Theatremaker Ong Keng Sen launches $400k artistic director training academy

SINGAPORE – The recent backlash to Singapore Repertory Theatre’s rebrand to Singapore Theatre Company is no storm in a teacup, says Cultural Medallion recipient Ong Keng Sen.

Rather, it is a clear sign of the plurality of Singapore’s maturing theatre scene, offering an opportune moment for the community to intensify dialogue about the formation of a national theatre.

The critically acclaimed artistic director of home-grown theatre company T:>Works, established in 1985, was the director of Singapore International Festival of Arts from 2014 to 2017.

The 60-year-old is launching a $400,000 artistic director training academy that includes conversations once every two months about what a Singapore national theatre can look like. The first public panel, on March 7, is titled The People Cultures Of A National Theatre.

The dialogues are the incipient steps in Ong’s project aimed at returning arts and culture to the national agenda beyond its relevance to Singapore’s art market, something which is pored over during gala events such as January’s Singapore Art Week.

He says: “‘People’ is obviously a very important word in Singapore. There is the People’s Association, People’s Action Party. So why don’t we think of the arts and culture as belonging to the people? Why do we think about it only as buildings?”

Despite the arts being a “plasma or gel for our people”, it feels like the conversation about its national significance ended with the construction of performing arts venue Esplanade and National Gallery Singapore, opened in 2002 and 2015 respectively, he adds.

“That’s quite problematic. We really have to ask ourselves, why has Singapore not grown as creatively as many of the other Asian Tiger economies? The politicians and national rhetoric in South Korea are not afraid of the arts. That’s why we have such an intense explosion of K-films, K-pop and K-dramas.”

Ong has been a proponent of a national theatre of Singapore since 2021. He has had extensive experience working internationally and fielding questions about why Singapore shows are not being presented under a unified banner.

The Artistic Directors Academy was conceptualised by him over two years.

In addition to public dialogues, it will hold masterclasses for the 10 core artistic director trainees on timely topics such as urban development, which is in the spotlight after the March 5 announcement that arts precinct Gillman Barracks is being studied as a potential site for housing.

The trainees will also each be matched with a local mentor and an international trailblazer, who are still being confirmed.

The first panel on national theatre on March 7 is notable for its interdisciplinary composition, featuring not only playwright Alfian Sa’at and theatremaker Medli Dorothea Loo, but also dancer Kavitha Krishnan, artist Ho Tzu Nyen, and spoken word performer Deborah Arunditha Emmanuel.

It is representative of Ong’s expansive notion of a national theatre, and his wish to break down creative silos to tap the widest range of creative talent.

“That we don’t yet have a proposal of a national theatre of Singapore is ideal for us to look at this vacuum,” he says.

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