Conversations with Rydwan Anwar

By Jejhar Singh and Talia Tan

Photo courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

As the Head of Theatre at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Rydwan Anwar leads the Theatre cluster within the Programming department. His responsibilities include leading his team in the conceptualisation and development of theatre presentations and projects. In this article, he sheds light on what programming entails, shares about his personal journey, and provides some valuable insight into the local arts scene. 

Firstly, we would consider the objectives of the festival. Why are we doing this festival? Who are we doing it for? And why is it an important thing to do? Really understanding what we want to achieve is the most important part. It takes many hours of discussions, debate and refining, because you have to hear the different points of view from different people — like the artists.

It is not only about programming; it is also about working with our colleagues in different teams like Marketing and Relationship Management, who manage the relationships with Esplanade’s donors and sponsors.  That is a difficult process, but once you have that framework — and those I would call the pillars of why — everything else will fall into place. Next, that is where your knowledge and your research will come in. Out of all the artists that you know, what sort of artists would fit into the profile of the festival or programme, knowing the audience?

Essentially, our key programming considerations for Singapore and international artists are the same — namely, whether the artist’s work is of good artistic quality and if the work is something our Singapore audience can relate to, or something we feel our audience should be exposed to. 

If an international artist meets one or more of the above considerations, we will then embark on the process of preparing to present them at Esplanade. This process would include financial planning, budgeting, seeking approvals beforehand, and thereafter contracting, and then working with the logistics and technical production departments to make sure that the technical demands of the work can be supported by our venue. It usually takes about one to two years just to plan an international presentation at the Esplanade.

While I must caveat that my earlier responses and examples were in reference to our practices pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, we were not resting on our laurels either. In fact, as Singapore’s national performing arts centre, we were particularly committed to ensuring that the arts remained accessible to everyone during the pandemic, as we believe that the arts can uplift spirits and provide solace during difficult times. It was not easy to navigate the constantly changing restrictions but our commitment to our audiences kept us going and ensured that we always did our best under the present circumstances to make our programmes happen, be it online or live. 

For example, for our Flipside festival which features circus arts, we were planning to present international circus artists from countries which Singapore had vaccinated travel lane (VTL) arrangements with. At the moment of planning, there could be a VTL available but that could change a little down the road. So we had to have a plan B — in case certain VTLs close, what do we do? Do we look for artists from another country or do we programme more Singapore artists? So we have had two years of contingency planning and it was a huge relief every time travel restrictions were lifted. 

As with “unprecedented” times, it has been challenging to respond to different changes and develop contingencies. The volume of work has doubled. 

In my final year of university, SARS hit, and I was working as a freelance stage manager on some productions. Shows were cancelled.  After that, I realised that maybe I should find a full-time job within the arts, instead of working as a freelancer. So that had an impact on me in terms of how I think about security in the arts. On a personal level, it is also difficult to see our friends in the industry struggle with loss of jobs due to the pandemic.

As programmers, we roll with the punches — we take whatever happens and do the best with what we can. In terms of programming, it has also presented opportunities to do things differently — an unexpectedly positive outcome from the past two years.  Our theatres were sitting empty, so we had the chance to do a site-specific installation piece #THEATRE by design collective INDEX. That is a tangible example of using the opportunity to do something different, because we now can. 

As a performing arts centre for everyone, we have different festivals, and check different objectives to reach different goals. We are open 365 days a year, and we look at music, theatre, dance and visual arts. So depending on the program — as we conceptualise a festival — we keep in mind exactly what we intend to do and seek to achieve different objectives within it.

For example, in a dance festival, we might have international works in the big theatre which can be more accessible like ballet. In the theatre studio, we might have more experimental kinds of dance works. They both have different audiences, but it all fits into the objectives of audience development. The dance festival could have the mandate to expose as many people to as many genres of dance as possible.

So, it depends on what platform you are programming for. We have our outdoor performances during the dance festival where we present traditional dance. That traditional dance component would have a different objective. 

Most importantly, it is about what we want to bring to our audiences and the industry. Is it something different from what everybody else is doing, so that our audiences are exposed to more variety and diversity? Are they being exposed to the different kinds of artworks that are out there in the world? 

