The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
JP Nathan
JP Nathan
Director of Programming of the Esplanade

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

A certain amount of Esplanade’s budget is from government grants. However, the usage of the grant money is under strict regulation and Esplanade is always requested to increase its income through its own efforts. Esplanade restructured its marketing department to strengthen the ability to gain sponsorship. The “Partners” of Esplanade are Volkswagen and Visa Card and a number of large and small companies are listed as sponsors (as of 2005). The breakdown of the income of Esplanade in Fiscal 2005 is as follows.

Venue hire and other rentals11,327
Sponsorship and donations2,351
Other Income2,586
Grant from the government (including subvention of rental of property)38,136
(Source: The Esplanade Annual Report FY 2005)

The Theatre
Theatre Concert Hall
Concert Hall

The Theatre has a traditional opera-house design with a 2,000 seating capacity. Concert Hall, with an acoustic design by Russell Johnson can accommodate 1,600. Theatre Studio is a black box with flexible seating arrangement up to 220. Recital Studio is a space suitable for small concerts such as chamber music. This 245-seat studio can be used for corporate and private functions.
In addition to these venues, Esplanade has its Outdoor Theatre facing the waterfront and an open stage called Stage@Esplanade. Both of these are mainly used for free performances. The Concourse area is also used for free performances and visual arts exhibitions. The Esplanade Mall is a shopping mall on the 1st-3rd floors of the complex, which has various shops, restaurants and bars. Library@Esplanade, the only performing arts library in Singapore, is an anchor tenant of the Mall.
Presenter Interview
Speaking with the Director of Programming for the grand-scale arts and culture centre Esplanade, the symbol of Singapore's  
Singapore is a country working to promote arts and culture as a national agenda under its “Renaissance City” program, which positions the arts at the centre of national strategy that entails the establishment the state’s brand image and building economic competitiveness. The Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, published in 1987, prompted the serious development of a scheme to support the arts, including the establishment of the National Arts Council under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
As part of these programs, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay opened its doors to the public in October 2002. Built on six hectares of land on Marina Bay near the center of the city, it is one of the largest theatre complexes in the Southeast Asian region. The complex hosted 1,915 performances (637 ticketed /1,278 non-ticketed) and had over 7 million visitors in Fiscal 2005/6, with an audience of about 1.4 million. This is equivalent to 30% of the market share of the arts industry audience in Singapore. Now, Esplanade plays a central role in the Renaissance City scheme and symbolizes Singapore’s attempt to establish its position as the cultural hub in Southeast Asia. In this month’s Presenter Interview, we talked with Mr. JP Nathan, Director of Programming at Esplanade.

(Interviewer: Ken Takiguchi)

Let me begin with an interview talking about your background. When and why did you join Esplanade?
My interest in the arts started from as early as the late 1970s. However, at that time, there was no professional industry, especially in the field of theatre, in Singapore. Then, I worked as a teacher of English literature and in my spare time, I would produce plays with friends. The arts was something you did in addition to your day job, it was not a professional career choice.
In the 90s, I finished my postgraduate degree receiving an MA in English literature and learned that Esplanade project had been started. The Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts was submitted to the government in 1987 and it recommended that the government set up a company to develop an arts centre – which was called Singapore Arts Centre then – alongside with the establishment of the National Arts Council. This arts centre was to be managed independently rather than as a state owned and managed “national theatre.” (*1) In 1992 the Singapore Arts Company was formed to take charge of the development and management of the centre, this was subsequently renamed “The Esplanade Co. Ltd.” in 1997.
I joined in the company in 1997 to continue my interest in the arts. Having been here for the last 10 years, even before the centre was constructed, I guess you could say I am one of the , “original” members of Esplanade.

I understand there were occasions of discussions with local artists about the visions of Esplanade before the project started. For example, I read that the first design brief submitted in 1987 was made with the consideration of the voices from local arts community. What was the important input from them? What was realized based on their opinions?
Being an arts centre for the people, local voices were key in its development as we were being built precisely to meet their needs. I think the input from the local theatre community contributed in two ways. One was the introduction of Asian elements in two areas- the physical design of the space and also in terms of the centre’s programming.
The other was stressing the importance of developing a centre where local artists could work. Esplanade has four venues, namely the Main Theatre, the Concert Hall, the Theatre Studio and the Recital Studio (*2). If there was only a big theatre and a concert hall, the number of the local artists who could use these spaces would be very limited. The input from the local arts community led to the creation of our two studio spaces, which could cater for different types of works than the large halls. This resulted in the Theatre Studio and Recital Studio within Esplanade

