Cover (Image: Albert K S Lim)

Ong returns as artistic director of the newly rebranded T:>Works, leading the arts company in its next chapter with a focus on thought leadership and works beyond theatre

“I’m interested in not just becoming a good artist but becoming a good person,” declares theatre director Ong Keng Sen during our Zoom interview, just before the end of Singapore’s circuit breaker period. The topic on hand: what will a post-Covid arts scene look like? “As we look more and more at digitalisation, it’s not just the digitalisation of the arts but the digitalisation of life. I’m actually more concerned about that and how it will, hopefully, lead to more equity, more justice and more accessibility for everyone.”

This notion of how art and life intertwine is recurring throughout our conversation. “The arts cannot be perceived in isolation; the arts is in life itself. If anything, the biggest issue that I face with the Singapore arts scene is that people are not so involved in life, they are only interested in making art. And hence, there’s very often an unwillingness to commit to larger issues that are happening in Singapore.”

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One thing is for sure, the global pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation, changing the way we live, work, and play—and the arts sector has been quick to adapt, from galleries and fairs opening up virtual viewing rooms to theatre companies offering free access to their archives online. During this time, TheatreWorks, one of the leading theatre companies in Singapore—and the most international—has taken the opportunity to reinvent itself and set a new direction.

For one, Ong has been reappointed the company’s artistic director after a decade away, during which time he completed his PhD in performance studies at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York University last September, and also brought new perspectives to the national arts festival, which he renamed the Singapore International Festival of Arts, from 2013 to 2017. Since returning to the company, which he has led since 1988, he rebranded it as T:>Works (read as TWorks) and expanded its focus on thought leadership in the arts through a transdisciplinary, transcultural and inclusive lens.

There will also be a strong emphasis on education, research and discourse in the context of Southeast Asia, while exploring the current urgencies of being located in Singapore through various medium beyond theatre, including visual arts, films, choreographies and sound works.

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“I’m constantly going back to larger issues outside of the arts. How do we want life in Singapore to be reconfigured?” Ong elaborates, “For example, one of the issues I’m concerned about is foreign workers and the kind of economic apartheid in Singapore. It’s about owning up to the fact that, as artists, we can make an impact and we have the responsibility. And once we take on this responsibility, we realise that there are people out there who are listening and they need role models. These role models can be a doctor or nurse right now, but they can also be somebody who’s speaking an alternative sense.”

To encourage artists to get into this mode of critical thinking, T:>Works recently organised Curating No-thing, the first of its kind virtual programme for its Curators Academy featuring four separate lectures on Zoom covering topics such as creating worlds and ethical generosity. Ong founded The Curators Academy in 2018 with an international mission to develop curatorial skills in performance and interdisciplinary work. The series in May attracted 1,800 participants globally.

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“These are people who want to be enriched by what’s going on in the global scene. There’s so much thirst and hunger for knowledge at the moment for the fact that the world has gone quite wrong and we need to rethink our world. The Curators Academy brings together like-minded people who want to get a sense of solidarity with the rest of the world,” shares Ong.

This idea of looking at local happenings through a global lens is also one of the reasons why Ong believes that funding for the arts needs to be more neutral, going out of Singapore to the international foundations. This also means that artists in Singapore need to take on larger issues such as climate change. This is what T:>Works is trying to do with The Curators Academy. 

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“There’s a need for us to look at everything more holistically. You can’t be a thought leader if you’re depending solely on the government for funding because then, you are the government’s thought leader. I think it’s important to say that I’m not anti-government but I believe, as a thought leader, you have to look at issues across the world in a larger way than just what’s happening in Singapore.” Ong expounds.

Under Ong, TheatreWorks has distinguished itself with transnational and intercultural collaborations that explore the Asian identity in a globalised world. Some notable works include the visionary Lear (1997), an independent collaboration with the Japan Foundation Asia Center, which offered an alternative perspective of Asian traditional arts. Ong later presented a re-visioning of this production based on the Shakespearean classic King Lear with Lear Dreaming, which made its European premiere at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris in 2015.

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T:>Works’ new visual identity, designed by its chairperson and visual artist Heman Chong, hearken back to the early days of computers and the DOS or Disk Operating System. It not only forms as a reminder of the user of a system—in this case the audience—but it also indicates the company’s expanding focus on the digitalisation of performance.

Ong explains, “In my 35 years of making performance, this is the first global disruption I have experienced in the arts and in life. 2020 is a big year for performance companies like T:>Works. What is performance in the new times? The new visual identity marks the impact of Covid-19 on the arts sector and our lives.”

Starting from July 15, T:>Works will be presenting the second edition of its Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020. Led by artistic director Noorlinah Mohamed, the all-new virtual festival, created and developed entirely by women, puts an emphasis on socially conscious and engaged works.

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I’m constantly going back to larger issues outside of the arts. How do we want life in Singapore to be reconfigured?
Ong Keng Sen
Tatler Asia
Above One of the highlights of the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020 is radio play The Book of Mothers, which explores careers and motherhood (Image: Crispian Chan)

Ong sees the need to energise the digital space. “You can no longer discuss issues in terms of the old hierarchies. We are trying to create a digital space as a space for thinking about life, so it’s neither work nor play, but rethinking a new paradigm and our place in that world.”

He offers this note of caution to the Singapore arts scene: “If we don’t fight to do art in a different way, we will be left behind.”

There is cause for concern. As the world is slowly coming out of lockdown and trying to jump-start the economy in phases, arts and culture is one of the sectors that is the last few in the spectrum of return. At the time this story is published, cinemas, museums and galleries in Singapore have gradually opened, while theatres and concert halls remain closed. 

Going back to the question of what a post-Covid arts scene will look like, Ong brings up the example of how artists and arts groups in Germany are involved in the rethinking of how to open up with safe distancing.

“For them, theatre is an essential part of life, so they cannot just shut down the theatre for a year. They’re already pushing to start now and it means the need to bring safe distancing into the structuring of the way they work—all the blocking and design have to be changed. I think that this is a more realistic embracing of the Covid reality.”

(Related: What to Expect in Phase 3 of Singapore’s Safe Re-Opening)