Cross Talk

Cross Talk with Benson Puah and Kok Heng Leun: Audiences and staying relevant

Kok Heng Leun (left) and Benson Puah (right).
Kok Heng Leun (left) and Benson Puah (right).ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

In this third instalment of Cross Talk, a fortnightly series where two major figures in the arts have a chat with Life, the Esplanade chief and Drama Box artistic director talk about audiences and staying relevant

Benson Puah, long-time chief executive of the Esplanade, gestures with pride towards the arts centre's new forecourt, recently renovated to give the entrance to its theatres a more inviting feel.

The former chief executive of the National Arts Council is particularly pleased that none of the 30 table-tennis paddles and balls has gone missing from a version of artist Lee Wen's Ping-Pong Go Round art installation, a public artwork that invites the viewer to play table tennis in the round.

Puah, 58, who is married with no children, and dressed in black from head to toe as he is wont to do, has just emerged from an intense conversation with Kok Heng Leun, 49, a father of two and artistic director of socially engaged theatre group Drama Box, whose work this year has been especially public and visible with the arrival of its large, green-and-white inflatable theatres, affectionately known as GoLi.

Its portable theatres have traversed all sorts of spaces in Singapore, taking on a variety of hot- button issues - and while the Esplanade is stationary, it is arguably the most recognisable arts building in the Singapore landscape.

  • Career milestones


    1957: Born in Singapore

    1978-1982: Studied hotel, catering and tourism management at the University of Surrey in Britain, graduating with an honours degree

    1984-1988: Takes up the post of executive assistant manager at The Oriental, Singapore

    1992: Becomes first general manager of Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort

    1995-1997: Becomes chief executive of Sentosa Development Corp

    1998: Appointed chief executive of the $600-million Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay

    2002: The Esplanade officially opens

    2009: Becomes chief executive of the National Arts Council, holding two of the most influential positions in the Singapore arts scene

    2012: Diagnosed with lymphoma. He later goes into remission and is given a clean bill of health

    2013: Steps down as chief executive of the arts council


    1966: Born in Singapore

    1987-1990: Majors in mathematics at the National University of Singapore

    1990: Joins the then Ministry of Community Development as an officer

    1991: Takes up a job as a programme executive at The Substation

    1992: Joins The Necessary Stage as its business manager before going on to become a resident director

    1998: Drama Box begins operating as a full-time theatre company, with Kok coming on board as artistic director

    2000: Receives the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award

    2001: Drama Box presents Singapore's first outdoor forum theatre performance, Have You Eaten?, in Toa Payoh

    2014: The arts community nominates Kok to be its Nominated MP for the Arts in Parliament, but its bid does not go through

The two industry leaders had a wide-ranging talk about what keeps them going, how the arts must change with the times and the perennial issue of how the arts can get more sponsorship and donations. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Life: What are the challenges you face in attracting new audience members?

Kok: We know that, nowadays, audiences get their information from everywhere. How do you present it in such a way that will engage them and stimulate their imagination?

I've realised that I can't stick to doing one art form. Over the last six years, that evolution has been huge. We are no longer talking about theatre. We are talking about art in a very huge way.

Puah: Today, if we look at our younger generations, their relationship with the arts is vastly different.

For the generations past, the arts is like dessert. But for the young now, it is salt. It is part of who they are. That means their relationship with the arts, how they want to customise it, how they consume it, is very different.

Kok: Maybe artists have to question big ideas. Audiences no longer just want to express themselves. I think they want to express more than themselves. Puah: If you look at music, for instance, everyone now has a certain level of competence when it comes to playing an instrument.

So if you are an artist, how do you rise above that multitude of amateurs out there? You need to have that certain idea that can galvanise imagination over and above just yourself.

Kok: I think that makes life more difficult for artists. You need to have a certain foresightthat allows you to talk about the future and ask the audience to go into the future and challenge that possible future.Puah: I always find it problematic when we define art as something beside us. I think we do it an injustice in many ways because I guess as humans, we need to define. We need to put a thing in a box so we can understand it. But because we compartmentalise it, we don't take full advantage of it. Kok: But that compartmentalisation actually comes from how this society has been organised, this industrialisation that has compartmentalised the way it's run.

Take, for example, speaking to sponsors. (They both chuckle.)

When we speak to sponsors, are we speaking about "art is life", as part of a kind of imaginative process, or "art as product", such that it dovetails with their work? That's something I find a huge challenge. I was reading through the Esplanade's figures and, wow, you get close to $4 million to $5 million in sponsorship.

