30 years of Singapore Repertory Theatre: Ready to ride the global Asian wave

Mr Kripalani, who has been artistic director since 2001, is optimistic about Singapore theatre’s future at home and in the world.

Shawn Hoo

Shawn Hoo

The Straits Times


The Singapore Repertory Theatre team at the completed set of this year's Shakespeare In The Park, A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Fort Canning Park. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

April 27, 2023

SINGAPORE – When it comes to staging blockbusters from the West End and Broadway, the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) is in a class of its own. It is, after all, the company which coaxed stars such as Lea Salonga and Ian McKellen to perform in Singapore.

SRT, which marks its 30th anniversary in 2023, was the first theatre company to stage Broadway shows here. Just five years after the company was founded by the late American director Tony Petito in 1993, it was nominated for three Tony awards as associate producer of playwright David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child.

The company’s growth, and the challenges it faces, has mirrored the maturing professionalism and international flavour of Singapore’s theatre scene, which has seen companies such as Drama Box and Toy Factory Productions also crossing the three-decade milestone in recent years.

Artistic director Gaurav Kripalani, 52, observes: “The world has an image of Singapore, but that image doesn’t necessarily relate to our arts scene. Bit by bit, I feel we are playing a part in changing that.”

Of his vision, not just for SRT but also Singapore theatre, he says: “We want Singapore to be a theatre capital.”

SRT has made strides on that front, most memorably in 2013 with the 3 Titans Of Theatre season, when the company brought three shows by legendary directors Peter Brook, Yukio Ninagawa and Simon McBurney to Singapore in collaboration with the Esplanade.

The company’s penchant for importing shows has given it a reputation for being too Westernised in a scene where home-grown talents have become increasingly dominant.

Mr Kripalani, who was director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts from 2018 to 2021, points out the company’s track record in home-grown musicals as proof that it has also evolved to keep pace with the scene. The company produced blockbuster original productions such as Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (2002) and The LKY Musical (2015).

The latter, co-produced with entertainment production house Aiwei, is a musical about Singapore’s first prime minister. The show attracted more than 119,000 audiences over its two runs in 2015 and 2022, making it one of the most popular local musicals in recent history.

Actor Adrian Pang playing the role of Lee Kuan Yew in The LKY Musical, which greeted more than 119,000 audiences in 2015 and 2022. PHOTO: AIWEI AND SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

To celebrate turning 30, SRT is looking back, as well as forward for inspiration for its 2023 season.

The slate kicks off with Singapore’s largest outdoor theatre show – Shakespeare In The Park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be staged at Fort Canning Park from Wednesday to May 28. Shakespeare In The Park has been a popular favourite with audiences here since it was introduced in 1997.

SRT will also bring in a new West End thriller 2:22 A Ghost Story, which follows a couple haunted by spooky noises at 2.22am in their renovated apartment. The show, which premiered in the West End in 2021 and scored a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play in 2022, will play here from Aug 15.

Last but not least, SRT is producing a new local interactive dinner theatre experience with home-grown talents in November, tentatively titled Por Por’s Wedding Shebang. All Kripalani will say of the production is: “You’re coming for dinner – you won’t know who the actors and the audience are.”

SRT was the first to create a long-running dinner theatre show, Ah Kong’s Birthday Party. Created by Cultural Medallion recipients Ivan Heng and Dick Lee, it is one of the nation’s longest-running shows, clocking in for six months in 1998.

While SRT’s programming is reaching for familiar favourites, there will be twists. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has an environmental spin in the staging. The 15m-tall industrial set is inspired by Singapore’s oil refinery landscape and transforms Shakespeare’s Athens into oil company Athenia.

Last staged in 2018, Shakespeare In The Park is SRT’s most requested and also its most expensive – practically loss-making – show. Production costs have jumped by about 30 per cent since 2018 to about $2 million in 2023, but organisers say they cannot hike up ticket prices at the same rate.

A standard pre-booked ticket which sold for $49 in 2018 now costs $60, a 22 per cent increase.

