Sean Tobin hails from Perth, West Australia but has worked in Singapore’s theatre and education landscapes since 1993. He is currently the Artistic Director of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and has four instalments of the festival under his belt. Sean has also been Head of Theatre at School of the Arts (SOTA) for 10 years and he writes, directs, performs and teaches.
Prior to that, Sean was Associate Artistic Director with The Necessary Stage (2001-2004) and Associate Artistic Director with the now defunct TOUCH Arts (1996-2000). He was formerly Artistic Director of M1 Theatre Connect (2002-2004) and was also the Artistic Director for SOTA Arts Festival (2011) and SOTA’s 10th Anniversary celebration (2008) among others. We are delighted to interview Sean as part of the 2019 edition of Singapore’s M1 Fringe Festival.
Tell us about this year’s theme?
Still Waters is taken from the title of an iconic performance by Suzann Victor Still Waters: Between Estrangement and Reconciliation. She presented it at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in 1997. I recommend readers visit the Fringe site to find out more about this performance.
The idea for the festival this year is that people respond to Victor’s work as a stimulus. So the work becomes a centrepiece of aesthetic and thematic exploration. The original work explores a host of themes, and it’s up to the different artists to see what stands out for them.
You will see some artists exploring the idea of reviewing and coming to terms with history, or coping with trauma or distress and other artists are exploring the forgotten, neglected and abandoned in our society.
What else can we expect from the festival this year? What are some of the highlights in this year’s programme?
Do look out for Sean Cham’s exhibition This is Where at selected JCDecaux bus shelters. There are quite a range of them and they are sprawled over the place. Sean has created a range of posters that are as inspiring as they are unsettling. I look forward to the important conversations they will spark between friends and strangers alike, in public spaces, and how this awareness may lead to a greater sensitivity, respect and appreciation for those in our midst that help build, clean and maintain this beautiful city.
And don’t overlook two potent and progressive works from the United Kingdom—A Fortunate Man by New Perspectives and Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea by Unholy Mess. There is a great intimacy, vulnerability and poignance to both of these works and they surface matters of mental health and well-being in such thoughtful, creative and arresting ways. Don’t miss them.
What makes Singapore M1 Fringe Festival unique?
A bunch of things make it unique, in terms of how it stands out against other fringe festivals and also how it serves uniquely in our local arts terrain. If you compare our Fringe to others around the world, ours is smaller and more boutique, if you like. It’s also carefully curated, which fringe festivals usually are not. We go more for quality than quantity and we would prefer that our audience catches a range of meaningfully connected events, rather than a big overwhelming sprawl. Fringe festivals don’t usually have a theme so it really makes us quite unique and it’s taken very seriously by all our team, artists and audiences. The festival is also a 50/50 mix of local and international works. While many fringe festivals open up to a huge range of forms, genres and styles including stand-up comedy, burlesque, circus, etc, our programme usually consists of small, intimate independent theatre, dance and interdisciplinary work. It’s usually engaging in spirit but also progressive in form.
I am also proud of our current triptych of themes from 2018-2020 where it has been taken from the work of an icon female Singaporean artist. First was Amanda Heng’s Lets Walk, now Suzann Victor’s Still Waters: Between Estrangement and Reconciliation and in 2020 we will look to Anne Lee Tzu Pheng’s poem My Country and My People.
How important is education in your programming?
Where we can we do hold forums, workshops and talks, but in most cases all performances have a post-show talk with the artists, and in the case of exhibitions we try to have some accompanying talk or workshop. We do see a wide range of students attending the festival, where its age-appropriate. This includes students from secondary schools and junior colleges, as well as tertiary schools. Students of all ages and backgrounds come independently as well as in groups with their teachers.
What does the role of Artistic Director entail?
