The Performing Arts Dispatch: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Separated by half a century and united in their mission, there is a common thread that runs through the history of the NCPA in Mumbai and the Esplanade in Singapore. Both sit on reclaimed land where once the waters of the Arabian Sea and Singapore Straits respectively flowed and both have made every inch of the space count.

Affectionately called the Durian for its unmistakable spikes, the Esplanade promotes the performing and visual arts through not only its array of indoor and outdoor venues, including rehearsal spaces, but also through its dedicated team of art advocates who work towards cultivating the arts scene. Three festivals representing the main cultures of Singapore—Malay, Indian and Huayi-Chinese—were introduced at inception and remain integral to the Esplanade’s programming. Nineteen years into existence, it is one of the world’s busiest arts centres, hosting about 3,000 performances a year—a number that it was continuing to build on when the pandemic struck.

Rachelle Tan, Director, Venues & Planning, The Esplanade Co Ltd and AAPPAC (Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres), Secretary-General, tells us more.


ON Stage: How did the Esplanade engage with its audience during the lockdown?

Rachelle Tan: As the national performing arts centre, we are committed to keeping the arts accessible to everyone every day, through our daily free performances. Going digital enabled us to keep that promise when live performances ceased, and the arts centre was closed from April to June 2020. We had to move quickly and find alternative ways to sustain engagement with our audiences. One of them was through Esplanade Offstage. The content-rich website, launched in October 2019 is an all-access backstage pass and insider’s guide to Singapore and Asian arts and culture, featuring videos, podcasts, stories and more. The onset of Covid-19 gave us the opportunity to accelerate our plans to stream performances in 2020, to bring live performances into the online space and unlock the treasure trove of performances in our digital archives.

Another channel we have utilised is SISTIC Live for pay-as-you-wish videos, to cultivate new audience habits of paying for digital performances. Three notable Singapore theatre and dance productions from the archives of Esplanade’s cultural festivals were released on the platform in May 2020. Audiences could watch for free or buy a ticket on a pay-as-you-wish basis. More than 5,000 tickets were issued, and all proceeds went to the arts groups behind the productions.

These are made possible as Esplanade had embarked on a digital transformation journey six years ago to become the leading ‘Digital Performing Arts Centre’ for Singapore and Asia. We recognised the need to leverage the digital sphere, to reach new and international audiences.


OS: What kind of preparations were made for the Esplanade to reopen? Will programming continue to be a hybrid of online and live performances?

RT: We have been working closely with the authorities as well as our partners, artistes and hirers in preparation for the resumption of small-scale performances with live audiences at Esplanade. Our safe management measures have also been in place since the beginning of the pandemic as the Esplanade Mall and our public spaces have remained open, and our performance venues have also been open for recording and rehearsals since July 2020. These include temperature screening and the use of a contact tracing application at all venues, increased frequency of cleaning and sanitisation of our venues and equipment as well as adhering to the safe-distancing practices for artistes and staff backstage. To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for audiences, stringent measures, including socially distanced seats and staggered arrival and exit, were put in place.

Programming and producing performances for the digital platform have entailed a whole new way of thinking and working that is distinct from that of live performances. This ranges from how the programme is conceptualised and filmed, to navigating intellectual property rights in the digital space, to retooling Esplanade’s venues and spaces for the live-streaming of performances. This has served as a foundation for continued digital engagement, even when live performances resumed at the centre since November 2020.

While the digital medium allows us to reach a wider audience, we know that it can never replace the immediacy and community of the live experience. We have been and will continue to programme hybrid festivals with both digital and live components.


OS: What are some of the key learnings during this period that will continue to guide the functioning of the Esplanade?

RT: Thanks to our earlier digital transformation efforts, we were able to pivot quickly when the pandemic struck. Our digital engagements have become increasingly important in widening our reach and growing new audiences. We’ve learned that we need to continue learning—to have the courage to experiment and imagination to explore and to create. The hybrid performance model is in its infancy. Digital plus live performances bring richer and more meaningful arts experiences for audiences. Artistes also gain both a wider reach and an opportunity to deepen engagement with audiences through their works, as well as stretch their creativity. We will need to find the right balance and a sustainable operating model as there are higher cost implications, digital fatigue, as well as more demands technically and in terms of preparation. Nonetheless, hybrid is the way to go and we remain excited about the possibilities ahead for art-making, programming and engagement with the communities we serve.

By Snigdha Hasan. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.