(From left) Singapore Repertory Theatre’s managing director Charlotte Nors and artistic director Gaurav Kripalani at Fort Canning Green, where the 15-metre tall Shakespeare In The Park set is being constructed. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SRT’s managing director Charlotte Nors, 56, says: “I wouldn’t say we lose, but we invest in audience engagement and the talents. Many get their first experience on a large-scale show here, as not that many producers in Singapore work on a scale this epic.”

Mr Kripalani says the plan is to hold an “SRT In The Park” biennially, which might include outdoor musicals in addition to this Shakespeare tradition.

SRT’s ecological take on Shakespeare is not mere lip service, as the company is hoping to make sustainability a core value. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, SRT is working with Engie Impact, the advisory arm of French energy company Engie, to audit its carbon footprint in the hopes of finding solutions to offset emissions.

In 2021, SRT staged the first “planet-positive” theatre production in Singapore. In partnership with social enterprise Handprint Tech, the theatre company planted 380 mangrove trees to more than offset the carbon footprint of producing Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs, a play that touches on climate change.

Accessibility is another value dear to Ms Nors’ heart. She cites SRT’s partnership with Britain’s National Theatre in 2018 on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time as a milestone in developing accessible shows. The play is based on English novelist Mark Haddon’s book about a boy with autism who sets out to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog.

It was the first time SRT staged a relaxed performance, a format which allows audience members on the autistic spectrum to enjoy the theatre experience.

Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher Boone in the play, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time presented by SRT and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. PHOTO: BRINKHOFF MÖGENBERG

That same year, SRT became a founding member of the Access Arts Hub, an association of individuals and organisations collaborating on making the arts accessible for persons with disabilities in Singapore. Since 2018, SRT’s productions include accessible shows such as audio-described performances for those with vision disabilities.

Issues of diversity and inclusion aside, SRT is also facing strong headwinds post-pandemic. In 2020, SRT was forced to cancel its productions, including West End import War Horse, incurring an estimated loss of less than $2 million that year, tempered by government financial aid.

While it is still committed to staging large and international collaborations, Ms Nors says the pandemic has taught them that “from a business point of view, we appreciate the need for having reserves and multiple income streams and not just betting on one single production”.

The pandemic, Mr Kripalani says, has also changed audience expectations of theatre: “One of the things that audiences are looking for now is experiences.”

In 2022, SRT staged more intimate two-hander shows such as C-o-n-t-a-c-t, its first foray into promenade theatre. The 50-minute show about strangers connecting took no more than 20 audience members a show on a walk in the Civic District. The 85-show run sold about 85 per cent of its tickets.

Ah Kong’s Birthday Party, the interactive dinner play by Singapore Repertory Theatre, is one of the nation’s longest-running shows, clocking in for six months in 1998. PHOTO: SEAGRAM

The inevitable question of succession planning, a perennial issue with home-grown theatre companies which tend to be personality-driven, pops up.

Ms Nors, who has been with SRT since 2001, says: “It’s hard to think about succession planning when you are a small company, but of course, we are looking for inspiring people. This year is still about rebuilding audiences.”

A new pilot initiative by SRT called Theatre360 might become that pipeline for future talent. Spearheaded by Ms Jelaine Ng, the company’s learning and engagement resident, the four-day event includes affordable training programmes for aspiring theatre-makers on topics such as make-up and game design as well as theatre career talks. It runs from May 11 to 14.

Mr Kripalani, who has been artistic director since 2001, is optimistic about Singapore theatre’s future at home and in the world.

He hopes that SRT’s work in developing talent and building young audiences will strengthen theatre-going culture here: “In 30 years time, we want every single Singaporean – if they have a free evening – to have their first thought be: What is going on in the theatre?”

With Asian films such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) gaining traction and winning awards recognition, Mr Kripalani sees opportunity. He says: “What’s wonderful at the moment is that there is a greater recognition and appreciation for Asian artists and work internationally.

“You compare it with 30 years ago when we started, one of the things that made SRT stand out around the world is that we were one of the few English-language theatre companies that cast Asian actors in principal roles. And now there is a shift.”

