Over the last four years, Gaurav Kripalani has served as Festival Director of the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Considering the scale of the festival, that role alone would already be enough to keep any ordinary person’s day full.
But if you look at the number of responsibilities he’s had in this past year alone, suffice to say that Gaurav is nothing less than extraordinary, not only having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also running his own theatre company (Singapore Repertory Theatre) at the same time. And the cherry on top? Having made a rare return to perform onstage in one of SIFA 2021’s opening shows amidst it all.
“The Commission was quite a scary experience for me,” he says, in our interview over Zoom. “In theatre, it’s already scary to go onstage with a known script, let alone this new one where you have to bare your own soul. And at 50, it’s infinitely harder to remember all those lines than when you were 25.”
“Of course, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience working with Ivan (Heng). Adrian (Pang), and Tracie (Pang). But it really was a challenge to run SRT, a festival and act, all in the midst of a pandemic,” he admits. “To juggle that, I had to know what I was doing at every minute of the day, because I had such a packed schedule.”
“The day The Commission opened was such as surreal day for me. That was the day they announced the new heightened alert measures, and after our dress rehearsal, I headed over to the Victoria Theatre, had a crisis meeting on how we would proceed, then went downstairs to welcome the guest-of-honour to the Louis Soliano show, before going back to Funan for the opening performance.”
Gaurav’s journey hasn’t been an easy one from the moment he stepped into the Festival Director’s shoes, given just 6 months to put together his first edition in 2018. “We had very limited time, but I was very proud of what we had managed to achieve,” he says. “In the beginning, I found myself having to explain to everyone what SIFA was. And now, I no longer have to do that. By the time we got to 2019, I think that’s when people really saw the vision and direction we were going in, something that would have culminated in the 2020 programming.”
Gaurav’s vision for SIFA was simple: create a festival of diverse offerings that would bring people from all walks of life together to appreciate the arts. “Theatre does like having bells and whistles, but I remember how I was struck by Taha when I first saw it in London, and how it kept me mesmerised for an entire hour with just one man onstage,” Gaurav recalls. “After watching it at the Young Vic, I went to the box office, wrote a note telling them that I was interested in the show, who I was, but that I hadn’t done a festival yet. They said come have a drink, and we ended up chatting for a few hours. 6 months later, they came to Singapore, and people here saw the magic for themselves.”
“This is the beauty of what we do – selecting and bringing in these incredible shows, and to show people the magic of the performing arts. I’m fortunate that I’ve spent about 20 years travelling the world, attending festivals, sourcing for shows, and building up an international network, one that has grown immensely over last 4 years, and that I can tap on to get help and advice on running an international festival.”
“I also decided early on that I was not going to programme anything that would cannibalise on what others were already doing,” he continues. “For example, the Esplanade has a wonderful relationship with Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and already presents all their work in Singapore, so SIFA wouldn’t touch that.”
Perhaps one of Gaurav’s biggest contributions to the festival is the offer of a longer gestation period for local commissions, along with the funds and resources they would need to make it become a reality. “For the local commissions, when we were briefing the local artists, we told them that we were here to support them in creating a work they would not normally be able to do in their regular season,” says Gaurav. “In giving them three years to develop the work, that should be the normal gestation period for any work, and we were here to provide resources and money to get them to think out of the box.”
“Toy Factory’s A Dream Under The Southern Bough was an interesting case, because Boon Teck was the one that suggested the trilogy. We wanted to pitch the first year as a precursor of things to come, and that initial black box production was a way to gauge if we should pursue it for the next two years. The response was good, and with this year’s edition, they really delivered in terms of production value.”
Beyond the local commissions, SIFA has now also established itself clearly in the annual calendar to fall in May, making it an event for arts goers to look forward to and mark off. No matter who you were, SIFA would be accessible, particularly for students, who could enjoy limited front row tickets at a huge discount. “Everyone thought the student tickets were a great idea, and credit has to go to Charlotte for championing it,” says Gaurav. “The philosophy is simple after all – if you put young people at the front of the theatre, that energy ripples through the entire house, making it a good opportunity for them, and energises the whole show, making it a win-win situation.”
“One of my fondest memories was creating the Festival House with Arts House gave it an epicentre and a home. I’m a little sad we couldn’t have it in the same way this year, because to me, it was so important that we have this place we can all hang out in the evening at the end of a show, gathering artists and audience together. I remember that feeling back in 2018, over opening weekend, and how incredible it was to hear all the jazz musicians jamming with each other, and I got goosebumps.”
