After serving as Festival Director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) for the last four years, Gaurav Kripalani is finally back full time as Artistic Director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). Without a doubt, with the new connections forged and experience gained, his plans for the company are bigger than ever, starting off with SRT’s first production of 2022 – a new version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF). Speaking to Gaurav before the show begins its run, we found out more about the company’s new initiatives, and his optimism for 2022 and beyond.
“One of the only reasons I could serve as Festival Director was because we had our Managing Director Charlotte (Nors) on the team, and knowing she was helming everything brilliantly allowed me to split my time between SIFA and SRT,” says Gaurav. “Coming back now, what’s exciting is that we have so many amazing plans, especially some long term projects, and we’re really excited about the next few years.”
With the ever-increasing quantity of vaccinated individuals in Singapore, the National Arts Council has issued updates to their guidelines on live performances – a godsend for the arts scene after having struggled with limited audience capacity and financially unviable performances for the last two years. With the new VDS + Test Pilot events initiative, this allows for more cast and crew involved in production, as well as the potential for theatres to receive audiences at full capacity, with no safe distance required between audience members.
“I am absolutely delighted with the new guidelines after the last two years, and the fact that it’s being piloted is a huge step forward,” says Gaurav. “If you look at other countries’ experience with Omicron, I’m sure Singapore will follow suit where it’ll eventually calm down after hitting a peak, and we’re planning around that. For now, Miss Julie will still seat audiences in twos with safe distancing, and we’re only operating at 30% of our max capacity. But we’re hoping that from our next production, we can return to 100%.”
SRT is no stranger to international collaborations, but this new production of Miss Julie feels especially poignant, considering how difficult international flights have been, and how much coordination is required between the three countries involved (Singapore, Hong Kong and the UK). “Miss Julie had a very fast turnaround time – HKAF called me and said they were producing this show, which Amy Ng had written, and Ng Choon Ping has been brought on to direct,” says Gaurav, on how the project began. “What they needed was a producing partner, and I said yes. This partnership with Hong Kong works well – they started the process, but needed us to put it all together, and that’s something we’re actually really good at.”
“The main reason we said yes was that we’re both interested in co-producing adaptations of classic work, and setting it in a context that will have resonance with audiences here and Hong Kong, before potentially touring. It’s about building and maintaining the longer term partnership with HKAF,” adds Gaurav. “I’ve known the folks in Hong Kong for 20 years now, and we’ve always had a good relationship, always found the right show to do and the right partnership.”
“COVID-19 may have brought international touring to a virtual standstill, but it gave us the opportunity to really discuss potential projects we could do with our neighbours. Plus, flights between Singapore and Hong Kong were still happening, and we’re genuinely hoping this will be the first of many collaborations together.”
Of course, the process hasn’t been completely smooth, with all the restrictions and limitations, but Gaurav is proud of what they’ve achieved in spite of it all, and confident of what they’re putting onstage. “We have two actors and a director based in the UK, one Singaporean actor, and partners based in Hong Kong. It was a very ambitious task to fulfil in a short amount of time, and in hindsight, we would certainly budget more time for the development process, and would have been a lot easier if it were an existing script,” says Gaurav. “But everything is an opportunity for learning, and in fact, we’re already in talks with Hong Kong about potential projects for 2023, and that would give us enough development time once we lock it in.”
While the original Miss Julie was written by August Strindberg, this new production uses a brand new script by Hong Kong playwright Amy Ng, which transposes the setting from Sweden to post-war Singapore, no longer a Midsummer celebration, but instead, Chinese New Year. The titular Miss Julie is now the daughter of a British tycoon, and crashes the servants’ party downstairs, embarking on an affair with a mixed-race chauffeur
“It’s a play that’s relevant on so many levels – you’ve got the power structure between classes and the racial tensions, and by setting it in the 1940s, the racial structure and hierarchy was more pertinent then, and if you have an English girl and a mixed race man having an affair, it’s more explosive,” says Gaurav.
“Even today, you do see a certain amount of xenophobia and class struggle in modern day society, so it’s a play that actually does work on different levels.”
Miss Julie is bound for Hong Kong in March after its run in Singapore ends in February, to be presented at the 2022 Hong Kong Arts Festival. With the constant changes the pandemic has brought however, both SRT and the HKAF are hanging tight and keeping their fingers crossed it goes without a hitch. “I chat to the Hong Kong team everyday, and we’ve set a deadline to decide whether we’re bringing the production over or not,” says Gaurav. “But in fact, the actors and stage manager are already contracted to do two weeks of quarantine in Hong Kong, so they’re already ready to go if we get the green light, and all we can do is hope that the situation remains stable.”
