Taking arts festival to the community

10) ONG KENG SEN, 52, festival director, Singapore International Festival of Arts

In a year packed with performances to celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday, the second edition of the revamped national arts festival, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), still drew 62,000 viewers - nearly three times last year's crowd.

For this and for a strong programming line-up that also raised the bar in terms of community engagement, festival director Ong Keng Sen is on the Power List this year.

The artistic director of TheatreWorks and Cultural Medallion recipient was on the list in 2005 (No. 4) and 2008 (No. 7) for his contributions to theatre. He was also on the list in 2013 (No. 10) for revamping the arts festival, which was under the National Arts Council until 2012.

He shared the 2013 spot with Ms Lee Chor Lin, chief executive officer of Arts Festival Limited, the independent company that took over the running of the festival.

Ong says: "What's successful about Sifa is that people are buying into the brand. We're not afraid to say that we're about content and we remain true to that."

This year's arts festival, which ran from Aug 6 to Sept 19, had the eyebrow-raising theme of Post-Empires, but succeeded in getting the point across.

The 66 events in the line-up included 12 original commissions from home-grown groups - in past years a recipe for low ticket sales, but this year, were wellreceived by critics and audiences.

Some events moved out of conventional theatres and into heartland spaces, while still showcasing art meant to provoke as well as entertain.

Singapore theatre company Drama Box engaged audiences in forum theatre works about the scarcity of space here at Bukit Brown Cemetery and in inflatable GoLi theatres outside Toa Payoh Community Library.

Stand-up comedian Kumar and his team took their tongue-in-cheek take on neighbourliness to open amphitheatres and multi-purpose halls in Marsiling and Tampines. With the help of the People's Association, some families even opened up their homes as intimate theatre venues for the festival.

"Usually, people think public art is juggling or choral performance, but here, it was engaging them in a deeper way," Ong says. "For me, art is a way to experience the world. This is a place where we can be exposed to emotions we don't allow ourselves to feel usually."

He plans to include similar experiences in the 2017 edition of the festival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Taking arts festival to the community'. Print Edition | Subscribe