We always have this problem - Drama Box is known for not being able to get sponsors (laughs). Except for one or two. The question is, once again, that a lot of our work is hard to define as a product.

Puah: For Drama Box, or artists like yourself, to talk to a company, to try to support what you do, is going to be difficult. Because the company will want to justify reach. If I spend $10,000, do I get PR value or sales double that or equal that so I get a return? It's almost impossible. Even for us, it's increasingly difficult.

Kok: You? Such a big brand?

Puah: Yes. Because the brand is immaterial. Every year, we start all over again and it depends on programmes. We are doing a lot more new work, we are presenting a lot more local and regional artists. But sponsors prefer to sponsor Phantom Of The Opera. And I said - they don't need sponsorship (laughs).

Kok: (Laughs) But they get the sponsors.

Puah: They get million-dollar sponsors. For us to get sponsors for a lot of our endeavours, it's very difficult. When it comes to marketing dollars, there has to be a justification for a return on investment.

However, if you talk about donations, an individual can donate to you because he likes what you do. "I believe in what you do, I will support it." And there are more and more of these individuals who are willing to support a cause.

Sponsorship is a business relationship - tough. (To Kok) So I don't have good news for you (laughs).

Life: Both of you live and breathe the arts. What keeps you going despite it being difficult?

Kok: (Laughs) I think sometimes you wake up and you say, ah, why am I doing this?

Puah: (Laughs) We're also human.

Kok: We do get tired. But I think it's the people around you who give you that support, who keep telling you the work being done is important and is meaningful to them. And you may not see the fruits of your labour immediately.

Every time the basic question is: Is what I do or is what Drama Box is doing relevant, meaningful or useful?

Puah: That's why it never stands still because relevance continually evolves. What we did 13 years ago and what we need to do in the next 13 years will be vastly different.

Kok: In such a huge institution - how do you deal with the changes?

Puah: The danger of any institution is thinking that you've arrived in a port of call, it's safe, you've docked and you drop anchor. We're always on the move because we need to stay relevant.

Audiences are vastly different now. You still have audiences who want a dark room, absolute silence, no clapping - and now you have audiences who want a brighter room, more engagement, photography being allowed, Wi-Fi enabled... (laughs)

Kok: (Chuckles) In the theatre?

Puah: In the theatre. And sometimes you have both of them together. We've been going through quite a lengthy process of redefining what we need to do to prepare ourselves for the future.

I've been here 17 years. The Esplanade has been operating for 13 years. There needs to be a next generation. There has to be succession. I've been bringing in quite a few new people. I'm challenging almost everything that we're doing. Life:How long do you see yourselves continuing in this position? Puah: (Laughs) If there is a person who can capture the imagination of the team, whom we feel can lead the next generation, I'm ready and prepared and willing at any time.

I've always been very aware in an institution like this not to institutionalise myself. It has to always be larger than an individual. I believe in leadership from the rear because it is a huge collective effort.

What worked in the programming context in the early years worked well, but we cannot carry on in the same vein.

Greater risk has to be taken. The level of engagement with local artists and the manner in which we relate to one another have to also evolve. The key operative word, as Heng Leun has used, is being relevant.

Kok: Once producing starts to take more risk, as an institution which is also partly or greatly funded by the Government, that risk then has to be managed in some way. So an institution like yours may not have as much nimbleness or agility as a company like us.

Of course, when we do something "at-risk", there will be a chance we've prepared everything, then we cannot perform and then we have to digest and take in that loss. In your case, how would you then manage this kind of risk? Especially as the Esplanade is moving into more producing - then there are more grey areas. Puah: One goes in with eyes wide open. This is like conversations I have with many of my institutional colleagues, where they bemoaned, having commissioned someone, that this person decides to be "naughty".

I said, but that's the raison d'etre, that's the DNA of that company or person. Do you expect to muzzle that person? You should know what you're getting yourself into.

I think here, we are quite clear, when we choose to work with anyone, of the risks involved. You can't be naive about it. I don't believe in trying to over-manage once you've embarked on that journey.

The key is, during the decision- making process, to work with the company and to develop a certain work, we must already fully appreciate the possible consequences of that decision and then live with them, right?

Kok: It's nice to hear that because we do know more institutions are commissioning artists to do work. Most of these institutions are government-related and that kind of tension - I think it's healthy.

