Nine Questions with JP Nathan, director of programming at the Esplanade

It has been ten years since the Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay opened and the twin spiked domes that mark its distinctive architecture have hosted many international artists with attendances at its arts events more than doubling, reaching nearly two million last year. ARTINFO sat down with JP Nathan, who has been with the Esplanade since 1997 and has been its director of programming since 2003 to reflect on how the venue has changed the local performing art landscape.

How much do you think the programming of the Esplanade has changed in the last 10 years?

When we first started it was more of a skeletal framework, but our intention was always to develop a full, comprehensive calendar of arts programs throughout the year, for different audiences and different communities. At the beginning we had Indian, Malay, and Chinese festivals and then free programs, then over the years, we started adding new festivals like Mosaic Music Festival in 2005, the Dan:se Festival in 2006 and the children's festival, Octoburst! in 2004. Now we have a festival for seniors called A Date With Friends that typically takes place in November each year, and a mid-Autumn Festival, Moonfest. So I think that for the last couple of years, we have had a full comprehensive calendar for everybody. There might be one or two more festivals that I would like to add.

At the same time, we’re also evolving some of our existing programs in term of the range of things that we present within the festivals. So for example, with our Indian festival, Kalaa Utsavam, we’ve now introduce a literary component, bringing in poetry from Punjab , this year we’re bringing in a novelist. So the festivals are expanding beyond the performing art form.

What does this tell us about local audiences

Lin Hwai-min of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, who has been back now several times since 2003, made a nice remark recently, saying that he thought the local audience had become more sophisticated and mature in terms of the kind of questions they ask in post-show discussions and the kinds of thing they want to see

How difficult was it to get the artists to come in the early days?

I remember in the early days before we even had a building, I had to spend time introducing who we were at art conferences. And even locally, we had to spend time explaining to people what kind of programing we would have because there was a lot of scepticism before we opened. There were concerns it would be for the elite, it would be high-brow and not for everybody.

Do you feel the programming has helped changed those perceptions?

Definitely. I really think we have all sorts of different audiencescoming through. In fact the first time I had an inkling we were on the right track is when we put our tickets on sale at the opening for the first Chinese festival, and some elderly Cantonese ladies queued up at the box office to buy tickets for Cantonese operas after everybody had been saying "heartlanders" wouldn’t come. That was the sign that we were on the right track. The second time was in 2006 when we presented a Malay musical production, Puteri Gunung Ledang, which we had brought in from Malaysia. After the performance, the audience stayed for a long time, they wouldn’t leave the foyer, milling about, and that was how I saw that art could make people feel proud about their cultural identity. And when the local press stated at our five-year anniversary that the Durian – the Esplanade's nickname because it looks like the spiky shell of the tropical fruit – “was a winner” it was a vindication of what we had done.

Read the full interview on ARTINFO