The $30 million waterfront theatre, slated to open at the Esplanade in 2021, would be a welcome addition to the iconic cultural institution - whose visual familiarity engendered an immediate and fond popular comparison with the beloved durian. When the Esplanade opened its doors in 2002, it added more than architectural substance to the Singapore skyline. It announced accelerated official support for the arts, which had been an arena of public life that had taken a far second place to the pursuit of economic growth and stability in the post-Independence years. Although the concept of a national arts centre had been hatched in the 1970s, Singapore's arts scene had to survive years of relative austerity before the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts released its 1989 report reconceptualising the role of the arts in public life. The report noted how the arts broaden minds and deepen sensibilities, providing the social bonds that help to give the nation a unique character.
Opening in the early years of this century, the Esplanade inaugurated a phase in which the centrality of the arts in the holistic development of Singapore was acknowledged in the form of a world-class performing space that would quickly transform the artistic boundaries of the nation. One essential aspect of that broadening was to emphasise Singapore's place in South-east Asia by tailoring seating arrangements to the needs of traditional art forms such as the Thai dance- drama khon and the Balinese kecak.
Yet, the very success of the Esplanade has created new problems. It caters well to large and small audiences, but there is demand for intermediate space by new works of dance and theatre created in Singapore or overseas. The mid-sized venue of the waterfront theatre, which will seat around 550 people, should help to plug the gap. The reinvention of the Esplanade acknowledges that it must evolve in tandem with efforts to ensure its economic sustainability. It also shows that supply-side constraints can and will be removed to uphold the pristine place of an institution that has become synonymous with Singapore's aspiration for a livelier artistic scene and wider appreciation of the performing arts.
The Esplanade needs greater scope to pursue its aesthetic mandate as the arts are very much a part of the borderless world - whose workings, both good and bad, are seen in the agency of the Internet in general and social media in particular. The Esplanade would fulfil a critical real-world function by bringing the rest of the world into Singapore even as it presents Singapore to its own citizens and others. It is through the arts that a people, especially the young, appreciate their place in time and cultivate their emotional and intellectual response to the events of the day, year, decade or era.