But sometimes it doesn't become healthy when the institution begins to encroach on the creative process.

How do we then respect each other's position, but ensure that the integrity of the work - which is why the institution wants to commission it and why the artist wants to create this work - remains. If not, then we have to go back to the first day, the first discussion.

Puah: The communication has to be clear. I think the intent must be clearly articulated. It's not just about controversial or social issues, but it's also artistic, where we also have a point of view. But that point of view mustn't be mistaken for one trying to be an artistic director.

Kok: (Laughs) One of the controversies in visual arts is the role between a curator and an artist. Who is influencing who in the final work?

Puah: At the end of the day, it is the market that is influencing the artist, I'm sorry to say (both laugh).

Kok: Sometimes I think when audiences watch a play, they feel as if they've just bought a product which is just for themselves. But they forget that when you go to see an exhibition or a theatre performance, it is a communal experience. It is a public space.

So I always define public space where there are strangers sitting beside strangers, strangers engaging with strangers with trust rather than with a lot of distrust. I think that's when a public space becomes so beautiful.

But we live in a world where people are so used to taking art as a kind of consumption. "I buy, so I have every right to enjoy it in the best way I think it should be. If I'm a bit late and it's already started - I will make a fuss."

Puah: Theatre has come under the tyranny of the purist. It's almost overly reverential sometimes.

Kok: (Laughs)

Puah: And that intimidates because unless you are part of that "sect" who understands the "code" of theatre, then you don't belong.

I remember - I shan't name the venue - it's a European venue where it's reputed, very hard to get single tickets, it's mainly subscribers and it's an orchestra hall. I was there as a guest and there were very few directional signs. Even for the toilets, it was rather discreet.

I asked, "Where are the toilets?" And you know the response I got? "If you don't know, you don't belong here." In my face.

And that's the fear I have, that you increasingly have a cultural elite and that's not a good thing. Because I believe in the democracy of the arts. Everyone should have access. That's the reason the Esplanade is what it is.

There are very few rules governing behaviour, save what as a community we all agree on, and I want to push for that to be a bit more forgiving.

But maybe what we can be less forgiving about are latecomers. (laughs) Really.

On a weekday, one can say, yes, there's work. Even on a weekend, whatever time it is, you will still have the same percentage of latecomers, if not more. Then I think that is really - I won't use the word disrespect - but I guess it's a certain relationship that hasn't been established yet or the anticipation of that experience, that you want to be there early.

Kok: The democracy of the arts for me means a number of things.

First, making it accessible. Second, within the arts itself, there are some things that should be treated with a certain reverence, but there are some which can be totally accessible.

Do we have that spectrum? Are audiences able to differentiate so that they know how to access it? Puah: It's not an issue of either you dumb it all down or you elevate it. There's enough diversity for people looking for different environments and experiences.

Do you allow mobile phones at your performances?

Kok: In our outdoor performances, you can't stop them from taking photos. The only thing we say is, don't take videos because sometimes if there's an intervention, some people may feel uncomfortable. Photographs, you can't stop. Life: Some artists or arts groups allow photographs at the curtain call.

Puah: Not just that, they say: "It's okay. Take a video, upload it and share." Because they know it's going to add to their social media value. So it really depends also on the artist. But I think for the digital native, to separate them from their tools - it's almost an extension of their arm. It's counter-intuitive. It will be increasingly challenging (laughs).

Kok: Theatre is a very different animal now.

Puah: It's evolving. We have to deal with evolving expectations.

Kok: How's the new phase (of the Esplanade)? (Note: Two mid-sized theatres that were part of the Esplanade's original building plans have not been built.)

Puah: I think it will not be within my lifetime (laughs).

Kok: Aiyoh.

Puah: But I have Plan B. I never take "no" for an answer. If I can't have my full-blown Phase Two, I'll think of an alternative. We still need to have a space which we can have an interim. I do need to move from the studio to a mid-sized theatre.

Kok: That's very important.

Puah: That's the reason we have not made as much of an impact in theatre or dance. The lack of a mid-sized space has stopped us from pushing these forms further.

Our da:ns festival could be fuller if there were more mid-sized spaces. And we can't really do a theatre festival. We are doing a lot more theatre presentations, but these are large-scale.

But we'll get there. We'll have an interim solution. Maybe that's my last hurrah (laughs).

•Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Go to for other conversations in the Cross Talk series.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Turning dessert into salt'. Print Edition | Subscribe