On a cultural mission

On a cultural mission
Wild Rice’s artistic director Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in Emily Of Emerald Hill.

SINGAPORE - Three veteran artists who received the Cultural Medallion yesterday take stock of their artistic careers and look forward.

IVAN HENG, 50, actor-director, Wild Rice artistic director

Unknown to many, the seeds of Wild Rice - the popular and often controversial Singapore theatre company - were actually planted two decades ago in Scotland.

Actor-director Ivan Heng, the force behind the 13-year-old company, was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in the early 1990s. He describes the experience as "pivotal".

Not only did it give the National University of Singapore law graduate an understanding of "what it meant to have a professional career in the theatre" at a time when such professionalism was almost non-existent here, he was also excited by how the Scots celebrated their identity, performing Shakespeare in Scottish dialects.

"My teachers encouraged me to perform classical texts and poetry in Singlish and a range of Singaporean dialects.

"In a foreign country, I came to understand what it meant to be a Singaporean. I found my voice as an artist," says Heng, 50.

He studied at the academy, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, on a three-year British American Tobacco scholarship.

One of three artists to receive the Cultural Medallion last night, he has made his mark for his high-energy, thought-provoking stagings of original scripts and adaptations.

As an actor, his memorable performances include his gender-bending take on Stella Kon's feisty Peranakan matriarch in Emily Of Emerald Hill (right). It was with that production in 2000, directed by the late Krishen Jit, that he launched Wild Rice.

Since then, other productions that scored include Eleanor Wong's The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ (2006) and Animal Farm (2002), a remake of the Orwell barnyard allegory which also travelled to Hong Kong, Wellington and Tasmania.

More recently, Wild Rice's three-week festival in July of plays by Alfian Sa'at, the company's virtuosic resident playwright, drew more than 15,000 people and played to full houses.

Its annual year-end, family-friendly pantomime, replete with local jokes and song-and-dance routines, also draws about that number of audiences.

Heng is currently directing this year's pantomime, Jack And The Bean-Sprout, which runs from Nov 21 to Dec 14 at the Drama Centre Theatre.

The artistic director, who shares his life with his partner of 17 years, has courted controversy with Wild Rice's numerous gay and politically themed plays, even as he did his "national service" as creative director for the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies.

In 2009, the National Arts Council reduced Wild Rice's annual grant funding for a few years - from a high of $260,000 in 2008 to a low of $110,000 in 2011 and last year - but the amount was restored earlier this year, when the company received $280,000. The arts community had earlier protested against the funding cuts saying that they amounted to censorship.

Both Heng and the council declined to comment on the significance of him receiving the Cultural Medallion, which recognises artistic excellence and leadership, after a few years of funding cuts for Wild Rice.

The award gives him access to the Cultural Medallion Fund, which is valued at up to $80,000 and supports arts projects proposed by recipients. The director has not thought about how he will use it.

However, he is clear about one thing: "I would like to continue to create a safe and free platform where the most challenging and urgent issues of the day can be debated and discussed without fear or favour."

In London in the 1990s, he started Tripitaka Theatre Company to do touring productions with an Asian point of view, like his autobiographical solo Journey West (1995).

He shut down Tripitaka in 1998 after moving back to Singapore.

With the experience of two theatre companies behind him, he believes that "everything and anything is possible with belief, passion and hard work".

He hopes to bring Wild Rice's works to a wider audience here and overseas. "I want to be able to see a bigger piece of sky," he says with a grin.


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