SINGAPORE- Ten years ago, I sat across the table from theatre veterans Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma and wondered why they wanted to organise a festival of offbeat arts shows in a packed cultural calendar.
The reason for starting the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, the leaders of The Necessary Stage explained to me then, was to highlight small-scale, nonmainstream works and debunk the notion that "fringe" means "second-rate or not so good".
Today, the cultural scene continues to be crowded with festivals. Major arts centre The Esplanade alone runs at least 10 different festivals all year round. Casualties of this arts glut have included Goliaths such as the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore International Film Festival; both went on hiatus and are returning next year as revamped entities.
Against the odds, the David of the pack, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, has succeeded in building an audience for its brand of socially conscious, provocative works from here and overseas. Ticketed attendance crossed 80 per cent for the first time early this year.
The 12-day event returns for the 10th time on Jan 8, with about 15 works from countries such as Singapore, Portugal, Japan and Mexico. The offerings span theatre, dance and visual arts.
In a climate where arts sponsorship has not grown in tandem with the explosion of shows, the festival is also remarkable for The Necessary Stage's unusually long partnership with title sponsor M1. This predates the fringe festival, as the telco had underwritten the M1 Youth Connection, a home-grown youth theatre festival organised by The Necessary Stage from 1998 to 2004.
I am hard-pressed to think of other tie-ups between arts groups and corporate sponsors that have lasted as long. Children's theatre company Act 3 International ran its Children First! Festival for 10 years with the help of title sponsor Prudential, until 2009, when the insurance company withdrew its sponsorship.
Earlier this year, international fund manager Man Investments pulled out after one year as title sponsor of Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival. The high-profile arts sponsor behind the Man Booker Prize, an international literary award, said it had to cut costs after suffering heavy financial losses last year.
On staying the course with the fringe festival, the Singapore telco boils it down to three factors. First is its long-standing objective to support the arts as part of its corporate social responsibility, for which it prefers to work with arts groups in the start-up or development stage.
Second, the fringe festival "resonates with our corporate values and brand personality, especially in areas of being innovative, youthful and relevant", says M1's director of corporate communications Ivan Lim.