This year, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival sold more tickets even as attendance of free events dipped by half.
The 12th edition of the annual arts festival, which had the theme of Art & The Animal, recorded an attendance of 9,900 at its run of free and ticketed events from Jan 13 to Sunday. Last year, there were close to 15,000.
The festival, sponsored by telco M1 and organised under the umbrella of home-grown troupe The Necessary Stage, has been helmed since last year by festival director Sean Tobin and festival manager Jezamine Tan.
They took over from playwright Haresh Sharma, director Alvin Tan and The Necessary Stage general manager Melissa Lim.
Mr Tobin, 44, is not worried about this year's numbers. First, the line-up of theatre and dance-theatre shows from Singapore and overseas had 4,108 paying for tickets this year, up from 3,608 last year.
Second, he expected the drop in attendance of free events - 5,800 compared with last year's 11,400 - as visual arts exhibitions were this year geared towards smaller venues such as The Substation Gallery. One of the scheduled events, Singapore artist Marla Bendini's Tracks, was also cancelled when the artist could not meet the submission deadline.
In contrast, last year's theme of Art & Loss generated three crowd-pullers: interactive installations by Canadian artist Shelly Quick and Singaporeans Asha Bee Abraham and Tan Ngiap Heng placed at the Concourse and the Platform of the National Museum of Singapore.
"That gets a lot of people passing by," he said.
He thinks the festival line-up and its outreach are at "a good, healthy size" and that the festival is holding its own against the rival claims of art fair Art Stage and Singapore Art Week, both held around the same time.
"Right now, the size and scale we see and the quality you see at the festival is what you should expect. If you try to make it the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, you might not get the audience," he said, referring to the largest arts festival in the world.
The theme for next year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is Art & Skin and proposals will be accepted until March 4.
Of the 29 ticketed shows of theatre and dance-theatre programmed this year, 17 were sold out.
Three works by Singaporean artists commissioned for the festival were among the sold-out shows: the folklore-inspired theatre work by Zeugma, The Chronicles Of One And Zero: Kancil; a one-woman performance on the ethics of humans' treatment of animals, Bi(Cara) performed by Sharda Harrison and presented by Pink Gajah Theatre; and Edith Podesta's feminist take on popular mythology, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species.
Also popular were playwright Jean Tay's new work, The Shape Of A Bird, presented by Saga Seed Theatre, which sold out two of three shows. Human Bestiary, a work of multimedia theatre inspired by global warming and animal extinction and presented by Mexican troupe Principio... sold out both its shows.
Local works sell out at the festival because they have an established audience, Mr Tobin says.
The festival is also a favourite of schools and polytechnics.
Pasir Ris Secondary has been sending students in the Express stream to the festival for the past nine years.
This year, Mr Lokhman Haris, 34, subject head of aesthetics, took four classes of 40 students each to the festival.
Two attended performances of B*tch and two caught White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a cold reading of a play by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour.
"The festival has done a good job keeping the prices low for students and keeping the content accessible," the teacher said.
He likes the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival also for offering "clean" and thought-provoking theatre options for his students.
"The language for The Origin Of The Female Species was challenging, but it was an eye-opening experience for the students," he said.
On the bus ride back, the students talked about the themes of Podesta's play. Other students went online to find out more about Soleimanpour.
Young viewers may continue to attend the festival even after they no longer qualify for student concessionary rates ($19, $22 for others).
Ms Mabel Tan, 26, recently completed a diploma in fine art from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. She has attended the festival for the past three years.
This year, she caught Canadian performer Cat Kidd's Hyena Subpoena at the National Museum's Gallery Theatre.
She did not think it was as strong as last year's performance in the same space, The Duchamp Syndrome, presented by Mexican and American theatre companies, but still plans to check out next year's festival.
"I like the work they have presented so far and it's always engaging," she said. "I believe they'll keep their standards high."