Audience unfazed by Singapore Writers Festival's move to more ticketed events

Speakers and audience at the closing debate of the Singapore Writers Festival.
Speakers and audience at the closing debate of the Singapore Writers Festival. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival reached an audience of nearly 20,000 people - the same as last year - but more among these paid to attend lectures, classes or workshops at the annual literary event.

Revenue for the festival, which ran from Oct 30 to Nov 8, went up 80 per cent compared with last year, according to a statement released by the National Arts Council on Nov 16. The actual amount was not revealed but 39 events this year required tickets costing between $20 and $50 each, compared with 18 such events last year.

Festival organisers this year charged for workshops for children, which were free last year, and also added ticketed performances that went beyond author readings and meet-and-greet sessions.

Bestsellers included an overnight showcase of music, drama and visual arts at The Arts House, What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem, curated by Huzir Sulaiman of Checkpoint Theatre. The first of its kind at the festival, the event was sold out, with 420 tickets snapped up at $50 each.

Just over 1,300 people paid $35 each for Harvard professor Michael Sandel's lecture on morality and market forces Nov 5 at the University Cultural Centre. It was the best-attended ticketed event in the history of the festival. It outstripped the lecture given by Freakanomics author Steven Levitt in 2011 (630 attended).

Festival organisers recorded a participation of 19,700 people in the 310 events programmed this year, compared with 19,500 attendance at 280 events last year. Separately, about 11,000 took part in pre-festival events such as schools outreach programme Words Go Round, compared with 11,600 last year.

During the festival period, 39 events were ticketed, 105 required a $20 Festival Pass for entry and the rest were free. About 6,700 people attended ticketed events, 7,000 attended festival pass events and 6,000 turned up at free events.

In total, ticket sales went up 30 per cent even as festival pass sales dipped slightly: about 3,000 taken up this year, comparable with last year's 3,200.

Barista Callyn Tan, 38, bought a festival pass this year and attended six panels. Her favourite was International Criminal Minds on Nov 8, featuring thriller writers such as Sophie Hannah from Britain. She said: "I love mysteries and people doing evil or just plain dubious things. This brought together writers from the UK, Norway and Japan and a lawyer from Singapore which was really interesting. A layered talk with so many interesting new perspectives."

This year was the first festival programmed by poet and former Straits Times journalist Yeow Kai Chai. He took over as festival director last year after the festival ran annually for four years with current deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council Paul Tan at the helm.

The next edition of the festival will be from Nov 4 to Nov 13 next year.

The Straits Times was the official media partner of the festival.

akshitan@sph.com.sg