For all the success SIFA has enjoyed, it certainly has come with its challenges too, most significantly, when COVID-19 struck the world last year, bringing all the momentum Gaurav and his team had been building to a grinding halt. The 2020 edition had been fully programmed and announced by then, the international artists invited and the team ready to put everything into motion, only for it to be almost completely shelved till further notice.
“Even with the cancellation of the 2020 edition, one of the proudest moments for the team was SIFA v2.020,” says Gaurav, on the interim measures the team took to replace the 2020 edition of the festival. “That was an act of programming a festival in real time, literally planning what we were going to do in a week, or a month. While everyone during circuit breaker was at home watching Netflix, the team was working at this frenetic pace to get v2.020 off the ground and programme 2021’s festival at the same time.”
“Our goal was still to create as many jobs and employment opportunities as we could for artists, something the National Arts Council shared, alongside keeping the arts top of the mind in the public consciousness, and we had their full support.”
An issue like COVID-19 is certainly daunting, but Gaurav has managed to soldier on with his team, with the 2021 edition of the festival coming through stronger than ever. “Even with the challenges, I wanted to still carry on as SIFA director,” he says. “When I was first asked to take over as Festival Director, I was so thrilled and honoured, and had no qualms about the role.”
“Over the years, I’ve seen so many different art forms, learnt so much about our own arts scene, and seen the sheer range of incredible talent that we have here, with so many people I’m still discovering doing great work,” he muses. “One of the biggest things I’ve appreciated is having three incredible producers – Ye Junmin, Fezhah Maznan and Sara Fang, who have been working alongside me for the last 4 years. I’ve learnt so much from them, and their expertise has been invaluable, and they really don’t get as much credit as they deserve!”
“I am very proud of where we’ve taken SIFA, and that there are now many more Singaporeans what know what SIFA is now. We’ve created a brand identity for ourselves, and you would recognise SIFA if it appeared on a bus-stop or MRT,” he continues. “It’s been a wonderful experience, with its fair share of good and bad times, but I’m leaving this job very happy with how we’ve grown the festival, both in terms of the audience base and artists involved.”
Gaurav knows that the route to becoming a Festival Director is a difficult one, and has already laid the path for his successor Natalie Hennedige. “I’ve had many conversations with Natalie, and one of the results of my extra year is that it also gave her one, which I think should be the handover duration, as opposed to the 6 months I experienced in my first year,” says Gaurav. “With the extra time, she’s had the benefit of being in the office, to be able to interact with the producers, and have conversations about the vision she has for her festival, and now has a wonderful running start to her tenure.”
But even as Gaurav returns to helm SRT full time, the experiences he’s had as SIFA director will never leave him, and he fully intends to use all that he’s learnt and gained over the last 4 years to continue to develop himself and the local arts scene. “I’m very fortunate that I was allowed to keep running SRT at the same time as SIFA, which I am now very much looking forward to going back to,” he says. “SRT has always presented shows, something we’ll continue to do, alongside touring and bringing in other shows once travel becomes an option again. With the wealth of experiences and networks of the last 4 years, that certainly helps too.”
“But looking even further, I’m on the board of the International Society of Performing Arts, and I hope that Singapore can one day be positioned to host international arts events, a place where people are going to come to for the exchange of ideas,” he says. “I’m still mulling over all that, but I would love for some of the phenomenal people I’ve met to come see Singapore, to learn more about the local arts scene, and hopefully, I can play a part in facilitating that. And of course, give local artists exposure, get their work out there.”
Hearing him recount all that to us, it’s almost a relief to hear that he’s since managed to catch a breath for himself after all of this has concluded. That comes in the form of yet another SIFA-related programme, as the installation Musical Swings finally opened at Cathay Green last week, where he got to try it out for himself. Naturally, the image of a smiling Gaurav, fully-dressed in a suit and swinging to his heart’s content, lives rent-free in our head.
“As I sat on the swing, I realised that I hadn’t been on one in years,” he says. “And with everything going on, it was just so wonderful to just swing for twenty minutes in the middle of the day like that.”
Musical Swings is available at Cathay Green until 11th July 2021, and is free with registration. More information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021, with shows available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here