Taking the fringe out of Fringe Fest

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.

Most important of all is the trust that has been built in the course of the partnership, stress the telco and The Necessary Stage. This is critical because of the experimental, boundary-pushing nature of the festival. Its average annual budget is about $400,000, roughly half of which comes from M1.

An old hand when it comes to negotiating controversial performances, the 27-year-old theatre company keeps up discussions with the Media Development Authority (MDA) and sends in early applications for performance licences. This adds to the level of trust between the group and M1, says The Necessary Stage's company manager Melissa Lim.

Only one production in the festival's history had to be withdrawn because of licensing issues. In 2008, two Finnish artists who have gone around the world producing local versions of a tongue- in-cheek Complaints Choir worked with members of the public to create a Singapore version. The MDA, however, refused to allow the foreign choristers to sing complaints about Singapore.

Although public performances were cancelled as a result, the Complaints Choir created a lot of buzz for the festival and a video of it was uploaded on YouTube.

The choir is but one example of how the festival has kept up a thoughtprovoking programme that does not neglect to entertain, raising questions that go beyond the arts. Over the years, as word of the festival got out, it has also managed to attract more compelling artists from all over the world.

Examples include critically acclaimed Japanese contemporary theatre troupe Gotanndadan, which performed this year and returns to the festival next month, and inventive British artist Phillip Toledano. Toledano presented his moving photo series Days With My Father in 2009, capturing his elderly father's struggle with short-term memory loss, and returned a year later with his installation America The Gift Shop, a biting critique of the country's foreign policy through "gifts" for sale such as an inflatable Guantanamo Bay bouncy prison cell and headless woollen Iraqi dolls.

On the Singapore front, one hot ticket at the festival was Cane, Loo Zihan's 2012 re-enactment of Josef Ng's pubic hairsnipping performance art piece in 1993 that triggered a decade-long ban on the genre. Loo's performance and exhibition marked that crucial episode in local art history, but also had critics questioning his intentions.

Another much talked about event was the festival's Detention-Writing-Healing forum in 2006, which had ex-political detainees here speaking publicly about their experiences for the first time.

The festival has also been a key platform for emerging artists and companies. In that vein, the upcoming festival features Nine Years Theatre, a young Mandarin theatre company that has made critics and audiences sit up with their stellar adaptations of Western classics, and Ponggurl, veteran director Noor Effendy Ibrahim's experimental ensemble.

So here's to the fringe festival's next 10 years. While it has its work cut out trying to maintain standards and keep the programme fresh, I would not be surprised if it has the staying power to continue enriching the cultural landscape.

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