Thumbs up for O.P.E.N. atmosphere and programming, but not ticketing and jargon-filled talks

The first edition of The O.P.E.N. had good audience response but also its share of criticism

One of the acts showcased in The O.P.E.N. was by American dancer Richard Move, who performed four solos by late dancer Martha Graham. -- PHOTO: JASON SCHMIDT & THE NEW YORKER
One of the acts showcased in The O.P.E.N. was by American dancer Richard Move, who performed four solos by late dancer Martha Graham. -- PHOTO: JASON SCHMIDT & THE NEW YORKER

The O.P.E.N., held for the first time as a three-week-long prelude to the Singapore International Festival of Arts next month, drew to a close last Saturday.

A showing of the film Over My Dead Body (2012), about an artist with cystic fibrosis, marked the end of more than 40 performances, screenings and talks, which were held mostly at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road.

Audience members praised the warm atmosphere and diverse programming, but pointed out that some of the talks were unnecessarily jargon-filled. The $45 all-access-pass ticketing format was also a deterrent to some.

The O.P.E.N. - which stands for open, participate, enrich and negotiate - was styled as a popular academy and sought to introduce some of the themes and issues of the main festival.

The arts festival, previously run by the National Arts Council, is now organised by an independent company with avant garde theatre-maker Ong Keng Sen as festival director.

The O.P.E.N. drew more than 8,500 registrations over three weeks, which translates to 90 per cent of available tickets being snapped up.

Ong says that the audience response surpassed expectations.

"We were nervous because The O.P.E.N. is a new idea, and we didn't know whether it would work," he says.

"But if you look at the first two weeks, we had 4,600 people. It was quite thrilling to see events packed to the brim, to see 200 people a session. It was exciting."

Mr Daniel Ho Sheng, 24, attended about 15 events at The O.P.E.N., and enjoyed "the wide variety of issues" that the programme covered, from talks on post-apartheid South Africa to screenings of films from experimental theatre company The Wooster Group.

For Mr Ho, though, who recently graduated with a master's degree in international relations from the Nanyang Technological University, the excessively technical language used at some of the talks was off-putting.

He says: "As it's meant to be for the public, they could tone it down and maybe not use so much terminology."

He suggests that for future editions, there could be some sort of classification system: "Events could be categorised according to levels, such as one for beginners, so people don't get a shock when they attend."

Another festivalgoer, Ms Chen Wei Victoria, 20, attended about 14 events at The O.P.E.N.

Ms Chen, who will embark on a degree in acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in September, says that she enjoyed how The O.P.E.N. bridged the gap between the audience and the artist.

"A lot of the time, we see the art but not the artist. I believe that art should speak for itself, but when you hear the artist speaking, it opens your eyes to a whole new level of art appreciation, and interaction with the world around us," says Ms Chen, who attended a talk by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, as well as a video chat with French choreographer Jerome Bel.

She also enjoyed the atmosphere at converted warehouse space 72-13 - the home of TheatreWorks, of which Ong is artistic director - where there were beanbags and a free flow of coffee.

"The beanbags were so comfortable, and 72-13 is a really great space. It's open and spacious, and even though it's a bit out of the way, you know it's a place where people can meet and share ideas."

However, the all-access pass system discourged Ms Carol Chan from attending any events.

The 27-year-old graduate student wanted to catch a screening of Norte, The End Of History (2013), a film loosely based on Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment, but found the $45 price tag - which allowed the audience to attend as many events as they wanted - too steep.

"A friend and I wanted to go, but because of our schedules, we could be sure of attending only one event. We weren't sure if it could justify the $45," she says.

She suggests selling single tickets in addition to the pass system, "maybe between $10 and $15 - $10 is what is charged for a movie screening at The Arts House".

Ong says that the organisers settled on a $45 all-access pass format so that "people can feel encouraged to come without having to count every single ticket that they have to buy".

He did say that single tickets are "something we're thinking about a bit" for future editions, but pointed out that the $45 cost of the pass was "almost like a regular theatre ticket".

Overall, he and his team are pleased with the reception that The O.P.E.N. has received and says that they will be taking feedback from the audience into consideration for future editions.

"I think with The O.P.E.N., we need to let it continue a bit more before we start changing things," he says.

"Of course, there are details we can improve on and we'll be looking into feedback from the audience survey forms - things such as The O.P.E.N. being too far away from the main festival as it's held a month before.

"We will reflect on them."

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