It started as a young persons’ theatre festival. But today, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is a bold, headline-making platform for artists.
BY JO TAN
Published on 5 January 2016
BY JO TAN
Now into its 12th year of presenting cutting-edge curations and provocative performances, it’s hard to imagine that the audacious annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival originated as a young persons’ theatre festival.
“The M1 Fringe Festival was originally the M1 Youth Connection, of which I was the artistic director,” says Sean Tobin, head of Theatre at School of the Arts and former associate artistic director of The Necessary Stage (TNS), which organises the Fringe Festival. “There were so many exciting new things coming out of there that TNS was talking about evolving it beyond the youth scene, and developing it into a fringe festival. So before I returned to Australia to work for a few years, I was with Alvin [Tan, artistic director of TNS], handpicking programmes for the first Fringe Festival.”
Tobin has come full circle. Since last year, he’s taken over from Tan and TNS resident playwright Haresh Sharma as artistic director of the Fringe Festival, and is helping to evolve the festival even further — as a fuller platform to develop art. “I took a lot from what Alvin and Haresh had established. Being artistic director is not just picking works for a pop-up festival — as great as it is choosing from over 150 submissions. I’m also trying to make sure that the made-in-Singapore works, especially, are well-developed.
“Having been an artist in the Fringe Festival a couple of times, I’m conscious of how difficult it is in Singapore to develop an independent work for a festival because you don’t have a rehearsal space, you don’t have a company.” He shares that on occasions, when brand-new work from Singapore is placed alongside very seasoned work from overseas, audiences may walk away disappointed with the homegrown production.
“But this is the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, it should highlight work happening in Singapore. So I make sure 50 per cent of the lineup is from Singapore, I choose artists who are really serious about their works and developing them, and I try to give them what they need, like a rehearsal space.” Then there’s also matchmaking.
“For example, Bi(Cara) began as a proposal to develop a physical work Sharda Harrison had written and performed previously. To help it really fly, I match-made Sharda with a dramaturg with physical training from École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Then playwright Jean Tay showed me this script that people had said was unstageable. I felt she just needed to work with someone with expertise in puppetry, so I match-made her with Benjamin Ho from Paper Monkey Theatre.”
Tobin Or Not To Bin Artistic Director Sean Tobin sifted through over 150 submissions to curate a lineup of 19 works from 12 countries for this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. PHOTO Tan Ngiap Heng
It’s not only local works that are being developed, of course. This year’s festival will see Singapore’s third run of Iranian play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, written by a young playwright forbidden to leave his country, and always performed by an actor who will read the play for the first time in his/her life upon stepping onstage. “This important work about freedom and power is so thought-provoking and confronting, with so much to say to Singaporeans, we’re bringing it back and also actually staging the world’s first Tamil version, which we worked with the show’s agent to provide a translator for. We want it to reach more people by staging it in a range of languages,” says Tobin.
The Fringe Festival is collaborating extensively with Centre 42, where many of this year’s festival artists have a residency. The Waterloo Street centre also provides rehearsal-venue support. To further extend its reach, the festival is working with monthly local events already on Singapore’s artistic fringe, like Telling Stories Live (intimate sharing sessions of personal tales) and Speakeasy (poetry/spoken word gatherings), which will present special festival editions in line with this year’s compelling festival theme, ‘Art & the Animal’. This synergy will help develop not just our audience base, but also our collaborators’,” says Tobin.
Down The Rabbit Hole White Rabbit Red Rabbit returns in various different languages to take more Singaporeans and artists on a spontaneous, unrehearsed journey. PHOTO Pink Elephant Labs
The entire Fringe Festival is indeed reaching an increasingly larger audience, with last year’s edition attracting a record number of just under 15,000 attendees. “It’s encouraging that the numbers grow every year, and the local works, especially, tend to sell out completely. Plus, last year, 50-80 per cent of the audience — kids, tourists, arty-farty regulars — were staying after every show for the post-show talks. It’s part of this really cool local and international conversation about art in Singapore, and it’s just constantly growing,” says Tobin.
Of course, this begs the question: if the Fringe Festival is getting so popular, is it still really ‘fringe’? “It depends on your definition of fringe,” Tobin laughs. “It can mean the work is edgy, or less generally accessible, which might then mean that very well-loved art is not ‘fringe’. But we’re not a conventional Fringe Art Festival, I think. That’s because the roots of our art here are not conventional. When the industry started, we didn’t really have our own Singapore tradition, it was very much experimental to find out about forms, our identity, post-colonial baggage.
“That spirit of discovery is what we want to encourage at the Fringe Festival. When we say ‘fringe’, it’s about continuing to experiment, to take risks and try more forms. It can be by artists not already supported by major companies, or by household-name playwrights like Jean who are trying out a work that would not be staged by a major company. For us, ‘the Fringe’ is a place where artists can experiment and try something very different.”
Audiences can certainly expect to see some gutsy experiments at this year’s edition, themed, ‘Art & the Animal’. Highlights include a Mexican stage documentary, complete with live DJ and multimedia, about the devastation of our environment; as well as The Chronicles of One and Zero: Kancil, featuring projection-mapping on human bodies to tell unnervingly updated stories of ancient folklore.
“Previous themes like ‘Art & Law’ or ‘Art & Education’ have all been very sensible, very socially responsible, which is great. But I wanted something wilder. I wanted to instigate work which would be really free and wild, sensual and fun and playful,” elaborates Tobin. “It’s all about pushing the limits of experimentation, after all.”
Face to Face Performers in The Chronicles of One and Zero: Kancil will transform into creatures of lore with the aid of projection mapping on their faces and bodies PHOTO Afiq Omar
You’re an Animal Human Bestiary is a stage documentary from Mexico about how humanity has ravaged its environment. PHOTO Principio