One Small Voice: Ong Keng Sen

Published on 2 October 2014

How audience’s expectations have changed

I remember in the 1960s and 70s, my mother would go to watch Hokkien street operas and I would follow her. Perhaps it was Lady White Snake that day, perhaps something less known, but my mother never tried to force the opera form into what she liked or did not like.

We just went along with it, and found our own ways to enter. In that way, I feel the audiences of the 60s and 70s were much more tolerant and accepting of art in its pure form.

From the 1980s, expatriate groups like The Stage Club were putting up literary plays, pantomime and comedies. Unlike theatre today – which is often used as a vehicle to bond people and create communities – theatre back then was about universal stories, and we were educated in a larger, broader sense of humanity.

But what was missing was a Singaporean voice.

The later part of the 80s and early 90s saw a movement towards a theatre of recognition and celebration, which began with some of Michael Chiang’s works like Beauty World and Private Parts (TheatreWorks). These put on stage our lives and people who spoke like us. It was the only place you could hear Singlish publicly – legitimated, celebrated. Audiences loved it!

Between 1988 and 1995, I did several productions where a 3-week run could draw 20,000 people in the audience. Those were the Golden Days!

From 2000 onwards, there was a sudden surge in arts groups, venues and programming. But this evolution was also quite compressed, intensely developed over 15 years. Audience numbers have grown more layered. Some hungered for a deeper immersion in the arts, while others just wanted to be exposed or entertained.

Many practitioners claim that today’s audiences are more demanding. They just want to consume performances, so it’s hard for the arts to be other things, to do other things.

Today’s entertainment culture is created mainly by advertising and hence branding has entered the arts. Ticket sales are now less dependent on the quality or significance of a piece of work, and more on marketing reach. Audiences want to leave happy, and so works must be enjoyable and easy to understand. But art doesn’t work that way.

For instance, in Sambaso (in SIFA 2014), some people felt the absence of surtitles immediately became a block. But if they encountered this strange ritual in a Japanese Shinto temple, they will just accept it! Somehow, in a theatre, Singaporeans want to be spoon-fed.

To me, going to a performance is like going to the park. You respond to the beautiful scenery and get lost for a while. You don’t go to a park and say ok, I’m going to learn 10 things about my life or I must enjoy this park. Theatre is a space to be lost in – like a secret garden.

Art cannot be programmed the same for everyone. It is a beast that cannot be tamed by leashes and frames that we put around it. So our next challenge is to better calibrate events so that audiences can map out the terrain and navigate through it. But it needs to be their self-discovery.  i would prefer audiences to come to their own connoisseurship of the arts that they value – i know that they can and will do this in time.

Ong Keng Sen is festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) and artistic director of TheatreWorks. He was a recipient of the Young Artist Award in 1992, and was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 2003.  He was awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Asian Arts and Culture Prize 2010 for his work in Asian contemporary performance.

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