On location: a conversation with Ong Keng Sen in Singapore

Photo: Managing Director of TheatreWorks, Tay Tong (left) with Ong Keng Sen at 72-13 ICAA


Ong Keng Sen is one of Singapore's most internationally renowned theatre directors whose works have been celebrated for its intercultural and interdisciplinary innovation. Amongst his numerous accolades, he is distinguished as the first contemporary performance artist to have received the prestigious Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Prize which was created to honour leaders of Asian art and culture. In 1994, he was awarded an ACC grant to support his graduate studies in Performance Art at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.


On location: a conversation with Ong Keng Sen in Singapore

by Christina Chung


In between preparing for a new play and leaving for Cambodia on his latest research project, Artistic Director of TheatreWorks and ACC grantee Ong Keng Sen graciously took the time to meet me at the theatre company’s space in Singapore. Situated in 72-13 ICAA, a converted rice warehouse by the Singapore River, it is a spacious home for the frontline intercultural and interdisciplinary projects for which Ong Keng Sen and TheatreWorks is known.


Ong Keng Sen’s relationship with ACC stretches back to 1994 when ACC supported his postgraduate study on Intercultural Performance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. During our conversation, he revealed that it was his experience as an ACC grantee that inspired one of his most celebrated works: The Flying Circus Project.


“When I attended grantee dinners and gatherings, I noticed that the Asian grantees just talked about their observations of New York and the excitement of living in the U.S., but we did not discover much about each other’s cultures.” Ong Keng Sen recalled.


He then created The Flying Circus Project as a creative laboratory for artists from across Asia practicing traditional and contemporary arts from a wide range of disciplines to conduct research and collaborate on projects. This has now expanded to include artists and thinkers from across the world to interact with Asian artists to explore issues of interculturalism from multiple perspectives. In Ong Keng Sen’s opinion, research projects of this nature provide an avenue for genuine cultural exchange, as: “traditional forms of exchange are like bartering, but having a project in which the artists research together allows them to discover their respective cultures in the process.”


What drives deeper than his focus on what he terms as “the politics of interculturalism” is his underlying concern for humanity to be aware and socially responsive. In light of the recently reopened Khmer Rouge trials, Ong Keng Sen will be returning to a topic for the 2014 Flying Circus Project that he has touched upon in his much-lauded 2001 production – “The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields”.


His focus is on the younger generations born after the Khmer Rouge era who are the unwilling inheritors of this tragic history. Wishing to move on instead of confronting it, they are uncomfortably caught in a history that is so present in their nation and yet so absent in their own lives. For these young Cambodian artists to explore the realities of their culture, identity and history, Ong Keng Sen has set up the ‘ALTERU’ program which is conceived as an alternative university run by artists for artists. The young artists then have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists from The Flying Circus Project to create their own multidisciplinary works and express themselves in contemporary ways.


Back home in Singapore, Ong Keng Sen will be premiering a work on September 1st titled: "Fear of Writing" which will focus on the issue of censorship and self-censorship in Singaporean society. Whilst some believe that theatre is dead as an arena of change in Singapore, Ong Keng Sen believes that his work is producing positive change and speaking to his audience groups who are willing to grapple with the hard issues. And from just a brief introduction to his projects in Singapore and beyond, one cannot help but agree that the theatre and change he produces is very much alive.


"Fear of Writing", written by Tan Tarn How and directed by Ong Keng Sen will premiere at 72-13 in Singapore on September 1, 2011. More information on the play can be found here.


For more information on TheatreWorks, please visit: http://theatreworks.org.sg/