In 2009, amid a financial crisis and rising religious intolerance, we at Singapore's national performing arts centre decided to do something to bring calm and reflection. We created a sacred music festival. We wanted to take sacred music out of the cloisters of religious communities, put it on a secular platform and enable people of different faiths to be uplifted by great and stirring music.
And the people came.
Since then, for one weekend every April, the festival A Tapestry of Sacred Music fills the centre with spiritual sounds. These range from the rousing vocal improvisations of South Asian qawwali (Sufi devotional music) singers to the tranquil chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks.
This festival is one of many in Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's year-round calendar. It is a demonstration of our vision to be an arts centre for all, as we believe the arts can break down the walls that divide us.
Fifteen years ago, when the Esplanade opened on Oct 12, sceptics wondered if the arts centre would become a "white elephant". At that time, the arts were seen as an exclusive activity for those in the know. The last thing we wanted was to be a glittering but empty shell, underutilised and irrelevant. We wanted to be a living arts centre, alive with people who feel at home here.
To that end, we activated our public spaces to ensure that at any time, a person at the Esplanade will encounter the arts through daily free performances and art installations. For 15 years, we worked hard to develop relationships with the different communities, while raising the capabilities of the arts industry in Singapore to put on shows of the highest quality.
To date, more than 37,000 performances have taken place at the Esplanade, drawing an audience of 26 million patrons and 92 million visitors. And we continue each year to attract some two million attendances.
In 2011, famed Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min - whose Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has performed several times here - would remark in Lianhe Zaobao that Esplanade audiences are "not only there to watch performances" but to hang out with family and friends over food, beer and ice cream and that their behaviour, "be it before or after performances, always seems natural and full of joy".
He added: "A performing arts centre such as Esplanade is very rare elsewhere in the world. It represents an 'ecosystem' where arts & culture and life can coexist, and it's teeming with life."
CONNECTING COMMUNITIES, NURTURING ARTISTS
Early on, we decided that presenting arts events in a festival format gave audiences a certain focus and intensity of experiences, which translates into excitement and buzz.
In one year at the Esplanade, you can participate in cultural festivals which bring together the various ethnic communities; genre festivals dedicated to specific art forms; family, children and youth programmes, as well as community outreach and free programmes.
We hoped to weave the arts into how Singaporeans celebrate key cultural occasions. Our cultural festivals are therefore integrated with major celebrations.
For example, Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts is held during the Chinese New Year period; Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts in conjunction with Deepavali; and Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts during Hari Raya Puasa. In recent years, we introduced a weekend celebration of Holi, a spring festival celebrated in South Asia, and a weekend entitled Cipta Cita, exploring the beauty of the Malay language through the arts.
Besides connecting artists in Singapore with the region, these festivals have provided opportunities for Singaporeans across different cultural backgrounds to learn about and from each other.
There are English subtitles if a theatre production is in another language. There are introductory talks and workshops on everything from traditional art forms to heritage food. We are encouraged that audiences at these programmes are increasingly from a range of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
Over the years, our programmes have expanded to reflect Singapore's diverse society. They have also gone beyond narrow definitions of ethnicity and nationality, reflecting the complexities of identity, heritage and society in our globalised world.
Last year, a multidisciplinary work, Message from a Medicine Man, was presented at Pesta Raya and involved a Japanese sound artist, an Indonesian hip hop pioneer and a Singapore artist. At the upcoming Kalaa Utsavam, we are co-producing a cross-cultural dance production Anjaneyam, based on the ancient epic Ramayana, with Indian dance company Apsaras Arts but also featuring Singapore's Era Dance Theatre, Bimo Dance theatre from Indonesia and India's Kalakshetra Repertory Theatre.
Underlying our festivals is another critical aspect of our programming - the relationships with artists. Particularly for Singapore artists, we try to take their art further through our programmes. Take our 15-year-old indie music festival Baybeats, with its presentation and mentorship of home-grown indie bands. Several have scored hit songs or gone on to play elsewhere in Asia. In this way, Baybeats is changing perceptions among many ordinary Singaporeans of local music.
Another opportunity for developing artists is through the producing of new work. From April last year to March this year, we commissioned or co-commissioned over 10 new works, including a Noh drama-inspired double-bill, Drums, involving Singapore theatre director Chong Tze Chien. It premiered at our Super Japan - Japanese Festival of Arts in May last year, and will be restaged at the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival in December.
Another commission was a full staging of Singapore poet Pooja Nansi's You Are Here, a heartfelt one-woman play. Such commissions are based on an understanding of the artist or company's artistic development, built through the Esplanade's festivals, or through collaborations on festivals presented by arts companies.
In recent years, we have heightened our focus on the young, seniors and underserved communities. Every year, we reach out to some 10,000 voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) beneficiaries through arts performances and workshops.
Overall, it is about making sure that our arts centre welcomes all and leaves no one behind. Last year, we started producing sensory friendly performances for children on the autism spectrum or who have sensory sensitivities. These shows are more brightly lit and have no sudden or loud sounds that could alarm those with special needs.
I was so moved by a response on the Friends of ASD Families Facebook group. A mum shared that her "family's theatre-going days" ended when her son was diagnosed with autism. A few months ago, however, mother and son watched their "first show at the Esplanade together, seated on the floor and immersed in the magical experience of theatre just as I did with his older sister a whole seven years ago".
She thanked us "for redefining the rules of theatre just to embrace families with special needs". This was a proud moment for me, more than any of the high-profile performances we have staged.
A NEW MID-SIZED THEATRE
After 15 years, fund-raising and partnerships are critical to our next phase. Our 15th anniversary tagline, #mydurian - named for the shape of the Esplanade's twin domes that resemble the prickly fruit - was conceived in the spirit of encouraging people from all walks of life to take ownership of what we do as the national performing arts centre, and support us in whatever way they can.
Not many know that the Esplanade is a not-for-profit company with charity status. To supplement our commercial income, we receive grants from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Singapore Totalisator Board. However, we are expected to be increasingly less reliant on government support.
To do more, we hope more individuals can contribute to our mission and activities. Each time we host frail or elderly VWO beneficiaries, we need volunteers to assist our staff in making their visit a comfortable one.
Our community engagement team is looking for sponsors and donors to support worthwhile projects. We have piloted some of these, such as a singing project for seniors with dementia, and are ready to take them to even more.
Another challenge is engaging youth aged 13 to 26. We want to engage digitally savvy audiences well before and long after a performance. We ask ourselves if we can, together with other players in the arts, create a "digital arts centre" online that can present a new way of experiencing or learning about the performing arts in Asia.
Finally, we hope to support artistic creation in the region more effectively. Works created for mid-sized theatres make up a majority of those produced for major festivals.
The Esplanade has started fund-raising to build a 550-seat theatre along our busy waterfront. This theatre would allow the Esplanade to develop more programmes for the young, as our large and small venues are fully utilised. It would enable us to work with Singapore and regional artists to create more productions with touring potential.
Whether in doing more to engage underserved communities, or striving to become a leading performing arts producer in the region, the Esplanade's mission remains the same.
We want to bring different communities together to express themselves and find comfort, joy and introspection through the arts. Doing that effectively requires new strategies. The danger is thinking that once you have arrived in a port of call, you can safely dock and drop your anchor. We are still on the move, because we must stay relevant to the artists and audiences we serve.
- The writer is CEO of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. He is conducting a behind-the-scenes tour of the Esplanade on Dec 16. Go to https://www.esplanade.com/ mydurian/backstage-pass-with
- A longer version of this essay was published in the Cultural Connections journal by Culture Academy Singapore.