2020 has been a surprising year for many people. In the arts scene, the coronavirus pandemic halted most performances, and changed the way we experience live events as we know it. And for Gaurav Kripalani, what was meant to be his final year as Festival Director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) went from celebratory to fire-fighting session, where he and his team were left to wonder: what happens next?
“You know, over the past year, the world has shifted. For one thing, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for life.”
“You know, over the past year, the world has shifted. For one thing, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for life. And with this whole restricting to groups of 8, I’ve sort of realised the most important people to me, the ones who I really meet regularly or who reach out to me more often, the same people I’ll invest time in and really treasure,” says Gaurav.
“It was so important to me to create hope, and a joy to speak to the artists still creating work in this world, when so many people were unable to do that.”
The loss of SIFA 2020 led to an interim measure, in the form of SIFA v2.020, where the team brought digital work and artist talks online. “Even though we didn’t have our usual festival last year, I was still very proud of what we had achieved with v2.020, because it was a difficult period, and most importantly, we did play a part in helping out the arts, and creating work when there was none,” says Gaurav. “It was so important to me to create hope, and a joy to speak to the artists still creating work in this world, when so many people were unable to do that.”
As measures eased up, v2.020 similarly moved with the times, tentatively introducing live pilot programmes as Singaporeans got used to the idea of returning to theatres again. “I do think Singaporeans appreciate and understand the importance of live performance,” says Gaurav, on whether Singaporeans took to live performances and appreciate the arts. “Even though theatre spaces are at 25% capacity at the moment, tickets are getting snapped up so quickly, and you do hear people raving about their experience. And it is our role as producers and festival makers to ensure that this will continue to be the case, pandemic or not.”
From top left, clockwise: A Dream Under The Southern Bought: Existence; OIWA: The Ghost of Yotsuya; Three Sisters; and The Year of No Return
“The number one reason I wanted to carry on for another year was to support our artists and our work; we have four local works which were originally planned for 2020, most of whom had built up relationships with other international artists, and my priority was always about making sure these commissions happened.”
It only made sense for Gaurav finish what he started in 2018, with an additional year added to his tenure, where he would helm SIFA 2021 as his final edition, pushing back incoming Festival Director Natalie Hennedige’s (of CAKE) tenure by another year. “The number one reason I wanted to carry on for another year was to support our artists and our work; we have four local works which were originally planned for 2020, most of whom had built up relationships with other international artists, and my priority was always about making sure these commissions happened,” says Gaurav. “It would have been heartbreaking if all this work had gone to waste.”
“While each company could have probably done it on their own again sometime in future, it would have been better to include them as part of a SIFA, just not necessarily Natalie’s, as she might already have had her own plans for her tenure,” he continues. “I spoke to Natalie and she was very understanding of the situation, and to finish my arc as director. In future, passing on the reins to Natalie, I’m excited to see what heights she’ll bring SIFA to, and how robust she’ll be able to make it in her run.”
Gaurav however, was incredibly optimistic, and didn’t expect that COVID-19 would still be a major part of 2021, with vaccines still being rolled out and flight restrictions still in place. “To produce the festival this year wasn’t just a case of calling up the artists from last year and having them back again. I mean, we did do that, but it quickly became evident it wasn’t going to happen, and we had to start from scratch with our planning and programming,” says Gaurav. “And of the programmes, none of them have been there to ‘fill a blank’, and each one carefully chosen to fit with the festival.”
With all the preparation work in place, SIFA 2021 has finally announced its programme – but the team is of course, still ensuring everything is in the right place before the festival begins proper in May. “No one is sleeping – the team’s been working really hard, from getting material to implementing all the safety measures. This has been the hardest of my four years as festival director, and certainly the busiest,” he adds. “Every artist has binders and schedules, and we’re finally starting the process of meeting people and conveying that to them. We’re getting plenty of volunteers too, who’ve always been a critical aspect of the festival; it’s not only great for us, but also a golden opportunity for them to watch shows, so they’re very happy to do it.”
The Observatory’s Demon States
This year’s festival may be a hybrid one, but perhaps is one of the first in recent memory to really pride itself on the live experience, on such a large scale. Featuring an unprecedented 300 performances from over 60 programmes, SIFA has always been known for activating the venues in the civic district with its many performances, both ticketed and free, and letting the entire country know that it’s landed. While there are still digital programmes, taking centrestage are live performances by local artists, not only the premiere of the four local commissions, but brand new works given the spotlight as well, such as Zeugma’s _T070L_ and The Observatory’s Demon States.
“Here’s the thing – I think that everyone wants to work and create art, and excited about working together.”
“We’ve got some incredible collaborations, and I do feel very good about this 2021 festival,” says Gaurav. “Here’s the thing – I think that everyone wants to work and create art, and excited about working together; I never had to twist anyone’s arm into doing these collaborations.”
Wild Rice, Pangdemonium and SRT’s The Commission
Perhaps the most unexpected work to emerge for SIFA 2021 would be The Commission – a three-way collaboration between local theatre companies Wild Rice, Pangdemonium and Singapore Repertory Theatre. Following on from their unprecedented collaboration on short film The Pitch, The Commission acts as a sequel where artistic directors Ivan Heng, Adrian Pang, and Gaurav himself star in a live play about a play within a play, where they are commissioned to create an exclusive piece of live theatre for these strange times.
“We were asked to consider taking it to another level for SIFA. I asked the other two (Ivan and Adrian) if they were interested, and they loved the idea. Tracie (Pang) will be directing, and it really was a case where we all wanted it to happen.”
“It was a firm rule not to commission anything by SRT during my tenure, but the SIFA producers ended up pitching it to me, on the basis that The Pitch was very well-received,” says Gaurav, who we last saw performing onstage as part of SRT’s Disgraced (2016). “We were asked to consider taking it to another level for SIFA. I asked the other two (Ivan and Adrian) if they were interested, and they loved the idea. Tracie (Pang) will be directing, and it really was a case where we all wanted it to happen.”
As for the local/international collaborations, the SIFA team has also made arrangements and a commitment to fly in the international artists to ensure the shows will happen as they were intended, save for Nine Years Theatre’s (NYT) Three Sisters. “While we do have artists flying in, they’re very limited, and we’ve been operating on financial prudence,” says Gaurav, “Artists do want to work, but we understand about those who’re concerned about the uncertainty of the performance, from the 2 week quarantine to the possibility of flights being cancelled.”
Three Sisters will feature the Chekhov classic re-imagined as a memory-scape of Irina, the youngest sister. The NYT actors will be performing alongside cinematic projections of SITI Company actors that allude to visual memories in the mind, and told through a juxtaposition of live bodies and virtual presence. “For Three Sisters, the SITI company was unable to come over, but we still wanted to figure out a way to still make it happen, and make it different from everything else,” he adds. “But it’s interesting how NYT propositioned their solution, and we’re going ahead with it. This show in particular epitomises everything I said when we started – how do we get local companies to do meaningful collaborations internationally?”
The fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus may have been lessened since a vaccine was introduced, but to err on the side of caution, Gaurav and his team have prepared a ‘wet-weather plan’ to improve accessibility and ensure everyone gets a fair chance at experiencing the festival. “Besides the digital work, which can be accessed by anyone, we’re also filming everything in case live performances can’t carry on,” says Gaurav. “Not to mention, the local commissions will also be released online as video-on-demand, available for a week after the end of the festival, as we’re expecting tickets to sell out, but still want as many people as possible to experience the commissions.”
“At the same time, I think one thing we should give credit to NAC for is how all the Singaporean artists still got paid even if the works ended up not being presented last year, and I don’t think the council gets enough credit for having done that.”
“At the same time, I think one thing we should give credit to NAC for is how all the Singaporean artists still got paid even if the works ended up not being presented last year, and I don’t think the council gets enough credit for having done that,” he adds. “Lots of festivals around the world wouldn’t and didn’t do that when they had to close. But in any case, we do have a plan both artistically and financially to ensure the artists and festival are catered for.”
Having interviewed Gaurav in both 2018 and 2019, we’re well aware that ever since assuming the position as Festival Director, Gaurav has received his fair share of criticism from naysayers. But over the years, even his hardest critics are likely to see the amount of effort that has gone into his tenure, and the sheer amount of change he’s brought to the festival.
“And that’s the basis of a national festival – it can’t just be elitist and appeal to a certain niche; it has to have appeal across a broad spectrum with its selection of programmes.”
“I know there’ll always be supporters and detractors. At the end of the day, it’s the work that’ll speak for itself. That comes from the audience, and whether it has supporters and donors. This comes back to our 2018 conversation – how do we inspire the next generation?” says Gaurav. “I think that the festival has to be able to cater to the youth, for people who’ve never step foot into a theatre, and things that would appeal to the arts aficionados too. And that’s the basis of a national festival – it can’t just be elitist and appeal to a certain niche; it has to have appeal across a broad spectrum with its selection of programmes.”
From the implementation of the Festival House as a hub, to bringing in some of the biggest names in the art world in Singapore, this is a man who came in with a clear vision of what he wanted the festival to be, and with his upcoming final edition of the festival, through the challenges and setbacks and successes, has certainly left his mark behind on the way it’s being run.
“It’s been an interesting year of learning, and this will be a historic festival, both because of where it’s positioned internationally at this moment in time,” Gaurav concludes. “And I believe that SIFA can and will act as this banner event to bring the people and artists together.”
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here