For a show that premieres in January, all the work leading up to it has to take place in December, at a time when most people are enjoying the end of the year and leaving work behind. “When you know you have a show on, the team just functions right? Our team was clear that they were going to work during the holiday season, and to be honest, the greater issue is ticket sales – audiences are the ones on holiday mode and may not necessarily be paying attention to what’s happening in January,” says Gaurav.
Reflecting on how much SRT has changed since its inception, Gaurav discusses the ‘repertory’ part of the company’s name and its evolution since 30 years ago. “When we started the company, the goal really was to be a repertory company, where we would have a core group of actors who would perform in 3 plays at the same time – so you could watch Hamlet on Friday and Romeo and Juliet on Saturday and Merchant of Venice on Sunday,” says Gaurav. “But we realised that having full time actors on payroll wasn’t very viable in Singapore, and the repertoire of shows would be too restrictive, which is why we shifted to a per show programming instead.”
“At the core of SRT is good storytelling, and as long as we’re telling a really good story, we’re good.”
Looking back on the last two years, SRT and the theatre scene haven’t had an easy time, which is why SRT is thankful for their core sponsors, Bloomberg and Deloitte, who have stuck with them throughout this difficult period. “We work very closely with them, and while we haven’t done our big banner productions like Shakespeare in the Park like they’re used to, we’re very blessed that they’ve stuck by us throughout,” says Gaurav. “Many companies might say times are tough and cut the arts budget first, but they’re still supporting us, and really, are true philanthropists.”
Throughout our interviews, Gaurav has shown himself to be a constant optimist, no matter how tough things have gotten, and that clearly has seen both SIFA and SRT through the pandemic, constantly pulling through and overcoming every obstacle thrown their way. “You know, even the non-essential survey The Straits Times did, while people got agitated and outraged about it, it brought us good because the arts were brought to the fore, and people realised we were essential, and they would not have survived covid without music and movies and theatre and dance,” says Gaurav.
“This first half of 2022 will be tough – Omicron is likely to hit its peak, but by the second half of the year, I think things will start to improve,” he adds. “Back in 2020 when we cancelled SIFA because of the pandemic, I already knew that this wasn’t a pandemic that was going to conclude in 6 months, and would likely take around two to three years. So mentally, we were prepared, planned our entire season and for the first time, it felt like we were getting somewhere, and I really think that we can be at full capacity again for our next big production.”
Looking ahead even further, Gaurav is grateful for his time as Festival Director, and how he’s bringing what he took away from the experience to SRT. “I think the big change that’s going to happen for everyone is incorporating technology into everything we do. I’m very proud of how we could pivot SIFA into the online and hybrid editions in 2020 and 2021, and I think it was one of the largest arts festivals to happen in the world last year,” says Gaurav. “I’m reminded of how when SARS happened in 2003, SRT itself was almost shut down – the whole country was at a standstill for 6 months and no one was prepared, including us. And we got through it by begging and borrowing, and I told myself, I never want to be in that position again, so it was important to start building a rainy day fund.”
“One other thing I learnt is that if we could survive that, we could survive anything. So the mindset going into COVID-19 was very much a ‘we can do this’ mentality, and it became a learning opportunity to incorporate more technology, as well as building up my relationships with more artists in Singapore, and growing our international contacts, all of which I think will be invaluable for creating the work we’re imagining for the future.”
Beyond Miss Julie, Gaurav reveals he has big plans for other productions for the year, alongside The Little Company and Young Company training programmes. But for now, he’s keeping his lips sealed until an official reveal, and that we stay tuned for big things to come from SRT. “After serving as SIFA director, I think audiences and artists do know me a bit better now, and I have my share of fans and detractors. But even for the detractors, I’m hoping some of those detractors come on and see what I’m trying to do, to support artists in the community during COVID,” he says.
For now, Gaurav remains fully committed to SRT, but also keeps his own health and well-being in mind. “I think the best thing to come out of the pandemic for me was how I’ve never had the chance to spend time on myself like this throughout my entire life. And I know the circuit breaker was very challenging from a work point of view, and had a huge effect and impact on the festival and SRT. But with the three months at home, it was such an invaluable reset. And with that, amidst all the productions and initiatives we’re planning and launching, I think that I’ll finally start factoring in some me time in 2022.”
Miss Julie plays from 25th January 2022 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here