Mr Kripalani is hopeful he can leverage the international relationships SRT has cultivated over the years. “The end goal is to build all these partnerships, so we can produce a Singaporean play that we can take to our partners around the world,” he says.

The company is now in talks to tour its original children’s shows abroad. The Three Billy Goats Gruff, an SRT-commissioned children’s musical, played at the Unicorn Theatre in London from March 12 to Sunday.

A new musical, which the company hopes to tour internationally when it is completed in 2026, is in development.

Mr Kripalani says: “It is now our moment.”

SRT’s Milestones

1993: American director Tony Petito establishes the Singapore Repertory Theatre, a professional theatre outfit known previously as Stars.

1997: The inaugural Shakespeare In The Park, Hamlet, opens at Fort Canning Park.

1998: SRT becomes the first Singaporean theatre company on Broadway as associate producer of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child, earning three Tony Award nominations.

2001: The company moves from Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre to its home at 20 Merbau Road, which boasts a 380-seat theatre. General manager Gaurav Kripalani becomes artistic director.

2007: In collaboration with the Esplanade, SRT brings the Royal Shakespeare Company to Singapore, the only Asian destination, on their world tour of William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, with British actor Ian McKellen as the headlining star.

British actor Ian McKellen acting as King Lear in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of Shakespeare’s play at the Esplanade. PHOTO: ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY

2013: SRT celebrates its 20th anniversary with 3 Titans Of Theatre – a season of three shows by legendary directors Peter Brook, Yukio Ninagawa and Simon McBurney, co-presented with the Esplanade.

2015: The LKY Musical premieres with Adrian Pang playing the titular character. The show, nominated for five Life Theatre Awards and awarded the readers’ choice for Production of the Year, is watched by more than 50,000 audiences.

2020: SRT partners with Access Path Productions to launch the Inclusive Young Company, a training programme for young actors between the ages of 16 and 35 who identify as people with disabilities.

2020: During the pandemic, SRT joins forces with Pangdemonium and Wild Rice to produce The Pitch, a short film featuring the theatre companies’ respective artistic directors Kripalani, Pang and Ivan Heng. Its live theatre sequel, The Commission, is staged at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in 2021.

2021: SRT stages the first planet-positive theatre production in Singapore, Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs.

Crowd at Fort Canning waiting to watch the SRT’s annual Shakespeare In The Park production titled, The Merchant Of Venice. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

First time at Shakespeare In The Park? Here are three tips to plan your perfect night.

1. Picnic under the stars
Pre-order a picnic basket for two ($66 to $76) for a fuss-free gourmet experience curated by InterContinental Hotel (str.sg/io5H). Other small bites, alcoholic beverages and soft drinks are available onsite. Alternatively, organise your own pot luck for a custom picnic experience.

2. Plan your travel time
Beat the crowd and arrive early to picnic from 6pm. If you are arriving by public transport, plan for about 15 minutes of walking from the MRT stations at Fort Canning (Exit B), Clarke Quay (Exit E) or Dhoby Ghaut (Exit B). If you are driving, there are limited parking lots at Fort Canning Park. Park at YMCA, 1 Orchard Road, or the Registry of Marriages, 7 Canning Rise, instead.

3. Prepare for all sorts of weather
In case of wet weather, pack a raincoat. As the tropical outdoors tends to be humid at night, take along an electric or paper fan to keep cool. Dress comfortably – this is a chance for you to wear slippers and shorts to watch a Shakespeare production.

Book It

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Where: Fort Canning Green, Fort Canning Park
When: Wednesday to May 28, 7.30pm (except Mondays). Venue is open to picnics from 6pm
Admission: $60 to $138
Info: str.sg/io5j


Where: KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road
When: May 11 to 14, various times
Admission: From $5
Info: wearetheatre360.com

2:22 A Ghost Story

Where: KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road
When: From Aug 15
Info: Tickets go on sale from Monday at srt.com.sg

This article has been edited for clarity.

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