Incoming arts festival director Gaurav Kripalani eyes 'small but impactful' programme next year

Mr Gaurav Kripalani wants to inspire a new generation of arts-lovers.
Mr Gaurav Kripalani wants to inspire a new generation of arts-lovers.

Gaurav Kripalani, who takes over next year's International Festival of Arts, wants the country to be like the Edinburgh of Asia

Expect a "small but impactful programme" for next year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), says the incoming festival director.

This is because Gaurav Kripalani has a tight timeline. Named festival director designate of the annual arts event from May 1, he will spend a few months consulting the arts community and audience members here to "see what excites them" before deciding on next year's events.

That leaves less than a year to programme a national arts festival which usually ends by September. Still, Kripalani, 45, aims high.

His goal is a "must-see" festival, with the eventual aim of putting Singapore on the cultural map as the Edinburgh of Asia.

He tells The Straits Times that he hopes one day people will visit Singapore for Sifa, just as they head to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"It'll take a decade and it'll be longer than my tenure, but I would love to be part of that journey - growing the arts festival into something that would be internationally recognised."

The festival director designate is also artistic and managing director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). He has finished programming its seasons from next year to 2020 to free himself for his tenure at Sifa.

His colleague Charlotte Nors, who is currently executive director of SRT, will take over as SRT's managing director, but he remains involved in casting and strategic planning at SRT.

Kripalani says it is too early to say whether Sifa will follow the structure set by outgoing festival director Ong Keng Sen.

Under Ong's leadership from 2014 to last year, a main season of performances was preceded by The O.P.E.N, weeks of exhibitions, talks and performances to engage the public.

For Ong's final edition this year, Sifa is one long season of performances from June 28 to Sept 9.

Kripalani says the national arts festival must do three things.

"One, people who live here should get the opportunity to be exposed to arts and art forms that they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to see.

"Two, there have to be opportunities for local practitioners to do work they wouldn't otherwise normally do since the festival is able to fund them. Three, it has to inspire a new generation of arts-lovers."

International collaborations can be key here, allowing an exchange of ideas between theatre-makers from here and overseas.

He brings up last year, when Sifa invited famed American choreographer Bill T. Jones and members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company to present a production with students from Lasalle College of the Arts. "That's going to shape the students' lives. I'd love to find ways to do that with some of the shows we will bring in."

Kripalani also gives Ong kudos for making the festival relevant to audiences again.

Singapore's earlier national arts festival, the Singapore Arts Festival, faced dwindling audiences, took a hiatus for a year and was relaunched in 2014 under the leadership of Ong, artistic director of TheatreWorks. Last year, Sifa and The O.P.E.N had a record high attendance of 155,000.

If Ong set the artistic tone of the new festival, Kripalani could improve Sifa's sustainability. In his 21 years with SRT, he has produced more than 100 plays, including successful musicals such as The LKY Musical in 2015 and Forbidden City, a 2002 musical based on the life of Chinese empress Ci Xi. It will be restaged here in August.

Other projects include the co-commission Battlefield, legendary director Peter Brook's coda to his epic Mahabharata, staged here in 2015. From 2009 to 2011, there was The Bridge Project collaboration between The Old Vic in London, BAM in New York and well-known British director Sam Mendes. The Bridge Project staged classic Shakespearean plays here with Hollywood actors such as Ethan Hawke (The Winter's Tale, 2009) and Kevin Spacey (Richard III, 2011).

Kripalani says of his programming aesthetic: "I want a good story. It doesn't have to be linear, it doesn't have to be verbal, but it has to be a good story. I want the audience to leave the theatre debating the issues in the show, not where to have dinner.

"Even if they didn't like the show, that's fine, they should be debating why they didn't like it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Putting Singapore on the cultural map'. Print Edition | Subscribe