A decade ago, The Necessary Stage (TNS) launched a much-needed homegrown arts festival – much-needed because this festival was to join the existing clan of artistic movers and shakers as the new facilitator of national creative furtherance. They called it the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and at the helm were director Alvin Tan and writer Haresh Sharma – a veteran duo of perfect collaborators who have produced some of the most impressive works the local theatre industry has seen.

A decade later, they’re passing the torch (as well as their titles as artistic directors of the festival) on to Sean Tobin, an educator of the arts and probably one of the “cool teachers” at School of the Arts. They say those who can’t do, teach. But not for Sean. This multiple-hat-juggling Aussie has been involved in the yearly affair twice as an artist and now, he’ll be leading this year’s edition themed Art & Loss. Still not convinced? Here’s a snippet of his resume: (1) Former associate artistic director at TNS, (2) Artistic director of M1 Youth Connection (a 1998 TNS effort that would develop into today’s Fringe festival).

With 15 years of industry experience, 11 of which were earned in Singapore, the director, actor and knowledge spreader proves to be a promising successor. He gives Popspoken a taste of what to expect for the next three editions of the festival, his thoughts on the current state of Singapore’s arts scene and how the Fringe festival will push it forward. Oh, and for all the budding entrepreneurs out there, look out for his quick tips on directing an arts festival.

Popspoken: Congratulations on your new position! What new things are you bringing to the table?

Sean: Thanks. I suppose I bring my varied taste, my passion for experimentation, and my strong conviction for nurturing talent and development, as well as engaging audiences meaningfully.

How does one direct an arts festival?

I think you need both a broad view of things and a detailed eye. You need a sense of what artworks are already available to audiences, past and present. You need a sense of possibilities, of what may not have been seen or done. So imagination, faith and risk. People skills are very important. Art is made with a lot of passion, communication and interaction. You need to know how to understand and appreciate others.

Any memorable takeaways from the previous art directors?

Alvin and Haresh are two of my biggest inspirations and influences in life and in art. It’s immeasurable, what I have taken away from them. Among the many other great contributions they have made in the arts, I have enjoyed watching the Singapore Fringe grow, and have benefited from it twice, being a participating artist. Having been in it twice, it enabled me to consider certain sensitivities in the way that I have tried to work with the artists in Fringe ’15.

Tell me about the development process of the festival.

When we programme the Fringe, it’s mostly about working through the massive range of proposals that are submitted. It’s about making a good judgment call about what individual works will be strong, but also about how the overall combination of works will rest alongside each other. The festival is like a dialogue of different works, and it’s important to get a strong and varied range of works to create a colourful and meaningful dialogue about the theme.

In some cases the works are complete and its just a case of securing them for the programme, and ensuring the artists have all that they need to make their show fly. In other cases, the works are still in development, in which case its about ensuring the artists have sufficient resource and support to keep developing that work to a level that will be satisfying for all.

What have you learnt in studying the past 10 years of the festival?

A few things. I have learnt to appreciate the value of a theme for a festival. Something that broadly frames and weaves the works together. Something that’s open enough to not be restrictive or reductive, but incisive enough to make an impact and impression. I have appreciated seeing the international works that we wouldn’t otherwise see. I love the fierce independence and drive that I see in Fringe artists. Artists like these are so inspiring, working away very hard at developing their own ideas, often without a great deal of infrastructural support of a big audience base.

How is this festival supporting local artists?

Half the festival programme is local work. I am very proud of that. It ends up costing more than the international work, as we need to pump more resource and effort into the work to ensure its developed in time for the Fringe. But that excites me. I think, where possible, a 50-50 balance in the programme is a good one. I want the Fringe to be a showcase of our best fringe artists. I want Singapore to get to know and love its own varied creative talents. The festival is a great way to create greater awareness of the many independent talents and emerging practices that we can and should be very proud of.

Who are some local artists that are currently “on the fringe”?

We have two photographers, Nguan and Tan Ngiap Heng. Nguan is exhibiting an exhibition of very beautiful and haunting images of Singapore. Ngiap Heng is compiling a cloud of 100 smartphone-generated images into a cloud of prints, of which the audience can select and take some home with them. We have two local movement-based artists Pat Toh and Ponggurl. Both look at relationships between the young and the old, among other things. We will also have a really fun online exhibition by Jason Wee, which I am not even going to try and explain.

Where is Singapore in the arts scene currently?

I think we can be very proud of so many things in our local arts scene, across all the arts disciplines. It’s amazing what we have managed to build and to cultivate in such a short time of independence. We are a very diverse society, with such a mix of tradition and progression. We are also a very interesting mix of conservative and liberal thought. Those qualities make for a very exciting ecosystem. The scene has a healthy mix of older and more established artists and practices, and plenty of new artists emerging with great new ideas and vitality. We have a great deal of very impressive infrastructure and lots of resource dedicated to arts and artist development.

You will always hear us artists say that we need more, but the truth is, we already have a great deal more than many countries, and I think we know that. I would love to see Singapore appreciate its own artists more. Stop comparing them to overseas artists. See the value in our own artistic vocabulary and identity, and see the value in investing in the development of local art and local work.

What does Singapore Fringe Festival need to effect change in the arts scene?

I think we just need to keep bringing in work that is complimentary to what we already have. Work that brings in fresh inspiration to our artists and audiences. And also to keep building belief in our local artists and investing in the development of independent work and emerging practices.

Moving forward, how will Singapore Fringe Festival evolve?

It would be great to see how the Fringe can trigger a touring of our local work overseas. To see how local works in our fringe may end up seen in other Fringe festivals.

Event Details

Date: Jan 14 – 25, 2015
Admission: $19, $22
Tickets: Here

Photo credit: Tan Ngiap Heng