I am trying to rack my brains because I have seen so many over the years; I would not say I have a favourite. But I think there was one that was possibly most impactful for me. It really made a difference to how I perceived what theatre can do and what the arts can do. It was Geometry Of Miracles by Robert Lepage,  and it was at the Singapore Festival of Arts in the late nineties. At that time, I had never seen a work that was so inspiring and staged so differently from what I have seen in Singapore. It was so imaginative, and demonstrated that some things can only really be experienced in a live theatre. 

I did not know. I think I sort of fell into it. But I think it started out as an interest.  In the late nineties, during university, I started volunteering at theatre companies. At that time, there were not that many. It was still nascent — most of the companies only started out in the eighties and I was not really sure whether there was a viable career path as such. But I was always interested in working in areas I enjoy, like writing and organising and watching performances. So I was drawn to explore that.  It was not really planned as such.  At that time, I was doing and enjoying it and then there was an opportunity. So I decided, okay, let’s go into it now.

The National Arts Council was set up in ’92, so it has been 30 years. It might seem long, but I think we are still in the beginning stages. 

For me, it is very simple. I just want to get to the point where more people come to appreciate the arts. Maybe for every Singaporean to be able to name just one Singaporean playwright, or theatre director. So it is a very simple thing — if only 6 million people could answer with the name of their favourite Singaporean director/theatre director/artist when I asked them if they had one — that for me is a simple hope. 

Maybe in 15 – 20 years’ time, people will have more confidence in Singaporean works, Singaporean voices and the Singaporean identity.

As with most work in the arts, communication is important. There is a lot of coordination in my work, and all that feeds into the planning and execution of the program. I think a lot of times things fall through or do not work because people fail to communicate clearly.  To communicate well, you need to have patience and compassion.

Every project is special, and every production has its challenges. Some are greater than others. Sometimes you just feel like throwing in the towel because it is just so overwhelming. But then the special thing about working in the arts is that you would get a high from the execution when the project is completed. When you have your curtain call, and you see that the audiences are happy, and the artists are happy — that high will carry you to the next production. For a moment, you forget all the troubles that you have gone through.

The most important thing that I have learned through exposure from classmates all over the world is that at the core of it, people are the same everywhere. 

I spent the most time in London and in Manchester. And within those two cities, it is very different — London is arguably one of the cultural capitals of the world. The volume of work, number of artists, and critical mass of audiences are way greater than Singapore.  The audiences do not only come from London itself. There is also an established culture of attending and appreciating the arts in the UK. Of course we Singaporeans do too, but in different ways. The UK is a very large country with a large population. The big productions are able to do longer runs which might then tour to different cities in the UK. The production of Phantom of the Opera has been running in London for years and years whereas a run of the same musical could only have a run of about 3 – 4 weeks in Singapore. We are so much smaller and it is hard to compare, like for like.

My main takeaway from my time in London is that we have to be very careful not to transplant what works in the UK directly to Singapore.  It is all about context. Then, take what is interesting and what works or will push appreciation of the arts further among our audiences.

We have a very diverse local arts scene and busy arts calendar. On some days (pre-COVID), there are just so many things going on that you cannot keep up. It is quite active and exciting. I think it is great that we are now able to see full-time artists. 

With regards to internationalisation, I think that we should not measure the success of our artists by the reception they received internationally or ask that they create works that are universal just to appeal to an international audience. The arts reflect the society we live and if an artist creates a work that would have a niche local audience, that is also fine. A play from Australia about the Aboriginal experience would be interesting to Singaporean audiences, but might not have the same level of resonance, identification or relatability. The same applies for a Singaporean work overseas; it would appeal differently to a different audience. 

Our artists have been touring overseas for their works to different festivals and to good reception.  “Hotel” by Wild Rice, commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts in 2018, travelled to Adelaide and got really good reviews.

To try out, to get your hands dirty, to volunteer with theatre companies. Once you get a taster, you will know if it is really for you. It is a lot of hard work, and not an easy path to take. If you are really interested in doing it, it is best to find opportunities to get involved first. 

In a nutshell, yes. It is possible to combine your passion and your art if your priorities and circumstances are aligned. It is a privilege to be in that position.