As the latest person to take up the mantle of Festival Director for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA), Gaurav Kripalani has faced his fair share of criticisms and doubts. But if there’s anything to go by, the numbers don’t lie, and this year’s edition of the festival has seen overwhelmingly positive demand, with multiple sold out shows and all around enthusiasm for the festival’s opening this week.
On the responsibility of taking up the role,The Singapore Repertory Theatre artistic director explains: “With each new festival director, you get a different take on what a festival should be like. I know one of the reasons why I was approached was because I’ve been in theatre for over 20 years, and I know both the local landscape and have a fairly broad international network. What I bring shouldn’t be the same as previous editions, but I’m not trying to be different for difference’s sake, and there’s a responsibility to build a relationship with audiences over the next few years and programme work that merits the calibre of being in Singapore’s national arts festival.”
Gaurav isn’t out to make SIFA a ‘festival for all’ though – suggesting that it’s a term that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Instead, choosing his words carefully, he decides that under his direction, SIFA will focus on being a diverse festival, with a spectrum of programmes catering to audiences of multiple backgrounds. Says Gaurav: “If it’s going to be a national festival, there needs to be works accessible for someone watching for the first time, and also for aficionados. My aim isn’t quantity; it’s to present companies that have either never been to Singapore, or are incredibly unique, or would be perfect collaborators with other companies.”
He continues: “My vision isn’t to create a mainstream festival that’s limited to a single audience. For 2018 especially, the programme was all about discovery and taking a chance on shows you wouldn’t normally see, and come on this three year journey with us. Whether you like some shows or not, it’s about building the trust with the audience that at least what they see onstage will always have a certain calibre befitting of our national arts festival. I think about where I want these audiences mindsets to be at the end of three years, and when I pass the baton on at the end of my stint, my successor will have the foundation required to build still further on what we’ve done.”
Perhaps the best way of drawing in new audience members is simply by going big and making a splash – exactly what Gaurav has planned to do with SIFA opening weekend, with six ticketed shows playing on Friday alone, alongside free events on Empress Lawn in front of Victoria Theatre, including a concert and outdoor circus. Says Gaurav: “One of the biggest challenges to a festival is getting people to come. That’s why with a big opening, we wanted to announce to Singapore that SIFA has started, and get people to come down with their families, be dazzled by all these outdoor programmes, and go ‘oh my gosh, look at these amazing shows going on for the next few weeks.’ I want them to get excited, and talk to their peers and family all about the mindblowing works they’ve witnessed or are about to.”
Taking a leaf from SRT’s book, perhaps the biggest surprise this year was the move to offer concession tickets to students for every show, in a world where ticket prices are steadily rising year on year and feel increasingly out of reach for younger audience members. The move has met with roaring success, and tickets were snapped up within days. Says Gaurav: “Unlike SRT, to do this on a national scale has a whole different impact. I hope that this becomes an industry norm and other companies and festivals will follow suit. Maybe in a generation’s time, we’ll be able to see the positive ramifications, and for myself, my wish is that the arts will never be inaccessible for youths.”
Containing both the words ‘Singapore’ and ‘International’, a director always has to take careful consideration of balancing the number of works from both local and global companies, but Gaurav seems to know exactly what he’s doing, considering the surprisingly large number of original works on show this year despite the short leadtime between 2017’s SIFA and now. Says Gaurav: “My plan has always been to work with the three year stint in mind, and I do hope that there’s more original content in 2019 and 2020. The more time you give an artist to develop a work, the better, and I’m trying to see how we can help them with dramaturgy with SIFA. The works that these companies present cannot just be something that’s going to be part of their regular season. And now that the festival is underway, I’m hoping to receive more pitches from artists interested in presenting new works over the next two festivals.”
But not only has Gaurav contributed to the festival; in a way, he’s learnt a lot from this unique opportunity as well: “The festival has been an absolute roller coaster ride over the last six months and I’ve loved every minute of it so far. With SRT, I’ve only been able to programme theatre, but over the years, i’ve seen so many phenomenal dance, music and multimedia performances, and SIFA has been the perfect platform to present some of these. In terms of programming, I have one thing in mind – I want to present game changing works for their genre, and to have the resources at my disposal to make it happen, along with the incredible team at Arts House Limited, when I go back to SRT, I’ll be so much the richer for it.”
Gaurav concludes: “Ultimately, SIFA is not a numbers game. By shifting the festival to May, it now has its own unique timeslot. Over time, I hope it’ll become a national event everyone can look forward to and make time for each year, just like Formula One in September or National Day in August.”
“To my critics: I don’t have a personal agenda. The onus is upon me to steer our national arts festival, and I have one goal – to grow the number of arts lovers in Singapore, and think this is what we should all be striving for. I hope people will take chances and support the festival because it’s our festival, and cause a ripple effect that will benefit the entire scene and grow our industry together.”
Gaurav seems to have a winning formula, and as the hype intensifies before the first shows open their doors tonight, tickets close to or completely sold out, one can only hope that as Festival Director, Gaurav achieves all his aims and more, as we usher in the next three years of SIFA under his bold, new direction.
The 2018 Singapore International Festival of the Arts runs till 12th May across various venues. For the full lineup and ticketing details, visit the official website here