Gaurav Kripalani, director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, on his strategy to make the arts attractive to audiences.

SINGAPORE (May 6): It is an interview arts doyen Gaurav Kripalani has done a hundred times, sitting in the hallowed chambers of Old Parliament House (now turned into The Arts House), in the very chair the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once sat. The maroon upholstery is slightly worn, but the bronze nameplate bearing Lee’s name is oddly polished in contrast — as a result of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of hands that have touched the plate. He laughs good-naturedly when Options insists that he sits on Lee’s chair, which he does obligingly — clearly not the first time he has been asked to do so by a cheeky journalist.

After all, in his 25 years in the arts scene in Singapore, he has probably seen everything there is to be seen and given countless interviews just like this one. Yet, there is no denying the spark in his eyes and the passion in him as he talks about his second year organising the highly acclaimed Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). For a man who knew from a young age that he wanted to live and breathe the arts, familiarity certainly does not breed contempt.

Having had a very successful run at last year’s SIFA, this year, Gaurav intends to create the “fear of missing out” on the festival. “The vision for SIFA is to grow it, for it to be top of mind for all Singaporeans so that they know to keep those three weeks in May completely free,” he says. “Because they know they are going to see the very best art from Singapore and around the world.”

SIFA, which runs from May 16 to June 2, will feature a line-up of local and international performers in theatre, music, dance, film and visual arts.

Overcoming challenges

SIFA had its origins in the Singapore Arts Festival, which was started in 1977 and organised and funded by the government. In 2012, according to reports, the festival was put on hold, owing to dwindling ticket sales, following which the National Arts Council (NAC) launched a six-month industry review, which recommended that the festival be brought back with an international focus. In 2014, it was renamed as SIFA and under director Ong Keng Sen, reinvigorated.

However, despite the festival’s long and illustrious history, the challenges in promoting it and making it profitable, as well as in establishing Singapore as an arts hub over the years, have only become tougher.

Two years ago, it was reported that fewer than three in 10 School of the Arts (Sota) graduating students go on to pursue arts-related university courses. As the only secondary school here with a dedicated arts programme, it was telling that there is an increase in enrolment in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Even with the Our SG Arts Plan, launched in 2018 to grow the local arts scene, ticket sales are on the decline. According to NAC, attendance of ticketed arts events declined 12%, from 2.06 million in 2012 to 1.81 million in 2016. This is in contrast to the Population Survey on the Arts 2017, which found that 54% of Singaporeans attended at least one arts event in the past year. This could mean that Singaporeans are attending free arts events but are not quite ready to pay for ticketed ones.

Gaurav, who was artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre prior to being SIFA director, has produced more than 100 plays during his 21-year history with the company. He is aware that growing audiences and creating a robust arts scene is an uphill battle, and to tackle this issue, he focused on ensuring that price points would not be a huge barrier to entry and on creating a new and exciting narrative around the arts.

“One of the things that I launched last year was the $10 front-row tickets. We need to make [our shows] accessible; we cannot let price be a barrier,” he says. “With that in mind, tickets to SIFA shows are affordable. We want everyone to come, to have young people sit in the front row and not at the back.”

Gaurav also focused on creating an experience that would suit a wide range of audiences, effectively removing the sense of stuffiness and high-brow elitism that is sometimes associated with the arts. “How do we create shows that cater for different audiences? Because there is no one audience, so, for example, this year, we have our first family show. Whether the audiences are first-time SIFA-goers or art aficionados, there needs to be shows for both, and that’s been a very conscious decision — to reach as many [spectators] as possible,” he explains.

“Another thing that we will make a mainstay of SIFA is the pop-up lounge bar. We know that food and drinks are great motivators for Singaporeans, but more than that, it’s a place that audiences can come to before and after the show, where they can meet the artists, have a drink and engage in a discussion about the show they have just seen or will see,” he says. “This creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity; it becomes part of the experience. It’s not just about, ‘Oh, I bought a ticket, I’m going to go to the theatre, I want to sit there for two hours and I’m going to leave’,” he adds.

For Gaurav, the magic of the arts is something he fell in love with as a young man, and he is eager to ensure that everyone, whether students or CEOs, can have that same experience. “Whether it’s a show for the aficionado or first-timer, it’s about taking audiences on a journey. I grew up watching shows at SIFA — or the Singapore Arts Festival as it was known then — and I would make sure I never travelled in the month of the arts festival, because SIFA was my one chance to see a different type of art during that month.”

Till today, he still has the programmes and festival guides from every SIFA he attended. “It shaped my taste and my aesthetic. It convinced me that this is what I wanted to do with my life. So, to be given the opportunity to be the festival director, I was incredibly honoured,” he says. “And so, I bring that into this three-year tenure, and one of my goals is to bring that magic to younger audiences, especially [to give them] that same sense of excitement and wonderment that I had, and experience the same epiphanies that I did.”

He is proud of how far SIFA, and indeed, the arts scene in Singapore, has come. “Having done this for almost 25 years, what’s very interesting from a business point of view is that when I produced shows 25 years ago, they would all sell out because there was very little else on in town. What’s wonderful is the growth of the arts scene in these 25 years; it has happened at a phenomenal pace. What we’ve achieved in 25 years, I think we can be very proud of,” he notes.

“It also means more competition, but competition fuels you to just do better, and SIFA needs to be at the pinnacle of the performing arts platform in our cultural calendar. At the end of the day, it’s about the arts and it [also] has to be about the artist and about finding artists who are inspirational,” he adds.


Highlights of SIFA 2019

Beware of Pity
Stunningly told by one of the UK’s most respected directors, Simon McBurney, with actors from the famed Schaubühne Berlin, Beware of Pity is an emotionally gripping play about the treacherous.

Dionysus
From visionary director Tadashi Suzuki comes a masterful, cross-cultural adaptation of Greek tragedy The Bacchae, featuring an impressive cast of Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese actors.

ST/LL
In this stunning performance-installation, Japanese artist Shiro Takatani’s meditation on silence unfolds in an exquisite multimedia staging, along with music by world-renowned composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Körper
Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz’s provocative signature work, Körper, investigates the structure of the body against the mortality of human existence.

Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner
From critically acclaimed theatre company Checkpoint Theatre comes Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, a powerful new play about humanitarian workers caught in the crosshairs of a crisis.

The Mysterious Lai Teck
In The Mysterious Lai Teck, acclaimed Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen leads you into the labyrinthine underworld of spies and a depiction of one of Southeast Asia’s most shadowy historical figures.