It’s my job to plan a thematic scope for the fringe, and to see how the fringe can contribute to the scene significantly and sensitively. I nominate the themes and select the works out of around 150 proposals each year, in careful discussion with my fringe team, of course. There are a number of new or revised works in the fringe, locally, so I also offer support to the local artists to help them ensure their work is confidently shaped and presented.
What is the most challenging aspect of your role?
Well sometimes there are works that are of great value but we are unable to present them as Singapore simply is not ready. We have had to cancel shows previously, as they were not given a rating by the authorities, due to sensitive or controversial content. That proves difficult in a number of ways and it’s gotten extremely uncomfortable before.
What is the most satisfying part?
Experiencing the local and international works, as artists and audiences connect, interact and walk away buzzed. It’s also wonderful when you hear artists and audiences making connections between works. The Fringe sparks a great deal of open and dynamic thought and conversation.
Describe an average day.
There really is no average day in this job. My full time job is with SOTA and so my Fringe work is done after working hours. An ‘average day’ depends on the phase we are in. During a lull, I will be scouring the net for artists and works all over the world, to see if there are people we may want to approach for upcoming festivals. When we are in shortlisting and selection phase (April – May) an average evening would involve me reading scripts, pouring over proposals and watching performance videos at home, or at The Necessary Stage with my Fringe colleagues.
Between July and September there are lots of meetings to finalise and tighten up the programme and get it ready to be launched. From October to December, I avail myself for local artists who may want guidance or encouragement in their creative process. This can involve sitting in on rehearsals, production meetings or just catching up over coffee. During this window of time I am also already having to do some planning and outreach for the following festival. So right now, for example, I am already approaching artists to consider applying for Fringe 2020. During the festival itself, each January, it’s about watching each show, facilitating post-show chats, connecting and interacting with artists and audiences as much as I can.
What are the skills needed to do your job?
I think it’s important to have discerning sensibilities so you can be open but selective in appraising and selecting works from a wide range of artists. I think you also need to be comfortable and confident in speaking with a wide range of different artists from different walks of life.
So a lot of it is people skills and aesthetic awareness and literacy. Dramaturgical and curatorial ability is key, so I can help encourage artists as they boldly embark on creating new works and sometimes need input and I need to be able to shape and contextualise a rich and relevant programme.
Who do you rely on the most to help you get your job done?
The festival would be impossible without the three key people who work full-time at The Necessary Stage: Melissa Lim (Executive Producer), Jezamine Tan (Festival Manager) and Mish’aal Nasar (Festival Coordinator). The real magic happens in their hands, with their hard and careful work. They are all sensitive and intelligent people who work tirelessly to ensure artists and audiences have a positive experience with the festival.
Who are some of the best actors, dancers and performers we should know in Singapore?
Oh wow, Singapore is so packed with talent that this is really hard to answer. We also now have a few generations of talent in the arts.
Kumar is someone Singapore should be really proud of. He has an amazing legacy in comedy, theatre and TV, and I really miss seeing him and working with him in theatre. He is a truly uniquely Singaporean artist. Fierce acting couple Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin are both incredible performers too. I had the honour of directing them in a fringe commission back in 2011.
I’m gonna mention Ah Hock as well, of Ah Hock and Peng Yu. An incredible performer, creator and human being from the dance world. They created a fun and frisky piece called Skin Tight for our programme in 2017.
What is your favourite art venue in Singapore?
We have so many great venues in Singapore. The Play Den at The Arts House has always been a special and inspiring place. It’s where I have always wanted to spend more time playing in, since directing Kay Siu and Swee Lin there back in 2011. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful arts experiences in that beautiful intimate space.
Singapore’s M1 Fringe Festival runs until 27th January. For more information, check out the lineup here . Look out for our interview with Singaporean artist and the inspiration behind the festival, Suzann Victor, later this week and our review of one of the leading events, Angkat next week.
Creative Arts Social is a not for profit organization. We believe that art is for everyone. We all have the creative potential to understand, connect with and benefit from the arts. For more information about the work we do here.