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Singapore International Festival of Arts returns amid new curbs

After a 12-month postponement, Singapore International Festival of Arts returns today amid impossibly tight Covid restrictions.

We need this, we all need this,” says Jeremiah Choy, show director of jazz concert A Song For Louis. “And I’m not talking about the income we’re getting from this – which, for some, is the first income they’re seeing in months. I’m talking about the social, emotional and psychological need to perform before a live audience. We’re performing artists – that’s what we’re meant to do. A Zoom or YouTube concert with an online audience just doesn’t cut it.”

After a year-long postponement, the 44th edition of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) is finally opening on May 14, with over 60 live and virtual shows running over three weeks. But it opens amid punitive new Covid-19 restrictions that make it near impossible to stage some live shows.

A concert like A Song For Louis requires a cast and crew of 60. But Choy and his team have to make do with just 30, owing to the stringent guidelines given by the government just a week ago following the spike in community cases.

Choy’s starry cast – which includes Jeremy Monteiro, Rahimah Rahim and Joanna Dong paying tribute to jazz great Louis Soliano – is 14-strong. That means they have to work with a barebones crew of only 16, rushing around creating technical miracles every few minutes.

Choy says: “We had to inspect every single thing everyone was doing and decide who should stay or go . . . We couldn’t even have hair-and-makeup people on-site. All the performers have to get their hair and makeup done somewhere else, and then arrive at Victoria Theatre for the concert already looking fabulous.”

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‘It’s another tsunami’

Over at the Wild Rice theatre in Funan, three of the country’s biggest theatre personalities are gearing up for The Commission, a highly-anticipated Ken Kwek comedy about theatre-making during the pandemic.

Gaurav Kripalani, SIFA festival director and artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre; Ivan Heng, artistic director of Wild Rice; and Adrian Pang, artistic director of Pangdemonium, are headlining the show whose red-hot tickets sold so swiftly, the festival added another performance.

But the new restrictions on audience size meant that the festival had to retract and refund 40 tickets per show in order to meet the new cap of 100 persons only.

Heng, who’s as hardy as showbiz personalities come, says: “It’s been basically going through a year of endless challenges. You point your ship towards this supposed new horizon called recovery. And then another tsunami comes along and hits you.”

Heng says these draconian rules are unfair to the arts when considering how restaurants and public transport allow much more packed seating arrangements for long periods of time.

Kripalani, as head of both SIFA and SRT, says: “We’ve come up with Plan A, B, C, D and E right into 2022. We have all sorts of contingency plans. But now we’re just reinventing as we go along . . . There are a gazillion conversations happening every minute, so the festival can go on and nothing gets cancelled.”

For Pang, one of the toughest new rules is the government stating “there should be no announcement or publicity or ticket sale for live performances that have not already been publicised”. His company Pangdemonium had already been selling tickets for its new play, The Mother, written by Florian Zeller, who recently broke into the global mainstream with his Oscar-winning film, The Father , starring Anthony Hopkins.

Pang says: “We were ready to welcome 250 people to each performance at the Victoria Theatre in June, but now we have to reduce it to 100 – which is an even lower number than our last show, Girls & Boys, in February. So it’s been one step forward, two steps back.”

Despite looking sprightly in person, Pang is candid about his ongoing battle with Covid-era depression: “I have to do a daily routine of self-care now – otherwise I think I might succumb to my own virus.”

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Depression common

Depression is not unique to Singapore artists, of course. Clair Korobacz is part of an Australian artist collective called one step at a time like this, which has just flown into Singapore to be part of SIFA. The collective has created an immersive work titled en route which takes audiences individually on a mysterious journey along the streets of the Civic District to uncover its secret charms.

She says: “Depression was fairly common among Australian artists during the lockdown. Some were able to make the most of the lockdown. But others took it very badly.

“In fact, our artist friends think it’s a miracle our collective is here in Singapore. The Australian government doesn’t allow Australians to leave the country unless they have exemptions – and we got exemptions partly because of the travel bubble between Australia and Singapore.”

Korobacz and her three colleagues had to be quarantined briefly when they arrived. They then went to work exploring the Civic District, searching for unusual locations where the audience-participants can be guided via audio instructions to wander around and find narratives and meanings in their surroundings.

Korobacz says: “We are lucky because we make theatrical experiences that engage with the audience in the open space. In a sense, our work is ‘Covid-safe’ as it can happen even with tight restrictions. . . After this piece, we’re working on a Zoom live film that can be presented anywhere in the world without us having to go there. That should help us keep our jobs for a while.”

SIFA 2021 runs from May 14 to 20. Visit sifa.sg or Sistic for more information and ticket purchase. Should you not get tickets to the shows you want, there is also a video-on-demand service after the festival ends that allows you to catch some of the shows you missed.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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