This complex is an impressive combination of theatres, shopping malls and public spaces such as the library. As a result, I think, it became a place where people gather naturally. Was this a concept of the design from the very beginning?
Yes, right from the beginning. We did not want to make it just a theatre. We hoped to create a place where people gather before and after the show. The arts are vibrant and similarly we wanted an environment that reflected that. A centre alive with people where the buzz of ideas could be debated and generated

And you are now the Director of Programming at Esplanade. How does the programming work?
We have a very wide range of programs. That is a part of our vision statement, which is “Esplanade will be an arts centre for everyone” to ensure that we meet the needs of the community we are meant to serve. The presentations that take place here can be broadly categorised as such- “Esplanade Presents” programs which we produce ourselves and programs presented by external hirers of our spaces. The “Esplanade Presents” programs consist of the following three categories according to the forms and purposes. 1) “Festivals” that help us celebrate cultural events through the arts and also festivals that are focused on specific genres or art forms. This helps us celebrate our culture and also introduces and familiarises audiences with specific art forms and genres, 2) “Series” which aims to develop both audience and artists by continuous exposure to the programs, and 3) “Free/Access Programs” aiming to allow us to reach more audiences, especially those yet to be enticed by the arts by presenting free or low-priced shows. If we add the 4) outside, “non-Esplanade Presents” productions which tend to take on more commercial and mass appeal works, we have four pillars in our programming structure.
When we planned the arts centre in Singapore, of course we all had dreams regarding it. Looking at the places like New York, London and even Japan, they have so many different spaces, so many different centers and each of them is specialised in different things. In London, for example, if you are looking for certain kinds of theatre productions, you can go to the National Theatre in South Bank or Barbican. If you want a more commercial kind of thing, you can go to the West End. But, in Singapore, this is not the case. We don’t have many spaces. That’s why we had to think about it from the opposite side. We realised that Esplanade, as a publicly funded project, is built for everybody and must belong to everybody. Once you say it belongs to everyone, there have to be different programs for different people.
The other important point we have to take into consideration, I think, is this: Unlike many other societies, Singapore is a very multi-racial society. Because of that, when we say “Esplanade belongs to everyone”, we have to assume that it cannot belong to any particular ethnic group. Our philosophy, “arts centre for everyone” is not a superficial one – we have tried to create programs for every ethnic group and community. And that is why we have many festivals celebrating the traditions of different ethnic groups in Singapore, such as Indian, Malay and Chinese Festivals.

You pointed out that there were not various performance venues in Singapore when the project of Esplanade started. However, we can find quite a number of theatres here now in 2007. Even since the opening of Esplanade in 2002, several large and small theatres have been built. How do you posit Esplanade in the large picture of performing arts industry in Singapore?
To answer this question you need to understand that most of the other venues in Singapore, such as new Drama Centre and the Victoria Theatre, are theatres to be hired – they don’t have programming departments. The first thing we decided when planning Esplanade was not to make it solely for hire [rental]. We would lose our control of programming of the venue if we did.
This is an important difference in two ways. Firstly, without the programming capability, we cannot realise our vision as an “arts centre for everyone.” What would happen if, for example, we got offers only from Chinese theatre companies? We still should think about programs for other ethnic groups, but it would be very difficult if we could not control the programming. I believe the ability to control programming lets Esplanade complete our mission and makes us different from others.
Secondly, the programming gives us an identity or character. Without a concrete identity, a new venue cannot be an “arts centre.” And, the arts centre becomes important because of the responsibility we bear – in terms of the arts and culture created there. You are never passive. We are here to create and develop the culture of Singapore.

Practically speaking, how do you manage the programming of Esplanade? Can you explain about your team?
Because we have a wide range of programs, it is impossible to have a single person who is familiar with all the different genres. Rather, some specialise in experimental theatre, others are more interested in programs for older people, such as popular music of 50s and 60s. And some are familiar with Chinese culture and some are good in Malay arts. Each of us is strong in different areas. So, what we need to do is to form teams with people who are specialised in particular areas.
Depending on the nature of the program, we have teams that vary in terms of the size. Sometimes we have small teams within a big team. The formation of the teams is very flexible. At the moment, we have about 20 programming staff. They do not necessarily have an educational background in arts management. Sometimes their passion for the arts is more important than formal education. We hope to play a role of developing in Singapore programming officers and producers as well. The skills required for the producers are not limited to knowledge in the field of their specialty. A sense of marketing is also needed – how to price the show and how to market it to the audience. In other words, there are two parts of the job. One is related to the knowledge and the other is about how to present it. We are training our younger programming officers and hope to let them become producers eventually.
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