eventually, I embraced it. I thought, now we will be exactly like any Singaporean artist. If you want to censor us, then we will just be the same as anyone else, and there has been this very proud claim to being censored to the world, because we have no special benefits, we will go through all due processes exactly the way that other local artists have to go through, and if you censor us, we will also talk about it.

What was your curatorial process like as the new Festival Director? Did you have to tap on a lot of old sources or did having suddenly this establishment seal of approval open other avenues in terms of the content you can curate and what kind of artists you can recruit?

I would say that the directions were not so direct… there is no actual sense of what you can or cannot do; there is no checklist. I do know that when I catch a show and there is nudity on stage, a light goes off in my head telling me that maybe I cannot bring it in. And when it is more than just a nude moment, when it is in complete nudity for some time on stage, I would just think to give up the ticket and not bother even watching it until the end because it cannot be brought in anyway.

This kind of self-censorship starts to lodge in your head, it is as if something has been put into your body, your heart, and you stop being able to experience certain things fully. For me, censorship is a very potent way of controlling an individual, because it is a detonator that they put in you and it triggers you immediately to note these things cannot happen in Singapore. 

As you near the completion of your tenure at SIFA, how do you feel that this experience has changed you and your directorial methods, and how so?

The first direction is that it rekindled my belief in the audience. I think what is very real for me, is a recovery of my kinship with the audience, that they really want something new and are willing to take the risks.

Then again, I think it is a kind of illusion that we are forced by the conservative elites of Singapore to accept, and that illusion is that theatre is for everybody, all six million of us, but it is not true. For arts like theatre or film, if you can get just ten percent of the population—six hundred thousand people—coming, that's already a lot of people in the country watching theatre or film. It is an illusion created to imprison our minds that we must appeal to six million people, that we must be the lowest common denominator.

To me, I am thinking that it is about the control in our society because of fear, and it has been the same problems throughout—the heartlanders are ready to go, the audiences are ready to go, its the elites that are holding back and saying we are not ready, and I think it is something that I learnt from the festival because I was on the ground there interacting with the elites, and sensing their conservativeness.

I was on the ground making theatre for the whole of Singapore, so in a way, that really opened up my eyes, because in the past I was just making works for my company and my audience, but now I am really inside the housing estates, I am there and I know that the people are ready.

As Festival Director, I had to leave the safe exclusive haven of my own audience, and I have to go to audiences all over the island, people who are very different from me, and I found out that actually they are not that different, they are very open.

How was the idea of the O.P.E.N. conceptualized?

It came from my work as a director, because I am very interested in processes and laboratories. I am very intrigued by situations of exchange, conflicts, and negotiation, and from 1996, I created the Flying Circus, an artistic exchange laboratory.  I would go to a place that is at the border of Norway and Russia, and make a laboratory there with Scandinavian artists for three weeks with the artists from Russia, with people who are sex workers, or even the traditional Sami people, so I am very used to these experimental adventures.

For me, the O.P.E.N. continues that: it is an experimental adventure where we lose our inhibitions, it is the icebreaker that everyone has everywhere and every time, when a new situation calls for a round of introductions.

The O.P.E.N. allows us to meet all these different neighborhoods of people, and it is our invitation to people to be outrageous, to be excessive, but also, to be accessed, and to learn to share.

Moving on, do you have as much lingering attachment as you would have hoped or are you just glad that you are getting your freedom back?

I am quite excited about becoming anonymous again, actually.

Mostly because I have taken the responsibility of the Festival Director being a public functionary very seriously; I speak out about many issues because I believe that as a festival director I have some authority and some possibility to make some changes, some transformation of ideas.

So, in a sense, I am quite happy to be getting my own life back so that I do not have to talk about the quality of life in Singapore anymore. I no longer need to become a public functionary, I get to slip away and be lost, so as to speak.

I have always been a quiet person; I am the kind who loves having dinner by myself, because I love my own company… but mainly because I have a very social job—I have meetings and rehearsals and functions endlessly —so eating alone is really a special moment for me.

I think I am looking forward to that, and I won't miss this part of my work. I am much more critical as festival director of the politics of Singapore then I was as an individual artist. As an individual artist I am making my own works, and I find my own best environments for it. I do not feel that as an individual artist I need to critique the system as much, unlike as a festival director. It has been a big responsibility that has taken some personal costs, because I had to become very vocal about many things, and I am sure I made a lot of enemies, so I see that as my own loss as well.

I am happy to go back to myself, finally.

Now that you are leaving, do you feel that you are leaving a legacy or a blank slate for your successor?

There is a legacy in these four editions, because I do think that we have made a very coherent festival; you can see the promises we pledged in our first year being honored even until now. Having the O.P.E.N. being participatory, and erasing the divide between audience and artist, and in this final year, putting it on the stage as a show itself…this sense of public discussion is the legacy: there are no actors, just us, this is the conflict and the situation, and people step up to discuss all these big topics that concern Singapore.

I believe that the new director needs to be allowed to try out new things, and I believe that every festival director will leave some kind of indelible mark on the festival—and, that is a given because if you do not, or, heaven forbid, you cannot, leave a mark, you should not have been selected; if you could not come up with one good idea to leave to the next festival, you have no right to be a festival director.

I do have faith that everyone leaves behind something so that the festival can only grow richer and richer.

What we brought to the table in our years, was a very strong sense of exploration and engagement, and the search for connection, where it was not just concentrated on some kind of elite ideal but really about trying to find out what people are cooking in their kitchens, who are willing to open their homes and invite people in to use it as theatre.


I would like to think that we changed the game on engagement, because engagement is not just coloring in between the lines, it is about drawing the lines yourself, and drawing them beyond the paper, on walls, other people's faces, all over the space. I think that this enlargement of the concept of what constitutes engagement is something that we are leaving behind, the courage to not be afraid and just keep trying.


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