Record turnout at 11th edition of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).
Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).PHOTOS: THE NECESSARY STAGE, ASHA BEE ABRAHAM
Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).
Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).PHOTOS: THE NECESSARY STAGE, ASHA BEE ABRAHAM
Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).
Out Character (top), Tan Ngiap Heng's exhibition, Fade... (above), and Asha Bee Abraham's installation, Where The Heart Is (right).PHOTOS: THE NECESSARY STAGE, ASHA BEE ABRAHAM

Helmed by new curators, annual event also had more poly and JC students attending

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which ended on Sunday, saw audiences old and new returning to the festival as it came under new leadership this year.

The 11th edition of the festival was curated by the School of the Arts' head of theatre Sean Tobin and festival manager Jezamine Tan, who took the reins from three long-time organisers: director Alvin Tan, playwright Haresh Sharma and Melissa Lim, general manager of The Necessary Stage.

The festival continues to be organised by the home-grown theatre company with telco M1 as the title sponsor. Its total audienceship this year for both ticketed and non-ticketed events was 14,989, a slight increase from last year's total of almost 14,000 audience members.

Festival manager Jezamine Tan, 31, was pleasantly surprised at the increase, given that last year, the 10th anniversary of the Fringe, had set record attendances. That was thanks in part to cheaper tickets across the board - $19 to this year's $22.

"We're very, very happy," she says, "It was massively stressful because Alvin, Haresh and Melissa have done this for 10 years and we had huge 10-year-old shoes to fill."

Attendance for ticketed events stood at 3,608 audience members this year, a drop from last year's 4,293 but still higher than 2013's 3,595. Performance venues were, on average, 86 per cent full.

Ms Tan also notes that there were more polytechnic and junior college students attending this year's edition, who stayed on for post-show discussions with the artists.

She says: "We want to create an environment where people can ask questions. It shouldn't be a scary, intimidating thing, especially for younger theatre audiences."

The festival explored its theme of Art & Loss in a variety of ways, with some works opting for the tender and humorous, and others skirting the heavier edge of grief. While some works were more naturalistic and accessible and others more abstract and visceral, the personality of the festival - intimate, risk- taking and at once incisive and playful - came through.

Five productions were completely sold out: With/Out, Loo Zihan's multimedia tribute to the late Paddy Chew, the first Singaporean to publicly announce his HIV-positive status; Noor Effendy Ibrahim's physical theatre piece The Malay Man And His Chinese Father; Joel Tan's examination of millennial living and Singapore's loss of physical heritage in Mosaic; The Necessary Stage's revival of two of its short, abstract works in the doublebill, untitled women; and The Duchamp Syndrome, a quirky and humorous interpretation of one immigrant's American dream by theatre companies from Mexico and the United States.

Festival director Tobin, 42, says: "I was lucky that what I had in mind worked out. I really wanted a strong, healthy amount of local content, and I wanted it from various more established artists. I felt that the festival was really a celebration of fringe work in Singapore.

"Sometimes festival culture in Singapore has a pop-up feel and doesn't really add to much or necessarily represent what's going on, or sow back into Singapore in a very strategic way. So I'm hoping that we can do that increasingly."

Audiences agreed. Writer-editor Dan Koh, 27, named the focus on Singapore artists "the best thing" at the Fringe, adding that "the sheer diversity of works on offer was very exciting". He cited The Malay Man And His Chinese Father and With/Out as some of his favourite productions.

However, he took issue with some of the visual art works, particularly artist Jason Wee's online exhibition Mambo Night For A King, a series of photographs and videos of Singaporeans doing mambo moves to Lee Kuan Yew's memoir From Third World To First. Koh says: "It was really a throwaway. Honestly, this rash of LKY-inspired art is really almost exploitative. It's so passe."

Drama and literature teacher Yin Mei Lenden, 31, has been taking her secondary school students to the Fringe Festival for about five years, and this year was no different. Ms Lenden, who works with her students to devise their own theatre works, says: "There's a lot of experimental theatre at the Fringe, and we want them to break away from what is seen as conventional theatre."

She also attended a devising masterclass conducted by Sharma and Alvin Tan, which she thoroughly enjoyed. The masterclass is a new element at the Fringe.

Ms Lenden says: "It was also very accessible and there were definitely things I could take away as a teacher, not just as a performer or practitioner. These are techniques I can use in class."

Next year's festival will be themed Art & the Animal, and The Necessary Stage is accepting proposals until March 6.

Tobin says: "I want the Fringe to keep being friendly and approachable, to be fiercely experimental and innovative and fresh and not obliged to follow the mainstream - but neither should it be alienating. It should reach out as much as possible and I want to keep that alive."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan